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The Integral Role of Ethics in Economics

Paper Session

Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019 10:15 AM - 12:15 PM

Hilton Atlanta, Crystal D
Hosted By: Association for Social Economics
  • Chair: Mark D. White, City University of New York-Staten Island

Virtue and Economics: Putting the Cart Before the Horse

Jennifer A. Baker
College of Charleston


From early on (Bernard Mandeville) a recognized obstacle to an economic outlook has been the Aristotelian insistence that the world would be better ordered if we only had more virtue. It remains easy to see why “virtue” has been considered a kind of opponent to economic thinking. As Partha Dasgupta puts it, modern economics has identified the “subtle, difficult to detect, and hard to understand” routes by which we can fail to bring about “an efficient, a just, or even a decent outcome.” These routes acknowledge the many constraints we face, those “shaped by the access people have to resources (material goods, skills, and information)” as well as by the choices we and others make simultaneously. Mathematical modeling has been key to recognizing these "routes," and yet recommendations of virtue can seemingly be made with no regard for these often counter-intuitive routes or, indeed, the calculations. Deirdre McCloskey even gives the name “the clerisy” to those who flaunt economic reasoning in order demonstrate their “virtue.” In her presentation, Baker attempts to lower the hackles of those who might still see talk of virtue as a distraction or obstacle to general welfare. She also attempts to demonstrate that ethical theory remains crucial to the justification of moral claims, including those concerning economics.

Ethics and Economics: A Complex Systems Approach

John B. Davis
Marquette University and University of Amsterdam


In his presentation, Davis examines the nature of ethics and economics as a single subject of investigation, and uses a complex systems approach to characterize the nature of that subject. He then distinguishes mainstream economic and social economic visions of it, where the former assumes that market processes encompass social processes, and the latter assumes that market processes are embedded in social processes. For each vision, strong and weak theses are compared. Both visions are first explained in terms of their respective views of the positive-normative distinction, then in terms of a central normative principle, and then in terms of their policy strategies. He closes with comments on the future status of ethics and economics as a single subject of investigation.

The Tragedy of Economics

George DeMartino
University of Denver


Economists cause harm as they try to do good; this is the tragedy of economics. That claim is a non-normative description, not an indictment of the profession, but the profession gives inadequate attention to the harm its practice induces. That claim is also both positive and normative. Standard approaches to harm in economics present harms as fully reparable through monetary compensation. Other professions that risk harm do better in theorizing practitioner-induced harm, preventing avoidable harm, ameliorating unpreventable harm, and securing consent for practice that risks harm. As DeMartino will argue in his presentation, economics has much to learn from those professions that have given harm the most careful attention.

Consecrating Capitalism: Neoliberalism, the Prosperity Gospel, and Catholic Social Teaching

Valerie Kepner
King’s College
Mary V. Wrenn
University of the West of England


Without an optimistic faith in meritocracy support for the capitalist system and belief in neoliberalism would unravel. How that optimism is perpetuated despite persistent income inequality requires an examination of those social institutions which reinforce and reproduce optimism over practical experience. This research compares two particular religious institutions of the US – the Prosperity Gospel and Catholic Social Teaching – and their interactive co-evolutions with neoliberalism.

The Prosperity Gospel (PG) is a modern, neoliberal variation of Pentecostalism premised on the belief that a Biblical covenant between the individual believer and God guarantees the blessings of health and wealth, provided the believer demonstrates adequate faith. Accordingly, for those who are less adept at navigating the business world, financial success is still possible if believers dedicate themselves with the same frenzied ambition to the spiritual world. Considered an essential element of the Catholic faith, Catholic Social Teaching (CST) makes a clear and distinctive call for followers to honor each person’s human dignity, especially the dignity of those most vulnerable.

Both the PG and CST support and sustain neoliberalism albeit through different spiritual directives. The PG is an institution and social practice which reinforces individual responsibility and emphasizes climbing up toward greater financial success. CST teaches that those who have successfully navigated the market system bear a responsibility to the vulnerable, directing believers to focus down the financial hierarchy.

A Kantian Understanding of the Market and the State

Mark D. White
City University of New York-Staten Island


In his presentation, White will expand on his earlier work on Kantian ethics and economics to explore more generally the nature of the market and the state. He will focus on the implications of a fuller recognition of human autonomy, dignity, and rights for our understanding of the role and function of markets in society, the ethical demand on businesses, and the role of the state in markets and the economy in general.
JEL Classifications
  • Z1 - Cultural Economics; Economic Sociology; Economic Anthropology