Moral Science and Moral Imagination
The question of the status of economics as a science and what type of science it may be has been a part of the internet debating cycles for as long as I can remember. One of the sticking points in these unceasing debates is if economics is value-free with most of the progressive and heterodox critics agreeing that economics must embrace some form of value-ladeness and that its practitioners must be educated in the practices necessary to identify the value commitments internal to their methodological choices. In that same vein, I will identify my own value commitments so that there is no confusion or subterfuge in this post: Economics, if it is to be anything, must be a moral science.
What is a moral science? Historically, the moral sciences were those studies that stood opposed to the physical sciences: language opposed to geography. The moral sciences involved the study of all that made humans, well, human. A distinction between classical moral sciences and current social science emerged out of the Weberian fact-value dichotomy which segregated from those social sciences the deeper discussions of human nature and with them greater considerations of the virtues.
The use of economic tools to provide value-neutral analysis of the varied means to given ends is a valuable exercise. However, the efficacy of such exercises becomes cloudy when the ends themselves are subject to uncertainty. The possibility of the heterogeneity of ends and the values for which they serve as a proxy make many of our economic operations seem misguided. How is value-neutrality to be maintained when utility considerations and ethical deliberations are often contemplated concurrently?
Uncertainty and complexity are facts of life (insert theme song here). These complications are compounded by the fact that the inputs and outputs of economic life find their use and value through the subjective interpretation and implementation of the people involved in economic activity. Those interpretations and uses are not devoid of moral content. Furthermore, they are not without some concern for the past and the future. Our economic decisions are as much a product of past experience and present considerations as they are a window into what we believe to be possible in the future. Hume’s Guillotine is as pithy as it is short-sighted.
My statement that economics must be a moral science ultimately is a call for there to be greater concern for the moral imaginations of humans who serve as both the subjects and objects of economic activity. The moral imagination of Burke and Kirk is the means by which we perceive beyond ourselves and conceive of the proper ordering of the self and society. It is a process of taking seriously both ourselves and our fellow humans as moral agents worthy of respect and love. The moral imagination takes seriously the Romantic conception of individual as the result of social interaction and not the product of self-deliberation. In many ways the concerns of the moral imagination are similar to the operation of Smith’s Impartial Spectator and results in similar concerns for the retention and development of the virtues for social and economic health.
This is not a simple change as it brings into question the place of methodological individualism and the value of some of the theoretical propositions in Public Economics and Public Choice amongst others. However, I do not think this should stop us from exploring a reconstruction of economics towards a more moral science. Our efforts to respond to the internal and external methodological and epistemological challenges have not been convincing. If we truly want to be a humane as well as human science, we must expand our imaginations.