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ethics and economics

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That economics is a value-laden science is not a new idea. Most of the prominent economic thinkers were also philosophers, wary of moral and philosophical content of scientific assumptions, models, and theories. That economics needs philosophy, and the separation between these two cannot be maintained any longer, is gaining recognition, and has become a subject of debates in the field of philosophy of economics that brings together (to various extends) philosophers, mainstream, and heterodox economists. For example, Daniel Hausman (1992) discusses that at an analytic level economists do successfully separate the philosophical and ethical content from economic analysis, albeit this separation is possible only at the analytic level. Karl Polanyi (1957), in his discussion on the entanglement of economic activities in the social totality, gives insights from a different perspective how considering the subject of economic study in social vacuum can in fact lead to thinking that scientific practice indeed has disentangled from society.

Today economists of both mainstream (e.g., Jean Tirole) and heterodox approaches more readily admit: economics is a moral and philosophical science. Yet the meaning and scope of the normative components of economics, the epistemic consequences of the social embeddedness of science, and the social consequences of economics are raising so far inconclusive debates. These issues constitute two-tiered dimensions of scientific rationality: external and internal ones. While the criteria of internal rationality (which constitute the standard approach to scientific rationality) refer to disciplinary epistemology and methodology, the criteria of external rationality involve the axiological, ethical, and societal elements of the process of knowledge production and the social consequences of science.

Interestingly, as Gustav Márquez (2016) points out, even in the field of philosophy of economics, the discussions are often focused on the elements of what I call here internal rationality. Márquez argues that the predominant focus on these issues characterize the mainstream philosophy of economics, while the more normatively-laden issues, such as a broader theoretical reorientation towards more responsive and socially engaged approaches (which I considered as aspects related to the external scientific rationality), are not so much a part of the dominant concerns and discourse.

Why would an external rationality matter? What is the meaning of the social consequences of economics as a science? And how the acknowledgment of the value-laden component of scientific practices plays out in research practices of the scientific community, and of an individual researcher? These questions are not easy to answer, as they involve several complex issues, such as what is the meaning of scientific truth, scientific objectivity, how to account for the normative components of science, or what are the grounds for our confidence in scientific methods and analysis—to name a few. While each of these questions opens a Pandora box by itself, my goal is to simply open up some of the ways these profound issues can be approached for a discussion. My guiding thought is that one of the elements that drastically shapes our take on these questions pertains to the context in which science and the process of knowledge production is considered.

My specific focus will be on the role of science in society and for policy making. In my next entries of the WEA Pedagogy Blog, I am going to consider several issues, problems, and controversies raised at the intersection of economics, society, and policy, with an eye towards their educational and pedagogical challenges. My objective is to problematize, hopefully for a broader discussion with the readers, the fact that the specific philosophical commitments (e.g. ontological and epistemological assumptions about the role of science, function of knowledge, scientific truth, etc.) bear impact on how the epistemic consequences of the value-ladedness of economics are framed, and on the acknowledgment and role assigned to the extra-scientific components of research practices.

References:

Hasuman, Daniel M. 1992. The Inexact and Separate Science of Economics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Márquez, Gustavo. 2016. A Philosophical Framework for Rethinking Theoretical Economics and Philosophy of Economics. London: College Publications.

Polanyi, Karl, [1944] 1957. The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon Press.

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1000 word summary of Quaid-e-Azam Lecture at PSDE 33rd AGM held on 14th Dec, 2017 at Islamabad. Published in Express Tribunethe Nation 13th Jan 2018. 43m Video Lecture on YouTube:

