Professional Economic Ethics: Why Heterodox Economists Should Care
This paper is closed for comments.
This paper is the written version of a verbal presentation to the 2011 conference of the Association for Heterodox Economics, held at Nottingham Trent University, 6‐9 July 2011. It presents the case for the ethical scrutiny of the economics profession, and some of the issues surrounding this issue, following the publication of ‘The Economist’s Oath’ (DeMartino, 2011, OUP) and the release of Charles Ferguson’s outstanding film Inside Job.
For 125 years since the AEA was founded, the economics profession in the US and beyond has consistently and successfully sought influence over public policy — influence that it believed that it deserved as a consequence of its expertise. Today, economics is certainly among the most important of professions in terms of its impact on the world. But in all that time the profession has never attended to the ethical burdens associated with influence over others. In the US in particular the profession has been dismissive of the idea that it faces ethical duties that require any serious attention. I’m aware of no other profession that has been so cavalier regarding its responsibilities.
The profession’s dismissiveness with respect to its ethical challenges is, I argue, ethically indictable. When a profession seeks influence over others, it necessarily takes on ethical obligations — whether it recognizes them or not. The profession should have established a tradition of careful inquiry into its ethical obligations 125 years ago, and these obligations should have been a central concern of the profession ever since. Curiously, this idea has met as much skepticism on the left, from heterodox economists, as from the mainstream. This paper sets out a broad enquiry into the case for ethics in economics, and the way this case might be pursued, with the aim of provoking wider discussion.