No ethical issues in economics?

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For much economics research, ethics committee approval is not required. This is seen by some as indicating that there are no ethical issues in economics research. However, ethical research requires more than simply meeting regulatory requirements. If economics research has an impact on perceptions and resulting decisions, then there may be concerns about the nature of the research and its impact.

There are a number of arguments that could be raised as to why economics does not describe the real world. What we see is shaped by how we see, so it is important to consider context. This paper considers the simplification that is an inevitable aspect of research. Implications for economic approaches are described, recognising that criticisms can apply to heterodox as well as mainstream approaches. Subjectivity is then discussed. An additional section relates to the application of economics. It focuses on two aspects, the significance of rhetoric and the differing roles played by economists, each of which may have their own obligations and expectations. A theme throughout the paper is that of groups and group membership shaping perceptions and behaviour. The paper concludes that there are ethical issues in relation to both how and why economists undertake their work.

Posted for comments on 6 Sep 2012, 10:47 am.

Comments (2)

  • John Latsis says:

    Stuart Birks makes an interesting contribution to the debate on ethics in economics, by linking ethical considerations directly to methodological ones. Birks argues that the search for ethical standards for the discipline should be informed by the peculiarities of economic research. He concludes that the epistemic characteristics of economics as it is done by both mainstream and heterodox scholars imply that imposing one set of ethical standards on the discipline as a whole may not be possible.

    The paper raises many interesting and important points and is helpful for the connections that Birks is able to draw between ethical issues and the major methodological debates within economics. This review will focus on two areas where I feel that the paper would benefit from major clarification and extension, though I will also offer a number of minor comments for the author’s consideration.

    My first concern is that, though the three broad areas of focus of the paper – the incompleteness, subjectivity and rhetorical aspects of economics – are all relevant and interesting, Birks does not do enough to justify his focus on these three categories. Why is it the case that incompleteness is the focus of the Birks’s argument rather than the drive towards mathematisation for example? Lawson, on whose work Birks draws extensively, would identify the latter rather than the former as the main source of the theoretical limitations of economic modelling. This is important because it would be very hard to come to the same conclusion as Birks does at the top of page 5 (“Maybe then… we should consider ourselves to be telling stories based on abstract, imaginary worlds”), if one followed the Lawsonian argument to its logical conclusion. The second broad area is labelled ‘Subjectivity’ and is given a relatively brief treatment. In my view, the concerns raised in this section could quite easily be integrated into a revised first and third section, since Birks discusses framing (which is key to his notion of incompleteness) and ideology (which is an important element of his later discussion of rhetoric). Section three is an interesting discussion of the importance of the social role and rhetorical aspects of economic practice. There is a lot of interesting stuff in this section, but one area that requires clarification is an answer to the question of why rhetoric and roles are bound together in the way that Birks suggests. The answer is implicit in what Birks says about advocacy, but the paper would benefit from a clearer statement of the argument. Finally, it seems that Birks is drawing the conclusion that the demise of the fact value distinction and the reality of economic advocacy mean that different ethical principles should apply to different economists depending on the situations that they face. In my view this does not follow from his argument, though it may be the case that the only practically implementable principles to be included in an economic code of ethics might relate to epistemological rather than moral virtues.

    My second concern is a more general one. Though the discussion remains very interesting, it is sometimes unclear until the final paragraph of each section how the various methodological concerns raised relate to the issue of ethics in economics. It would be a great help to the reader if the ethical issues were raised earlier in the argument and more clearly related to the structure of the argument.

    Detailed comments:
    1. Page 2, para 4: I was surprised that Birks did not refer to the distinction between abstraction and ‘false idealisation’, which has been discussed in methodology by Lawson and others. It seems to fit with many of his arguments.
    2. Page 3, para 1&2: There are interesting points here, but the arguments made by Goodman, Gillies and Lakoff, though related, are not the same. It would help if this section was clarified and the different senses of incompleteness were described in more detail.
    3. Page 3, section 1.1: I am not sure if the example of politics and economics illustrates the point adequately as it is very general and theoretically focussed. There are much simpler examples of where framing or theory-ladenness causes analytical problems.
    4. Page 6, para 1: It would be helpful if Birks showed the connections that he wishes to draw between these different notions of the influence of rhetoric on economic life.

  • Stuart Birks says:

    These comments are very helpful and much appreciated.
    To begin with a response to the second concern, a reordering of the content is easily done and would give a clearer presentation of the points.
    The first concern suggests areas where the paper could be expanded and points made more clearly. To me it highlights the importance of the perspective of the reader. Someone coming from a particular perspective will interpret points in that context unless guided to do otherwise.
    I agree that I have drawn on Lawson, not least because of its significance and profile. I do think that my point about simplification is broader than his concern about undue emphasis on and/or misapplication of mathematics. Mathematisation is one form of simplification, but it is not the only one. Lawson himself refers to the need for abstraction, and other literature uses the term ‘framing’. I would not wish readers to interpret recognition of incompleteness purely in terms of being constrained by choice of mathematical methods. The suggestion that there is a distinction between telling stories and using mathematics is also one of interpretation. Mathematics may be the method of delivery, but the content is still an artificial construction which is presented as a representation of something else, hence “abstract, imaginary worlds”.
    While subjectivity could be incorporated into incompleteness and rhetoric, it does add something by being distinct. Incompleteness is inevitable, but the nature of that incompleteness depends on subjective choices on approach/abstraction (‘framing’). Reference to ideology indicates a possible influence on these choices signals that there may be historical, social, political and/or institutional pressures which impact on our understanding.
    Rhetoric is another dimension again. While ideology may shape what we believe, rhetoric refers to persuading others. There are roles in society in which people are expected to present a case for one side or another. Examples can be found with adversarial legal systems, union-employer bargaining, negotiation of trade agreements between countries, or perhaps being elected representatives of a political party with a specified policy platform. I once asked a lawyer his view on a particular issue. He replied that he deliberately had not formed a view, knowing that he might be expected to argue one side or the other.
    These points may require further elaboration for an audience subscribing to the positive-normative distinction, but this could be expressly addressed.
    The detailed comments are all helpful also.