Economics And Ethics Research Paper

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The economy is a central component of society. To a large extent, it determines our wellbeing, our freedoms and opportunities, our social life, our health, and many other features of our lives. It also determines how equally or unequally these things are distributed across the people. Indeed, the economy is perhaps more important than anything else in determining how our lives go. Consequently, an essential task for ethics is to assess how well the economy is doing and how it might be improved.

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Since the working of the economy is complex, and the science of economics is technical, philosophers rarely have the skills needed to progress far with this ethical task. It commonly falls to economists instead. The branch of economics that is devoted to the ethical assessment of the economy is known as welfare economics. It is a sort of applied ethics. Because of its special subject matter, it has its own special methods. But because it is applied ethics, it needs some foundations in ethical theory. Inevitably, welfare economists working back towards the foundations of their subject have encountered moral philosophers working forwards towards applications of theirs. Several particular topics lie within the domains of interest of both welfare economists and moral philosophers. Section 4 gives some examples.

When they look for foundations for their work, many welfare economists have simply adopted an existing ethical theory. They have formalized it— sometimes distorting it in the process—and applied it to their subject. One example comes from the theory of ‘optimal tax,’ which flourished in the 1970s. Optimal tax theorists tried to devise a scheme of taxation that would best achieve a particular objective. They took the objective from ethical theory. Some (e.g., Mirrlees 1971) adopted the utilitarian objective of maximizing the total of people’s wellbeing, others (e.g., Phelps 1973) the ‘maximin’ objective of maximizing the wellbeing of the worst-off person. The latter group was inspired by the publication in 1972 of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1972) However, they distorted Rawls’ view, because Rawls favored maximizing the worst-off group’s access to ‘primary goods,’ rather than the worst-off person’s wellbeing.

Other welfare economists have been less passive and more critical in their attitude to ethical theory. They have themselves contributed to the theory’s development. They have found that the methods of economics are useful equipment for doing so. Like most of economics, welfare economics is a rather formal discipline, and it has evolved a range of formal tools to serve its purposes. These tools contribute to the ethical assessment of economies, but they have turned out to be useful for other ethical purposes too. Moreover, theoretical tools from other branches of economics have also turned out to be useful in ethics. Section 3 gives examples of formal methods developed in economics that can be valuable in moral philosophy.

In sum, the connections between economics and ethics are multifarious, and run in both directions. It is therefore not surprising that many important moral philosophers have also been important economists. Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick are examples from the past. As a general rule, economist-philosophers have been utilitarians. Economists in general, too, have generally shown utilitarian inclinations. Since the rise of ‘classical’ economics in the eighteenth century, economists have mostly been concerned with increasing the wellbeing of the people—a concern that is utilitarian in a broad sense.

Liberalism is another philosophy that is closely associated with economics. However, most liberal economists are liberal for instrumental reasons. Their liberalism derives from their utilitarianism; they believe that economic freedom is a good way to promote people’s wellbeing. For example, in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith (1776) argued that extensive free trade deepens the global division of labor, which in turn leads to economic growth, and that is good for people. More recently, a similar conclusion has been drawn from some theorems in welfare economics. The theorems show that free economic competition leads to efficiency, defined in a special way, and efficiency is held to be generally beneficial. However, there are many occasions when economic freedom is undoubtedly not generally beneficial. For instance, monopolies may use their power to delay innovations, and companies freely pursuing their own profit may damage the environment. In these cases, economists are typically in favor of restricting freedom by regulation. This shows that their support for freedom is only instrumental.

Utilitarianism, understood broadly, remains the dominant moral philosophy of economics. But within economics, utilitarianism has been radically altered and even emasculated as a result of the progress of economic theory. So close is the association between economics and utilitarianism that these changes have strongly influenced the progress of utilitarian thinking as a whole. Sections 1 and 2 outline the development of utilitarianism within economics.

1. Utility Theory

Utilitarianism is an ethical theory, but its development within economics has largely been driven by the development of an associated psychological theory, which has come to be called ‘utility theory.’ Utility theory is the economist’s core account of people’s behavior. This section describes it, and Sect. 2 describes its influence on economists’ moral theory. Utility theory says that each person chooses her actions so as to maximize her utility. But ‘utility’ is a term of art, which can be defined in various ways, and different definitions lead to very different sorts of utility theory. This has allowed the theory to undergo a major metamorphosis in the course of two centuries.

