Three Cheers for Moral Philosophy & Down with Economics as a Science
by Kamran Mofid on 10 Jun 2012 1 Comment

This article is a reflection on Michael Sandel’s new book, “What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets”. On my journey from a “Dismal” scientist to Spiritual Economist, I discovered many gems and realised fully the wrongs of my past beliefs. It was at times a very difficult journey. A journey, that now I fully understand, was very worthwhile and precious. One of the most important discoveries I made was when I came to understand that I needed to bring spirituality, compassion, ethics and morality back into Economics itself, to make this dismal science once again relevant to and concerned with the common good.


Let me recall a couple of those gems I found, which are very relevant and complimentary to Sandel’s book:


-        Living happily is “the desire of us all, but our mind is blinded to a clear vision of just what it is that makes life happy”. The root of happiness is ethical behaviour, and thus the ancient idea of moral education and cultivation is essential to the ideal of joyfulness.


-        Economics, from the time of Plato right through to Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, was as deeply concerned with issues of social justice, ethics and morality as it was with economic analysis. Most economics students today learn that Adam Smith was the ‘father of modern economics’ but not that he was also a moral philosopher. In 1759, sixteen years before his famous Wealth of Nations, he published The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which explored the self-interested nature of man and his ability nevertheless to make moral decisions based on factors other than selfishness.


-        In The Wealth of Nations, Smith laid the early groundwork for economic analysis, but he embedded it in a broader discussion of social justice and the role of government. Students today know only of his analogy of the ‘invisible hand’ and refer to him as defending free markets. They ignore his insight that the pursuit of wealth should not take precedence over social and moral obligations, and his belief that a ‘divine Being’ gives us ‘the greatest quantity of happiness’.


-        Students are taught that the free market as a ‘way of life’ appealed to Adam Smith, but not that he distrusted the morality of the market as a morality for society at large. He neither envisioned nor prescribed a capitalist society, but rather a ‘capitalist economy within society, a society held together by communities of non-capitalist and non-market morality’. As has been noted, morality for Smith included neighbourly love, an obligation to practice justice, a norm of financial support for the government ‘in proportion to [one’s] revenue’, and a tendency in human nature to derive pleasure from the good fortune and happiness of other people.


-        The focus of economics should be on the benefit and the bounty that the economy produces, on how to let this bounty increase, and how to share the benefits justly among the people for the common good, removing the evils that hinder this process. Moreover, economic investigation should be accompanied by research into subjects such as anthropology, philosophy, politics, and most importantly, theology, to give insight into our own mystery, as no economic theory or no economist can say who we are, where have we come from or where we are going to. Humankind must be respected as the centre of Creation and not relegated by more short term economic interests.


-        ‘Economic rationality’ in the shape of neo-liberal globalisation is socially and politically suicidal. Justice and democracy are sacrificed on the altar of a mythical market as forces outside society, rather than creations of it. However, free markets do not exist in a vacuum. They require a set of impartiality in government, honesty, justice, and public spiritedness in business. The best safeguard against fraud, theft, and injustice in markets are the cardinal virtues of justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence, and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. (See more:


Now I am delighted that Michael Sandel, Professor of Political Philosophy at Harvard, is so eloquently addressing similar issues and concerns. He notes that, “We need to reason about how to value our bodies, human dignity, teaching and learning”. Moreover, he sheds light on why Economics needs to be seen not as a science but a moral philosophy. This is music to my ears.


“We live at a time when almost everything can be bought and sold,” Sandel writes. “We have drifted from having a market economy, to being a market society,” in which the solution to all manner of social and civic challenges is not a moral debate but the law of the market, on the assumption that cash incentives are always the appropriate mechanism by which good choices are made. Every application of human activity is priced and commodified, and all value judgments are replaced by the simple question: “How much?”


I very much like Sandel’s praise of civic duty:

“He certainly provides some fascinating examples of the market failing to do a better job than social norms or civic values, when it comes to making us do the right thing. For example, economists carried out a survey of villagers in Switzerland to see if they would accept a nuclear waste site in their community. While the site was obviously unwelcome, the villagers recognised its importance to their country, and voted 51% in favour. The economists then asked how they would vote if the government compensated them for accepting the site with an annual payment. Support promptly dropped to 25%... Likewise, a study comparing the British practice of blood donation with the American system whereby the poor can sell their blood found the voluntary approach worked far more effectively. Once again, civic duty turned out to be more powerful than money.”


One of the most fascinating questions Sandel addresses is why the financial crisis appears to have scarcely put a dent in public faith in market solutions.


“One would have thought that this would be an occasion for critical reflection on the role of markets in our lives. I think the persistent hold of markets and market values – even in the face of the financial crisis – suggests that the source of that faith runs very deep; deeper than the conviction that markets deliver the goods. I don't think that's the most powerful allure of markets. One of the appeals of markets, as a public philosophy, is they seem to spare us the need to engage in public arguments about the meaning of goods. So markets seem to enable us to be non-judgmental about values. But I think that's a mistake.”


Putting a price on a flat-screen TV or a toaster is, he says, quite sensible. “But how to value pregnancy, procreation, our bodies, human dignity, the value and meaning of teaching and learning – we do need to reason about the value of goods. The markets give us no framework for having that conversation. And we're tempted to avoid that conversation, because we know we will disagree about how to value bodies, or pregnancy, or sex, or education, or military service; we know we will disagree. So letting markets decide seems to be a non-judgmental, neutral way. And that's the deepest part of the allure; that it seems to provide a value-neutral, non-judgmental way of determining the value of all goods. But the folly of that promise is – though it may be true enough for toasters and flat-screen televisions – it's not true for kidneys.”


Sandel makes the illuminating observation that what he calls the “market triumphalism” in western politics over the past 30 years has coincided with a “moral vacancy” at the heart of public discourse, which has been reduced in the media to meaningless shouting matches on cable TV – what might be called the Foxification of debate – and among elected politicians to disagreements so technocratic and timid that citizens despair of politics ever addressing the questions that matter most.


“There is an internal connection between the two, and the internal connection has to do with this flight from judgment in public discourse, or the aspiration to value neutrality in public discourse. And it's connected to the way economics has cast itself as a value-neutral science when, in fact, it should probably be seen – as it once was – as a branch of moral and political philosophy”, which takes us back to where I started above, the very beginning of this reflection:

“Economics, from the time of Plato right through to Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, was as deeply concerned with issues of social justice, ethics and morality as it was with economic analysis…”



Dr Kamran Mofid is founder, Globalisation for the Common Good Initiative (GCGI); he blogs at 

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