Ontological commitments of Ethics & Economics

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This paper examines the ‘concrete analogies’ underpinning the ontological commitments of dominant conceptions of ethics, politics and economics to show that the content of economics is implicated in conceptions of ethics, and that these conceptions cannot be separated from questions of research and professional ethics.

Posted for comments on 6 Sep 2012, 10:42 am.

Comments (3)

  • Karey Harrison starts her paper about the intrinsic links between economics and ethics, introducing three mains approaches to ethics: deontological, consequentialist and virtue ethics. She notes that Utilitarianism (a form of consequentialism) is the ethical approach most closely aligned with mainstream economics. She puts useful examples to understand the differences between the three ethical theories. Then, she shows that deontology and consequentialism are based on the same ontological individualist conception about human nature than mainstream economics.

    Then, she clarifies that the conception of human nature underlying virtue ethics is teleological: human beings aim at happiness through the practice of virtues. She highlights that Aristotle’s conception of virtue is the best alternative to an economics concerned with social justice. Aristotle’s conception of friendship implies intrinsic connections between persons. She finally introduces Alasdair MacIntyre’s account of virtues.

    The conclusion is that ethical frameworks are not neutral and that we have to analyze their ontological underpinnings to adopt them in economics.

    I fully agree with the author’s ideas. Given that this comment is open I would like to suggest her having a glance at two papers I wrote:

    1. “Aristotle”, in Irene van Staveren and Jan Peil (eds.), Elgar Handbook of Economics and Ethics, Cheltenham and Northampton, 2009, 14-20.

    2. “Would We Have Had this Crisis If Women Had Been Running the Financial Sector?”, coauthored with Irene van Staveren, Journal of Sustainable Finance and Investment, 1/2011, pp. 241-250. The abstract of this reads: “The two main ethical approaches, utilitarianism and deontology, have not been able to prevent some of the behaviors underlying the financial crisis. A third ethics, the ethics of care might have been more effective than the other two in preventing the last financial crisis. Ethics of care is a feminist ethical theory concerned with relationships. It can be applied to a wide variety of relationships and has been tested in experimental settings, suggesting that women tend to behave more in ways that can be understood in terms of relationships, whereas men tend to behave more in terms of rules. Using these ethical theories we analyze the crisis pointing at what are its causal behavioral attitudes and institutions.” For my part, I would consider ethics of care as a kind of virtue ethics.

    I very much enjoyed reading the paper.

  • Hi Richard
    Thanks for your comments and links to your papers. You are right, it looks like we similar approaches and interests in relation to virtue ethics and an ethics of care.
    My papers on midwifery ethics I cited in my paper, make explicit the relation between virtue ethics and an ethics of care. In the 2010 (IAFFE) version of your 2011 paper, you point out that “caring and non-caring are not entirely mutually exclusive.”(p15). Figure 3 in my paper shows how caring for someone dissolves the apparent dichotomy between caring for someone else’s welfare (or altruism) and not caring (or self-interest).
    You also point out that ethics is at least in part situational (2010:15). I would argue that part of what structures our situational response are our ontological beliefs about the nature of the situation we are in. The implication of this is that you can’t just impose a relational or interactional ethics in a context like a market economy and financial system, where the cultural ontology is mechanistic and atomistic. In order to change the ethics, you need to change the rules, norms and ontological beliefs that structure our economies. You hint at the way the context shapes ethics when you say that “the economic tends to shape virtues” (2009: 17)
    In an early paper I wrote on “Virtue, love and work”, I covered some of the same ground as you do in your 2009 chapter, when I examined the change in ontological beliefs reflected in the difference between Aristotle’s concept of economics and politics and the liberal conception of economics and politics. This paper was the precursor to the paper on PR ethics cited in my paper, but the PR paper omitted this section and elaborated on issues you mention in your section on “The economic and politics” (2009:18).
    Your papers are very much of interest to me.

  • Vinca Bigo says:

    Karey Harrison on Ethics reviewed by Vinca Bigo

    I found the paper a very interesting read, given my own research on the topic. Below I make specific comments with a view to refining Karey Harrison’s argument, hopefully contributing to making it more complete and accurate. Though that is not yet a criterion for judging a paper, we have much in common.

    page 2

    “Out category systems structure our beliefs about the sorts of things that exist in the world, in other words, they are the basis of our ontological beliefs.”
    typo , and I am not sure that category systems are the basis. Are they what conditions their expression? In my opinion, the “basis” is a bit strong here.

    In presenting the 3 approaches to ethics the first 2 points are set out at a way of judging conduct, and the second, more appropriately, as recommending and judging

    page 3

    “what we care about is the prior question that needs to be answered” So what? Does the author want link this to the mainstream approach?

    “Virtue ethics is an alternative to rule based and utilitarian approaches to ethics”
    There is also a rule basis with the utilitarians: “the greatest good for the greatest number” is there not? How about framing it as a priori rules basis in virtue ethics?

    “responsible for one’s own moral decisions or choices.” Is this not also true of virtue based ethics?

