Ever since political economy became economics, the role of ethics has continually diminished in the learning of economics. This is because economists want(ed) their discipline to be scientific. To serve this purpose, economics has been divided into normative economic and positive economics. Normative economics deals with questions such as “what ought to be the price configuration” whereas positive economics deals with questions such as “what is the configuration of process”. In other words, there is no room for debate in positive economics; at least, that is the impression one gets from reading the mainstream textbooks. Amartya Sen tried to remedy this situation by strengthening the area of welfare economics; however, methodologically, it still adopts a ‘positive economics’ framework. In any case, this development motivated economists to ask humane and ethical questions. This post raises some issues concerning the role of ethics in economics.
Adam Smith, the father of economics, did not only write Wealth of Nations; being a moral philosopher and an acute observer of society also published a book titled Theory of Moral Sentiments. This book talks of sympathy, passion, ambition, justice, duty, utility, custom, virtue, self-command, etc. Often, proponents who favour utility maximization cite Adam Smith as the first one to do so effectively. As much as one glance at the table of contents of Theory of Moral Sentiments will say otherwise.
This brings us to the following pertinent, yet very difficult questions. What is the objective of economic policies or economic engineering? What role does economic theory play in policy making? Does economic theory provide tools, methods and concepts that aid policy formulation? The final objectives of economic policy invariably happen to be poverty elimination, reduction of unemployment, inflation control and provision of a good standard of living to all the inhabitants. Hence, various kinds of policies are undertaken to achieve these broad objectives. Very often, economic theory aids such policy making exercise in a significant manner. Now, we come to a very startling observation. Economic theory (which is positive in nature) has no room for conflicts, ethics or values. Instead, the major criterion which dominates most economic theorization is that of economic efficiency – free markets achieve efficiency. So what? The goals of economic policies are not to make markets efficient or free; instead, it is to provide the inhabitants with a good standard of living. In India, how can markets take care of the diversity in caste, language, region, income, etc? Economists must do away with their arrogance and admit that policy making is a serious and complex matter, which cannot be solely guided by macroeconomic models of the general equilibrium variety!
For instance, the variables which the government tries to engineer affect people in different and often opposite ways. Alterations in interest rates affect lenders and borrowers differently. Also, movements in exchange rates affect exporters and importers in exactly opposite ways. More importantly, changes in prices of goods and services affect those who cannot afford it very adversely. Given such differential effects of policy variables, economics must incorporate ethical discussions into its fold. Perhaps, a reading of Theory of Moral Sentiments will be of great help!