The main thesis of our lecture is that our quest for prosperity has failed to deliver the sought-after goals because we have misunderstood the meaning of prosperity , and looked for it where it cannot be found. We base our economic policies on modern economic theory, which is based on the amazing assumption that human beings act to maximize lifetime consumption, since this is the sole source of human welfare. Human beings are far more generous and cooperative than the assumptions of economic theory allow for. Even more important is Richard Easterlin’s discovery that enormously increased levels of consumption do not bring about corresponding increases in happiness. Consumption only brings short-run happiness; long-run happiness has no correlation with consumption, and is far better correlated with character traits like generosity and gratitude. Mindless pursuit of wealth, implemented by policies to maximize growth, has led to increasing misery, instead of prosperity . Growth-oriented policies have destroyed family lives, engaging all members in production of wealth, and they have damaged our environment, destroying the future of our species for short run gains. Can this damage be reversed? Can we improve human lives and welfare, and also stave off the impending environmental crisis? At the core of the crisis we face is the prioritization of wealth over human beings. A market economy cheapens human beings because it is based on the idea that human lives are commodities for sale in the labor market. Reversing these priorities requires the recognition that all human lives are infinitely precious, with amazing potentials and capabilities for growth in dimensions unknown. Taking this principle seriously would require re-writing all economics textbooks, and radically re-organizing our economic, political and social institutions. Taking collective responsibility to ensure that all members of a society get the chance to develop their capabilities would be a new definition of prosperity , very different from GNP per capita, which is the current focus of policy makers across the globe.

Modern economic theory makes accumulation of wealth the goal of economic activity, and values human lives only to the extent that they contribute to production. How can we reverse these priorities, putting the enrichment and empowerment of human lives at the center, and valuing wealth only to the extent that it is helpful in achieving this goal? The first requirement is to win the battle of ideas, creating consensus on the prioritization of human beings over material wealth. To do this, we need to recognize modern economic theory for what it is, instead of what it claims to be. To accomplish this goal, it is useful to label modern economic theory as Economic Theory of the Top 1% — or ET1% — and explain how all aspects of this theory are designed to portray increasing wealth of the top 1% as the goal of society, and also to show that this serves to benefit the entire society. For example, use of GNP per capita as a yardstick of social welfare exactly fits this description, since gains to the top 1% are first divided over the entire population and then measured, thus appearing to be generally beneficial, when in fact they are not. Overcoming this deception will involve replacing ET1% by ET90% — a new economic theory for the bottom 90%.

Karl Marx clearly recognized the deceptive nature of economic theory, and stated that functioning of capitalism requires convincing the laborers of the necessity and fairness of their own exploitation. ET1% does this by arguing the growth is the best policy to pursue for all, since benefits which obviously accrue to the rich will eventually trickle down to the poor. In contrast, Marx offered us ET90% by asking for a shift from each according to his abilities (to gather wealth) to “each according to his needs”, thereby prioritizing the needs of the poor over growth to provide more wealth to the already wealthy.

As a prescription for change, Marx urged the laborers of the bottom 90% to unite, and throw off their chains.  Experience shows that we can successfully unite laborers to revolt against the capitalists, but after the revolution, control necessarily remains in the hand of a small minority. The nature of power is such that this small minority is likely to be corrupted by it, and use it for personal gains, and to oppress the majority. Just like democracy has failed to give ‘power to the people’, so alternative systems of government also fail.

The Islamic solution works along different dimensions. It seeks to co-opt the rich and powerful, instead of killing them off, and replacing by another set of rich and powerful. This is done by creating social norms of generosity and social responsibility. Fourteen centuries ago, the revolutionary teachings of Islam led backwards and ignorant Arabs to world leadership. These teachings include the ideas that the best leader is the servant of the people, that power is given to us in order to protect the weak, and wealth is meant to be given to the needy. Widespread acceptance of these ideas created a society which provided basic needs, health care, and education to all members using the institutions of Waqf, and the norms of collective social responsibility and brotherhood. Because these ideas have been forgotten, they continue to have the same revolutionary potential today, as they did 1400 years ago. The most important first step in this revolution is sensitizing our hearts to feel compassion for sufferings of all mankind. The feeling that all of the creation is the family of God, and service to humanity, and all living creatures, is the highest form of worship, is essential motivation for the Herculean efforts required to create revolutionary changes required to reverse the increasing concentration of wealth at the top and misery at the bottom.

