Morality and Value Neutrality in Economics: A Dualist View

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In this paper, we propose a dualist view that economics exhibits the properties of both moral science and value-neutral approach, regardless of the normative-positive distinction. Our argumentation is derived from the understanding that, analytically, economics is a broadly-defined rational choice theory. As implied by this claim, on the one hand, economics behaves as a moral science for two main reasons: all economic theories and policy discussions are necessarily based on moral premises about means-end considerations; economics as an analytical approach can be and has been applied to explanations of a wide range of moral phenomena. On the other hand, since economists — without being informed of some ethical presuppositions of higher order — cannot deal with the comparisons among different value criteria, their approach remains neutral regarding judgmental positions, which should be given a priori to make economic enquiries possible. Ultimately, by this view we reconcile morality with value neutrality in economics, without slicing the discipline into two distinctive branches.

Posted for comments on 1 Dec 2016, 1:16 pm.

Comments (1)

  • Ramzi Mabsout says:

    Comments on Cheng Li “morality and value neutrality in economics.

    Although I find the topic of Li highly interesting, I think this is a conceptually ill-conceived paper. I list below a number of misconceptions. In the end, it was not clear to me what the dualist view is and how “economics exhibits the properties of both moral science and value neutral approach, regardless of the normative –positive distinction”. I am still not sure what was achieved even if the thesis is accepted. I am specifically concerned about the definition of economics (as means–ends rationality) used, the meaning of value neutrality, and the lack of coverage of the recent literature on ethics and economics.


    There is an important difference between Lionel Robbins and JN Keynes, namely, Keynes considered ethics a science whereas for Robbins it was philosophy (see discussion in Hands 2001, Reflections Without Rules).

    What is a value neutral approach? A descriptive/explanatory definition of the positive branch of economics can be value laden. Stand point epistemology and certain feminist economics have emphasized that there is no view from nowhere, no neutrality: values, moral and non-moral, are present in all branches of science.

    “.. analytically economics is based on the principle means-ends rationality , taken in its broader sense. It turns out that holding this principle is a common, but often unspoken and thus forgotten property underlying all approaches relying on the economic way of thinking−from the neoclassical school to behavioral economics –regardless of how they differ in the concrete empirical counterparts of the mean sand end.”

    I find this a very reductionist delineation of economics. It is both too broad and too narrow. It is too narrow because it is reducing economics to Robbins’ definition, ie, to a certain type of microeconomics. But it is also too broad a definition since almost any social science can be conceptualized in terms of means–ends rationality. What makes economics different? What is different about economics is its subject matter and not an abstract rationality maxim. Or if the author insists on using this definition then it needs some justification and not merely acceptance because this is Robbins’ or Becker’s definition.

    “it is because without certain ethical which a specific …” long confusing sentence, what is the author trying to say?

    On the use of “value neutral facet of economics” I don’t think there is anything value neutral economics.

    Section 2

    Footnote 5: How can the debate about the definition of economics be beyond the scope of this paper when the paper is in fact using a definition of economics as means-ends rationality?

    “It turns out that economics is a broadly defined rational choice theory” see earlier comments. This cannot be accepted at face value. The author is forcing a definition of economics as means–ends rationality without argument.

    Definition of rationality : rationality is “a form of intuition which makes economic explanation possible and further defines epistemological limitations of the discipline … rational in the above sense means is just a synonym of explainable and according to an economic point of view explain is the equivalent to rationalize” So rationality is form of explanation and explanation is equivalent to rationalizing? Isn’t this circular? And what is the economic point of view if we are trying to use means-ends rationality to determine what kind of questions are valid economic questions?

    To be accurate the prevalent definition of rationality in economics is not the one given by the author (or Robbins or Becker) but the two core axioms of choice (completeness and transitivity; cf Mas-Colell et al.). So the author’s definition seems to have been relegated to textbooks.

    Table 1: The author does not explain why neo-classical economics cannot include psychological needs in its utility function. I would think that neo-classical economics is quite liberal at what is included in the utility function. As Binmore (among others) has argued a utility function can include the preferences of others (for example consider Becker’s family household model where the utility function of other members are included).

    Section 3

    “To put differently from an economic point of view, one cannot explain /understand is only from is.” This I would say is not only from the economic point of view , but for any scientific endeavor: facts are theory laden and the rejection of empiricism as advocated by the early views of logical positivists was undermined by K. Popper, W. Quine, and T. Khun.

    Section 4

    If the end pursued are moral ends, that does not make economics a moral science. Moral ends (say religious beliefs) can be explained by a descriptive science without assuming an ethical stance. Sociology and other social sciences can explain why people hold religious belief without adopting an ethical view on religion whether it is what one ought to do or not.

    The third cause : I would recommend studying the work of H. Gintis and K. Binmore , both of which have attempted to explain ethics away as it where (a critique of their work is offered by Bashour & Mabsout in the Review of Social Economy).


    What’s wrong with arguing that different branches of economics (descriptive/explanatory/positive and normative/prescriptive) complement each other? Besides the fact that I don’t think value neutrality (or the view from nowhere) is possible, it is still not clear to me what has the author achieved by the reconciliation of morality with value neutrality. The fact that economics has many faces (JN Keynes argued that we can divide it into three branches positive, normative, and the arts as did L. Walras) is not necessarily a bad thing, a distinction to be dissolved so we get a dualist view that meshes both without clearly explaining what was gained by this distinction.

    In summary the author has raised a strawman of economics (as means–ends rationality) which fails to capture the richness and diversity of economic thought. This definition fails to capture a very wide diversity of economic projects (from institutionalist, to evolutionary, to neuro-economics and so on). As it stands I don’t think the paper should be published in its current form. A revision would need to reconsider the definition of economics, the meaning of value neutrality (if it is possible at all), review the literature on how economics have attempted to explain away moral norms (Gintis and Binmore), and integrate many of the recent contributions that have been made to the topic of ethics and economics to contrast them with the author’s approach (for example see the work of I. V. Staveren, M. White, J. Whigt, W. Beckerman, and D. McCloskey among many other recent contributions).

    Ramzi Mabsout
    American University of Beirut

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