Ethics

Discussion of Kant and classical liberalism at Cato Unbound

Mark D. White

KantUpon generous invitation, earlier this month I helped launch a conversation at Cato Unbound regarding whether or to what extent Immanuel Kant can or should be regarded as a classical liberal.

The entire discussion can be found here, starting with my lead article in defense of Kant as a classical liberal, followed by critical responses from Gregory Salmieri, Stephen R. C. Hicks, and Roderick T. Long, followed by my response to all three comments and further discussion (still continuing through the end of the month.


Seminar on Ethics and Economics

By Jonathan B. Wight

Last February I attending an outstanding seminar in Washington DC on ethics and economics, hosted by AIRLEAP (the nonprofit Association for Integrity and Responsible Leadership in Economics and Associated Professions). 

Upcoming next January is another seminar in conjunction with the ASSA meetings in Chicago.  Below are the details.

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A special seminar will be held in Chicago on January 8, 2017:

“Principles of Ethics, Scientific Integrity, and Responsible Leadership:

A One-Day Training Seminar for Economists.”

When the same seminar was held this past February in Washington D.C. it was endorsed by the Eastern Economic Association and by the National Economists Club, and it received highly favorable reviews. Several organizations sent their employees to the seminar to meet their employee’s annual training requirements in leadership and ethics, and seminar attendees receive a certificate of expertise. Many graduate students attended as well, and the seminar includes a specific presentation offering advice to students on the job market. The seminar provides a wide range of insightful presentations by world-renowned experts, and will engage the audience in provocative and interactive discussions about some of the most challenging issues in economics today.

The seminar this coming January is being held at the magnificent Chicago Cultural Center. Some of the distinguished speakers include:

  • D. McCloskey, & G. DeMartino, Oxford Handbook of Professional Economic Ethics;
  • Agency Leaders: Erica Groshen (BLS), Keith Hall (CBO), and Brian Moyer (BEA);
  • D. Colander, author of The Making of an Economist, and many other economics books;
  • S. Ziliak, The Cult of Statistical Significance (with D. McCloskey);
  • R,G. Anderson, former Vice President of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

The fee for the full-day seminar is set at a minimum to cover costs: $95, or $50 for students.

To learn more about the seminar and to register for it people should go to http://tinyurl.com/AIRLEAP2017.\

Airleap.chicago

Thank you for your consideration, and thank you in advance for distributing this announcement.

With best wishes,

Board of Directors of the Association for Integrity and Responsible Leadership in Economics: Deirdre McCloskey (Chair), Richard G. Anderson, Amelie Constant, Mark Costa, George DeMartino, Seth Giertz, Areerat Kichkha, Steven Payson, W. Charles Sawyer, and Stephen Ziliak


Where is the Good Samaritan?

The Rev. B. P. Campbell

[In this sermon Ben explores the dark side of individualism, isolation, and fragmentation—the unnecessary consequences of economic growth—in the aftermath of the tragedies in Dallas, St. Paul, Baton Rouge, and other cities last week.  --JW]

Reference: The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)

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"Now in the 21st century, as the mobility and disloyalty of money take over, we are slipping into greater fragmentation.  Too many ditches.  Too many robbers.  Too little community.  Too much despair."

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            Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

            Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.
He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

            Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

            This week, maybe this year, we’ve all been living on the Jericho Road.

            We’ve built a nation of Jericho Roads.

            Where is the Good Samaritan?

            It’s as if we were living right in the middle of the story which Jesus told the lawyer.  “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  “What have you been taught?”  Jesus asks.  The man gives the right answer – Love God and your neighbor.  But then he asks another question.  It is on this question, and Jesus’ answer to it, that God’s Holy Spirit builds the kingdom of God.

            “Who is my neighbor,” the man asks.

            Jesus’ answer is a story – a story that breaks the rules of religion and sets men and women free – a story whose basic commandment is to Live, to Live imaginatively, to tackle the issues that present themselves today without prescription or instruction – only the instruction to love our neighbor as ourselves.

            This week, maybe this year, we’ve all been living on the Jericho Road.

            We’ve built a nation of Jericho Roads.

            Where is the Good Samaritan?

Continue reading "Where is the Good Samaritan?" »


New book: Jennifer A. Baker and Mark D. White (eds), Economics and the Virtues: Building a New Moral Foundation

Mark D. White

E&V coverOur readers may be interested to know about a new book coming out soon from Oxford University Press that I co-edited with Jennifer A. Baker entitled Economics and the Virtues: Building a New Moral Foundation. From the blurb:

While ethics has been an integral part of economics since the days of Adam Smith (if not Aristotle), many modern economists dismiss ethical concerns in favor of increasing formal mathematical and computational methods. But recent financial crises in the real world have reignited discussions of the importance of ethics to economics, including growing calls for a new approach to incorporating moral philosophy in economic theory, practice, and policy. Ironically, it is the ethics of virtue advocated by Aristotle and Adam Smith that may lead to the most promising way to developing an economics that emphasizes the virtues, character, and judgment of the agents it models.