Because of Western dominance, brilliant thinkers from the East get very little attention in global media. Even though brilliant economists from East Asia and China have created globally acknowledged economic miracles in their countries, none of them have received a Nobel Prize. On the other hand, Western economists whose theories were demonstrably in conflict with the events that took place in the global financial crisis — like Lucas, and Fama — have received Nobels. One of our greatest un-sung Eastern Heroes is Mahbubul Haq. My recently published article describes the revolution he created in economic thought:
HDI

Goethe starts his famous East-West Divan with a poem about the journey (Hegire), both physical and spiritual, from the West to the East. In this essay, we consider the analogous journey from Western to Eastern conceptions of development. This involves switching from viewing humans as producers of wealth, to viewing wealth as a producer of human development. To start with the Western conceptions, both Adam Smith and Karl Marx defined economic growth as the process of accumulation of wealth. The range of diversity of Western thought is bounded by the Left-Right spectrum. Ideas on which both extremes agree command widespread consensus in the West. Consequently, a core concept of modern economic theory is that wealth is the means and ends of the process of economic development. Unfortunately, due to the dominance and influence of Western paradigms, this concept has been widely accepted and adopted in the East today.

Mahbubul Haq was indoctrinated into the Western development paradigm which gives primacy to wealth at leading universities, Yale and Harvard. He got the chance to apply these economic models as the chief economist in Pakistan during the ’60s. However, because of his Eastern upbringing and heritage, he was able to see the murderous message at the heart of the cold mathematics of the Solow-Swan growth models. These models focus on savings, created by reducing present levels of consumption, as the only route to the accumulation of greater future wealth.

Mahbubul Haq realised what is not mentioned in the economics textbooks: obsession with production of wealth requires us to use the sordid and cruel tactic of making workers produce wealth, and refusing to allow them to consume it, in order to buy machines and raw materials. He was clear-sighted enough to see the consequences of these policies: wealth did indeed accumulate, but it went into the pockets of the 22 families, without providing relief to the misery of the masses. Today the global application of capitalist growth strategies has led to a dramatic increase in inequalities both inside nations and across nations. Just one among many horrifying inequality statistics is that the top 13 individuals now have more wealth than the bottom 3.5 billion on the planet.

Dissatisfaction with state-of-the-art Western growth theories led Mahbubul Haq to a revolutionary insight, taken from the heart of the traditions of the East, and having no parallels in current Western economic theories. Instead of capital, Mahbubul Haq placed human beings at the centre of the process of economic growth, returning to the ancient wisdom that “human beings are the means and ends of development”. Even though he was called a heretic for going outside the boundaries of contemporary economic thought, the pragmatic genius of Mahbubul Haq sought to minimise differences and create bridges to conventional thinking in order to achieve acceptance for his radically different approach to development.

His Human Development Index (HDI) was a master stroke, combining two inherently incompatible conceptions of development in a compromise which ceded ground to wealth in order to create international visibility for poverty. His friend and classmate Amartya Sen was reluctant to accept the HDI because of certain inherent flaws in this marriage of fire and water, but eventually agreed to its practical necessity. The pragmatic approach of Mahbubul Haq paid off handsomely when the HDI measure achieved global recognition as rectifying major defects in the standard GDP per capita. Widespread acceptance and use of HDI has led to a radical change in the discourse on development, by adding poverty, health, education and other soft social goals to the pure and simple-minded pursuit of wealth. The revolutionary ideas of Mahbubul Haq have led to improvements in the lives of millions, as global consensus developed on the social goals embodied in the MDGs and SDGs.

The Human Development approach of Mahbubul Haq was carried further by Amartya Sen, who defined development as the freedom to develop human capabilities. This notion, closely aligned with Eastern thought, was so alien to orthodox economists that they rejected it. Consequently, a new human-centred field of development studies emerged, which combined many streams of dissent from orthodoxy. Unfortunately, leaders at the helm of policymaking in the poor countries of the world are trained in orthodox economic theories, and have not assimilated the radical lessons of Mahbubul Haq, acquired from bitter experience. The paths to genuine development lie open, but with their backs to the doors, they are unable to see them.

