Are We Doing Ethics Now?

It is natural to wonder when one is engaged in ethical reflection as opposed to being engaged in something else (such as economics, history, sociology, anthropology and so on).  It is easy to suppose that an economist’s analysis of the Great Recession in 2008 (beginning in the United States but achieving global impact) is not itself an ethical project.  After all, one might describe how mortgages were managed and bundled into products that were then bought and sold with little awareness of their real content and risk, and how this led to the formation of a “bubble” that burst when the toxic nature of the investments and trading became evident, ultimately triggering a global financial panic, without making ethical judgments on, say, “Wall Street” or “Main Street” or “Congress.”  Nevertheless, such inquiry is not entirely value-free.

Values come in as basic foundations for the very practice of economics (and other social sciences) insofar as a researcher is fair and accurate in her observations, reasoning, testimony, certifications (e.g. is an economist willing to certify that a corporation has acted honestly in some practice); furthermore, values (and ethics) come into play in the context of research funding, as well as the application of that research in the context of the law and the marketplace.  An economist may also need to make a distinction between the expressed preferences of persons (what persons claim they are interested in) when this does not reflect what they should prefer (what persons have interests in) or would prefer, if they were fully informed.  This need not involve ethical discrimination in an overt fashion (“you think you want to smoke a cigarette but if you value your health, you should think differently”), but it is hard to measure costs and benefits only by referring to the actual and probable preference of the subjects involved.  Moreover, the findings of economics seem essential to morally assessing the culpability of agents in the marketplace.  In the recent recession there was a great deal of information asymmetry (in which one party has knowledge the other party lacks but has an interest in knowing) and part of a criminal or civil case of mismanagement would involve assessing when the asymmetry was an acceptable risk assumed by all parties or whether it involved deception.

Having made the case that economics (and by analogy other social sciences) has ethical dimensions, it should be noted that once one establishes (from an ethical and perhaps also political point of view) a social goal and one has implemented codified laws protecting basic rights, the role of an economist may (in some respects) be ethically neutral (except insofar as all inquiry involves a commitment to be trust-worthy and so on).  So, if it is established that (a) the goal is to save the world’s commercial fisheries, (b) and the means to saving the fisheries needs to involve economics (e.g. the imposing of burdens or the providing of incentives), then (c) an economist has available tools to propose and predict the potential benefit or detriment of the alternatives.

An interesting case in which science and ethics overlap but remain somewhat distinct involves the research into the biological conditions for agency and value judgments.  For example, Patricia Churchland argues that there is good evidence that the presence or absence of oxytocin can be an important indicator of ethical behavior.  Apparently, the more oxytocin in an animal the more its defensiveness, fear, and stress is reduced and the animal tends to be more collaborative and loyal.  There is reason to think that prairie voles are more collaborative and bonded with each other than montane voles, and this is explained (according to Churchland) by the greater amount of oxytocin in the prairie voles.  There is no question that, if this is true, such a finding is significant in many respects.  But more than biology and chemistry is needed to assess whether collaboration, loyalty, and bonding are good, and whether or when one ought to use oxytocin in animals or humans.  Presumably collaboration and solidarity are instrumentally good–that is, they can be good because they promote further ends, but we can also see cases of when collaboration and solidarity are directed toward evil ends.

There is no reason why we should not pursue the biological foundations or elements that are important in the practice of ethics.  In fact, there are ethical reasons why we should do so.  Our only point here is that in proceeding, one ought to appeal to biology, chemistry, and the natural sciences, the social sciences, and also philosophy, theology, literature, history, and other fields of the humanities.  In this regard, the study of ethics is an ideal junction for those interested in interdisciplinary work.