weighing goods and people: ethics out of economics: rationality through reasoning…and climate change


Richard Marshall interviews John Broome in 3:AM Magazine:

3:AM: Economics has recently been accused ( see Amitai Etzioni in‘Evonomics’) of leading to unethical, anti-social thinking so do you think economics needs an ethical theory? If it does, which one?

JB: ‘Of course it does’. Economists constantly make recommendations about all sorts of things, from how the banking system should be organized to what should be done about climate change. What sort of ‘should’ is that? There are non-ethical ‘shoulds’, such as the way you should hold a golf club. But the economists’ ‘should’ always involves balancing the conflicting interests of different people against each other. This makes it inevitably a matter for ethics. Since it is engaged in ethics, economics needs ethical theory to do its work well.

These days many economists deny this. They are so thoroughly immersed in their own ethical assumptions that they don’t recognize them for what they are. The explicitly ethical branch of economics is known, oddly, as ‘welfare economics’. When I was a student in economics around 1970, we were taught serious welfare economics, including such topics as the value of equality and the theory of ‘optimal taxation’. But soon after that, welfare economics stopped being taught in most US universities, and a generation grew up in ignorance of it.

It was this ignorance that drew me back to work with economists ten years ago. At the start of ‘The Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change‘ the economist Nicholas Stern announced that his work rested on ethical premises, and he would state what they were. His report drew strong criticism from some US economists, who claimed that ethical premises had no place in economics. I was incensed. I was by then a moral philosopher and not an economist, but I could not let economists propagate their own ethical views whilst pretending they were not ethical views at all. So I found myself once again working with economists on climate change, to try and make sure they recognized their ethical premises.

More here.