A Short History of Economics as a Moral Science

By Alvey, James E. | Journal of Markets & Morality, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

A Short History of Economics as a Moral Science


Alvey, James E., Journal of Markets & Morality


Introduction

Economics grew out of moral philosophy and eventually became one of the moral sciences. At some point the mainstream of economics became detached from the moral sciences and then from morality itself. I will argue that this detachment from moral concerns is not part of the tradition of economics. It emerged only during the present century.

There are two major reasons why economics has become detached from moral concerns. First, the natural sciences came to be seen as successful, and the attempt was made to emulate that success in economics by applying natural science methods, including mathematics, to economic phenomena. Second, the self-styled economic science came to adopt positivism, which ruled out moral issues from science itself. These points will be demonstrated below. It is a widely held view today among mainstream economists that economics is free from any ideological, theological, or moral philosophy. One commentator on the role of ethics in mainstream economics has stated:

   The "scientification" of economics ... has led to a separation of
   economics from its ethical roots. The "mainstream economics" of the
   twentieth century fully accepts this separation. Economic theory is
   seen as a positive science which has to analyse and to explain the
   mechanisms of economic processes.... Important as ethical valuations
   ("ought"-statements) may be, they should not form part of the
   economist's research programme. (1)

Similarly, a recent commentator on the role of positivism in economics argued this way:

   Most economists today ... would agree that the claim of an economic
   theory free from values is essential in establishing the scientific
   nature of the discipline. A positive, value-free economics, in the
   sense of not relying on any particular set of value judgments or on
   any philosophical or psychological framework, is generally seen as
   ideal. This approach has crucially influenced important branches of
   economics such as microeconomic theory. (2)

Many others have expressed similar views. (3)

Modern economics stresses rational calculation, the baser material objectives, and scientific neutrality on moral issues. But these foci can easily slip into something else. For example, one of the leading microeconomists, David Kreps, says that "a sparse set of canonical hypotheses--... greed, rationality, and equilibrium--became the maintained hypotheses in almost all branches of [economics]." (4) The slip into the assumption of "greed" is easy to make.

What is the moral effect of promulgating this view on the behavior of economics students? Experiments have been conducted to see whether humans cooperate or attempt to "free ride" (5) in a range of situations. In one study it was found that people were generally cooperative or public spirited, except for a group of first-year graduate economics students: The latter were less cooperative, contributed much less to the group, and found the concept of fairness alien; the economics students were "much more likely to free ride" than any other group tested. (6) On this same study, Hausman and McPherson comment: "Learning economics, it seems, may make people more selfish." (7) More recently, Frank, Gilovich, and Regan found in their experiments that students of economics, unlike others, tended to act according to the model of rational self-interest and concluded that "differences in cooperativeness are caused in part by training in economics." (8) This conclusion leads them to recommend that economists "stress a broader view of human motivation [than rational self-interest] in their teaching." (9) By producing selfish and uncooperative individuals one may think that there is evidence for the actual detachment of economics from ethics.

The essay that follows shows the genesis of economics as a moral science and chronicles some of the developments in mainstream economics that metamorphosed the discipline to the point where moral concerns are now irrelevant. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

A Short History of Economics as a Moral Science
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.