Timothy Taylor on Economics and Morality

He writes,

After all, many academic subjects study unsavory aspects of human behavior. Political science, history, psychology, sociology, and literature are often concerned with aggression, obsessiveness, selfishness, and cruelty, not to mention lust, sloth, greed, envy, pride, wrath, and gluttony. But no one seems to fear that students in these other disciplines are on the fast track to becoming sociopaths. Why is economics supposed to be so uniquely corrupting?

I think that economics is singled out for opprobrium because of the way that it challenges the intention heuristic. The intention heuristic says that if the intentions of an act are selfless and well-meaning, then the act is good. If the intentions are self-interested, then it is not good.

The intention heuristic is what generates the veneration of non-profits. One can readily suppose that the intentions of a non-profit are better than those of a for-profit institution. Accordingly, it seems morally superior to work at a non-profit. However, once one drops the intention heuristic, the case for non-profits becomes much weaker.

I think that the ability to think beyond the intention heuristic is very important in social and political philosophy. However, there are many people who are heavily invested in the intention heuristic, and it is my hypothesis that such people are anxious to discredit economics.

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7 Responses to Timothy Taylor on Economics and Morality

  1. sam says:

    This is precisely the reason why economics is seen as a path towards sociopathy – because from their point of view, it is. It encourages people to become individuals governed by reason.

    From the point of a group-empathetic perspective, any action that results from an empathetic emotion is good. Non-profits are good, even if they often cause counter-productive results.

    Further from the group-empathetic perspective, any consequence that results from an empathy-motivated action is also good, and as that consequence came from empathy for the group, the group, and not the individual, must take responsibility for it.

    Reason, result, and precedent are all irrelevant to them.

  2. Greg G says:

    I don’t think that people think the study of economics itself leads to immorality. They just think that of the economists they disagree with.

    Nobody gets more riled up by economists they disagree with than other economists.

  3. “The very fact that we have moral impulses to support the public good is necessarily intertwined with the fact that we have moral impulses to punish those who do not (and to punish those who do not punish those who do not, and so on) … This instinct is especially harmful when used to punish those who are perceived not punishing free riders. This is the source of the bigotry against market economics among the do-gooders: It is believed that those who describe the positive outcomes of free enterprise are not doing their job to behave punitively toward free riders, and that therefore they, too, must be punished.” http://www.overcomingbias.com/2009/03/signaling-in-economics.html#sthash.72jKpRek.dpuf

  4. Chris says:

    James Fitzjames Stephen wrote a great piece questioning the intention heuristic:



    Few of the current phrases of the day are more frequently in the
    mouths of excellent people than that which stands at the head of this
    essay. It is not uncommon to hear people ranked as good or bad by
    reference to it. If a man is described as ill-tempered, narrow-minded,
    and one-sided, the answer often is that he is most unselfish, that he
    lives for others, and that he passes his life in ” doing good;” and
    the praise awarded to the energetic and successful prosecution of any
    of the common pursuits of life is often largely modified by the
    disparaging comment that the person who is entitled to it lives for
    himself—is intent on his own advantage, and is indifferent to doing
    good to his neighbours. The constant use of this phrase is a subject
    of real regret; for few expressions are used more loosely and
    thoughtlessly, or work more injustice in that secret court in which
    every man sits in his own mind as judge of the conduct and characters
    of his neighbours.

    The words ” doing good ” may be used either in a popular or in an
    accurate sense. Strictly speaking, to ” do good ” must mean to act
    right. Hooker says, ” Tho ways of well-doing are in number even as
    many as the kinds of voluntary actions;” and, of course, every one
    would maintain that a man cannot do better than conform the whole
    course of his life to the rule of duty, whatever that may be. But the
    popular and technical sense of the phrase is much narrower. It means
    the expenditure of time and trouble in the direct relief of specific
    misfortune, or the direct production of specific benefits to
    individuals or to classes. In this, which is the common application of
    the word, people would hardly say that the time passed in conducting a
    series of scientific experiments, however important, was passed in
    doing good; but they would say so of an evening employed in giving a
    gratuitous lecture at Exeter Hall to the Christian Young Men’s
    Association. A medical student would not be described as ” doing good”
    whilst he was walking the hospitals, but if he gratuitously advised a
    poor sick person he would. The whole apparatus of charitable and
    philanthropic undertakings, which are so abundant in the present day —
    missionary societies, bible societies, education societies, lecturing
    societies, and the thousand other institutions of the same kind which
    are spread over the face of the world,—are all recognized as organs
    for doing good; but the ordinary pursuits of life— trades,
    professions, and occupations of every kind— with one or two
    exceptions, are not.

