Ethics and economists


Economists are considering adopting a code of ethics that would help deter conflicts of interest. The proposal says, “a code…that requires disclosure…. in public speeches and writing, as well as in academic publications……of potential conflicts of interest that can arise between economists’ roles as economic experts and as paid consultants, principals or agents for private firms. As the …. profession serves a prominent role in economic policy, the public’s confidence …. will, in part, depend on how the issue … is addressed.”

Conflicts of interest often define public ethics. Ethics charges in government mostly involve conflicts of interest. A code of ethics helps make clear that this is a potential problem. But the problem with all such codes is that it is often interpreted as the maximum ethical stance, whereas it should be seen as the minimum. What I mean is that codes of ethics are often understood to mean that if it isn’t prohibited by the code, then it is OK.

The real ethical problem, as Adam Smith, the godfather of capitalism well understood, is that behind economic endeavors needs to be a solid ethical core. Smith assumed that capitalism works because there is an inherent moral sense, where people understood what it means to be honest and compassionate. These qualities can’t be addressed in codes of ethics. They require a way of being, a real commitment to being a decent person. Such decency, as Smith and other understood, begins in the sentiment of sympathy. You don’t lie, not because there is a code of ethics discouraging it, but because truth-telling is what it means to be a decent person.

When ethics is understood as an all-encompassing life stance, then there is a chance to move society forward.

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One thought on “Ethics and economists

  1. I don’t believe that ethics can be divorced from their social context. The almost universal sense that (for example) lying is not what a decent self-respecting person does — except occasionally! — is not primarily because of some private individual in-dwelling in-born set of values but because social relationships, which are what make us human, depend on a degree of trust in the truthfulness of what others say to us and of what we say to others. Almost everyone regards incest as ‘wrong’, mainly because if incest were to be widely practised in a particular society or community, genetic defects would proliferate to the detriment of everyone.

    At the heart of ethics is the biblical injunction to do to others what you would wish them to do to you, and that has great moral force, not because it’s in a religious scripture but because it’s what makes sharing one’s life with other people tolerable, and what makes a human society function in a way that militates in favour of the greatest good and happiness of the greatest number.

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