Utility theory’s origin may plausibly be traced to an article by the mathematician Daniel Bernoulli, published in 1738 (Bernoulli 1738). Bernoulli thought that each person acts to maximize her emolumentum. (He wrote in Latin.) Emolumentum may be translated as ‘benefit’ or ‘advantage,’ so Bernoulli held a version of utility theory in which utility is benefit or advantage. Later, Jeremy Bentham (1789) made the more specific assumption that each person acts to maximize her pleasure. (He treated pain as negative pleasure.) So he held a version of utility theory in which utility is pleasure. (Bentham himself used the term ‘utility’ differently.) Bentham’s view was nothing other than the ancient doctrine of psychological hedonism, but he gave it such detailed analysis that it may now be seen as an early form of the mathematical utility theory we have today.

Utility theory became important in economics only in the 1870s, when the so-called ‘neoclassical’ school rose to dominance. This was when economists first took a serious interest in the behavior of consumers, and utility theory was the theory of behavior they adopted. At the beginning of the neoclassical school, the economist William Stanley Jevons (1871) explicitly took his utility theory from Bentham, and went far beyond Bentham in his analysis.

Like Bentham, Jevons thought that each person acts to maximize her pleasure. But in defense of this view he said: ‘Call any motive which attracts us to a certain course of conduct, pleasure … and it becomes impossible to deny that all actions are governed by pleasure.’ Jevons evidently hoped to make his theory of behavior as nearly as possible true by definition. Later economists followed his lead. In the 1930s, in the course of a movement in economics known as ‘ordinalism,’ it took them to a radically different version of the theory. The doctrine of ordinalism was proclaimed by Lionel Robbins in 1932 (Robbin 1932). Ordinalist utility theory was formally set out in a pair of articles by John Hicks and R. G. D. Allen (1934). It was refined by later work into what is best called ‘axiomatic utility theory.’ This is the version that is generally presented in textbooks of economics today.

Axiomatic utility theory is a theory of preferences. Given all the possible acts a person might do, it assumes the person to have preferences amongst them. It treats a preference as a disposition to choose: to prefer one act to another is to be disposed to choose the first over the second if faced with a choice between them. A person’s preferences constitute a relation amongst possible acts, and the theory assumes that this relation satisfies a number of axioms. Provided it does so, a formal proof shows that a mathematical function called a ‘utility function’ can be defined to represent the preferences in a particular sense. The utility function assigns a number called a ‘utility’ to each of the acts, and it does so in such a way that one act is assigned a greater utility than another if and only if it is preferred to the other. This is the sense in which the function represents the preferences. The dispositional definition of preference ensures that, when faced with a choice between two acts, the person always chooses the one that is preferred. This one has the greater utility. So we may conclude that the person always acts to maximize her utility. In this way, utility theory is confirmed, but only because a person’s utility is defined to make it true. Utility is defined as what the person maximizes.

Whereas Bernoulli’s and Bentham’s utility theories made substantive commitments about what a person maximizes, the axiomatic theory does not. It is not committed to hedonism, or even to an assumption that people always act self-interestedly. Since the commitments of earlier theories were not very plausible, this was a significant advance in economics.

In a sense, ordinalism made utility theory true by definition. However, it did retain some commitments. It is not always possible to define a utility function for a person in a way that makes her a utility maximizer. We can only be sure this is possible if the person’s preferences satisfy the axioms of the theory. This is the theory’s commitment: that preferences satisfy the axioms. In effect, the axioms ensure that the person can be construed as maximizing something, and utility is defined as what she maximizes.

The principal axiom is transitivity: that if one alternative is preferred to a second, and the second to a third, then the first is preferred to the third. If a person’s preference relation is transitive, it constitutes an ordering of the options. The utility function represents this ordering. It puts the options in the same order as the preferences do. Any utility function that puts the options in this same order will represent the preferences equally well. Consequently, many different utility functions can represent the same preferences. The only significant feature of a utility function is its ordering of the options. A utility function defined this way is said to be ‘ordinal.’ Hence the name ‘ordinalism.’

Axiomatic utility theory was later extended by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern (1944) and by Leonard Savage (1954), independently of earlier work on the same lines by Frank Ramsey (1931). The extended theory recognizes that the outcome of an act is normally uncertain. It assumes that a person’s preferences among acts are determined by the possible outcomes that may result from each act, and by the likelihood that they will result. It assumes that the preferences satisfy the same axioms as before, and also some more axioms that are concerned with the pattern of outcomes that may result from each act.

