Economic Writing on the Pressing Problems of the Day: The Roles of Moral Intuition and Methodological Confusion

Economists are often called on to help address pressing problems of the day, yet many economists appear to be uncomfortable about disclosing the values that they bring to this work. This essay argues that two central “folk beliefs” implicitly held by many economists contribute to this. These are, first, that “scientific” economic research precludes ethical engagement and reflection, and, second, that people are fundamentally self-interested in their economic dealings.
It is argued that these folk beliefs are at odds with valid scientific practice, and that they persist largely because of long-standing biases in the profession. The historical development of these beliefs is briefly discussed, with reference to feminist history and philosophy of science. Recent empirical research on ethical intuition, by scholars such as psychologist Jonathan Haidt, also reveals inadequacies in the traditional treatment of ethics as purely a matter of rational principles. These literatures point out the unavoidable importance of social and emotional factors in ethical judgment, and the unavoidable presence of ethical judgment even within “scientific” scholarship.
The tension between caring about the problems facing the world, on the one hand, and writing within the existing culture of the mainstream economics discipline, on the other, is illustrated with examples taken from the works of economists who are concerned about inequality, poverty, climate change, and problems in financial decision-making. The authors discussed include Larry Summers, Jeffrey Sachs, Sir Nicholas Stern, William Nordhaus, George Loewenstein, and Partha Dasgupta. Because of impoverished understandings of moral intuition and methodology, these writings tend to either hide implicit ethical judgments under a smoke screen of invalid “objectivism”, or rely on overly self-interest-oriented or rationalistic moral appeals. Such failure to deal adequately with moral intuition, it is argued, seriously compromises the quality of economic research. It also, unfortunately, may have the consequence of encouraging increasingly self-interested behavior in the populace at large.
The essay argues that improved understandings of the roles of methodology and moral intuition could lead towards more responsible, “strongly objective”, and policy-useful forms of economic practice.