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When the Scientist Is Also a Philosopher

By Jonathan B. Wight

Greg Mankiw in yesterday’s New York Times argues that there’s a “dirty little secret” we need to know: economists who give policy advice are dispensing ethics!

This statement is unfortunate for two reasons.

First, it is lamentable that so obvious a statement has to made.  How many economists out there believe that public policy is simply a matter of mechanistic model tinkering?  The answer is probably too many.

Second, it is lamentable because Mankiw never uses the word “ethics,” only the term “political philosophy.”  That, as I take it, sanitizes the concept.  Political philosophy, to my view, has to do with the establishment and legitimacy of governments, property rights, freedom, and justice.  It certainly includes a discernment of normative ethics, but includes much more than that of a positive nature.  Why not clearly speak of normative values?

Mankiw’s examples continue the practice of linking economists to utilitarian philosophy.  That is only partly correct:  Utilitarians would give equal weight to each person’s moral standing in assessing happiness; the standard efficiency model weights more heavily the outcomes of people will money to spend in the market.  This is no small difference. 

Mankiw’s conclusion is a good one: “At the very least, a large dose of humility is in order.”


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