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February 2022 posts

Ethics for Economics and for Economists

Dolfsma-Negru bookGuest post by Wilfred Dolfsma and Ioana Negru

Comes the next economic crisis, comes the next call for economics to become both more realistic and to be more ethical. While the two are related, in The Ethical Formation of Economists (Dolfsma and Negru 2019) we focus on the vexing issue of the way in which ethics and economics relate: Why is the call not answered?

Many, especially heterodox economists, blame economic theory: It does not have conceptual space for ethics. This is a call for ethics in economics (Figure 1). That, in some way, is correct, but in a strict sense it is not: Only one form of ethics is consistent with (mainstream) economics, and that is utilitarianism. The call for economics to make conceptual space for ethics is a call for (one of) the other two broad perspectives in ethics to be given a place: deontology and communitarian ethics. Most of discussions on ethics and its consequences in mainstream economics are situated within the area of welfare economics, despite the ethical implications of most economic theories endorsed by various groups of economists. There is indeed a need for more of an ethics of economics (Figure 1).

What motivates the call for (more) ethics in economics is the seemingly lack of interest among economists for the consequences of either the economic vagaries that men go through as consequences of economic crises, or even the consequences of the advice given about economic policies provided by economists. The conclusion drawn from this by many is that economics ducks its ethical responsibilities: There is an ethics of economics that is denied (by economists) (Figure 1). Yacintas (2020) argues that economists do not display sufficient attention to the fact that economic ethics is part of scientific ethics also and these principles should be part of economist’s methodology and epistemology, to inform how economists build knowledge.

Indeed, there is a small group of economists that looks at the ethical stance that economists take: distinctly utilitarian and dismissive of people’s deontological rights or the ethical norms that emerge and develop in a community. Does economic theory as taught at colleges make economists selfish (i.e., considering utilitarian arguments only), or are selfish individuals drawn into economics? Or both? (Cf. Frank et al 1993.)

Dolfsma-Negru Figure 1

What this discussion does not touch upon is what is the key contribution of this volume of contributions: How are economists actually formed, ethically? How does an ethics of economists take shape? This obviously happens in class, but also later in their careers, for instance when doing research or when informing the larger audience about findings (through media, with their own specific working [cf. McCarthy and Dolfsma 2014]).

A related question is whether economists can be trained ethically or if learning ethics can take place naturally and in an evolutionary and behavioural way, influenced by the life and career pathways economists have? This is an essential question: In our book, DeMartino (2019) argues that the postgraduate curriculum must contain modules on ethics in economics, and McCloskey (2019) states that the ethical behaviour starts early on, in the education of children and young people, that can then evolve later in their careers.  

For us, the essential issue is whether economists can be trained, at all levels (undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral), in scientific ethical principles through various modules, such as courses on ethics in economics and economic policy-making, and also scientific ethics taught in courses in research methods. This will raise the awareness of thinking ethically when suggesting economic policies and the appropriate responsibility that comes with policy advice. Re-introducing courses of ethics in economics would be a progressive step towards training and forming ethical economists.


Dolfsma, W., and I. Negru, eds. (2019) The Ethical Formation of Economists. London and New York: Routledge.

DeMartino, G. (2019) "Training the Ethical Economist," in W. Dolfsma and I. Negru (eds) The Ethical Formation of Economists. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 7-23.

Frank, R.H., T. Gilovich, and D.T. Regan (1993) “Does Studying Economics Inhibit Cooperation?” Journal of Economic Perspectives 7: 159-171.

McCarthy, K.J., and W. Dolfsma (2014) "Neutral Media? Evidence of Media Bias, and Its Economic Impact.” Review of Social Economy 72: 42-54.

McCloskey, D.N. (2019) "Conclusion: Raising Up Private Max U," in W. Dolfsma and I. Negru (eds) The Ethical Formation of Economists. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 164-183.

Yacintas, A. (2020) "Why Is Economics Not Part of a System of Scientific Ethics? A Review Essay on Wilfred Dolfsma and Ioana Negru’s The Ethical Formation of Economists." The Journal of Philosophical Economics: Reflections on Economic and Social Issues XIII(2): 202-214.

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Wilfred Dolfsma: Wageningen University, Netherlands

Ioana Negru: University Lucian Blaga of Sibiu, Faculty of Economic Sciences, Sibiu, Romania

Forthcoming book: Laurent Dobuzinskis, Moral Discourse in the History of Economic Thought (Routledge)

Moral discourseBy Mark D. White

Out this summer from Routledge is Moral Discourse in the History of Economic Thought by Laurent Dobuzinskis (Simon Fraser University).

From the publisher's website:

Providing an account of the development of economic thought, this book explores the extent to which economic ideas are rooted in moral values.

Adopting an approach rooted in ‘pragmatism’, the work explores key questions which have been considered by economists since the classical political economists. These include: what degree of priority ought to be granted to property rights among all individual liberties; whether uncertainties in economic life justify investing political authorities with the power to stabilize business cycles; whether it is better to trust entrepreneurial initiatives to resolve societal dilemmas or to centralize policy-making in the hands of a benevolent government. The chapters argue that economic thought has evolved from an emphasis on "sympathy" (as defined by Adam Smith) and that there has more recently been a rediscovery of the significance of sympathy reinvented as "fair reciprocity" in the wake of the emergence of behavioural economics and its connection to evolutionary psychology.

This key book is of great interest to readers in the history of ideas, political and moral philosophy, and political economy.