    This mode of speaking docs great injustice in more ways than one. It
    tends to establish an unfounded distinction, to give to the most
    important part of society an entirely wrong notion of their position
    and of their duties, and to invest one particular class with a degree
    of credit to which, in fact, it has little or no claim. It is the
    common ground of almost all those who profess to think upon these
    subjects, that duty is coextensive with life itself, and that the most
    rational view which can be taken of human society is that it is a sort
    of body corporate, made up of different members, each of which has its
    own special function. Thus, one class of men tills the ground, another
    combines and distributes its produce; a third makes, and a fourth
    executes laws; and so it would be possible to go through every class
    of human society. If all these functions are properly discharged, the
    whole body corporate is in a healthy condition; and thence it follows
    that whoever contributes to the full and proper discharge of any one
    of these functions is contributing to the general good of the whole
    body; so that a person occupied in them is doing good in the strictest
    sense of the words.

    The proof that any given occupation is one of the functions which are
    essential to the well-being of the whole, lies in the fact of its
    existence and general recognition as a lawful calling. People have
    neither the power nor, in most cases, the right to look further. To do
    so is to assume the character of a judge of the constitution of the
    world. If a given occupation is openly and avowedly exercised without
    reproach, that fact is sufficient warrant to any person to engage in
    it who considers himself to be called upon to do so, either by
    circumstances or by personal fitness for its duties; and in so far as
    he discharges those duties he is, in the strictest and in the only
    proper sense of the word, doing good—that is, he is forwarding and
    preserving the happiness of the society of which he is a member. A
    stockbroker who passes the whole day in buying and selling shares, or
    a publican who is constantly occupied in serving his customers, passes
    his time in doing good just as much as the most zealous clergyman or
    sister of mercy. To deny this is to say that a commissariat or
    transport corps has nothing to do with carrying on a war, and that
    this business is discharged entirely by those who stand in the line of
    battle or mount the breach. Human society is a vast and intricate
    machine, composed of innumerable wheels and pulleys. Every one has his
    special handle to grind at—some with great and obvious effects, others
    with little or no assignable result; but if the object ultimately
    produced by the combined efforts of all is in itself a good one, it
    cannot be denied that whatever is essential to its production is good

    This doctrine on the subject of doing good is not so much contested as
    ignored by the common use of the phrase. Few people probably would say
    that any habitual recognized mode of passing time is neither good nor
    bad'; and to assert that any lawful calling is bad, is a contradiction
    in terms. The phrase ” doing good” is used rather rhetorically than
    logically. It is employed for the purpose of asserting indirectly that
    the conscious effort to relieve the sufferings or to increase the
    comforts of others, not only without any motive for so doing in which
    personal interest can have a share, but without any direct and
    commonly recognized personal obligation to do so, is in itself a
    nobler and more elevating employment than any of the common
    occupations of life which people are paid for carrying on in money, in
    rank, in reputation, and in other ways, The assertion or insinuation
    of such a view is injurious, and the view itself is false.

    The insinuation is injurious principally because it has a strong
    practical tendency to discredit the common occupations of life, and it
    does this in two ways. In the first place, it assumes that the motives
    which urge people to the diligent and successful prosecutions of their
    various callings are, generally speaking, mean and petty. It
    insinuates that the mainspring of professional zeal is personal
    ambition; that commerce and agriculture are mere embodiments of
    avarice; and that, in a word, selfishness is the vital principle of
    almost every part of society. If this assumption were true,
    philanthropy in all its forms would be an absurdity. To “do good” to
    such a society would be like trying to do good to a corpse. The effort
    to increase the prosperity and to relieve the sufferings of the
    miserable part of the world would, upon this supposition, be efforts
    to enable those who had been providentially weaned from a corrupt and
    detestable system to be as selfish and grasping as the rest. If common
    life is so corrupt, surely it is no evil to be cut off by poverty or
    sickness from its pursuits; yet the philanthropists whose habitual
    language is based on the hypothesis of the corruption and selfishness
    of ordinary pursuits, strain every nerve to do away with poverty and

