Ethics for Economics and for Economists
February 17, 2022
Guest 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.)
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