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.

God, Providence, and the Future of the Social Sciences

There is a systematic and unquestioning tendency, observable in the social sciences, and especially of late in economics (Lawson 1997; Fullbrook 2004), toward considering formal models as superior, as somehow more scientific than other non-formal methods. There is a further resulting tendency for other social sciences to emulate economics’ methodological orientation. My concern here is manifold. First, to the extent that the alleged superiority of formalism results in an anti-pluralistic methodological orientation, intellectual progress is being thwarted. Second, in so far as the specific methodology is spreading across the social sciences, the phenomenon merits added attention. Third, questions of methodology, though central to good scientific inquiry, are too often relegated to “lofty” philosophers of science. I take the opportunity to reaffirm their relevance. I explore possible problems with formalism in the social sciences, particularly as formulated by the Critical Realist and/or Cambridge School. My hope is that social scientists may increasingly see that their plight is not isolated and discipline-specific, but is resolutely an increasing interdisciplinary phenomenon. Finally, I hope to encourage the social scientific community to (re-)engage in methodological reflexivity and to produce a united effort to protect intellectual freedom as a condition for scientific progress.

Essay on the definition of economic philosophy

In this article, we propose an open definition of “economic philosophy” as a “postural field of rationalized ideas of economics (and economy).” Our argument is formed of two parts. The first allows us to answer this question: Why “economic philosophy”? We argue that it should be understood as a reaction to a doubt about the representation of economics as a science, itself caused by three problems that we analyze. In the second part, we clarify our definition by firstly explaining the notions of “postural field” and of “ideas of economics (economy).” This discussion then leads us to a clarification of the links between idea, concept, theory, and judgment. Finally, we move closer to our stipulative definition, using that promoted by A. Leroux since 1995.

Possibilism in Albert O. Hirschman

Albert O. Hirschman is, above all, known for his works on economic development and publications such as Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1970), The Passions and the Interests (1977) or The Rhetoric of Reaction (1991). He is less well-known for his defense of possibilism, which represents his methodological approach to the social sciences. This article presents its origin and major characteristics.

Power relations in companies – a methodological and conceptual analysis

Economics has always been reluctant towards the concept of power, which cannot be operationalized in microeconomic models but can justify ex post rationalizations. Yet power is a vector of social institutionalization that economists must integrate to make the firm a political entity and accomplish real explanatory progress. Therefore, the article aspires to propose a renewed methodological analysis of power, which implies a collective structure while relying on individuals as actors. On the basis of this conceptual clarification, an essay for defining power in the firm is proposed: power is the latent capacity (which may or may not be exercised) of an entity A to constrain and draw the choices of an entity B so that the behavior and actions of B are oriented in a direction favorable to A, by mechanisms intrinsic to the socio-economic relationship that may be formal or informal. Such a definition of power makes it possible to reconsider transformative agency in the firm and to link power with the relational dispositions of the organizations of capitalism.