What Kind of Ethics in What Kind of Economics?

ScalesGuest post by Yannis Papadopoulos

The re-establishment of ethics in economics—and more precisely in economic theory—is now more than eminent. It is promoted and supported by numerous philosophically intrigued economists. The claim has shifted from Wertfreiheit to teaching economics’ students the importance of moral philosophy in the development of economic theory, and how virtues and moral values do not limit the objective perception of economists by dragging them down a road of vague cogitation, but offer a more concrete understanding of human action. “What to do, then, for economics? Answer: raise ethical men and women, some of whom become economists. We are not doing so now in the education of economists.”* Yet this procedure, even though presented and understood as a leap forward and an escape from the strict mathematical and narrow-minded neoclassical economics method, could still be inadequate and one-dimensional. The question is what kind of ethics are students being taught?

There is not just one ethical theory. As economic theories have their differences, so do ethical theories. Utilitarian and outcome-based ethics are embedded in economic theory and have played a crucial role in the formation of neoclassical economics. If utilitarianism and consequentialism are the only ethical theories that should play a role in economic theory, then we should rest assured that ethics never left and therefore there is no need for their re-establishment in economic theory. Thus, the argument is not to re-establish ethics in economics, since ethical values never left the discussion. The argument is to introduce other ethical theories in economics, which have not participated so far. Utilitarianism and outcome-based ethics can be found not only in neoclassical economics, but in some branches of heterodox economics as well. Kantian and rule-based ethics, however, have been limited to discussions concerning trade and transnational agreements and some policy making processes. Virtue ethics are nowhere to be found.

Students are not in need of introductory lectures that praise the importance of ethics in economics and present ethics only form the utilitarian point of view. Students can easily apprehend the utilitarian logic behind works of great classical and neoclassical economists without being taught the importance of utilitarian ethics. Economics’ students should be given the opportunity to connect economics with a variety of ethical theories. That could lead to a generation of open-minded and ethically-integrated economists and humans in general. By pretending to reexamine economics through ethics, yet being interested only in the utilitarian perspective of ethical values, the course is definite and parallel if not the same as the one economics have followed so far.

* Deirdre McCloskey, "Conclusion: Raising Up Private Max U," in Wilfred Dolfsma and Ioana Negru (eds), The Ethical Formation of Economists (London: Routledge, 2018), pp. 164-183, at p. 177. (Preprint here.)

Yannis Papadopoulos was born in Athens in 1993 and studied European and International Relations at Panteion University in Athens. He received his Master’s degree in Political Economy from King’s College London. At the moment, he is in the final year of his doctoral thesis entitled “The Ethics of Efficiency and the Efficiency of Ethics” at Panteion University, for which he has received a scholarship from the Hellenic Foundation for Research and Innovation (H.F.R.I).

Email: [email protected]

Ricardo Crespo on teaching the philosophy behind economics to economists (at Journal of Philosophical Economics)

J of phil econBy Mark D. White

In the latest issue of the Journal of Philosophical Economics (14/1-2, Spring-Autumn 2021), Ricardo Crespo (IAE) shares his reflections on "Teaching the Philosophical Grounding of Economics to Economists: A 10 Years' Experience." He describes his rationale below:

Looking at the possibilities of the new currents mentioned above – behavioural economics, neuroeconomics, evolutionary economics, happiness economics, civil economy, and the capability approach – proves highly attractive for students. This is an effective way to introduce philosophy because it is easy to understand that these plural economic approaches are supported by philosophical underpinnings, different epistemological perspectives, and views on human nature and the social world. However, a deep analysis of these new fields (which I undertook in my 2017 book) reveals that not all of them ‘escape’ from the narrow outlook that characterizes current economics. As John Davis points out (2008, p. 365),

economics, as other sciences, has regularly imported other science contents in the past, and having subsequently “domesticated” them, remade itself still as economics. In the current situation, for example, behavioral economics – a research program in economics, not in psychology – employs imports from psychology but frames them in terms of economic concerns.

