The moral imperative of amoral theorising

Luigi Zingales:

Oddly, most economists see their subject as divorced from morality. They liken themselves to physicists, who teach how atoms do behave, not how they should behave. But physicists do not teach to atoms, and atoms do not have free will. If they did, physicists would and should be concerned about how the atoms being instructed could change their behavior and affect the universe.

My colleague Gary Becker pioneered the economic study of crime. Employing a basic utilitarian approach, he compared the benefits of a crime with the expected cost of punishment (that is, the cost of punishment times the probability of receiving that punishment). While very insightful, Becker’s model, which had no intention of telling people how they should behave, had some unintended consequences. A former student of Becker’s told me that he found many of his classmates to be remarkably amoral, a fact he took as a sign that they interpreted Becker’s descriptive model of crime as prescriptive. They perceived any failure to commit a high-benefit crime with a low expected cost as a failure to act rationally, almost a proof of stupidity.

  • As I’ve said before, I believe there is an immorality, and that lies in your repairing, always, to utilitarianism. But forget all that; a question: what is an economist’s purpose, according to you?

    • Why, to satisfy their preferences, of course!

      • What if it was proven by utilitarian principles that the majority of people in a society would be happier if economists were outlawed? If the Crown was your employer, what would your policy advice be?

        • To abandon Bentham’s hedonic calculus 😉

        • Bill

          But that’s just an example of bureaucratic capture.

  • Bill

    Really fascinating quote. I would object that a lot of economists do see their work as moral, that it is morally right to maximise satisfaction from a limited set of factors.

    • I’m sure you’ve heard Seamus’ views on how closely most economists hew to a purely consequentialist moral philosophy. I don’t think many economists see their work as bearing on morality, hence their eagerness to brush equitable issues to one side. In fact, I think many CBA practitioners neglect to recognise the moral component of their evaluations at all. Most seem to wave their hands about equitable issues and assume that efficiency is a positive criterion.

      • James, I have a lot of sympathy with this. But I’m still, always, working hard to stomp on my moral side when doing straight economic analysis. First, I’m probably in a thin tail of the distribution of moral views; having analysis be based on that really limits applicability. Second, there are standard sets of assumptions in things like Cost Benefit Analysis for a very good reason – it makes projects comparable and makes it less likely that differences in world view drive analysis. If you want to deviate, you’ve gotta explain why and make the case for it. 

        • I don’t disagree at all: having standard procedures and assumptions allows comparability, which is extremely important. It’s when the BCR becomes synonymous with ‘a good idea’ that I think it’s gone too far and people need to think about the moral component of the analysis. Economists don’t tend to deny the normative element of their analysis, but they pay lip service to its existence and stop there. I’m as guilty as anyone but that doesn’t make it better 😛

        • When I teach it in my classes, I note that killing a homeless guy to save the lives of five scientists would likely pass cost benefit but would still be a pretty awful idea. And that CB gives a good way of ruling out particularly bad ideas, but not necessarily a great way of deciding which of many potentially good things should be done.