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.

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.

David Brooks on same-sex marriage, freedom, and individualism in The New York Times

Mark D. White

In his New York Times column today, David Brooks hails the movement for same-sex marriage as an admirable step away from personal freedom and autonomy:

...last week saw a setback for the forces of maximum freedom. A representative of millions of gays and lesbians went to the Supreme Court and asked the court to help put limits on their own freedom of choice. They asked for marriage.       

Marriage is one of those institutions — along with religion and military service — that restricts freedom. Marriage is about making a commitment that binds you for decades to come. It narrows your options on how you will spend your time, money and attention.

Consistent with his views of individualism (which I've critiqued here and here), Mr. Brooks seems to have an overly simplistic view of freedom and autonomy, such as when he writes that "far from being baffled by this attempt to use state power to restrict individual choice, most Americans seem to be applauding it." Certainly, by marrying, people do give up some basic liberties to each other, but this is a choice freely made—and it is a choice to which gays and lesbians want access just as straights have long enjoyed. In other words, gays and lesbians want the higher-level freedom to restrict their own lower-level freedom (recalling Harry Frankfurt's conception of freedom of the will in which persons constrain their first-order desires based on their second-order ones). Marriage doesn't represent a diminuition of freedom: it is a higher level of it.

He goes on to say, "Americans may no longer have a vocabulary to explain why freedom should sometimes be constricted, but they like it when they see people trying to do it." Perhaps if Mr. Brooks expanded his conception of individual freedom to encompass the choice to constrain yourself, he'd see that Americans understand it extremely well—when that choice is ours. We choose to marry (or form long-lasting relationships), take jobs, enter into contracts, enroll in college, and make all types of commitments to family, friends, and community, all of which restrict our personal freedom. But they are choices that we freely make for any number of reasons, some out of self-interest and others out of a broader morality, and we welcome the opportunity to make these choices—a choice, in the case of marriage, that not all Americans currently enjoy.

The conclusion of Mr. Brooks' column conflates individual choices to make commitments with social pressure to do so:

And, who knows, maybe we’ll see other spheres in life where restraints are placed on maximum personal choice. Maybe there will be sumptuary codes that will make lavish spending and C.E.O. salaries unseemly. Maybe there will be social codes so that people understand that the act of creating a child includes a lifetime commitment to give him or her an organized home. Maybe voters will restrain their appetite for their grandchildren’s money. Maybe more straight people will marry.       

The proponents of same-sex marriage used the language of equality and rights in promoting their cause, because that is the language we have floating around. But, if it wins, same-sex marriage will be a victory for the good life, which is about living in a society that induces you to narrow your choices and embrace your obligations.

My idea of the good life derives from Immanuel Kant's kingdom of ends, a world in which each of us embraces obligations to each other while we pursue our own interests, narrowing our choices as each of us chooses, not as society "induces" us. Mr. Brooks' alternate vision reflects his limited view of individualism as base self-interest in which moral imperatives must be imposed by outside, not necessarily by government but through societal pressure. The question, of course, remains why individuals should trust the wisdom of the crowd for their moral guidance.

Chick-fil-A, Corporate Social Responsibility, and Ethical Consumption

Mark D. White

I've read an enormous amount of what's been written on the Chick-fil-A controversy the last couple weeks, although I'm sure I haven't scratched the surface. But I was fascinated by Will Wilkinson's recent post at The Economist's Democracy in America blog, titled "Feathers Flying," in which he casts the fast food company's stance against same-sex marriage as an example of corporate social responsibility (CSR), though not the typical social justice concerns usually associated with CSR.

It's my view that this sort of skirmish in the culture wars is an inevitable consequence of trends in "ethical consumption" and "corporate social responsibility". Conservatives sceptical of the corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement have often charged that CSR is a stalking horse for liberal causes that have failed to get traction through ordinary political channels. This charge finds some support, I think, in the fact that few in the media seem to see Chick-fil-A's Christian-influenced culture and business practices as an example of CSR, though obviously it is. Doesn't the demand that corporations act responsibly in the interests of society, in ways other than profit-seeking, directly imply that corporate leaders who find same-sex marriage socially irresponsible should do something or other to discourage it?

Rather than comment on Chick-fil-A's position itself, I want to point out Mr. Wilkinson's perceptive comments regarding the politicization of the marketplace itself:

Matters of moral truth aside, what's the difference between buying a little social justice with your coffee and buying a little Christian traditionalism with your chicken? There is no difference. Which speaks to my proposition that CSR, when married to norms of ethical consumption, will inevitably incite bouts of culture-war strife. CSR with honest moral content, as opposed to anodyne public-relations campaigns about "values", is a recipe for the politicisation of production and sales. But if we also promote politicised consumption, we're asking consumers to punish companies whose ideas about social responsibility clash with our own.