In Economics and the Virtues, editors Jennifer A. Baker and Mark D. White have brought together fifteen leading scholars in economics and philosophy to offer fresh perspectives on integrating virtue into economics. The first section covers five major thinkers and schools in the virtue tradition, tracing historical connections and suggesting new areas of cooperation. The second section applies the ethics of virtue to modern economic theory, delving into its current practices and methodology to suggest areas for integration with moral philosophy. Finally, the third section addresses specific topics such as markets, profits, and justice in the context of virtue and vice, offering valuable applications of virtue to economics.

With insights that are novel as well as rooted in time-tested ethical thought, Economics and the Virtues will be of interest to economists, philosophers, and other scholars in the social sciences and humanities, as well as professionals and policymakers in the fields of economics and finance, and makes an invaluable contribution to the ongoing discussion over the role of ethics in economics.

Many if not all of the contributors will be familiar names: besides me and Jennifer, they include Christian U. Becker, Tim O'Keefe, James Otteson, Michael Baurmann and Geoffrey Brennan, Eric Schliesser, Andrew Yuengert, Christine Swanton, David C. Rose, Seung (Ginny) Choi and Virgil Storr, and Jason Brennan. (You can see the complete table of contents at Amazon, OUP, or my personal blog.)

Personally, this book has been a dream of mine for a number of years, and working with Jennifer, Adam Swallow and (the late) Terry Vaughn at OUP, and all the contributors, made that dream a reality in every possible way.

Economics and the Virtues has already been reviewed by Adam Gurri at Sweet Talk, where he calls it "a valuable source of insight, especially for economists used to operating within only one framework." Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center and The Economist calls it "a fascinating volume" and "an indispensable collection for anyone interested in moral psychology, economic theory, or the morality of markets," and pre-eminent philosopher and Kant scholar Onora O'Neill calls it "a rich and rewarding collection" that "explores classical accounts of the virtues, and argues that they remain essential not only to character but to culture, including the culture of markets."

(You can also see Jennifer's and my post at OUPblog discussing "The Big Short" in relation to the theme of the book.)


"Morality and Ethics" surveyed in Current Opinion in Psychology

Mark D. White

Thanks to Cass Sunstein for spotlighting this on Twitter: the December 2015 issue of Current Opinion in Psychology has a number of short survey articles on the state of moral psychology and behavioral ethics, and seems for the time being to be free to read. The table of contents is here, and the following is from the editors' introduction:

COP


Do-Gooders

Jonathan B. Wight

Mark White calls attention to a Wall Street Journal review of Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help (2015) by Larissa MacFarquhar.

What happens when people have an almost pathological urge to help others? The people described in this book undertake “extreme ethical commitments”—such as adopting 20 children, undertaking a dangerous political protest despite having a young son, and refusing to wash dishes because this takes time away from environmental activism.

This last example is  juvenile, and reminds me of the humorous claim made about Gandhi: “You will never know how much it costs us to keep that saint, that wonderful old man, in poverty!”

The implication is clear—the supposed saintly one who extols benevolence toward others often does not fulfill the most basic moral virtue of prudence—taking appropriate regard for one’s own life and responsibilities. One has a duty to oneself as well as to others.

A virtue ethicist would say we need balance. It is fine to be generous and altruistic toward others, but not if that makes you the ward of the state or a burden on others. Some of the people described in this book seem to lack that balance, and that would not be virtuous, regardless of the motive for helping or the focus on others.


Dan Hausman on the limits of economics (in The New York Times)

Mark D. White

HausmanIn today's installment of The Stone in The New York Times, Gary Gutting interviewed philosopher of economics Daniel Hausman about the role of economics in public policy and the media. Hausman usefully points out the limitations of economics in predicting the outcome of real-life crises (such as the current Greek crisis):

Speaking of the predictive power can be misleading. Scientists (and I include economists) are not fortunetellers. Their theories only allow them to predict what will happen if initial conditions are satisfied. Elementary physics enables us to predict how long it will take an object to fall to the ground, provided that gravity is the only force acting on the object. Predicting how long it will take a leaf falling from a tree to reach the ground or where it will land is a much harder problem.

The problems that we want economists to help us solve are more like predicting how leaves will fall on a windy day than predicting how objects will fall in a vacuum. Economic phenomena are affected by a very large number of causal factors of many different kinds. The Greek economic crisis is extraordinarily complex, and it has as many political causes as economic ones. Standard economic theory provides useful tools, but it focuses on a very limited range of causal factors — mainly the choices of millions of consumers, investors and firms — which it simplifies and assumes to be governed entirely by self-interested pursuit of goods or financial gain. When one recognizes all the other factors that affect economic outcomes, from government policies to the whims of nature, it is easy to see that economists cannot predict the economic future with any precision.