Exploring the attitudes of economics towards these new possibilities – open or ‘colonialist’ – helps to differentiate them and to discover their philosophical roots. Thus, this analysis shows the influence of underlying philosophical notions on economic theories. (pp. 219-220)

Virtual Conference on "Teaching Ethics to Economists: Challenges & Benefits"

By Jonathan B. Wight

Conference Dates: October 21-22, 2021

Virtual Conference

LSBU Business School
London Centre for Business and Entrepreneurship Research

During the last 30 years, the conversation between economic theory and ethics has been restarted, after a period of interruption, generated by the positivist era in economics. We cannot ignore, in this revival, the role of the financial crisis, gender and racial inequality and now the divisions revealed by the unequal impacts of the pandemic. An important contribution has been the call for a professional economic ethics led by DeMartino (2011) and DeMartino and McCloskey (2016).

More recently, Dolfsma and Negru (2019) challenge the idea that ethics has no place in economics. Building on their ideas we ask: Is ethics important for the study of the economy and, if so, how should it be taught?

This two day conference will be of interest to lecturers and students in economics and business - and anyone with an interest in the future of the economics curriculum.

Link for the event & registration: 


Day One: Thursday 21 October

9.45am - Virtual housekeeping & Zoom functionality - Neil Hudson-Basing, Corporate Events Manager, LSBU

9.55am - Welcome Craig Duckworth, LSBU Business School, UK

10am - Introduction to the day. Economics and Ethics - what is the agenda?

10.30am - Revisiting the analytical relationship of Ethics and Economics María Isabel Encinar & Félix-Fernando Muñoz, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain

11.15am - Theoretical and ethical reductionism and the neglect of subjectivity in economics and economic education - Giancarlo Ianulardo, University of Exeter, UK

12pm - Lunch break

12.30pm - Keeping alive non-individualistic ethics in political economy: a review of concepts from Aquinas to Habermas Stefano Solari, University of Padua, Italy

1.15pm - Racism, the economy and ethics: where does it all begin? - Paolo Ramazzotti, University of Macerata, Italy

2pm - Teaching economic harm to economists - George DeMartino, University of Denver, USA

2.45pm - Comfort break

3pm - The fate of moral philosophy in the age of economic scientism: ethics and welfare economics in mainline economics - Peter Boettke, George Mason University, USA

3.45pm - Plenary: Reflections

4pm - End of Day One


Day Two: Friday 22 October

9.45am - Virtual housekeeping & Zoom functionality - Neil Hudson-Basing, Corporate Events Manager, LSBU

9.55am - Welcome and intro to Day Two Craig Duckworth, LSBU Business School, UK

10am - Managerial decision making: consequences and Consequentialism - Malcolm Brady & Marta Rocchi, Dublin City University, Ireland

10.45am - Economic curricular, pluralism and the Global South Michelle Groenewald, North- West University, South Africa

11.30am - Accounting as applied ethics: teaching a discipline - Wilfred Dolfsma, Wageningen University, Netherlands

12.15pm - Lunch break

12.45pm - Purusharthas: the human pursuit of wealth and welfare. The Indian approach to ethics and economics - V P Raghavan, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, India

1.30pm - Economics, ethics and deliberation

  • Ioana Negru, Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, Romania
  • Imko Meyenberg, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK
  • Craig Duckworth, LSBU Business School, UK

2.15pm - The kidney market debate: a retrospective on Becker and Elias - Jonathan Wight, University of Richmond, USA

3pm - Comfort break

3.15pm - Alfred North Whitehead on the education of the commercial class: its influence on Keynes Dennis Badeen, University of Hertfordshire, UK

4pm - Plenary: Reflections

4.15pm - End of Conference

*Times according to GMT


This conference will be delivered virtually via Zoom. You will receive the joining instructions on the Monday before the event takes place.

Has Great Teaching Been Forgotten in School Reform?

By John Morton

The appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education has intensified passions on both sides of the school-choice debate.  Lost in the politics of this debate is the idea that school reform ultimately depends on improving instruction.  I have taught for 50 years.  Sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night, I think I’m teaching.  My experience tells me that academic and social advancement comes down to a teacher and a student in a classroom.  So what makes a great teacher?

