Ethics & Economics

At Oxford and Cambridge Universities, economics is paired with politics and economics as a popular course of study known as PPE.  Many universities throughout the world now follow this integration.  This is partly because any deep practice of any one of these disciplines calls for attention by the others. In economics, one employs concepts of self-interest, rationality, freedom, costs, burdens that lead to important insights about past markets and living conditions that can also generate predictions in the course of alternative public policies.  There are significant ethical concerns about the idea and statue of the commonwealth, the nature and justification of property rights, tax laws, the economics of international trade, and the question of when economic considerations are appropriate.  So, some argue that we should not monitize or put a price on public political offices or be able to sell vital bodily organs (I cannot now legally  donate my heart to save someone).

One way to illustrate the important way in which conditions may be set up to show the value of cooperation is the prisoner’s dilemma.  Here is a sample:

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to or exchanging messages with the other. The police admit they don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They plan to sentence both to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the police offer each prisoner a Faustian bargain. If he testifies against his partner, he will go free while the partner will get three years in prison on the main charge. Oh, yes, there is a catch … If both prisoners testify against each other, both will be sentenced to two years in jail.

When is an agreement voluntary?  When is it coerced or, if not coerced, exploitive?  Imagine an Indian Reservation is offered enormous sums of money if a government were able to use it as a site for storing highly dangerous material.  All parties may agree to the deal, and yet the relationship is exploitive? When and why is blackmail wrong?

Two topics that may be of interest are treated briefly below:


In a legal context, you own X when it is the case that you have a right to control X with impunity, you may prohibit its use or control of others, and if it is wrongly used or controlled by others you are entitled to restoration and/or compensation.  Legally, there are different modes of property or ownership. One may own a house in a region which prohibits you from destroying the house or radically changing its structure, for example.  Many, but not all philosophers hold that ownership is natural and not a human artifact (or not only a human artifact).  Famously, John Locke held that persons are self-owned.  In a state of nature, Locke held that if you take control of a not otherwised owned object (a field, for example) and you produce goods from the land from your labor, you can come to own both the land and the produce, without any approval of a political governing institution.  This position is employed by those who take possession of objects from international waters (mining the ocean bed, fishing, recovering treasures).

Other means of ownership include occupation.  Some hold that simply by occupying land, you may come to own it.  Some argue that rightful use can establish some claim to ownership, and wrongful use can lead to a loss of ownership rights.  Abandoning some property can give others the opportunity to take possession of the good.  For example, if you recover a sunken treasure from a Spanish ship that sank three hundred years ago, you may rightly claim to own the treasure (though some laws may obtain in which some goods are considered to be the perpetual heritage of a state or kingdom).

According to some theists, the whole cosmos is God’s property. Passages in the Hebrew Bible, Christian New Testament, and the Qur’an support the idea that the natural world belongs to God as its Creator.  Some theists maintain that this entails that creatures do not have absolute ownership rights even over themselves, but are called to be stewards or trustees of the created order.  Other theists hold that the cosmos has been given to creatures, and thus the creature has been given itself and the things it makes as its possessions.  Apart from the role of property in a philosophy of creation, philosophers of religion have debated the justification of property (to what extent are property rights a function of contracts and covenants?) and the limits of ownership (must I give surplus wealth away to those in chronic need?).  At least among human beings, claims of property are customarily analyzed in terms of rights and duties.

Some claim that many things should ethically not be considered property.  These include persons (so, slavery is unjust, and claims of parents to own children is unjust), political and religious offices (one should not be able to buy a presidency or the office of being pope), environmental goods (the air, the ocean, the moon…), and so on. Moreover, it is difficult to undertake a cost / benefit analysis of some goods without determining whether the goods are owned or unowned.  Consider the goods that are available in international waters.  If you think of these as owned by all of humanity (including future generations), then when a corporation mines the ocean floor, it seems that other persons are owed some compensation.  That is the foundation of the Law of the Sea Treaty.  You may find it here: The Law of the Sea Treaty

Compare this with the Moon Treaty: Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies



A term used in Marx’s political philosophy and in theology. In both contexts a person may be divided or split between who she truly is and who she has been manipulated or wrongly deluded herself into being. For Marx, a laborer may be alienated from the products she makes, and for Christian theologians, persons may be alienated from the God who loves them.


Economics and Environmentalism?

On the other hand, consider how financial incentives have enhanced people’s lives, as well as environmental responsibility. Some large corporations, such as Enterprise car rental, support environmental projects, for example the Arbor Day Foundation. CLICK HERE to learn more about the “50 Million Tree Pledge”. What do you think about “green marketing”? Does it matter whether the corporation is truly committed to “green values,” or is simply using the appearance of them to enhance their profit?

For resources on the philosophy of economics, the following is helpful: