Economics and Ethics? by P. Groenewegen

By P. Groenewegen

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This undermines the moral commitment of people to the institutions in which they operate, causing them to behave in the fashion assumed by the theory. The recent spread of ‘economic’ thinking into other areas such as business management and public administration is corrosive to the moral fabric of our society and 30 AN ECONOMIST’S VIEW may ultimately be self-defeating. Even normal market transactions, where self-interest is most prevalent, have their own moral codes which are not observed simply out of fear of retribution.

Wilson and Sober (1994) provide a comprehensive survey of the modern literature on group selection. Note that kin selection is a particular form of group selection. 4 The role of sanctions in the learning and preservation of morality is also discussed in Vanberg (1994). He argues that adherence to moral codes is simply a form of routinised behaviour based entirely on long-term self-interest. Individuals are seen as intrinsically selfish, but with limited capacity for gathering and processing information.

Dasgupta (1993) has used this feature of the market to argue for its efficiency as an altruistic device. Consider a society in which citizens care about the welfare of each other. Suppose they express this concern by trying to take into account the effects of every one of their actions upon as many fellow citizens as possible. This will involve an enormous expenditure of effort on seeking information about others and in tracing through the effects of each action. The result will be either chaos or else a greatly reduced level of useful output.

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