Most students view economics as a boring, mathematical subject. This is unfortunate because economics is probably the most important subject students can study. Not only does it help explain how markets allocate resources, but it also offers insights into human action — how individuals make choices.
Why is the study of economics so often more dull than it ought to be? Because many economists who view themselves as scientists only apply the analysis of the natural sciences and mathematics to economics. They exclude philosophy and the moral dimension from discussions of public policy because they believe that including such a perspective would be inappropriate.
This belief comes from the notion of wertfrei (value-free), argued for by both Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman. It has long been paramount in economic analysis. The idea is that positive analysis — neutral, “what is” statements — belongs in the field, while normative analysis, the “should, should not” or value-judgment statements, does not.
Teaching the moral dimensions of economics
To counter this typical pedagogical philosophy, the National Council on Economic Education (now Council for Economic Education) published Teaching the Ethical Foundations of Economics, a book of lesson plans for teachers to use in the classroom by asking students to consider and analyze various ethical issues and the economic consequences of those issues. For example, the first three lessons are, “Does Science Need Ethics?” “What Is the Difference Between Self-Interest and Greed?” and “Do Markets Need Ethical Standards?”
The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty publishes the Journal of Markets and Morality, which includes essays on the moral dimension of economics. Recent articles include “Reconciling the Secular and the Sacred: My Experience in Banking and Academia,” “Common Grace and the Competitive Market System,” and “A Catholic-Personalist Critique of Personalized Customer Service.” The textbook Modern Principles: Microeconomics by Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok includes a chapter titled “Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy.” These are all excellent resources.
Teaching about the moral implications of economic policy and public policy is not only appropriate in the economics classroom; it also increases student interest in learning economics by connecting academic concepts to real life. In my own teaching experience, students have appreciated the inclusion of moral topics in my lectures and class discussions and have enjoyed the discussions in the classroom because we were tackling real-life, relevant issues that were currently in the news and were topics of their own discussions with family and friends.
In addition, exposing students to the moral dimension of economic and public policies requires students to think critically and not just emotionally. I tell my students that I want them to “think the econ” and not just “feel the Bern.”
Inquiry, not indoctrination
Does including moral discussions in the classroom mean that economics professors will attempt to indoctrinate their students with their own moral beliefs?
Economics may face this risk in the same way that other subjects do. I don’t believe that students should be forced to accept a particular normative position on various economics and public policy issues, nor do I preach to students about my own views.
Critics often claim that economics professors are biased in a conservative direction. This claim is arguably incorrect. However, even if it is true, that may actually benefit students.
It is safe to say that the majority of professors in the other disciplines, especially the social sciences, come from a very left-liberal perspective. So, if the economics professor does require students to read essays and watch video clips that come from a liberty-minded perspective, that professor is balancing the student’s education. This one supposed “free-market” or “conservative” class is a drop of water in the ocean that students swim in.
Economics is a fun, relevant subject. Students should not be denied the opportunity to fully engage with it by the notion that the study of economics should be value free.