Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Thoughts on the correlation between being a Good Economist and a Good Person

I've just started reading Deirdre McCloskey's book, sent to me in my intro packet to the Mercatus Center, How to Be Human*: *Though an Economist. So far, I've been loving it. She believes in Economics as a social science, rather than the illegitimate stepchild of Mathematics. As I've said before, Economics is the study of human behavior, albeit not a fully inclusive study. Which is why it has always bothered me that there isn't more interaction between Economics and the other social sciences. I think the disconnect is there for a couple reasons. First, the type of person who goes into Sociology, History, etc, and the type of person who goes into Economics, at least traditionally and in general, are two very different types of people, who don't communicate with each other very well. Secondly, Economics really wants to be a Physical Science, rather than a Social one. Much of Economics uses statistical significance as truth, and Economic data as the experimental data of a physicist.

Anyways, I think that was a tangent off of a tangent that distracted me from my original tangent. In one of her essays she denounces the usual words that Economists use to describe other Economists; 'smart' and 'nice,' instead preferring 'good' as in, Good Economist and Good Person. She points out that the two are not perfectly, if at all, correlated.

I can accept that it's easy for a scientist working in the 'hard sciences' to have no correlation between their success in their field and their success as a Human Being. If something is objectively provable (ie, based in mathematics), then all you need is to be smart. But in the Social Sciences, I would argue, there should be a much bigger correlation. Any Social Science, not being based on mathematics, has to be built on an underlying philosophy. And in a 'you shall know them by the fruit they bear' way, I believe that people's success as Human Beings (ie, being a Good Person), is reliant on their underlying philosophy. Which is why I don't find it absurd when Ayn Rand portrays the only happy people in her books as the people with fully constructed philosophies (and in her works, of course, they're all objectivists). If someone is a good Social Scientist, then they should also have a good underlying philosophy, and the same with their being a Good Person.


Wildflower said...
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Wildflower said...

Interesting thoughts! I agree with you that economics should be treated as a social science. I also agree that because of the possible social impact, there should be connection between one's economic work and one's "goodness" or philosophy. I think the problem goes a bit deeper, however.

The problem is that while economics should be treated as a social science, it is commonly not treated as such, even by economists. This is sadly true of a number of non-science fields today - with the historians that still believe history is a objective, scientific project, for example. Even within science, ethical questions are important and are often ignored (as not part of the discipline).

The danger is all of this is that these fields gain in power and prestige all the while in claiming to be a-ethical. No one reflects because reflection on philosophy seems trivial when the scientific project is before us. The problem is that these projects (economics, etc.) are built upon our philosophy and ethics, as your point out. And I know we could debate quite a bit about the problematic underlying philosophy of economics.

Which is, of course, the problem. Even when we are conscious of the fact that philosophical reflection is necessary, we can still end up with crummy results, with a philosophy that we believe to be good even while it is bad or harmful. Which isn't to say we shouldn't reflect, but rather we should be skeptical of the results we end up. I think Rand could have used a healthy bit of self-skepticism. As could economics. Production for production's sake? Sounds like a crappy philosophical basis to me (yup, that's technical, philosophical vocabulary for you!).

You know, Stanley Fish wrote an article a while ago about the decline of the liberal arts. It makes me worry. What will happen when we become more "effective" humans even while we stop thinking about what it means to be a "good" human? We are playing quite the dangerous game, regardless of the discipline.

Ryan Langrill said...

Oh, I would agree with you that Economics is often not treated as a social science, especially by economists. Largely because people like thinking that they are discovering Truth, and the only real field that you can discover Truth in is in the physical sciences and mathematics, thus economists model themselves after those in their rhetoric.

I think that a large part of this is the concept in Economics of utility - which is basically individual personal preference, but has become the social Utility of Bentham. If someone figures out a maximization of society's Utility, it therefore must be the best one out there. Except there's that leap between personal utility and social Utility which is in and of itself an acceptance of an ethical system.

I don't think the problem for Economics is building up too much prestige as an a-moral science, I think that until it embraces the fact that it is a moral science it will lose credibility; or as a recent Newsweek cover said: "What Good are Economists Anyway?" Not too much, if they pretend to be mathematicians. Not that math isn't an extremely important tool in Economics (or sociology, or psychology, or history), but it's not often enough treated as just a tool.

You would like McCloskey; she keeps hitting on the importance of embracing narrative and rhetoric. Also, I would like to note, she stole the "knowing them by their fruits" line from me.