Students-Girls-Classroom-Teacher-School-Boys-79612Twenty years ago, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future emphasized that better teaching was the core of its blueprint for reforming K-12 education.  Its three basic premises were:

  • What teachers know and can do is the most important influence on what students learn.
  • Recruiting, preparing, and retaining good teachers is the central strategy for improving our schools.
  • School reform cannot succeed unless it focuses on creating the conditions under which teachers can teach and teach well.

Nothing has changed since then.  We need to identify, recruit, and retain good teachers and encourage the bad ones to find another way to make a living.

How can we spot great teachers?  In a September 4, 2014, op-ed in The Wall Street Journal (available at and, Dana Goldstein made at good start at describing the qualities that make a teacher great.  The next part of this essay will consist of her points followed by my thoughts on the issues.

  1. “Great teachers have intellectual lives outside the classroom. Economists have discovered that teachers with high SAT scores or perfect college GPAs are generally no better for their students than teachers with less impressive credentials.  But teachers with large vocabularies are better at their jobs because this trait is associated with being intelligent, well-read and curious.”

Great teachers love the subjects they teach and know how to communicate their subject matter in a way that students understand.  It always irks me to hear a teacher say, “I teach kids, not a subject.”

  1. “Great teachers believe intelligence is achievable, not inborn. Effective educators reject the idea that smarts are something that only some students have: they expect all children to perform at high levels, even those who are unruly, learning disabled or struggling with English.”

A great teacher views every student as a unique human being, not as a member of a race, ethnic group, or economic or social class.  Great teachers go way beyond offering students sympathy and do not use victimization as an excuse for lack of achievement.  Teachers who constantly complain about their students in the teachers’ lounge should look for another job.

  1. “Great teachers are data-driven. Effective teachers assess students at the beginning of new units to identify their strengths and weaknesses, then quiz students again when units end to determine whether concepts and skills have sunk in.”

I would go further.  Students should be assessed every week.  Students and their parents should know exactly how grades are determined, and the grading system should be quantified.  Students (and their parents) should know where they stand in relation to the class and in relation to their course grade.

  1. “Great teachers ask great questions. According to the scholar John Hattie, when teachers focus lessons on concepts that are broader than those on multiple-choice tests, children’s scores on higher-level assessments--like those that require writing--increase.”

Good questions test for conceptual understanding, not factual definitions.  For example, students learn little useful information if they can only identify that the equilibrium price and quantity are where supply equals demand.  Conceptual questions are why this happens and what forces might prevent this from happening?  Great teachers focus first on the facts but then put those facts in a conceptual framework.  Great teaching involves asking why several times during a class period and constantly asking students to back up their opinions.

In addition to Ms. Goldstein’s four attributes of a great teacher, I will offer two more.

  1. Great teachers use active-learning methods. Students in the class of a great teacher are actively engaged.  A teacher mumbling over 50 PowerPoint slides doesn’t cut it.  Activity-based learning challenges students to take responsibility for their learning.  The students are doing, not just hearing and seeing.  A great teacher uses simulations, group decision-making, problem-solving, classroom demonstrations, role-playing activities, and group presentations.
  1. Great teachers promote mutual respect and create a civil mini-society in their classroom. They show respect for their students by valuing their opinions, being knowledgeable about their subject, being prepared for class, refraining from comments that might demean students, and demanding that students respect other students and teachers.  Great teachers value freedom of speech and encourage debate of ideas.

Now that I’ve finished the rant I’ve wanted to write for several years, I must admit it comes with caveats.  Teachers and their unions have been among the worst enemies of educational reform.  They spend millions on lobbying to protect their members and prevent competition to public school monopolies.  Students become foils in this political game.  As Al Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, once said, “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.”  This discourages many fine teachers who deeply believe that teaching matters.  Today’s highly politicized educational environment has created Gresham’s Law of teaching: “Bad teachers drive out good teachers.”