As in the simpler theory, a theorem shows that the preferences can be represented by a utility function. But because the extended theory makes more assumptions, it is able to establish stronger conclusions. In the extended theory, the utility function assigns utilities both to acts and to their possible outcomes. As before, one act is assigned a higher utility than another if and only if it is preferred. The special feature of the extended theory is that the utility of an act is the expected utility of its possible outcomes. (Expected utility is defined as the sum of the utilities of the possible outcomes, each multiplied by the outcome’s probability of resulting.) Let us call this the ‘expectation property’ of the utility function. It means that, of two acts, the person always prefers the one that has the greater expected utility. She maximizes expected utility. Once again, this is only because of the definition of utility. Provided a person’s preferences satisfy the axioms, the person can be construed as maximizing the expectation of something, and utility is defined as that thing.

The extended theory is known as ‘axiomatic expected utility theory.’ An important feature of it is that the utility function that represents preferences is not merely ordinal. Within the theory, not only does a utility function order acts in accordance with the preferences, but it also has the expectation property. This turns out to imply that differences—increases or decreases—in utility can be significantly compared with each other. Many different utility functions can still represent the same preferences. But if, according to one of these functions, the difference between the utilities of one pair of acts is greater than the difference between the utilities of another pair, then the difference is also greater according to any other function that represents the same preferences. A utility function in which differences of utility are comparable is said to be ‘cardinal.’

2. Utilitarianism And The Pareto Principle

Utilitarianism in a broad sense is simply a concern to promote people’s wellbeing. More precisely understood, it is the view that one ought to act so as to maximize the arithmetic total of people’s wellbeing. Important consequences follow from the precise version that do not follow from the broader one. For example, suppose we assume that the richer a person is, the less extra wellbeing will be brought her by adding an extra dollar to her wealth. This plausible assumption is known as ‘diminishing marginal benefit of wealth.’ An argument in favor of equality can be derived from it, together with precise utilitarianism. Diminishing marginal benefit suggests that rich people derive less benefit from extra money than do poor people. So, as extra money becomes available, giving it to poor people adds more to the total of wellbeing than giving it to rich people does. Precise utilitarianism therefore favors sending money towards the poor. This argument for equality is subject to important limitations, but it was nevertheless a significant contribution that economics made to utilitarian thinking. It was popular among economists before the 1930s, including Alfred Marshall and A. C. Pigou.

However, the arrival of ordinalism brought skepticism about the measurement of wellbeing. If we are even to make sense of precise utilitarianism, we must be able to make sense of an arithmetic total of wellbeing. Two conditions are necessary for that. First, each person’s wellbeing must be an arithmetic quantity. To be more precise, it must be a cardinal quantity, which is to say that differences—increases or decreases—in a person’s wellbeing must be significantly comparable with each other. Second, differences in one person’s wellbeing must be significantly comparable with differences in any other person’s: we must be able to say whether a particular increase or decrease in one person’s wellbeing is greater or less than a particular increase or decrease in another’s. Ordinalism made economists skeptical about both these conditions.

The source of their skepticism was epistemic. The ordinalists regarded a person’s preferences as observable in principle. Since they defined utility to represent preferences, they regarded utility too as observable in principle. Because of this, they assigned ordinal utility a high epistemic status; Robbins called it a ‘scientific’ concept. But they were much more doubtful about other features of a person’s psychology.

What about wellbeing? The ordinalists seem to have taken it for granted that a person prefers one thing to another if and only if it gives her more wellbeing. This view may be called ‘preferencism.’ On the face of it, preferencism is implausible. For example, presumably a person might altruistically prefer one thing to another, even if it gives her less wellbeing, because it is better for someone else. But the ordinalist espoused the doctrine of operationalism. According to operationalism, the meaning of a concept such as wellbeing is given by the operations we use in order to apply it. The ordinalists recognized no operation that would allow us to apply the concept of wellbeing except the operation of observing people’s preferences. So they thought that the only meaning wellbeing can have is given by the preferencist formula. This means that utility measures wellbeing in an ordinal way: higher utility indicates higher wellbeing. The order of wellbeing therefore counts as a scientific concept, but the ordinalists acknowledged no other aspect of wellbeing. Wellbeing could not be counted as an arithmetic quantity, and nor could differences of wellbeing be compared between people. The preconditions of precise utilitarianism could therefore not be met.