Those opposed to a particular company's moral or political position may consider their actions to exemplify corporate social irresponsibility (or worse) rather than just a different type of CSR. The issue for ethical consumption then becomes not just a matter of choosing companies who actively support the "right" causes rather than those who don't, but more important, staying away or boycotting companies that support the "wrong" ones. (This is not new: for examples, labor union members have long refused to patronize nonunion businesses, whether out of solidariry or some other principle.)

Wilkinson's proposed remedy is elegant, and on first blush seems to make perfect sense:

I'd suggest the best arena for moral disagreement is not the marketplace, but our intellectual and democratic institutions. We hash out our disagreements, as best we can, in public deliberation. The outcome of this deliberation becomes input to official policymaking, which in turn determines the rules of the game for business. Businesses then seek profits within the scope of those rules (and the consensus rules of common decency), and consumers buy the products that best satisfy their preferences.

That would be the ideal, I agree. In unpublished work on CSR, I draw a distinction between internal and external actions: internal CSR would cover the operations of the business itself, such as treatment of employees and environmental production methods, while external CSR involves actions not directly related to the business, such as charitable giving--or political positions. My conclusion based on this distinction can be considered a restatement of Milton Friedman's oft-caricatured position that business should focus on maximizing returns to owners within the legal and ethical standards of their industry. The italicized phrase refers to the importance of internal CSR--which still leaves room for controversy, such as whether benefits can be extended to same-sex partners or the extent of environmental safeguards--and cautions against external CSR, either because profits can be devoted to social or political causes by the owners just as well as by the company, or because the business wants to avoid endorsing a controversial position and politicizing its product.

I think that corresponds fairly well to what Wilkinson recommends, but I fear the horse has left the barn on that one. CSR and ethical consumption together comprise a vicious cycle that we will find it very difficult to extricate ourselves from at this point. Consumers have adopted the mindset of making a moral statement with their purchases--with good intentions--and they expect businesses or business leaders to reveal their positions. Businesses are more than happy to comply, sincerely or otherwise, even at the risk of alienating a segment of their customer base. Even companies that remain neutral on heated social issues may be accused of "if you're not with us you're against us"--and certainly with some issues, there is no neutral position. A company can refuse to take a public stand on same-sex marriage, but they either provide same-sex benefits or they don't.

I'll finish--as I often do--with Kant. Often caricatured himself as a rigid demanding moralist, he ridiculed as "fantastically virtuous" any person "who allows nothing to be morally indifferent and strews all his steps with duties, as with mantraps... Fantastic virtue is a concern with petty details which... would turn the government of virtue into tyranny” (Metaphysics of Morals, 409). We can take his comments one step farther and argue that, given our limited attention, the more attention we pay to "petty details," the less we pay to more serious issues or more effective ways to deal with them. Equality for gays and lesbians is no petty detail, of course, but no matter which side you're on, there must be a better way of supporting your position than choosing whether to eat a chicken sandwich.

On Character (in The New York Times' The Stone)

Mark D. White

In this morning's The Stone column in The New York Times, UNC visiting professor Iskra Fileva offers "Character and Its Discontents," in which she writes eloquently on the nature of character in response to the situationist critiques of Gilbert Harman and John Doris. Her article doesn't lend itself well to quotes--it really must be read in full to be appreciated--but two points stood out to me.

  1. Even when we judge people to have behaved inconsistently with what we took to be their character traits, this may be the fault of our limited perception of their character rather than any inconsistency of their part. (She attributes this point to psychologist Gordon Allport.) This parallels my point against paternalism, that the only knowledge regulators have of a person's interests in what they can infer from his or her choices or behavior, for which there can always be multiple explanations. By the same token, it is difficult to infer character traits from behavior with any confidence, and therefore it is difficult to make any judgments of inconsistency based upon them (just as external judgments of poor choices cannot be made simply based on observations of previous ones).
  2. Unity of character is an aspirational goal, rather than something to be taken for granted. This reminds me of Kant's understanding of autonomy as a responsibility as well as a capacity, in that all of us have the potential to be autonomous but we have to work at it constantly, exercising our strength of will, in order to maintain it. It is also consistent with what I wrote in Kantian Ethics and Economics (in chapter 3, based on the work of Christine Korsgaard and Ronald Dworkin) about constructing, expressing, confirming our characters through the choices we make, which is a responsibility for personal integrity that we all have.

I also appreciated that she began the piece with a discussion of character in fiction, which is important for more pragmatic reasons. Nonetheless, creators have a responsibility to their audience to maintain behavioral consistency in their characters, who can have complex motivations up to a point. This makes them more fascinating, but beyond this point, the characters themselves become imperceptible, such as in absurdist literature and theater, as Fileva mentions, or in poorly written traditional fiction (a frequent complaint of fans of "serial fiction" such as myself).