[John Morton has a long and distinguished career teaching economics and training teachers how to teach economics.  If John says it, it is probably true! --JW ]

Economics After the Crisis

Irene van Staveren

Irene bookA year after the fall of Lehman Brothers, The Economist's headline proclaimed the end of modern economics. What has happened since? Well... almost nothing.

Mainstream and near-mainstream economic textbooks still sell like before. And INET has supported some initiatives that eliminate the rough sides of neoclassical thought and neoliberal policy advice. Very laudable initiatives, with, for example, Wendy Carlin's work on developing a new undergraduate curriculum CORE. But students of economics are not satisfied with these minor changes, so many years after the start of the financial crisis. Their Rethink Economics petition demands more fundamental changes to textbooks.

As a supporter of every single petition, pamphlet, op-ed, and plea for pluralism in economics before and after the crisis, I decided three years ago that I should practice what I preach. The result is Economics after the Crisis, a pluralist introductory textbook published by Routledge in January 2015. It offers a tool to understand the basics of economics from four theoretical perspectives either for use in the classroom or for self-study alongside a standard course book. The theories are presented in every chapter, micro and macro. And from interdisciplinary and close to real-world experiences to mathematically in an idealized world of perfect markets and agents following the single ethical guide of utility maximization. The book presents social economics, institutional economics, post Keynesian economics, and neoclassical economics and thereby shows that almost no economic concept or tool is theory-neutral. If only this message gets across, the book will have accomplished already more than I could hope for.

The window of opportunity to reform economic teaching is almost shut. Banks pass stress tests in Europe and the US while still being too big to fail. Nobel Prizes are awarded to economists who show no effort at all in rethinking economics. And economic policies ignore the danger of continuously increasing private and public debt, while shifting the consequences of such myopia on disadvantaged groups and whole populations.

If it is not now, we may have to wait for the next crisis to change economic thinking and teaching. I truly hope that the combined efforts of critical economists, activist students, and courageous teachers will help to make the change. We cannot afford to standby any longer.

Do we need different types of tenure? On Adam Grant in The New York Times

Mark D. White

AdamgrantIn an op-ed in today's The New York Times, Adam Grant, bestselling author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success (and fellow blogger at Psychology Today), examines the current tenure system in American universities and the skewed incentives they provide for continued work after tenure:

It's no secret that tenured professors cause problems in universities. Some choose to rest on their laurels, allowing their productivity to dwindle. Others develop tunnel vision about research, inflicting misery on students who suffer through their classes.


Instead of abolishing tenure, what if we restructured it? The heart of the problem is that we’ve combined two separate skill sets into a single job. We ask researchers to teach, and teachers to do research, even though these two capabilities have surprisingly little to do with each other.

Later in the piece he recommends three different kinds of tenure: research-only, teaching-only, and research-and-teaching, each tailored to a professor's talents and drives.

Some universities currently have similar positions: some have research professors, for instance, and most have some version of a lecturer. As far as I'm aware, however, the lecturer position, while it may carry some form of tenure, is rarely considered equivalent to professor positions, which demeans the devotion of one's time primarily to teaching. So Grant's proposal would certainly be an improvement over the status quo in this regard.

Having three types of tenure would allow for more delineation of job responsibilities, improve the targeting motivation (as Grant argues), and provide more precise guidance to committees charged with granting reappointment, tenure, and promotion. (As chair of my department I serve on such a committee at my college.)

Ideally, however, a scheme like this would not be necessary. Since evaluation occurs at the level of departmental and college-wide tenure-and-promotion committees, they can lead in reforming this process (with changes in motivation flowing down from there). They should allow for faculty to have different orientations regarding teaching, research, and service (the often-forgotten aspect of a professor's job). They should be willing to assess each faculty member according to his or her particular mix, as long as they remained "productive" in whatever way they chose to further the mission of the college or university. Fantastic instructors should be valued as much as prolific and acclaimed researchers, as well as active campus citizens and the faculty members who successfully combine two or even all three of these roles.

