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What can economics teach us about moral ecology?

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In exploring the various connections between morality, theology, and economics, we routinely long for philosophers and theologians who understand economics, just as we crave economists who understand the bigger picture of self-interest and human destiny.

That sort cross-disciplinary dialogue and mutual understanding can be beneficial, but for economist Peter Boettke, it can also serve as a distraction. In an article for Faith and Economics, Boettke argues that economics as a science offers plenty of tools for “moral assessment,” and that economists ought to embrace and engage with them, regardless of their collaborations or correspondence with other fields or outsider critics.

“The real problem is that sometimes the position held by the non-economist on these issues of the moral assessment of the market economy is simply uninformed,” Boettke writes. “It is not just that the economists and the critic lack a common language with which to speak to one another; the critic simply lacks knowledge of the argument and the evidence marshaled in its favor. He is existing in a state of blissful ignorance of economics.”

Boettke highlights Daniel Finn’s The Moral Ecology of Markets as an example of this “blissful ignorance” among critics who fail to understand basic fundamentals about economics and its relationship with political economy. Yet many economists also fail to recognize the value their technical knowledge can bring to the study of moral philosophy or “moral ecology.”

In response, Boettke offers a picture of the specific ways in which economics (as a “practical” science) can engage with moral questions and concerns:

To put it very bluntly, economics and political economy, as such, cannot strictly speaking tell you whether or not profits are deserved or not, but economics and political economy can tell you the consequences of your answer to that question. This ability to inform on the consequences of moral choices has profound implications for the reconstruction of moral theory along lines that will make it relevant for the real world of human interaction. Economics properly understood ties moral theory down and prevents it from becoming a free-floating abstraction.

My basic message is that political economy can aspire to be a value-relevant discipline only to the extent that the economics that undergirds it is practiced in as approximately a value-neutral manner as is humanly possible. Economics, so practiced, serves as a tool of social criticism, though never as a vehicle for policy advocacy, and in so doing plays the vital role of putting parameters on utopian aspirations.

Boettke then gets more specific offering a range of areas where economists would do well to focus their efforts. For example, once we understand “the foundations of social cooperation in a market economy,” Boettke argues, we see a variety of empirical claims emerge, leading to the following areas of economic assessment:

1. Exploring the economic implications of attitudes and beliefs

If it is the case that certain values are required for social cooperation through the market to yield generalized prosperity, then the formal rules of just conduct must be legitimated by the informal norms of just conduct; otherwise, the monitoring costs will be too high. The source of social order, in other words, is to be found in the informal norms and conventions. This ultimately relates to the debate between legal positivism (where the state is the source of law) and common law practice (where the law evolves and bubbles up from the conflict-reducing practices of the people). Again, assessing this claim does not require an assessment by the analyst of the moral status of trade and commerce; what it does require is an empirical examination of attitudes and beliefs in a population and how those attitudes and beliefs sustain or undercut trade and commerce.

2. Assessing the ‘civilizing force’ of markets and commerce

Certain market practices reinforce moral norms of civility, thrift, prudence, cooperation and honesty. Finn refers to this claim as the doux commercethesis and it is associated with such writers as Montesquieu, Hume and Smith. The civilizing force of markets is a claim that is often forgotten in modern debate and thus unexamined in assessing the operation of the market economy. Again, this claim need not entail a moral assessment (though admittedly my use of the term “civilizing” is a loaded one). All that must be assessed is the empirical relationship between commerce and the reinforcement of the norms listed above.

From here, Boettke proceeds to offer in-depth analysis on a range of normative claims, including assessments about the basic “pre-cognitive” view and vision of the economist, the “value-laden discourse” of the discipline, the moral implications of economic outcomes, and the moral issues surrounding welfare economics.

For the necessary analysis to take place, however, Boettke emphasize that we’ll need a much greater level of “value-neutrality,” which is only possible if economists take a “radical subjectivist stance with regard to ends, so as to aspire to an objective analysis of the relationship between means and ends.”

Achieving such a position will be difficult, but Boettke offers a good foundation to spark our imaginations toward a more robust engagement with moral issues within the field of economics.

If we hope to pave the path to the “good society,” Boettke believes we’ll need a particular type of analytical and empirical analysis, driven from a mode of assessment that maintains a “soft heart,” but also the “hard head” to serve its purposes.

For this, he argues, “there is no better tool available to us than that of economic argument.”

Read the full paper here.

Image: B_Me, CC0

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, Intellectual Takeout, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.