Mark D. White (City College of New York – College of Staten Island) presented as part of the Philosophy of Economics symposium at the APA Central Division Meeting in March 2017 in Kansas City. Here Mark reflects on the session.
Mark, for those who missed it, can you give a brief recap of the Philosophy of Economics session in which you participated?
After several last-minute changes to the line-up, the session consisted of two presenters, myself and Patricia Marino (University of Waterloo). Professor Marino spoke about the problem with identifying economic behavior as rational or irrational and the values inherent in any such distinction, especially when it comes to making ad hoc and a priori assumptions about the nature of rationality and what exactly makes a particular decision rational or not. My presentation focused on my work incorporating Kant into economic theory, and where that’s leading in terms of a theory of judgment in which I use Ronald Dworkin’s model of jurisprudence to flesh out Kant’s conception of moral judgment, which I can then apply economic decision-making when there are incommensurate values involved. Our papers fit well together because they both questioned what choices traditional models of economic decision-making consider to be rational in the face of “anomalies,” such as imprudent or principled behavior that isn’t easily explained in the context of constrained preference-satisfaction or utility-maximization.
What’s your interest in this topic?
As I worked toward my PhD in economics in the mid-1990s, I was uncomfortable with the limited ethical foundation of traditional economic models, especially those regarding individual choice, and started exploring areas of philosophy that could fill the gaps. Once I started teaching at the College of Staten Island in what was then the Department of Political Science, Economics, and Philosophy, I was able to indulge my interest in philosophy and develop more fully my Kantian approach to economics, and I have worked predominantly in the philosophy of economics ever since (now as chair of the Department of Philosophy, following the split of the larger department in 2013).
What do you think were the most interesting or contentious points that came up during the session?
I think the most interesting points were in the intersections between the two papers, as I described above. I don’t think there were any contentious points, but the audience contributed some very thoughtful comments. In particular, Professor Don Ross (University College Cork) offered several insights regarding the empirical aspects of the choice models that Professor Marino and I were discussing, as well as some of the day-to-day policy work that economists do (which some of my comments touched on). It was a small group but a very active discussion – I think every member of the audience, as well as the session chair, Eric Hochstein (Washington University in St Louis), contributed something to the discussion.
How do you hope this sort of research might be able to inform public discourse and debates about economic policy?
I would hope it would broaden the approaches to economic choice, in the context of both individual choice and policymaking, to include a richer conception of decision-making than the traditional economic models allow. Behavioral economists, drawing on the work of psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, have done this to some extent, but even they can be too wedded to the framework of constrained preference-satisfaction to see that many factors that affect choice, such as principles and ideals, don’t fit well into that narrow model. As a result, an economist may conclude that a decision based on these factors is irrational, whereas it may very well be rational in a broader sense in the mind of the one making the decision—and to an economist using a broader model of rationality.
Mark D. White is Chair and Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY, where he teaches courses in philosophy, economics, and law. His latest book is Economics and the Virtues, co-edited with Jennifer A. Baker (Oxford University Press). He tweets at @profmdwhite.
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