Conventional growth theories create the mindset that the game is all about wealth creation. We will worry about our poor population only after we acquire sufficient wealth to feed them. The poor are a burden on the development process because providing for them takes away from money desperately needed to finance development of infrastructure, purchase of machinery and raw material, and industrialisation. We cannot afford to feed the poor, if we want to grow rapidly. The human development paradigm stands in dramatic contrast to this currently common mindset among planners. Instead of utilising humans to produce wealth, we utilize wealth to develop human capabilities. Our human population, our poor, are our most precious resource. This point of view receives strong support in the empirical findings of a recent World Bank study entitled “Where is the Wealth of Nations?” The study finds that the wealthiest nations are rich because they spend money to develop their human resources, and not because of natural resources.

Thus, instead of being a burden, our poor are our most efficient means to development. If we use available wealth to improve their lives, to empower them, to educate them, and to provide them with the support they need, they can rapidly change the fate of the nation. Furthermore, they are also the end of the development process — that our goal is NOT to produce more and more wealth, a la Adam Smith and Karl Marx — but to ensure that our people lead rich and fulfilling lives. If we use our energies to achieve this goal, we have already arrived at the destination — we do not need to wait for a distant future where sufficient wealth will accumulate to enable us to take good care of our people.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 20th, 2017.

Part 2 of Lecture on Spirituality and Development: Friday, 27th Jan 2017 by Dr. Asad Zaman, VC PIDE — for Students of Religion & Development Paper, Center of Development Studies, University of Cambridge. Link for part 1: Spirituality . 50m Video lecture:

OUTLINE OF LECTURE:

    1. The meaning of development has varied dramatically across time, space, cultures.
      1. When Britannia ruled the Waves:
        Development definition suited Britain: Sea-Power, Coal Mines, Industry, Climate, Race
        No entry for “democracy” in Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1930
      2. Post-War Rise of USA
        Initial Definition: Democracy, GNP per capita – both criteria serve to ensure leadership of USA.
      3. Later, some Oil Economies had Higher GNP/Capita than USA
        So REDEFINE Development to include Income Distribution, so as to keep US on top
      4. Later, Switzerland, Japan and some other Scandinavian countries had Higher Wealth + Lower Gini. How to measure development to ensure USA is on top? Answer: Redefine Development to include Infrastructure
      5. Conclusion: Definition of Development Changes to suit the powerful. Criteria are chosen to ensure that the powerful are on top.

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Friday, 26th Jan 2017: Lecture by Dr. Asad Zaman, VC PIDE to students at University of Cambridge, Center of Development Studies for Religion & Development paper. 40 minute video recording of lecture on you-tube. For related posts, see: An Islamic Approach to Humanities.

Part 1: “What Is Spirituality?”:  Modern Secular thought takes spirituality and religion to be diseases which affect weak minds not properly trained in the scientific method. Part I of this lecture explain why this view, which is based on positivist ideas, is seriously mistaken. OUTLINE of this lecture is given below

Separate Lecture Part 2:“What is Development” focusing on how spirituality affects how we think about development and how to achieve it.

  1. Standard Modern Answer
    1. Spirituality is a literary term, used to spice up poetry and novels.
    2. It is like Phlogiston, Unicorns, Ghosts, Souls, God
    3. It is one among many medieval beliefs, like flat Earth, which have been proven wrong.
  1. Why don’t we understand spirituality?
    1. Because we have been trained to think like Logical Positivists, EVEN though this philosophy has been proven wrong! Key wrong positivist beliefs:
    2. Unobservables do not matter for science
    3. Science explains the observable patterns. It may postulate things like atoms, gravity, but this is just for convenience. Existence of gravity is not part of scientific assertion.
    4. Kant: Thing-In-Itself is not knowable, not relevant for science. Wittgenstein: Wherof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. ALSO, The human body is best picture of the human soul (That is, observables matter, unobservables don’t)
    5. SCIENCE is the ONLY source of valid knowledge.