When Gutting asks what help economists can provide in debates over public policy, Hausman's answer places economics much closer to philosophy than physics: "They tell us which are the right questions to ask... Knowing what to ask is enlightening even when it is hard to find the answers." In other words, economics provides focus to help policymakers choose the means that will best further their ends, wherein both means and ends are ethically loaded concepts as well as economic ones.

(Hausman also highlights the biases of economists as well as the journalists that write about them, and deftly resists Gutting's attempts at the end to goad him into going political or condemn some economic theories as having "no scientific support.")

Hausman ends by saying:

There are cognitive limits to what can be learned about such a complicated system as a modern market economy, and there are practical and political limits to our ability to make use of what can be learned. Within these limits, economics can be of use. I fear this is faint praise.

I don't think that's faint praise at all; rather, it reflects appropriate humility toward a realm of study that is often called upon to decide issues that are outside its purview. And it leaves tremendous room for economics to contribute to—but not determine—the choices of policymakers

As Hausman recognizes, economics can be of invaluable use to policymakers in terms of analyzing aspects of a problem that relate to prices, output, and simple measures of well-being, and it can often predict many significant outcomes of alternative policies to inform policymakers. But economics cannot dictate policy choices that are, by their nature, inherently moral or political choices as long as it refuses to acknowledge and either embrace or question its moral and political foundations.


New book series: On Ethics and Economics (Rowman and Littlefield International)

Mark D. White

I'm pleased to announce a new book series I'm editing, On Ethics and Economics, with the good people at Rowman & Littlefield International:

On Ethics and Economics will explore the ethical aspects of topics traditionally studied through economics. Starting from the position that no economic issue should be examined in an ethical vacuum, books in the series will feature philosophers, economists and other scholars exploring ethics behind issues normally treated as primarily economic in nature. Titles will explore the implicit ethical assumptions made when discussing issues and propose alternative ethical foundations for them, as well as investigating ethical aspects of issues that are often neglected.

With Jonathan Wight on the advisory editorial board, it can't fail.

I also have a blog post at RLI, "Can Economics Operate in an Ethical Vacuum? Of Course Not,"explaining the motivation and focus of the series, along with some topics we hope to address in the near future. 

If you have any ideas for the series, please let me know at profmdwhite@hotmail.com.


More confusion about individualism in The New York Times

Mark D. White

In this morning's installment of The Stone in The New York Times, anthropologist John Edward Terrell invokes against the individualist strain in modern politics, especially on behalf of "Republicans, especially libertarians and Tea Party members on the ideological fringe." But, as regular New York Times columnist David Brooks often does, Professor Terrell conflates individualism with self-interest, ultimately attacking a straw man.

Most of Terrell's piece is uncontroversial. He surveys ancient philosophers who emphasized the social nature of persons and the modern science that supports them. (He finds this ironic, implying that some woud disagree; who, exactly, remains to be seen.) He discusses religious traditions that emphasize community and responsibility, and contrasts this with Enlightment thinkers that emphasized the individual (each in his own nuanced way).

Near the end of the piece, though, he stakes a bold claim: "the sanctification of the rights of individuals and their liberties today by libertarians and Tea Party conservatives is contrary to our evolved human nature as social animals." This is a false dichotomy, for there is no contrast at all. Rights and liberties are necessary (if not sufficient) for a functioning civil society. Rights and liberties enable individuals to pursue their own interests broadly defined, which may and often do include their own well-being, the well-being of others, and ideals such as justice and equality. Libertarians and "Tea Party Conservatives" may place more emphasis on rights and liberties because they see support for them declining, but this does not imply that it is their only concern and that they think it is the sole metric of human progress and well-being.

Terrell also writes, "the thought that it is both rational and natural for each of us to care only for ourselves, our own preservation, and our own achievements is a treacherous fabrication." I agree, it is a fabrication, but in the sense of a straw man fabricated by Terrell himself, not any prominent conservative or libertarian thinker.

I'll end where Terrell began: politics. He writes that part of the divide between left and right in the US is over the "role of the individual," with the left "more likely to embrace the communal nature of individual lives" while the right (and libertarians) favoring rapacious self-interest. (I paraphrased a bit there.)

Let me offer an alternative, although it doesn't strike such a stark tone. Both left and right appreciate and value the social nature of the individual and their responsibilities to each other. Where they differ is in the role of the state in executing those responsibilities. The left believes the state should take care of the needy, through social programs and redistribution, while the right (and libertarians) believe individuals, acting alone or through voluntary organizations, should help each other. (And they do, as numerous studies have shown.) In other words, those who Terrell accuses of worshipping at the altar of self-interest are actually expressing their responsibility toward other individuals as an exercise of the rights and liberties they value so highly.

In short, rights and liberties are not always used to further self-interest, and the institutions of government often are. Individualism is not self-interest—on the contrary, the most noble and admirable acts of charity are those that result from the free actions of individuals acting in their sense of social responsibility.

There is no contrast here—let's not fabricate one.