Survey on the Ethics of "Environmental Markets" in Journal of Political Philosophy

J pol philBy Mark D. White

In the latest issue of the Journal of Political Philosophy (30/1, March  2022) is an open-access survey article by Stijn Neuteleers (Open University, The Netherlands) titled "Trading Nature: When Are Environmental Markets (Un)desirable?"

From the introduction:

This article will discuss two new environmental markets in particular: carbon markets and biodiversity offsetting. It has an applied and a general goal. The applied goal is straightforward: examining the respective moral desirability of these two markets. The broader goal is to use these two cases to review the main arguments for and against environmental markets and to offer more nuance in the debate. The cases are chosen in order to show that the positions at each end of the spectrum—that all new environmental markets are morally acceptable and that none of them is—are untenable. (p. 118)

In the conclusion, Neuteleers making an excellent point that applies to much more than environmental justice:

Sometimes nature has a value that cannot or should not be captured by market instruments. This special value can be either moral—for instance, the extreme rarity of certain species or ecosystems—or more socio-cultural—people can attach strong meanings to such nature (relational values). For instance, if families have worked in a certain natural environment for decades, these surroundings become part of their identity. Losing such a place can be a significant loss, at both an individual and a community level. In such cases, impersonal market norms conflict with the ‘personal’ nature of the goods at stake—here, nature becomes, in a sense, a ‘personal good’.

How should we deal with such special value? If nature is extremely valuable, either for ecological or socio-cultural reasons, it should be left untouched and not open for compensation. Regulations can take care of this, markets cannot. Nonetheless, sometimes destruction of nature can be unavoidable or acceptable. If so, the policy instrument should still recognize the special value nature has; the loss should be framed as a wrong rather than as a transaction. Such framing cannot be provided by the market. (p. 136)

Or by mainstream economics, for that matter (as seen as the discussion of crime in law and economics, for instance).

Andreou on "Commitment and Resoluteness in Rational Choice" (Cambridge Elements)

Andreou  elementBy Mark D. White

Available for free download until February 18, 2022, is a new Cambridge Element from Chrisoula Andreou (University of Utah) titled Commitment and Resoluteness in Rational Choice. From her introduction:

Commitment is quite commonplace and, seemingly, quite significant, since it treats certain options as “off the table.” My commitment to teaching my class this morning requires me to close off or put aside the possibility of doing some weight training instead. And my commitment to certain healthy eating practices requires me to close off or put aside the possibility of bringing a box of Twinkies as my lunch. Still, it might seem like commitment is either redundant or irrational – redundant if the option committed to is (taking into account its consequences) preferred over the alternatives, and irrational if the option committed to is dispreferred. But, as will become apparent, there are scenarios in which the ability to commit to a dispreferred alternative is necessary to reap the benefits of cooperation or self-control. This Element focuses on the interaction between cooperation, commitment, and control. Drawing from and building on the existing literature, including my own prior work in this space, I guide the reader through the interesting, challenging, and evolving philosophical terrain where issues regarding cooperation, commitment, and control intersect, adding some new contributions along the way.

Chrisoula Andreou was also my co-editor on The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination, and her chapter from that book is just one of her many important contributions to this area.


New issue of Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics (Winter 2021)

Erasmus journalBy Mark D. White

A new issue of the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics was recently published (open-access), and as usual it contains quite a few articles of interest to this blog.

The entire table of contents can be found at the link above, so here I'll simply point out the opening three articles...

"Choosing Less over More Money The Love of Praiseworthiness and the Dread of Blameworthiness in One-Player Games" by Nina Serdarevic

"Social Contract, Extended Goodness, and Moral Disagreement," by Cyril Hédoin

"Integrated Moral Agency and the Practical Phenomenon of Moral Diversity," by Michael Moehler

...as well as the symposium on identity in economics (by Jean-Paul Carvalho, John B. Davis, and others) and a fantastic interview with Ian Carter (A Measure of Freedom).

Call for papers: Symposium on the Economists’ Philosophy Day, November 17, 2022

J phil econ logoBy Mark D. White

Courtesy of Peter Galbács' blog, we have an intriguing announcement—note the deadline for submissions is April 23, 2022.

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Call for a Symposium on the Economists’ Philosophy Day, 17 Nov. 2022

In October 2005, the UNESCO General Conference proclaimed the third Thursday of November every year “World Philosophy Day” recalling that “philosophy is a discipline that encourages critical and independent thought and is capable of working towards a better understanding of the world and promoting tolerance and peace.”

It is in this spirit that J Phil Econ proposes to celebrate an Economists’ Philosophy Day by organizing an online plenary session of scientific communications dedicated to the philosophical landmarks through which our science has been challenged, for better or worse. Our call invites all those interested in the study of social sciences to contribute not only to the thinking inspired from enduring ideas of philosophy, but also to the way in which they have been adopted, adapted, or made known to advance theoretical and applied research.

A preceding symposium opened a debate on the way economists are taught philosophy. The contributors left thoughtful suggestions for advancing an economic science which is appropriate for understanding the progress or regress of humankind’s material life. We continue this discussion and place it on the hopefully permanent platform of celebrating the day of philosophy.

Proposals of approx. 500 words are expected by April 23, 2022. After acceptance, authors are invited to submit the full version of their study for peer-review by August 25, 2022. Proposals will be sent to [email protected].

Organizers: Valentin Cojanu, Editor, Journal of Philosophical Economics, and Oana Camelia Serban, Executive Director, Research Center for the History and Circulation of Philosophical Ideas