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Ifaohungermapf any group of concerned citizens would gather to discuss economic problems, it would seem natural to begin with the problem of feeding the hungry. Strangely enough, one would not encounter this problem within a standard course of study of economic theory at any of the leading universities throughout the world. This is due to two major mistakes made in the formulation of conventional economic theories currently being taught and practised throughout the globe. The first mistake is the idea that the goal of an economic system is the production of wealth, broadly defined. For example, Adam Smith takes the fundamental economic problem to be the production of wealth. The maximisation of GNP per capita currently forms the core of economic growth theory. The value of human life can be evaluated in terms of how much wealth the human can produce. This also accounts for the use of the degrading term ‘human resource’, which basically puts humans on a par with other resources, like factories and machines, as inputs to the production process.

A revolution in economic theory would result if we replace this completely mistaken idea with its opposite: the goal of an economic system is to increase human welfare. Wealth is important only to the extent that it can bring about increases in human welfare. In conjunction with wealth, many other types of invisible inputs, such as social capital, cultural norms and institutional structures also play an important role in determining human welfare, broadly understood in terms of all dimensions of life which contribute to our collective well-being. Wealth, industry and production of goods and services are resources to be used to help improve human lives. A central goal of economics should be the relation between resources, and their relative efficiency at contributing to human welfare. In particular, providing food to the hungry is clearly the single most important and universal invariant in production of human welfare. The fundamental economic problem is to study how to use a given amount of wealth to produce the maximum amount of welfare.

The second mistake, engendered by the first, is the idea that investment in physical capital is the main source of growth and development. Mahbubul Haq pioneered the replacement of GNP by the Human Development Index. Similarly, Amartya Sen in his book, Development As Freedom, argues that progress is about the development of human capabilities. The UN now defines development as the ability “to lead long and healthy lives, to be knowledgeable, to have access to the resources needed for a decent standard of living and to be able to participate in the life of the community”. Of course, food is the sine qua non of human development. Many factors not usually considered by economists also play an important role in improving quality of life. The elements of trust, cooperation, culture and communities are gradually gaining recognition as important contributors to welfare.

A revolution in planning for growth would result from taking seriously the idea that human beings have far more capabilities and potential than any kind of machine. History gives us many examples of human beings who have changed the world. Given the right environment and training, all children have the potential to achieve extraordinary genius. It is our collective task as a society to ensure that all children get the opportunity to develop this potential. The economic system is valuable only as a means to achieving this goal. This means that providing basic necessities like food, healthcare and education is actually the most valuable investment we can make. Unfortunately, conventional theories of growth, currently routinely being applied throughout the world, do not recognise this fact. As a result, these false economic theories lead us to invest in industry, instead of our children, who represent our greatest potential and our future.

The spectacular failure of conventional economic theories during the global financial crisis has strengthened and created several movements for reform of these theories, ranging from mild to radical and revolutionary. Many of these reforms are taking on board the idea that economic growth is a means to providing for the people. Our greatest treasure is our people and investing in them is the surest path to prosperity.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 23rd, 2015.

A driving spirit of the modern age is the desire to banish all speculation about things beyond the physical and observable realms of our existence. This spirit was well expressed by one of the leading Enlightenment philosophers, David Hume, who called for burning all books which did not deal with the observable and quantifiable phenomena: “If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

This is a breathtakingly bold assertion. The literate reader may examine his or her bookshelf to see what little, if anything, would survive after applying Hume’s prescriptions. Nonetheless, the spirit of the secular age was very much in tune with Hume, and relegated vast areas of human knowledge captured in literature, history, and the arts, to second-class citizenship. The modern world has been shaped by this downgrading of the spiritual, intuitive, and mystical, and the elevation of the rational as supreme judge and arbiter over all other faculties.

