Codes of Ethics for Economists: A Pluralist View

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Within the discussion of ethics and economics some have considered designing a code of ethics for economists. But the idea of such a code is potentially problematic from a pluralist standpoint. Some possibilities are discussed here to show that any code concerning the behaviour of economists presumes a view of human nature and thus of professionalism. Further, issues of socio-economic power in the profession pose problems for the interpretation and implementation of some possible principles, notably those referring to standards of competence and truth-seeking. It is therefore concluded that any code of ethics should be kept general and should concentrate on the ethics of pluralism: tolerance, even-handedness and open-mindedness, on which the interpretation of all other ethical considerations rests.

Posted for comments on 6 Sep 2012, 10:46 am.

Comments (1)

  • Alessandro Roncaglia says:

    Sheila Dow’s paper discusses a most important issue, namely the difficulty of specifying “a neutral detailed code of ethics with respect to professionalism in economics” which is able to take into account pluralism, a necessary condition for such a code to be acceptable to heterodox economists. Each of her three headings – “put social interest before personal interest”, “pursue and state the truth”, “do not harm” – refers to principles which are apparently acceptable to all but which are obviously difficult to specify whenever general agreement is lacking on how to define “social interest” or “truth”, and/or there are differences in evaluation of the outcomes (with their respective probabilities) of different lines of policy.
    Her analysis leads her to two conclusions, a negative one (against detailed codes of ethics) and a positive one, to the effect that “pluralism itself should be the focus of our discussion of ethics”. I agree with the latter, but – considering the depressed state of ethics, whatever is meant by it, in economic research and in policy debate – I am in favor of limited detailed codes of ethics and, perhaps, of some broad enunciation of principles.
    There are issues on which there should be no difference of opinion between mainstream and heterodox economists. Not only plagiarism but also certain kinds of behavior which are becoming more and more common as a consequence of the use of bibliometry in research evaluation (such as the exchange of signatures in articles even in the absence of any substantive contribution to its writing, or requests by referees and journal editors to cite their own production, even if irrelevant) should be condemned explicitly. Of course, it will be far from easy to clarify in each specific case whether one person’s contribution is insufficient to warrant co-authorship or whether the referee’s work is actually irrelevant and not deserving citation; but ruling out in principle such practices now often openly adopted could help in raising attention to the issue and contribute to educating the younger generation. The difficulty of evaluating specific cases is also present, but probably less important, for the requirement to state potential conflicts of interest explicitly. As Dow recalls, this principle has been adopted as a specific code by the American Economic Association (as well as various other similar associations, such as the Società Italiana degli Economisti, ).
    A broad enunciation of principles – a sort of Constitution – could be useful if it starts with the recognition of pluralism in economic research. Other principles (pursuit of “truth” or better, perhaps, seriousness in research activity, pursuit of the common weal in the policy debate, meritocracy as criterion for academic careers) may be usefully adopted on condition that they are clearly to be interpreted in the light of pluralism. The implications of pluralism should also be indicated, though at a general level of discourse. For instance, but a highly relevant point in the present context, it is an issue of principle that bibliometric exercises should be neutral as between fields of research and as between research approaches. (By the way, contrary to widely held opinions, this is not impossible; it should suffice to apply some adequate normalization criterion, as suggested for instance by the physicist Giorgio Parisi in Italy (cf. Also, as Joan Robinson used to say, “let the hundred flowers blossom, but let them state their assumptions”: whenever convexity of preference or production sets, homogeneity of agents or a single basic commodity are implied this should be stated, contrarily to the now dominant practice in mainstream macroeconomics.
    To sum up, like any constitution or any legal code, ethical codes can be useful or harmful to pluralism in economics, depending on how they are written down. Heterodox economists should fight for pluralist codes, not necessarily against ethical codes as such.
    As already indicated, the paper raises an important issue and makes an important (and, as far as I know, original) point. In my opinion, it should be accepted for publication. It could be revised in the light of the comments above, especially the distinction between specific codes and ‘constitutional’ general principles; but this is not a condition for its publication.