    The theory of the baseness of ordinary pursuits not only involves
    those who maintain it in this inextricable contradiction, but is
    false. It is totally untrue that selfishness is the life of anything
    at all— least of all is it the life of any lawful pursuit. No one, of
    course, would contend that lawyers are actuated in their profession
    only or chiefly by a disinterested zeal for the administration of
    justice ; physicians by a desire to promote health; or merchants by a
    wish that men should enjoy the produce of foreign countries; but it is
    perfectly true that in every pursuit there is an esprit de corps which
    has reference to such objects as these, and exercises a marked
    influence on those who adopt it. And it is also a truth, the
    importance of which can hardly be overestimated, that nearly every
    successful member of any profession whatever owes his success largely
    to the fact that he has pursued it, not from a slavish hunger after
    its emoluments, but from a genuine love for it, and satisfaction in
    discharging its duties efficiently and well. A ploughman, if he is
    worth his wages, likes to see the furrows run evenly and
    symmetrically; the mason likes to see his work justified by the
    plumb-line and spirit-level; and in the higher walks of life, every
    man who deserves, and almost every man who earns distinction, seeks
    and finds his reward far more in his work than in his pay.

    The second way in which the common language about ” doing good ” does
    injustice to ordinary life is that, besides bringing against it the
    false accusation that it is radically corrupt, it does so on the false
    ground that pursuits which benefit the person who follows them up are
    selfish. Independently of the consideration that this, if true, would
    destroy the beauty of philanthropy itself, it is hardly possible to
    imagine a view which puts people in a more absurd position. It is
    equivalent to tho theory that we ought to be too fine to take the
    wages which our Maker offers us, and that the proper attitude for us
    to assume is that of persons conferring a favour upon creation at
    large. It is curious to see the doctrine of works of supererogation
    reintroduced by this door into a Protestant community, amidst the
    universal applause of those who are considered the picked
    representatives of the Protestant belief, and the champions of faith
    against works.

    The falsehood of the opinion that conscious and direct efforts to
    mitigate suffering and to increase comfort are in themselves more
    beneficial, either to society at large or to the persons who engage in
    them, than the prosecution of the common affairs of life, is at least
    as well marked as the injurious effects of insisting upon it. That
    such efforts are great benefits to the world there can be no doubt,
    but they are benefits as medicine is a benefit, and they stand in the
    same relation to common life as that in which medicine stands to food.
    No one will deny the importance of doctors and surgeons, but we could
    dispense with their services much more easily than with those of
    butchers and bakers. We should not get on nearly so well as we do
    without schools, and hospitals, and charitable institutions; but if
    they were all swept away, England would still be, and would probably
    long remain, a great nation; whereas, if the plough and the loom stood
    still, if there were no government and no law, it would exist for a
    short time as a den of robbers, and would soon cease to exist at all.

    It is thus evident that philanthropy is not the most important clement
    of human society; and though it may appear a more plausible, it is not
    a better- founded assertion, that philanthropic pursuits arc more
    healthy to those who follow them than the common employments of life.
    The grand objection to them all is that people create them for
    themselves ; so that they have far less power to educate and develop
    the whole mind than pursuits which have received their shape from the
    permanent standing necessities of human nature. In any calling of this
    permanent kind there is, and always must be, endless instruction. It
    has its traditions, its fixed objects, it abuses, its difficulties; it
    presents a constant succession of problems, which its members must
    solve for themselves; it pays little attention to their preconceived
    ideas, but is constantly moulding and changing them in a thousand
    ways, so that a long life may be passed in the diligent cultivation of
    such a pursuit without exhausting the instruction which it is capable
    of giving. This is far from being the case with the great majority of
    philanthropic employments. A man who embarks in them is a volunteer,
    and he generally is obliged to put himself forward as a teacher when
    he ought to be a learner. He is more exposed than almost any other
    person to the danger of becoming pedantic and petty, and of trying to
    realize his own conceptions of what people ought to be and to do,
    instead of learning how slight and narrow those conceptions are.
    Benevolence is constantly cultivated by philanthropists at the expense
    of modesty, truthfulness, and consideration for the rights and
    feelings of others; for by the very fact that a man devotes himself to
    conscious efforts to make people happier and better than they are, he
    asserts that he knows better than they what are the necessary
    constituent elements of happiness and goodness. In other words, he
    sets himself up as their guide and superior. Of course, his claim to
    do this may be well founded; but the mere fact that it is made does
    not prove its justice. On the contrary, it often arises from a
    domineering self-sufficiency of disposition, associated with a taste
    for interfering in other people’s affairs. The habit of not only doing
    this, but looking upon it as the one course of life which is worthy of
    admiration—as the one laudable employment which redeems the vulgarity
    and selfishness of the rest—can hardly be favourable to the mental
    constitution of those who indulge in it.

