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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).