The Problem with Conventional Economics
There are grave problems with Economics as it has typically been taught in universities and business schools around the world. In a modern age when science and technology have done so much to generate wealth and improve dramatically the lives of so many people, a misconceived ‘science’ of economics has often led to badly informed and hugely destructive decision-making in politics and business.
Damage inflicted on the economy has also caused grave harm to individual lives and to our planet. The various economic and financial crises, including the collapse of 2007–8, have clearly shown the inability of modern Economics reliably to predict – let alone avoid – such major events.
Solving the Problem?
Economists have attempted in recent years to ‘refine’ this or that element of existing economic theory, but without addressing the more fundamental issues. A far smaller number of leading economists, and indeed philosophers, have engaged with the deeper problems (Amartya Sen, Charles Taylor, Alasdair McIntyre, Margaret Archer, and Tony Lawson). Such thinkers have questioned some of the fundamental assumptions of Economics, such as the nature of economic agents (i.e. human beings, working individually and collectively), how they make their decisions, and the relation of mathematical models to the real world.
Such advances urgently need to be underpinned by, firstly, a thorough critique of where mainstream economic theory has gone wrong; and secondly, the construction of a comprehensive new economic science. Our project addresses both needs.
‘Economics as a Moral Science’: Foundations of the Project
- Identifying the Problem. Work already undertaken by our project since 2013 has identified the fundamental mistake of mainstream Economics in modelling itself upon the natural sciences. Inspired by Physics and Mathematics, modern economists have attempted to predict the course of economic activities and describe mathematically the underlying ‘mechanisms’. As has been seen, however, such models fail to account for the unpredictability of human behaviour, and often lead to destructive outcomes.
- A New, More Human Science of Economics. Modern economists typically insist that ethics cannot be a part of the science of Economics: Economics must be concerned with what is rather than what should be. However, the work we have undertaken to date has persuaded us to the contrary. Economics needs to be put on a new footing: economic activity is the product of conscious human choices, therefore understanding it properly must necessarily involve the consideration of moral and social questions, and requires a more complex, richer notion of what constitutes human well-being. Our project is contributing to the development of a new economic science that – in sharp contrast with the present model – sees moral judgment as an integral component of economic life.
Methodology and Outcomes
The project is multi-disciplinary in nature, and re-examines economics in the light of philosophy, sociology and anthropology. The tradition of thought from Aristotle through to Thomas Aquinas and beyond illuminates our understanding of moral philosophy, as do later developments reflected in the body of work known as ‘Catholic Social Teaching’.
Our fruitful method of working has been to initiate a series of international conferences [click through to list of participants for each] at the University of Oxford, hosted by the Las Casas Institute at Blackfriars Hall. These allow us to share insights, challenge assumptions, and promote joined-up thinking.
- Peter Róna and Laszlo Zsolnai (eds.) Economics as a Moral Science (Springer, 2017)
- Peter Róna and Laszlo Zsolnai (eds.) Economic Objects and the Objects of Economics (Springer, 2018).
- Peter Róna and Luk Bouckaert (eds.), Art, Spirituality and Economics (Springer, 2018),
Four further volumes of 10–15 papers will be published over the next few years by Springer Publishing together with a monograph volume.
The Las Casas Institute is grateful to the Malinckrodt Foundation and to Porticus for their generous support for this research project.