    “‘Reason’ is subordinated to desire.” Is utilitarianism not about pleasure. rather than desire? In any case, does utilitarianism really set reason second? Surely, reason/rationality is applied when determining the greater overall good.

    page 4

    “if all actors are self -interested, then only if one can decide for oneself can one protect one’s own interest.” What seems to follow from this statement is that in other ethical frameworks others can decide in place of the actor. Is this what the author wants to indicate?

    “This metaphor” Is there really a metaphor here? which one precisely?

    “Because A’s wellbeing is conceived of as being independent of B’s, what happens to B does not directly affect A.”
    Does the logic fully hold? If A’s well being is independent of B’s, should there then be even an indirect effect of what happens to B on A? This might need explaining.
    “When A does something to benefit B, it is by definition at A’s expense, and hence is ‘altruistic’.”
    This assumes a zero sum game. If such is the intention, the author say so explicitly. Yet this seems to contradict what follows directly below: “whatever hurts or pleasures B suffers are felt only by B”

    “‘Reason’ is subordinated to desire.” Is that really so (the reference here is to utilitarianism). Whilst desire is taken into account, is it not ultimately reason that primes?

    “Deontologists, on the other hand, appeal to ‘rational’ principles which they believe ‘can and ought to be held by all men [sic], independent of circumstances and conditions”
    Well, at the correct level of abstraction, utilitarians also have a universal rules (the greatest good to the greatest number) as do virtue ethicists.

    page 5

    “Mainstream economics” is used. How does it differ from neo classical economics according to the author?

    “Aristotle argued that morality consists in developing those character traits, or virtues, which are at odds with natural inclinations or tendencies”. Does Aristotle not take humans to be naturally good rather than bad, but distracted / seduced / weakened by the search for immediate pleasure?

    Is the goal according to Aristotle happiness or flourishing?

    page 6

    “MacIntyre introduces the concept of a ‘practice’ to elucidate the distinction Aristotle is making between things done for ‘pleasure’ and things done ‘for their own sake’.”
    But the passage cited talks of extension of human powers, not of the distinction just mentioned.

    Can the author explain why he uses supervene rather than emerge. In other words, what does he take to be the difference?

    “Love creates an intrinsic connection between self and others, thus turning the opposition between ‘altruism’ and ‘self-interest’ into a false dichotomy. When we care about others we do not simply act so as to maximize our pleasure and our accumulation of property, but nor are we denying or acting against our own desires or feelings.”
    Is it not fundamentally the ontology of our being connected to one another, and that of the desire for flourishing that results in it being our self interest that we all flourish. And is it not this that lays the foundation for/explains our love for others?
    in fact the author seems to argue as much a little further in the text when he states: “The ontological resources provided by the atomistic account of self do not allow for relations of mutual interdependence between people and the between people and the environment”

    “When we care for someone, we care about their wellbeing. If something good happens to someone we care about we feel happy because they are happy, if something bad, we feel sad because they are sad. Our wellbeing in part depends on the loved one’s wellbeing”
    There is some slippage from love to care and vice versa in the above passage.

    “properties are fixed and have an objective existence independent of the properties (interests) of other objects (persons)” Is this really so? Even in an atomistic ontology, do economic agents not have interests that depend on them (even if they are fixed). Say the interest in earning more, or having more free time? More over, the desire for, or valuing of, say friendship can be ontologically distinct and yet related to (dependant on) the individual. And what work does the term objective do here?

    page 7

    “external goods are transferable across fields of activity.” Are external goods transferable or derivable across…

    page 8

    “In contrast, the sort of pleasure that supervenes upon an activity pursued for its own sake can’t be bought. Its achievement is the result of dedication, training, and consistent effort. Repetition of the activity does not result in symptoms of surfeit, rather, the more the scientist works at their experiments, the philosopher at their arguments, or the sports person at their game, the more often they will experience the pleasure of doing it well.”

    Are the roller coaster ride, or the consumption of apples not pursued “for their own sake” too? How are they inherently different from playing a game, or doing research? Even with the roller coaster it seems there is a goal of sorts. For its own sake may not be the best marker (distinguisher).

    “The limits to pursuing science or philosophy is not the result of a surfeit that reduces pleasure, but the fact that there are other goods, such as gardening, providing our children with the love and attention they need, or participating in community groups, whose values we cannot realise while we attend to one activity rather than another. Current empirical research into human happiness supports Aristotle’s account rather than the utility maximisation and pursuit of consumption celebrated in mainstream economics.”
    Now the argument/focus seems to be not on the kind of activity pursued, but on whether there are other activities. Is that right? Specifically, in what way are MacIntyre and/or Aristotle’s arguments valid here? Have we dropped the foregoing debate pertaining to the notion of internal and external goods?
    Utility maximisation is not per se incompatible with the internal versus external distinction or with Aristotle’s idea of pursuing an activity because we value it and no more (e.g. friendship) or is it?

    What is the logic of the following sentence ? Why does the author use “While”?
    “While virtues cannot be reduced to a ‘code of practice’, MacIntyre’s account of virtues within the context of a practice provides the basis for the development of a virtues ethic for economics as a profession and as a discipline.”

    “This comparison of various ethical approaches,…”
    Which comparison does the author refer to?

    I enjoyed reviewing the paper, which clearly resonates with my work on ontology, care, responsibility, and not least, the limits of sanction based approaches to morality.