The following is an excerpt from Julie Nelson’s paper for E3 Network, Ethics and the Economist: What Climate Change Demands of Us. You can read part one of her series on ethics and the economist here.
To many economists, the discussion of ethics seems to be beside the point. Economic analysis is sometimes perceived of as value-free and objective, while ethical judgments are normative and subjective. Such views have been debunked at length by climate economists (e.g., Howarth 2003; Dietz and Stern 2008), as well as philosophers (e.g., Putnam 2003; Kitcher 2011), and a full analysis will not be attempted here. Suffice it to note that contemporary Neoclassical orthodoxy contains myriad value-judgments, that only appear as objective from within a culture of disciplinary group-think in which alternatives are simply not entertained. The unquestioned priority given to individual freedom of choice, for example, is clearly a value judgment, in that it ranks freedom above other possible — for example, more pro-social or pro-environment — values. The methodological valuing of the elegance, precision, and “artificial crispness” (Weitzman 2009, 18) of mathematical models of optimization involves a normative and subjective judgment that these qualities are of more worth than other methodological goals, such as richness or realism. And, of course, economists should recognize the issue of opportunity cost: Research is not done in a vacuum, and the very question of our salaries and research budgets is based on decisions that value some lines of research above others. If we are absorbed in rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic when we could have helped chart another course, we will bear some moral responsibility for the ship going down.
Alternatively, we as economists may realize the relevance of ethics, but consider it to be in the domain of the Philosophy Department. Paying more attention to ethics might seem to mean that we must become versed in deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics, Kant, Rawls, Aristotle, and the like — or at least read those economists who try to translate such material into more familiar terms. Believing that such an investment is necessary before one can take an ethical stand, however, could be compared to believing that one must invest in economics graduate training before one can be allowed to make a purchase at the grocery store. Ethics is not something owned by the philosophy department, but rather something we, inescapably, do — just as we also, by virtue of being human, participate in economic life. (more…)