27 June 2007

Economics vs. applied ethics

Going on my ever-longer reading list: Diane Coyle's The Soulful Science: What Economists Really Do and Why It Matters. (Reviewed this month in Nature.) I confess to wondering about this a lot lately after reading a few trendy new economics books -- in particular, Steven Landsburg's More Sex is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics. It's nice that economists want to extend their paradigm beyond the traditional goods-and-services arena, but the same language that sounds reasonable and useful to me in that arena sounds downright clueless when trying to explain how people make (or ought to make) other, more private decisions (when and with whom to have sex, e.g., borrowing from Landsburg's titular example).

Perhaps this book will turn me around -- I don't want to dislike economics, or the way economists talk about decision-making in ethically-charged situations. What I want is for economics-style thinking to provide some useful information about making decisions on the individual level, where all ethics happens. Maybe this is beyond what economists can legitimately tackle -- we'll see.


JOR said...

Regarding Landsburg's book, economist Robert Murphy has a good article here.