Alessandro Lanteri

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LANTERI Alessandro (2008), "The Moral Trial: On Ethics and Economics", Erasmus University Rotterdam:Rotterdam (NL).
Keywords: economics, ethics, experiments, moral trial, self-interest, self-selection, training
Doctoral Dissertation

This dissertation investigates the experimental evidence exposing how economists’ behaviour differs from that of non-economists, in that we are often display more self-interested conduct. A veritable Moral Trial has stemmed from that evidence, in which it is argued that economists are selfish, thus immoral, and it is recommended that we change the teaching of economics. I therefore disassemble the Moral Trial (Section I) and examine the psychological and logical soundness of both evidence and charges (Section II) and I find them lacking in several respects. Finally, I suggest (Section III) an altogether different interpretation of the evidence. The first Section proposes as a starting point a sketch of Economics (Chapter 1) and how it focuses on markets (Chapter 2). It also introduces the main theme of this work: the Moral Trial that has befallen the discipline and its practitioners (Chapter 3). I assess the charges – which are unclear – and the evidence – which I find inconclusive. In the Moral Trial any guilt of economists ought to depend on our being selfish, in a fashion reminiscent of economic men. Section II, therefore, focuses on how humans make sense of individual motivation, behaviour, and consequences and exposes numerous fallacies people incur in when attributing motivation to observed actions (Chapter 4). To even constitute a charge, moreover, selfishness ought to be described as a moral violation, but such case may just be very hard to make (Chapter 5). Although I show that it does not represent sound evidence of selfishness or immorality, the behavioural gap between economists and non-economists requires an explanation beyond my criticism. In last Section, I therefore attend to the task of making sense of economists’ peculiar conduct. I start by emphasising the importance of emotions in decision-making and the ways in which the perception of the choice context affects behaviour (Chapter 6) and I then proceed to argue that economists, in reason of our training and our specialised knowledge, frame situations differently from non-economists and more specifically that we frame most decision contexts as market-like. One could thus explain economists’ behaviour in the experiments by looking at the way in which the different sub-samples of subjects frame situations (Chapter 7). That is only part of the explanation because economics students behave differently from non-econ ones already from the beginning of their training and this may happen because of an economist’s stereotype, to which freshmen adjust upon enrolment (Chapter 8). To conclude, if the teaching of economics matters at all, it is fair that we stand judgement for its effect on our students... are we ruining them? (Chapter 9). The conclusion of this dissertation is that economists frame situations in a way that makes us believe self-interested conduct is fine and therefore behave self-interestedly on several occasions. This peculiar behaviour is probably responsible for the unflattering economic stereotype, which in turn represents a benchmark for young economics students. These explanations of economics students’ behaviour seem sounder than the one prevailing in the literature – namely self-selection, or the fact that selfish people voluntarily enrol in economics (no persuasive rationale has yet been proposed for self-selection). The explanations advanced here, moreover, reject any deep difference between economists and non-economists, which would make it difficult to square with the observations that, on some occasions, economists behave no more selfishly than non-economists. Finally, since the behavioural gap narrows after graduation, it seems that economics teaching has some consequences on its students, but that these consequences wear off with time. The Moral Trial should therefore not be cause of too much concern about the ethics of economists.