First, Do No Harm: Teaching the Introduction to Microeconomics Course
By Anonymous, July 19, 2010 in What is Education?

The Teagle Foundation Report on the place of economics in a liberal arts education (Elgar Publishing) notes that teaching a student to “think like an economist” need not help him to “think like a liberally educated person.” Too often “thinking like an economist” means adopting a very narrow view of decision making and applying it to a wide variety of problems; in the course of adopting this approach, economists (when they are not careful) can make it more difficult for students to think liberally – to reason about ends as well as means, to discern the hidden premises of rational choice theory, to determine the boundaries of “the economic way of thinking.”  All too easily, the economic way of thinking becomes the only way to think clearly; all other ways are “emotional,” “anecdotal,” and “not rigorous.”  This crowding out of liberally educated reason occurs without resistance in the economics profession, so economists themselves are often unable to think like liberally educated persons, and so cannot help their students to. How can the economics professor teach the microeconomics course without separating his students from the rest of the liberal arts curriculum?

What do today’s relativistic, impatient students need from microeconomics? The primary answer must of course be "microeconomics!"  We ought not lose sight of the fact that a microeconomics class, despite its flaws, contains many things that students need: an understanding of the economy, of social interaction in general, and habits of careful thought.

As important as these benefits are, there are dangers in the microeconomics course.  The principal danger is a false separation between economics and other disciplines.  When economics is oversold—when impermeable barriers are erected between economics and other sciences, between economics and moral inquiry—economics becomes a self-contained world unto itself, able to (and compelled to) explain all social phenomena, its account of human reason and choice the only rigorous, workable one.  This is harmful to students; it reinforces their cultural prejudice that reasonable dialog between persons, between disciplines, between moral traditions, is impossible, and leaves them with a thin utilitarian account of their own choices.

The challenge of the microeconomics teacher is to preserve the goods that economics has to offer without sending the student further down the road to disciplinary isolation and personal disintegration.  Economics as currently taught makes two absolute claims that create needless divisions in the intellect.  Neither of these claims is crucial for microeconomic theory, and both should be heavily qualified.

The Positive-Normative Distinction
The positive-normative distinction is a claim that the science of economics (how to get wealth, the outcomes of exchange, the role of prices, for example) can be separated from ethics (whether one ought to become rich, the purpose of exchange, the morality of prices).  The distinction asserts a level of objectivity in economics that is tremendously attractive to students looking for unbiased perspectives on rancorous policy debates. However, the boundary between economics and ethics is permeable, and the most interesting parts of economics straddle the boundary: explorations of the promise and limitations of markets, optimal tax policy, and pollution regulation, for example.  The careful teacher will make clear just how contingent policy advice is on moral premises – the moral weight given to willingness to pay, the rights of the person, the nature of the common good and the role of the government in pursuing it.  There need not be any conflict between the rigor of the economic analysis and an open acknowledgment of the place of ethics in economic judgment and policy.  Indeed, the economics class which places ethics in its proper place will be more, not less rigorous, because it will bring to light the connections between economic arguments and their ethical premises.

The Economic Model of Decision Making
The economic account of choice is disarmingly simple and common sense: calculate the marginal costs and benefits of an action, and take that action only if the marginal benefits are greater than the marginal costs.  This habit of thinking about costs and benefits is attractive to most students, many of whom have not thought carefully about their actions before.  Like the positive-normative distinction, however, the economic model of decision making is oversold.  The model is narrow and simplistic, and a mathematical expression of utilitarian principles.  The comparison of marginal benefits and marginal costs is only possible when benefits and costs can be expressed in a common metric.  Consumers who do not know what they want, or who know what they want but do not know which goods will provide it, cannot calculate costs and benefits.  In spite of these gaps in the economic model, it is often promoted as the only rational way to make decisions.  Economics itself has been defined as the science of decision making. If this model is taken too seriously, not a s a shorthand description for how people behave but as an ideal of decision making, it will distort not only the student’s understanding of human behavior in markets, but also his understanding of his own nature as a decision maker.

In teaching economics in such a way that students remain connected to the rest of their education, the phrase “first, do no harm” comes to mind. In teaching economics I am offering my students a source of tremendous insight and understanding of the economy and the social order. These insights can be communicated in such a way that students are not cut off from the humanities and from the rest of social science. All it takes is to refrain from building unnecessary intellectual barriers, so that free intellectual trade can develop.

Image credit: By El Greco [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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1 Comment
Lee Trepanier on Jul 21, 2010 at 6:35 am

How do you find your students as well as colleagues react when you incorporate ethics into your economics? And which ethics do you select? Do you find that different ethical theories create different forms of economic analysis?