Kant and copyright: Public sphere vs public domain

Mark D. White

Anne Barron (LSE, Department of Law) has an interesting paper in the latest issue of Law and Philosophy (31/1, January 2012) exploring a Kantian approach to copyright law:

Kant, Copyright and Communicative Freedom

Abstract: The rapid recent expansion of copyright law worldwide has sparked efforts to defend the ‘public domain’ of non-propertized information, often on the ground that an expansive public domain is a condition of a ‘free culture’. Yet questions remain about why the public domain is worth defending, what exactly a free culture is, and what role (if any) authors’ rights might play in relation to it. From the standard liberal perspective shared by many critics of copyright expansionism, the protection of individual expression by means of marketable property rights in authors’ works serves as an engine of progress towards a fully competitive ‘marketplace of ideas’ – though only if balanced by an extensive public domain from which users may draw in the exercise of their own expressivity. This article shows that a significantly different, and arguably richer, conception of what a free culture is and how authors’ rights underpin it emerges from a direct engagement with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. For Kant, progress towards a fully emancipated (i.e. a ‘mature’ or ‘enlightened’) culture can only be achieved through the critical intellectual activity that public communication demands: individual expressive freedom is only a condition, not constitutive, of this ‘freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters’. The main thesis defended in this article is that when Kant’s writings on publicity (critical public debate) are read in relation to his writings on the legal organization of publishing, a necessary connection emerges between authors’ rights – as distinct from copyrights – and what Jürgen Habermas and others have named the public sphere. I conclude that it is the public sphere, and not the public domain as such, that should serve as the key reference point in any evaluation of copyright law’s role in relation to the possibility of a free culture.

David Brooks has it right on "The Limits of Empathy"

Mark D. White

In his column in today's New York Times, David Brooks explores "The Limits of Empathy," arguing that empathy may help us feel for other people, but it is not enough to actually spur us to action and help us make tough ethical decisions, and in the end may amount to little more than a self-satisfying crutch:

These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments. In a culture that is inarticulate about moral categories and touchy about giving offense, teaching empathy is a safe way for schools and other institutions to seem virtuous without risking controversy or hurting anybody’s feelings.

Brooks is right when he says people need something more to actually move them to action, some sense of duty or commitment--a code, in his terms:

Think of anybody you admire. They probably have some talent for fellow-feeling, but it is overshadowed by their sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code. They would feel a sense of shame or guilt if they didn’t live up to the code. The code tells them when they deserve public admiration or dishonor. The code helps them evaluate other people’s feelings, not just share them. The code tells them that an adulterer or a drug dealer may feel ecstatic, but the proper response is still contempt.

But that still leaves the question: why should we presume someone is moved to action more reliably by a code than by empathy? Brooks' answer is spot on:

The code isn’t just a set of rules. It’s a source of identity. It’s pursued with joy. It arouses the strongest emotions and attachments. Empathy is a sideshow. If you want to make the world a better place, help people debate, understand, reform, revere and enact their codes. Accept that codes conflict.

A person's code is part of his or her identity, and our interest in maintaining our identity as moral persons can prompt us to moral action and guide us in instances of struggle and temptation. I'm not sure if Brooks was implying this, but while adhering to a code certainly does arouse emotions, those emotions should not be the primary motivating factor behind it. (As Kant wrote, we should feel good because we're moral, but we should not be moral simply because it feels good.)

To be fair, I think empathy is enough to motivate some people to moral action, and it is essential for any moral system to work. But Brooks is right to point out that empathy is at risk of becoming a buzzword, a verbal lapel ribbon for those who wish to appear to care for other people without having to back it up with action.

Utilitarians aren't psychopaths--are they?

Mark D. White

The Economist published a short note recently summarizing the results of a forthcoming paper in Cognition that reports that experiment participants "who indicated greater endorsement of utilitarian solutions had higher scores on measures of Psychopathy, machiavellianism, and life meaninglessness" (from the paper abstract). The experimenters presented subjects with variants of trolley dilemmas--either watch five passengers in a runaway trolley car die, or push one bystander onto the tracks to his death to stop the car--and also asked questions to track their psychological dispositions, finding a strong link between the antisocial tendencies and willingness to kill the bystander to save the trolley passengers.

I'm not going to address the secondhand claims by the authors regarding the "characterization of non-utilitarian moral decisions as errors of judgment," which are inevitably and necessarily made from a utilitarian point-of-view; it's the same problem as with Kaplow and Shavell's Fairness versus Welfare, which dismissed nonwelfarist policymaking as insufficiently welfarist. (I happily note that the paper's authors do criticize these statements in the discussion section of the paper.) But I do want to discuss briefly the results reported in the Cognition study, and explain why I have mixed feelings about it.