Nevertheless, the ordinalists were utilitarian at heart. Consequently, they clung to the flimsy remnant of utilitarianism that survived their epistemic censure. They accepted the ‘Pareto criterion,’ named in honor of Vilfredo Pareto (1927). The Pareto criterion says that one state of affairs is better than another if everyone either prefers the first to the second or is indifferent between them, and if someone definitely prefers the first. This sufficient condition for one alternative to be better than another was the sole evaluative principle that the ordinalists were prepared to recognize. Few pairs of alternative economic arrangements will satisfy it, and so will few pairs of alternatives that are interesting elsewhere in ethics. So shrinking utilitarianism to the Pareto criterion is to cripple it. Ordinalism stultified welfare economics for decades. In particular, it denied that any judgment could be made about the value of equality.

A possible escape from the ordinalist straightjacket seemed to be offered by expected utility theory. Because expected utility theory yields cardinal utility functions, some authors thought it might allow wellbeing to be measured cardinally. But this thinking was confused about the relation between utility and wellbeing. Granted preferencism, utility measures wellbeing ordinally. But even granted preferencism and granted also that cardinal utility can be defined within expected utility theory, it does not follow that this cardinal utility measures wellbeing cardinally. Differences in utility are comparable, but it does not follow that they represent comparable differences in wellbeing. Furthermore, the second condition of precise utilitarianism remains unsatisfied. Nothing in expected utility theory makes one person’s wellbeing comparable with another’s.

Nevertheless, John Harsanyi in the 1950s produced no less than two new and important arguments that were intended to show that, indeed, the cardinal utilities defined by expected utility theory do have a place in ethical judgments.

His first argument (Harsanyi 1953) was this. Suppose we are comparing societies, asking which is the best. Harsanyi argued that this question could be answered by imagining a person who is allowed to choose among the different societies. She enters the one she chooses, but without knowing which position she will occupy within it. She has an equal chance of finding herself in the best position, or the worst, or anywhere else. Harsanyi claimed that the society she would choose under these circumstances is the best. This is an appeal to the idea of a ‘veil of ignorance,’ which was later taken up by John Rawls.

From the subject’s point of view, she is choosing between acts whose results are uncertain: the result of choosing a particular society will be that she ends up in an unknown position within that society. According to expected utility theory, for this person there will be a utility assigned to each position in the society. The utility for her of entering the society will be the expectation of all these individual utilities. Since she is assumed to have an equal chance of ending up in each position, this expectation is just the average utility of all the positions. So, of the alternatives available, the person will choose the one with the greatest average utility. If we assume every society has the same population, this is also the one with the greatest total utility. According to Harsanyi, then, the best society is the one with the greatest total utility. So this argument does indeed give a place in ethical judgments to utility, as expected utility theory defines it.

Does it also support utilitarianism? Precise utilitarianism implies that the best society is the one with the greatest total of wellbeing. So if utility measures wellbeing cardinally, Harsanyi’s conclusion resembles precise utilitarianism. But Harsanyi’s argument falls short of a complete argument for utilitarianism, because we still have no reason to think utility does measure wellbeing cardinally. Furthermore, the problem of comparing one person’s wellbeing with another’s remains.

Harsanyi’s second argument (1955) was a formal theorem that is too complex to describe here. It is entirely distinct from the first argument, and it does not rely on a veil of ignorance. Still, it arrives at a similar conclusion, that the best society is the one with the greatest total of people’s utility. For the same reasons as before, it does not amount to a complete defense of utilitarianism. Nevertheless, Harsanyi’s two arguments cast an important new light on utilitarian- ism, and went a long way towards providing it with completely new foundations.

These foundations are based on preferences, and they depend on preferencism. Within moral philosophy as well as economics, it has become increasingly popular in recent years to base utilitarianism on preferences rather than, say, pleasure and pain. One reason is the prestige given to preference-based utilitarianism by Harsanyi’s impressive work. His work issued, in turn, from the dramatic revision of utility theory caused by ordinalism. These are examples of the strong influence that economics has had on utilitarian thought.

3. Tools For Ethics

Economists have developed for their own purposes various formal tools that also turn out to be useful in ethics. Utility theory is one: apart from its contribution to utilitarian thought, it has other significant applications within ethics. For one thing, it constitutes a partial account of practical rationality; it specifies conditions that a person’s preferences ought rationally to satisfy. An account of practical rationality is an essential background to ethical theory. For another thing, utility theory can easily be converted from a theory of preferences to a formal theory of the structure of value; its axioms can be made to apply to betterness instead of preferences (see Broome 1991).

Game theory is a second prominent example of a tool useful in ethics. The ‘prisoners’ dilemma’ and related ‘games’ have led to some radical rethinking of the nature of rationality. Some authors (e.g., Gauthier 1986) have argued that they call for an understanding of individual rationality that somehow embodies an ethic of cooperation. Bargaining theory too—a branch of game theory—has proved useful at the foundations of contractualism (see Gauthier 1986, Binmore 1994, 1998).

