Ethics as Social Science: The Moral Philosophy of Social Cooperation

By Callahan, Gene | Ideas on Liberty, November 2002 | Go to article overview

Ethics as Social Science: The Moral Philosophy of Social Cooperation


Callahan, Gene, Ideas on Liberty


Ethics as Social Science: The Moral Philosophy of Social Cooperation by Leland Yeager

Edward Elgar e 2001 . 352 pages e $160.00

Professor Leland Yeager has had a long and distinguished career as an economist. The focus of his economic research has been on monetary issues, but regular readers of his work will know of his wide range of interests and not be surprised to see him taking on a topic like ethics.

Yeager is to be congratulated for the modesty of his central claim, as demonstrated in the title: Ethics as Social Science, rather than Ethics Is Social Science. It is an important distinction, the significance of which Yeager highlights early on, when he tells us that his approach "recognizes that fact and logic alone cannot recommend private actions and public policies; ethical judgments must also enter in." Nevertheless, "[k]nowing that :good intentions are not enough,' social science insists on comparing how alternative sets of institutions and rules are likely to work." Yeager is not attempting to produce a "system" that, when fed an ethical dilemma, will spit out a correct course of action. Rather, he is offering a distinctive vantage point on ethical problems, an angle that may yield a newly illuminative view.

In fact Yeager, following in the footsteps of Karl Popper and William Bartley, explicitly rejects the search for absolutely justified beliefs, in ethics as in other fields. Instead, he endorses Bartley's pancritical rationalism, holding that our beliefs only should be required to stand up to the best blows that rational criticism can deliver. The search for absolute justification is a mark hunt.

Yeager, as he acknowledges, is following in the footsteps of Ludwig von Mises and Henry Hazlitt in putting forward a utilitarian basis for ethics. He praises Hazlitt's The Foundations of Morality as the "best single book on ethics that I know of." Yeager's book, in fact, "echoes Hazlitt's ideas" in light of subsequent work in ethical theory.

Throughout the book he contrasts utilitarianism with many alternative ethical views, including those of John Rawls, James Buchanan, Murray Rothbard, Robert Nozick, and Tibor Machan. (Among its other virtues, this book will leave the reader with a broad knowledge of current thinking on ethics.)

Yeager writes: "Utilitarianism as I conceive of it is a doctrine whose test of ethical precepts . . . is conduciveness to the success of individuals as they strive to make good lives for themselves. . . . Its fundamental value judgment is approval of happiness."

Based on his dismissal of calls for the absolute justification of ideas, Yeager does not attempt to provide such a justification for his happiness-based ethics. …

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