As I advocate for in my committee, all three roles are essential to a flourishing university but not every faculty member should be expected to excel in all. As economists know, there can be enormous benefits to specialization of labor, and I would like to think these benefits can be realized without creating additional bureaucracy and proliferation of tenure-tracks. While I agree with Grant's concerns, I would prefer to encourage plurality within the existing tenure system rather than making it more complicated. But this relies on those responsible for making personnel decisions to adopt this pluralistic mindset—and if they cant (or won't), then multiple tenure tracks may be the next best option.

(By the way, for a humorous look at this topic, see The Onion's recent post here.)

For-Profit Education

Jonathan B. Wight

We all like it when private interests have an incentive to produce social benefits.  That is generally the case in markets. 

When do markets fail?  When externalities and asymmetric information are large enough problems to cause significant social ramifications that are not included in the price. 

Bacon’s Rebellion reports on the problems with for-profit universities.  The incentives of a for-profit institution align with taking in as many students as they can, as long as those students don’t really care about quality. 

The article cites the University of Northern Virginia as being unable to get accreditation because it had no standards for faculty or admissions.  Allegedly it was operating as a “visa factory” for foreign students wanting to get into the United States.  It made a lot of money.  Although the school is now defunct, it was able to earn a profit for 15 years sailing under the radar. 

Regulations can be a bad thing, stifling creativity and operating as a sham to prevent competition.  But the flip side is a world of no regulation.  One’s instinct is to say, “Let the students and potential employers of students be the gatekeepers for quality in education.”  Let a thousand flowers bloom and let’s see what works!  Except that along the way significant external costs can be imposed on the rest of society, as apparently were in this case. 

Two book reviews in economics and ethics from the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics

Mark D. White

Thanks to the indispensable Heterodox Economics Newsletter (latest issue here), here are two recent book reviews that may interest our readers, both from the latest issue of the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics (6/1, Spring 2013). [In the interest of full disclosure I must note that I blurbed the first book and the second was published in my "Perspectives in Social Economics" series from Palgrave Macmillan.]

Economics_as_applied_ethicsEconomics as Applied Ethics: Value Judgements in Welfare Economics, by Wilfred Beckerman (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), was reviewed by our own Jonathan B. Wight, who finds it "a well-written textbook geared to advanced undergraduate or graduate students of economics, many of whom are largely and regrettably innocent of the ethical problems inherent in conventional economic analysis." After a detailed critical breakdown by chapter, Wight concludes that:

Overall, this book is highly recommended. It covers the selected topics with depth and sensitivity. The writing is generally excellent, but there are occasions of repetition and unevenness, as if the chapters were compiled separately and merged later. A student reader who is not already familiar with basic ethical theories could benefit from a primer in some places. For example, the book discusses Amartya Sen’s theory of commitment, however it does not dig very deeply to explain or defend that notion, whether from a deontological or virtue ethics approach.

The book devotes a lot of attention to questions of equality and justice, particularly on the work of economist philosophers such as John Broome, Partha Dasgupta, Ian Little, and Amartya Sen. This is
appropriate, interesting, and relevant. However, the book does not appear to address research in experimental economics, biology, and psychology that might be relevant to some of these questions, such as the work in neuroeconomics by Paul Zak, experimental work by Vernon Smith, or recent philosophical work on virtue ethics by Deirdre McCloskey. This is the normal limitation of any text that strives to be concise, yet students should understand there is much more to ethics and economics than can be conveyed in this book.

Approx_prudenceApproximating Prudence: Aristotelian Practical Wisdom and Economic Models of Choice, by Andrew Yuengert (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), was reviewed by Ricardo F. Crespo. According to Crespo, 

Yuengert shows in this book that economic modeling undertakes only a partial analysis of economic action, because it ‘puts away’ interesting features of its subject that deserve to be taken into account. He proposes adopting the Aristotelian account of human action—more specifically, of practical wisdom—as the benchmark against which to consider economic modeling. He maintains that “economics can learn much about its limits from Aristotle, who describes aspects of choice behavior that cannot be precisely modeled” (p. 3). Thus, the aim of the book is to determine what aspects of human behavior cannot be captured by the economists’ models.

