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Economics as a Moral Science

Recovering Economics as a Moral Science

The fundamental premise of modern economics is the assumption, perhaps first claimed by Condorcet, that "facts" are much the same in the social as they are in the natural sciences, and that the task of the social scientist, like that of the natural scientist, is to "observe" them. With the aid of this assumption, modern economic theory relocated economics from the domain of the moral sciences to one closer to that of the natural sciences with the result that free will, intentionality and moral judgment were necessarily excluded from its concerns. But are the "facts" of the social sciences, in truth, much like the facts of the physical sciences? Are they observable in much the same way and with much the same techniques as in the physical sciences? Are "data" about supply, demand, marginal utility, unemployment or the money supply analogous to the data recorded about, say, the valences of the elements of the periodic table?

In 2012 and again in 2014 the Las Casas Institute hosted a symposium concerned with the connections between ethics, economic activity as a part of life, and economic theory as a social science. We have now edited a selection of the papers delivered at these events for publication by Springer with the title Economics as a Moral Science (forthcoming Spring 2017). In response to the interest these papers have received, Springer have commissioned myself and Prof. Zsolnai to oversee a further nine volumes over the next four and a half years to tackle the reconstruction of economics as a moral science in contrast to its present status as a special branch of theoretical knowledge expressed in the language of mathematics.

The overall goal of the project is to recover the deep connection between ethics and the economic life as it is actually lived in order to develop an economic theory in which ethics is, from the start, a fundamental component of its generalisations. Here are some of the key questions for us:

1. What are economic objects that form the subject matter of economics, and how do they resemble or differ from the objects studied by the natural sciences?

2.  Who and what are economic agents (such as individuals, groups, legally constituted entities, algorithms, robots, etc.), how are they represented in economics, and in what way are they the same or how do they differ?

3.  To what extent, if any, can mathematics represent these objects and agents either as they actually occur in the economy or as they are represented in economics?

4.  Is the subject matter of economics - however defined - the proper subject of theoretical knowledge, or is it more properly seen in the domain of practical reason?

5.   Are objects of thought in general, and those economic objects that are objects of thought in particular proper subjects for law-like generalisations?

6.   Are economic objects commensurable, and is commensurability a requirement of law-like generalisations?

7. How is value created? Is ethics a de-ontological exercise or teleological discipline? Are values free of intentionality? Are there values without an ethical content?

The questions may seem highly abstract, but how we answer them has huge implications for how we live and work, treat each other, prosper or find our lives blighted by unemployment, inflation, or lack of opportunity through rising inequality. Two dozen or so scholars from the United Kingdom, the United States, Belgium, Holland, Norway, Argentina, Italy, Switzerland and Hungary have already agreed to participate in the project, and the first the symposium was held at Blackfriars Hall on 7-8 July, 2017.

An introduction to Economics as a Moral Science by Peter Rona

Virtues and Economics

Monday 16th January 2017

'Virtues and Economics’ books to be published in association with the Economics as a Moral Science project.
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