A Short History of Ethics and Economics: The Greeks

By Bîgu, Dragos | The Journal of Philosophical Economics, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

A Short History of Ethics and Economics: The Greeks


Bîgu, Dragos, The Journal of Philosophical Economics


review of James e. alvey, a short history of ethics and economics: The Greeks, cheltenham (uK), edward elgar Publishing, 2011, x+184 pp, hb, isBn 9781847202017

in this book, James e. alvey, senior lecturer at massey university, new Zealand, analyzes the way in which economic issues appear in ancient Greek ethics. alvey's work is focused especially on Plato's and aristotle's economic thought, but presents briefly the economic ideas of sophists, socrates and Xenophanes, too. in his presentation, alvey circumscribes ancient Greek economic thought to a general ethical framework, providing a good instrument for professional economists interested in the basis of their field, for scholars interested in the intersection between ethics and economics, and for people with general interest in economics.

alvey starts from amartya sen's distinction between two traditions. The former one, the ethics-related tradition, sees economics as an offshoot of ethics, while in the latter, the engineering tradition of economics, ethics and economics are seen as completely autonomous and unrelated. Two are the main elements that characterize the first tradition. The former is the ethics-related view of motivation, i.e. the idea that ethical deliberation is relevant to actual human behavior. This does not mean that people always act according to their ethical obligations, but that ethical motivations are at least prima facie reasons for action. The second element is the ethics-related view of social achievement, i.e. the idea that the individual and social good can not be defined completely independent to an ethical ideal, based only upon the concept of efficiency. in contrast to the ethical tradition, the engineering tradition in economics conceives the end as given, or exogenous, and is interested only in finding the means by which this can be achieved. according to the engineering tradition, the means, but not the ends, can be subject to rational debate.

Without considering human beings as necessarily evil, the engineering tradition assumes self-interested (or even selfish) behavior of people. The two traditions do not usually appear in pure forms, but in different proportions. The engineering tradition is in a greater degree characteristic to the modern economics, while the ancient Greek thought is in a significant degree characterized by an ethics-related view of economics. as alvey shows, the sophist thought represents, in a certain degree, an exception, but he does not focus too much on this school of thought.

Directly related to the ethics-related view of social achievement, amartya sen criticizes some criteria of social good, the most important of them being utilitarianism and Pareto-efficiency, and replaces them what he calls 'the capability approach', according to which what matters most is not people's total wealth, but what they actually can do with the resources they possess.

one of the most important objectives of alvey's book is to show how the ethics- related view of economics appears in Plato's and aristotle's works. for both, the two components of an ethical tradition, the ethics-related view of motivation and the criteria of social achievement, at individual and social level, are distinctly analyzed. in the same time, alvey tries to find in Plato and aristotle at least some version of a capability approach.

for Plato, individual achievement is not the result of wealth; on the contrary, virtue and achievement are obtained by being moderately rich. above a limit, wealth obstructs people to follow higher goals. even more, this will lead Plato to some public policy recommendation: acquisition of wealth should be limited by law (p. 60). as it is well known, Plato's ideal city, described in republic, is characterized by a strong specialization and division of labor: people should have, even from their childhood, some definite roles and occupations. modern economists argue that division of labor increases productivity and efficiency. …

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