After a careful analysis of the book's structure and arguments, Crespo concludes that it

provides the useful service of identifying the characteristics of human action that economic models cannot take into account. It is useful because it explains the challenge to positive economists of trying to incorporate these characteristics into their approach, and because it highlights the features that economists must consider in their normative work. The contribution of the book lies in its originality. Economics books are not usually about what economics cannot do.

Both the author and the reviewer are Aristotelian economists, and readers benefit greatly from Crespo's detailed analysis of Yuengert's use of concepts such as eudaimonia  and contingency (the latter is comparison to Knightian uncertainty). (See Crespo's page for his own work on Aristotle and economics.)

Upheaval in Staid Universities

Jonathan B. Wight

Yesterday the University of Virginia's governing board forced out of office its first female president after just two years in office. The governing board is led by a female businesswoman who believes the outgoing president was missing the big picture—that a transformational tsunami will rock universities and strategic planning needs to get ahead of the wave.

Jim Bacon writes:

As we've been saying on this blog for a couple of years now, disruptive change is coming to higher education, a sector of the economy badly in need of disruption. The business model is broken. Administrations are bloated, faculty are protected by tenure, innovation is lagging, costs are out of control and tuitions are soaring. Students and graduates have accumulated $1 trillion in student-loan debt. For the first time forever, parents, students and outside observers are questioning whether a college education is worth what you have to pay to get it. While the University of Virginia may be less guilty of inflated costs and predatory tuition hikes than many other institutions, it will get caught like all the others in the perfect storm of technological advance, consumer revolt and shrinking state government support….

As products of a pampered industry that has been largely immune to the traumas and turmoil of the recession-racked private sector, many university administrators cannot imagine how quickly their ivory towers can come tumbling down. Faculty and administrators have no idea of the frustration and rage that has been building against their bastions of privilege and how eagerly consumers will desert them for a better value proposition — even if it is delivered online.

The technological revolution that enables MIT, Harvard, Stanford, U Penn, and others to offer free or low-priced on-line courses is indeed a game-changing scenario for higher education. At the University of Richmond we can't compete with the big research names at those schools. What we can do is offer a comparative advantage in critical-thinking in small classrooms.

The best-known universities will mass produce lectures, forcing out of business lesser-known universities relying on chalk-and-talk lecturing modes of teaching. Niche colleges will survive (and hopefully thrive) by creating relationships of mentoring and critical thinking.

The Pedagogy of the Pixel

Jonathan B. Wight

David Brooks is avowedly a devotee of Adam Smith's moral sentiments model. In today's New York Times he discusses the coming "tsunami" of electronic courses on the Internet. Brooks tackles this question: In the future, what is the role of the physical classroom with a flesh-and-blood person? He notes:

A brain is not a computer. We are not blank hard drives waiting to be filled with data.

And the most important part:

People learn from people they love and remember the things that arouse emotion.

That can certainly happen in on-line courses (think of the television stars you "love"). But some aspects of that interconnection demand a closer proximity. Pixels on a screen are not people.

The link between emotion and pedagogy, by the way, is not only found in Adam Smith's Moral Sentiments, it is also found in the work of Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire (1921-1997). Freire noted that if you want to teach adult sugarcane cuttters to read, don't give them primers on "Dick and Jane." Instead, give them stories that resonate with their experiences and feelings. Freire, a Marxist, might have favored something like: "Look at the lazy patron in the big plantation house with all his food and wealth. The oppressed workers have nothing to lose but their chains…." Education is fundamentally a political act because pedagogy builds on the context of one's life.

The bottom line is that information is rapidly becoming a cheap commodity—which is a good thing. But "learning"—through debate, through writing essays—requires more than information. It is a "complex social and emotional process" (Brooks) in which the ideology of one's world view come into debate with the ideology of science. Parts of this complex learning process can happen well in face-to-face interactions, which is where colleges have a comparative advantage.