September 7, 2015

Confounding Is and Ought: the economist as moralist

Comment on Robert Reich on ‘What Happened to the Moral Center of American Capitalism?’


What is the proper job of the economist qua scientist? “A scientific observer or reasoner, merely as such, is not an adviser for practice. His part is only to show that certain consequences follow from certain causes, and that to obtain certain ends, certain means are the most effectual. Whether the ends themselves are such as ought to be pursued, and if so, in what cases and to how great a length, it is no part of his business as a cultivator of science to decide, and science alone will never qualify him for the decision.” (Mill, 2006, p. 950)

The economist qua scientist brings knowledge to the table, not his personal opinion. It is the legitimate political institution that determines the political ends. This is the Ought-part, science is concerned exclusively with the Is-part of reality. The Is/Ought difference is reasonably clear since Hume but, beginning with Adam Smith, it has been mostly ignored by economists.

However, for science this difference is fundamental. Moralizing and scientific discourse are strictly antithetical. Economists never got the point. “Economists think of themselves as scientists, but ... they are more like theologians.” (Nelson, 2006, p. xv)

Economics is a failed science because moralists always outnumbered genuine enquirers. “A genuine inquirer aims to find out the truth of some question, whatever the color of that truth. ... A pseudo-inquirer seeks to make a case for the truth of some proposition(s) determined in advance. There are two kinds of pseudo-inquirer, the sham and the fake. A sham reasoner is concerned, not to find out how things really are, but to make a case for some immovably-held preconceived conviction. A fake reasoner is concerned, not to find out how things really are, but to advance himself by making a case for some proposition to the truth-value of which he is indifferent.” (Haack, 1997, p. 1)

The economist who moralizes and politicizes is out of science. As Keen put it: “Even some of the most committed economists have conceded that, if economics is to become less of a religion and more of a science, then the foundations of economics should be torn down and replaced.” (2011, p. 35)

A moralizing economist is a living proof that scientific ethics, which consists of never trespassing the demarcation line between Is and Ought, is desperately lacking.

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

Haack, S. (1997). Science, Scientism, and Anti-Science in the Age of Preposterism. Skeptical Inquirer, 21(6): 1–7. URL
Keen, S. (2011). Debunking Economics. London, New York: Zed Books, rev. edition.
Mill, J. S. (2006). A System of Logic Ratiocinative and Inductive. Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence and the Methods of Scientific Investigation, volume 8 of Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
Nelson, R. H. (2006). Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Related 'Scientific suicide in the revolving door' and 'When fake scientists call out on fake politicians' and 'Economics and corruption' and 'FakeNews, FakeScience: economics in the information age' and 'How economists murdered the economy and got away with it' and 'Krugman and the scientific implosion of economics' and 'On economists’ stupidity' and 'Economists’ proto-scientific shell games'

ICYMI (DrDick, September 7)

“In order to tell the politicians and practitioners something about causes and best means, the economist needs the true theory or else he has not much more to offer than educated common sense or his personal opinion.” (Stigum, 1991)

It is widely known that economists still lack the true theory and from this follows de facto that it is beyond their means to offer scientifically valid advice. Strictly speaking, scientific ethics is not yet an issue for economists because economics has not risen above the proto-scientific level.

The idea, for example, that Hayek gave Mrs. Thatcher scientific advice is of unsurpassable silliness. Things have not improved since then.