The leaders of the Enlightenment advocated rationality as the sole criterion for establishing an authoritative system of ethics, aesthetics, and knowledge. This has led to a dualism which has become firmly embedded in the foundations of Western thought, and has created a social science incapable of perceiving, let alone solving the problems currently being faced by humanity as a whole. Western hegemony has led to the global and widespread acceptance of this dualism, clearly expressed by Hume, in embracing the quantitative and passionately and violently rejecting the qualitative. Exploring the full range of difficulties caused by this dualism would take several books. In this essay we consider just one of the salient problems. Harvard Professor Julie Reuben expressed it as follows: “Truth was (a united whole) embracing spiritual, moral, and cognitive knowledge. By the 1930’s, this unity was shattered; factual cognitive knowledge (was separated from) moral/spiritual knowledge.”

The Enlightenment project had aimed to provide rational foundations for all human knowledge. However, influential intellectuals like Max Weber, in the early twentieth century, argued that scientific knowledge had to be value-free, because values could not be established empirically. Widespread acceptance of this rejection of morality and spirituality has had dramatic consequences in all realms of human life. The most important questions that we face as human beings were declared to be meaningless, and unworthy of our attention and study. We all recognize that our own life is an infinitely precious gift; the most important question we face is: how should we use this gift? What is the purpose or meaning of life? What characterizes the ‘good life’ and what steps can we take to achieve a lifestyle which embodies the good?

Influential positivist philosophers argued that these questions had no meaning, because there was no empirical or observational evidence which could be used to answer them. All answers were equally valid. We should simply do with our lives whatever we desire to do. There were no ethical or moral standards to guide our behavior. As one of the leading positivist philosophers, A J Ayer, stated: “Moral judgments are as meaningless as a cry of pain”. Centuries of traditional wisdom about life was discarded as meaningless noise, and the new generations were encouraged to work out answers to these deep and difficult questions on their own, starting from scratch. To understand the catastrophic consequences of this, imagine what would happen if we threw out accumulated wisdom in medicine (or any other field of knowledge), and started again from scratch.

The key to the social sciences is an understanding of the nature of human beings. Can we understand human lives without understanding responsibility, conscience, courage, love, heroism and cowardice, trust, jealousy and the enormous range of human emotions? All of these elements of human lives are deeply and inherently qualitative and cannot be measured on any scales. Thus, by definition, these do not qualify for inclusion in the realm of scientific knowledge. The wisdom of the ancients, contained in books discussing these concepts in literary and philosophical terms, without measurement and data, would deserve to be burned according to Hume. But all this book-burning would leave us without any guidance on issues central to human affairs.

The dualism that deified science, and scoffed at that qualitative and unmeasurable, resulted in a tremendous loss of knowledge about the nature of human beings and society. We are living with the consequences of a college education which teaches students how to build bombs, but nothing about the ethics of killing innocents. As a chilling example, consider the changing attitudes towards torture and murder. Japanese soldiers were executed for torturing American POW using waterboarding, and American soldiers in Vietnam were tried for such treatment of Vietnamese prisoners. But recent Presidents have thrown their full support behind the use of extreme torture techniques, officially approving their use. Hollywood movies glorify and justify torture, even though empirical evidence shows that it does not work to obtain useful intelligence. Official reports show that senior officials in the UK and the US concocted evidence to fool the public into supporting the invasion of Iraq, resulting in deaths of millions of innocent civilians, and unnecessary expense of trillions of dollars. But no one has been convicted of any wrongdoing. MBAs are taught that the bottom line is all that matters, and social responsibility should not interfere with the pursuit of profits. Thus, there is no outrage at the deaths of the poor and hungry farmers, caused by millions of dollars spent on research to produce genetically modified terminating seeds, so that rich organisations can make more profits by selling seeds every year. Even justice has been separated from morality; in the adversarial system, lawyers are taught that their responsibility is to win the case for their clients, regardless of whether or not justice would be served by this win. Reform requires deep and fundamental changes in the system of education, which needs to be firmly grounded in all those ideas that have been kicked out of the curriculum as ‘unscientific’.

Short Posts on Diverse Topics: My author page on LinkedIn. Other works: Index . Related: Re-Enchanting the World.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 15th, 2016.ethicseducation