By Gabriel Martinez, February 9, 2010 in Interviews
How did you come to be an economist?
I first encountered economics in my second year at West Point, in 1981. I was so taken with the elegance of the theory and the insight that economics offered on the economy that two weeks into the course I determined to become an economist. I was not sure what exactly it meant to be an economist; I just wanted to dive in. I left West Point that next summer, transferred to Virginia, majored in economics, and went on to PhD work at Yale. My love for the discipline has not abated, although it has matured from an early infatuation to a deeper appreciation of the field, flaws and all.
Your research has followed an unusual path (for an economist). How did you come to be interested in the philosophy of economics?
I spent much of the 80s in college and graduate school. It seemed that through economics I was able to understand certain truths about the nature of the economy. During this time the U.S. Catholic bishops were also reflecting on the economy. I was struck by how different the messages were from economics and from the bishops. I have spent most of my career trying to sort out the two positions, to include both within one account of truth, to determine where the conflicts were, where conflict was only apparent, and how theology could inform economics while still respecting economics’ autonomy.
This project is a philosophical one. My first task is to understand how ethics and economics could possibly be related – economics is adamant that there is a strict separation between moral questions and economic ones. My reading of Aristotle’s Ethics suggested a way to delineate the differences between ethics as economics as a special case of the difference between prudence (practical reason) and technique.
How did you acquire the philosophical background for your work? What guided your choice in readings and mentors?
I did not read philosophy seriously until 1993 (four years after I received my PhD) when I picked up and read Aristotle’s Ethics. Somehow I got the idea that this was the place to start. I believe we just happened to have a copy on our bookshelf, and it seemed more systematic than Plato’s dialogs. The Ethics has been the philosophical foundation for everything I have done since. I was attracted to Aristotle’s account of human goods and human reasoning. Most of what I have read since has been in the Aristotelian/Thomistic tradition. I have been fortunate to have received wise guidance from Thomists and Aristotelians on what to read. Since I am not a trained philosopher, I am forever playing catch-up; whenever I hear of an important book in this tradition, I try to study it.
What are some of the main questions or issues that guide your work?
In what sense is economics purely a technique, practiced in the same way someone might practice carpentry, and in what sense is it a moral enterprise, whose practice is inescapably moral, affecting the character of the economist? There are two questions, mainly. The first is: how does the practice of economics (the economist practicing his trade) fit into the moral life of the economist? In what sense is economics purely a technique, practiced in the same way someone might practice carpentry, and in what sense is it a moral enterprise, whose practice is inescapably moral, affecting the character of the economist? More recently I am asking questions about the relationship between philosophical accounts of choice, like Aristotle’s, and economic models of choice. We all know that economic models of the person are purposefully simplistic. Economists themselves admit that models are approximations. I am intrigued by that word, ‘approximation’. What exactly are economic models of choice approximating, and how can we understand the term ‘approximate’ without referring to an account of what is being approximated? There is a role for philosophy here, in providing comprehensive accounts of human action against which to evaluate the approximations of economics.
What are related avenues of research in which other economists could work?
There is so much excellent work going on inside and outside of economics these days. The economic model of the human person is very much in play right now – behavioral economists are introducing insights from cognitive psychology, economic sociologists are struggling to incorporate the social dimension while still respecting individual agency, and happiness researchers are opening up the question of human flourishing in an intriguing way. All of these research fields call for philosophical reflection and critique.
What has been the reception to your work? Polite silence, ready acceptance, etc.?
There are enough economists interested to keep me encouraged. Most are indifferent, or puzzled, but not hostile; they do not consider what I do to be real economics. I run no regressions, formulate no new theories. Economists as a group are incurious about the role of ethics in their work; they are satisfied with the easy dismissals of ethics from economics, and incurious about philosophical questions.
What do you say to bright young people who want to be economics majors? What advice do you have for first-year graduate students in economics?
I actively recruit undergraduates to the major. My advice to graduate students is to add two books to their summer reading lists – Aristotle’s Ethics and John Finnis’s Natural Law and Natural Rights. The Ethics is a great counterweight to the utilitarianism of economics, and John Finnis’s account of human choice and human goods is very accessible to economists.
What would you say is the contribution that the economist makes to society?
Economists offer insights into the workings of the economy, and of the interaction of individual agents in the economy; these insights are ignored at great cost. Compared to other social science disciplines, economists take human agency more seriously, and are thus more attuned to the place of freedom in the economy and in society. Finally, economists as a groups are also more willing to ask controversial questions, and accept whatever answers they find, than other disciplines are. For example, economists ask very interesting questions about the effects of abortion on sexual behavior and marriage.