A third example is social choice theory. Social choice theory is a branch of welfare economics that is principally concerned with ‘aggregation.’ It examines how the interests of individuals are aggregated together to determine the overall goodness of a society. One example of a principle of aggregation is the utilitarian principle that overall goodness is the arithmetic total of people’s wellbeing.

Social choice theory originated in Kenneth Arrow’s Social Choice and Individual Values, published in 1951 (Arrow 1951). As an ordinalist, Arrow was concerned with aggregating preferences, specifically. However, his conclusion was negative; he demonstrated that people’s preferences cannot generally be aggregated together in a plausible way to determine an overall ordering of the alternatives, ranking them from best to worst.

As a result, since Arrow’s time, social choice

 theorists have gone beyond the bounds of ordinalism. They are no longer concerned with aggregating preferences only. A leader in this movement is Amartya Sen, whose Collective Choice and Social Welfare both codified social choice theory and set the scene for this new departure (Sen 1970). Ordinalism combined a utilitarian concern for people’s wellbeing with skepticism about a quantitative notion of good. One can give up the skepticism, and many economists nowadays unashamedly take for granted a quantitative notion of a person’s good or wellbeing. Or alternatively one can give up the utilitarianism and focus concern on something that is less prone to skepticism. Sen has lately been promoting people’s capabilities—what they are enabled to do by the resources at their disposal—as the proper focus of concern.

4. Shared Topics

Economists and moral philosophers share an interest in several specific, practical subjects. But the cooperation between the discipline is less than it should be. This section mentions two examples.

4.1 The Value Of Life

For practical purposes, welfare economists are faced with the need to set a value on people’s lives. For example, railways can be made safer by spending money on them. One benefit of doing so will be that fewer people are killed in train accidents. Economists need to decide how much money it is worth spending to achieve this benefit. So they need to determine how much good is done by saving a person’s life or, equivalently, how much harm is done by a person’s death.

Since ancient times, philosophers, too, have been interested in the value of life. Some modern discussion (e.g. Nagel 1979 and Feldman 1991) has been stimulated by an argument of Epicurus.’ Epicurus tried to show that death is harmless to the person who dies, and the modern issue is still whether death is an evil and whether life has value. Some other modern philosophical writing takes it for granted that life is valuable, and asks more quantitative questions. For example, one issue that has been discussed is whether the value of a life is more affected by events that happen late in life or by those that happen early in life (e.g., Velleman 1991).

This is just the sort of question that should concern economists in their practical work, since it affects the comparative value of saving young people compared with saving old people. So this is a place where ethical theory could contribute to practical economics. Conversely, a more formal framework, of the sort that economic methods could supply, would improve the philosophical argument. But actually there has been virtually no contact between the economists and the philosophers working in this area. Economists have generally circumvented the need for theory by basing their valuations on the preferences people have about risks to their lives, unmoderated by theory. Perhaps because of this untheoretical approach, philosophers have reciprocally ignored the work of economists.

4.2 Equality

For a long time, welfare economists have been concerned with the value of economic equality; examples of important recent contributions are by Atkinson (1970) and Sen (1973). The same subject has also recently become important in moral philosophy; leading works are by Parfit (1995) and Temkin (1993). In this area, too, the contact between philosophers and economists has been limited, and both disciplines would benefit greatly from more.

The philosophers can fairly be said to have discovered an important distinction. Two very different moral concerns can have similar effects. One— generally called ‘prioritarianism’—gives priority to improving the wellbeing of badly-off people, over improving the wellbeing of well-off people. Prioritarianism will generally lead one to steer resources towards worse-off people, which will generally have the effect of moving those people closer to equality with the better-off. So it will generally lead one to promote equality, but equality is not its direct object. A different concern is simply to reduce the distance between the better-off and the worse-off; this is sometimes called simply ‘egalitarianism.’

The distinction is genuine, but because their effects are similar, it is difficult to specify the precise difference between prioritarianism and egalitarianism. But the formal methods of economics have the resources to do so. Indeed, the economic literature on inequality implicitly contains detailed analyses of both concerns. Despite that, the distinction has not been clearly recognized in economics; it is something that economics needs to learn from philosophy. Conversely, all the formal analysis that is already available within economics could help philosophers clarify the distinction they are making, and better understand its consequences. On the subject of equality, more cooperation would be very fruitful.

To summarize: economics and ethics have learnt a great deal from each other, but they could learn a great deal more.


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