First, the trolley problem is too nuanced to make a quick-and-easy judgment regarding deontology and utilitarianism (as the authors acknowledge in the discussion section of the paper, albeit for different reasons). True, simple utilitarianism would demand that, all else aside, you kill the one person to save the five. But a deontological outlook--which is much less well-defined--would not necessarily forbid this, as deontology is not categorically opposed to consequentialist considerations. Rather than simply comparing one to five and making a decision based on the equally valid interests of all the person involved (as a utilitarian would), a deontologist would more likely think about the moral status of the individuals in the case, considering any factors related to responsibility or desert in that particular situation. After ruling out such concerns, a deontologist--even a Kantian--may very well kill the one to save the five (for instance, by judging the duty to save five people to have a "stronger ground of obligation" than the duty not to kill the one, according to Kant's only guidance in such cases of conflicting obligations). The brute utilitarian would regard the decision as the implication of a simple comparison (1<5), while the deontologist would more likely use judgment based on the rights of the persons involved--even if they both come to the same result.

Furthermore, the trolley dilemma also wraps up in it the relative moral status of acts and omissions (itself tied into the deontology vs. utilitarianism debate), as well as issues of identity and virtue (am I the kind of person who can take a life, even to save others?), which themselves have greater implications if taking the one life leads to a change of attitudes toward future moral dilemmas. In other words, the trolley problem should not be used as a moral barometer distinguishing between utilitarianism and deontology. This becomes particularly clear when one considers the different reactions people have to the surgeon problem, in which a surgeon considers harvesting organs from his healthy colleague to save five patients who will die without them--very few endorse this action, even those who would push the bystander in front of the trolley, but it can be difficult to parse out the salient differences in the two situations. (Several variants of these problems, including both the trolley and surgeon dilemmas, were used in the study, apparently with no distinctions made.)

As any regular readers of my work (either on this blog or in print) know, I'm no fan of utilitarianism. But I would never go as far as to say its adherents and practitioners are psychopaths. Utilitarians obviously do care about the well-being of people--my problem is that they are concerned with aggregate well-being that ignores the distinctions between persons (as Rawls said so well) and the inherent dignity and rights of each (as Kant wrote). And that is problematic: regarding persons as nothing but contributors to the collective good implies that each person has no independent, distinct value. And if so, why care about people's interests at all? To my mind, the utilitarian's disregard for the dignity of the individual is self-defeating, since it eliminates any imperative to consider persons' well-being at all (much less to consider it equally with all others').

Of course, the popular press coverage leaves out all of the nuance and qualification present in the academic article, but that is par for the course. The study's authors recognize, of course, that all the "psychopathic" respondents who chose the "utilitarian solution" are not necessarily well-read in Bentham or Mill, nor did they necessarily use utilitarian thinking at all. Nonetheless, the results are suggestive, and if it leads us to look at the differences between utilitarians and deontologists in a different way, it's all good--and right!

Kantian ethics and economics in The Montréal Review

Mark D. White

A synopsis of my book Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character titled "Returning Dignity to Economics" appears in the new online issue of The Montréal Review, alongside articles by Patricia Churchland, Gilles Saint-Paul, and Eric MacGilvray. Let me share the final paragraph, which I think is relevant to much more than merely the topics in my book (and on which I plan to work more soon):

With its roots in classical utilitarianism, mainstream economics treats individuals merely as contributors to social welfare, with little consideration for persons qua individuals. Advances in psychology and neuroscience reinforce this, painting a picture of human beings as flawed machines that need correcting from those who "know better." These are all symptoms of a declining appreciation of autonomy and dignity which serves to diminish the moral status of the individual as well as ignore the benefits that a strong sense of the individual can bring to society as a whole. Integrating Kant's moral insights into economics can help preserve these ideals and ensure that when the good of society is promoted, it is not at the expense of the individuals that comprise it.

Reasoning for Persuasion, Not Truth

Jonathan B. Wight

A recent article in Behavioral and Brain Sciences explores the question "Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory".

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber argue that people do not reason as a means of acquiring knowledge or making better decisions. Rather, reasoning evolved for a rhetorical reason—to persuade. The authors note:

Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes not because humans are bad at it but because they systematically look for arguments to justify their beliefs or their actions…. Human reasoning is not a profoundly flawed general mechanism; it is a remarkably efficient specialized device adapted to a certain type of social and cognitive interaction at which it excels. (p. 72)

If this evolutionary theory is borne out by further experiments, how would this affect Kantian ethics, which places special emphasis on reasoning as a way of acquiring knowledge?