    The habit of doing acts of kindness, and of transacting the common
    affairs of life in a kind and generous spirit, cannot be too much
    practised, but nothing has less in common with this than the habit of
    regarding oneself as the person officially charged with the
    improvement of others. There is only a slight connection between the
    maintenance of this general benevolence and any real individual warmth
    of feeling. The habit of looking upon our neighbours from a position
    of conscious and avowed superiority has a direct tendency to make
    sympathy impossible. A man who thinks that no portion of his time is
    so well employed as that which is devoted to checking and tutoring
    unruly wills and affections, is fortunate if he continues to be kind
    and amiable; and one whose cherished object in life is to realize
    amongst his poorer neighbours some ideal of his own as to character
    and conduct, is still more fortunate if that ideal does not rapidly
    become narrow and petty. Philanthropic pursuits have many indisputable
    advantages, but it is doubtful whether they can be truly said to
    humanize .and soften the minds of those who are most addicted to them.
    It is true that they are often cultivated from motives of humanity,
    but they have far less tendency than might have been expected to
    devclope the principles from which they spring.

    These remarks must not be understood to apply to the case of
    professions like that of a clergyman or physician, in which direct
    efforts to benefit others form a conspicuous and important element.
    They are levelled against a contempt for those pursuits which are not
    so distinguished. In deciding the great question of the choice of a
    profession, it is, no doubt, a most weighty consideration that some
    callings make greater demands upon and afford greater play to the
    kindly and gentle parts of our nature than others; but whether this is
    a recommendation or otherwise in any particular case, turns upon the
    natural character of the person by whom the choice is to be made. A
    man of stern, cold disposition has no right to place himself in a
    position in which great demands will be made upon his sympathies; but
    life is large and various, and he may do service in other quarters, in
    which his services are quite as important. It is hard on such a man to
    assert, as the current phraseology about doing good virtually does,
    that unless he forces his nature and enters upon philanthropic
    pursuits for which he has neither inclination nor fitness, he is of
    necessity leading a selfish, godless, graceless life. It is apparently
    part of the providential plan of life that men should differ
    endlessly, and this difference is nowhere more clearly marked than in
    matters of feeling. It is impossible to say that it is a duty to have
    warm feelings, though it may be a misfortune not to have them, and
    there is a large class of persons on whom the attempt to warm up their
    own feelings to the level which might be considered right by others
    would have no other effect than that of producing either cruel
    mortification or a self-righteous hypocrisy of the most odious kind.
    To this class— and few know how large and important a class it is—
    popular language does gross injustice. Such men may be good
    Christians, good citizens, useful members of society in honourable
    callings ; yet because their natural temperament disqualifies them
    from joining in certain amiable enterprises which are invested with a
    monopoly of the attribute of doing good, they are stigmatized by
    implication as selfish, harsh, and indifferent to everything but their
    personal advancement. Few imputations are so unjust. The injustice,
    however, is one which does little harm to those who suffer under it,
    for they are usually a thick-skinned and long-enduring generation,
    whose comfort is not much affected one way or the other by the opinion
    of others.

    December 17, 1859.

  5. blink says:

    You’re probably right, but what to do? Why is the intention heuristic so seductive and what can we do to combat it?

  6. Eric Rasmusen says:

    Very good post! Make more of this.

  7. Douglas Knight says:

    That doesn’t distinguish economics from political science, Taylor’s very first item on the list you quote.

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