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Spotlight Durban: National Interests, Ethics, and Climate Change – Don’t Listen to (Most) Economists

by Julie Nelson • November 30, 2011 @ 9:44 am

The U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP17) is taking place in Durban, South Africa. The Spotlight Durban series, a joint series by Real Climate Economics  and Triple Crisis , invites experts to comment on the negotiations and the prospects for real progress addressing climate change in the months and years ahead.

What are the ethical responsibilities of sovereign nations? How can we expect nations to behave, in regards to climate change? We often hear that  nations will inevitably try to shape policy in ways that serve their own interests, where “interests” are largely defined in terms of short-run economic growth. Yet, if every nation sets this as a goal, we are—to use a particularly apt colloquialism—cooked.

I’m afraid that economists are particularly to blame for this perverse framing of the issue. In the economics mainstream, people are thought of as autonomous individuals who are driven by a desire to maximize their own levels of personal satisfaction.  Sociality,  care, ethical responsibilities, and environmental impacts are not part of the story. The insistent teaching of this approach over the last century or so has led many people to believe that selfish and even opportunistic behavior is simply “natural” or “standard” in commercial life—and therefore both excusable and unavoidable. A number of scholars of economics, law, and politics have extended this approach to thinking about governments, considering states as simply  “economic man” writ large. (more…)

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Ethics and the Economist: Beyond the Split

by Julie Nelson • June 13, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

The following is an excerpt from Julie Nelson’s paper for E3 Network, Ethics and the Economist: What Climate Change Demands of Us. You can read part one of her series on ethics and the economist here.

To many economists, the discussion of ethics seems to be beside the point. Economic analysis is sometimes perceived of as value-free and objective, while ethical judgments are normative and subjective. Such views have been debunked at length by climate economists (e.g., Howarth 2003; Dietz and Stern 2008), as well as philosophers (e.g., Putnam 2003; Kitcher 2011), and a full analysis will not be attempted here. Suffice it to note that contemporary Neoclassical orthodoxy contains myriad value-judgments, that only appear as objective from within a culture of disciplinary group-think in which alternatives are simply not entertained. The unquestioned priority given to individual freedom of choice, for example, is clearly a value judgment, in that it ranks freedom above other possible — for example, more pro-social or pro-environment — values. The methodological valuing of the elegance, precision, and “artificial crispness” (Weitzman 2009, 18) of mathematical models of optimization involves a normative and subjective judgment that these qualities are of more worth than other methodological goals, such as richness or realism. And, of course, economists should recognize the issue of opportunity cost: Research is not done in a vacuum, and the very question of our salaries and research budgets is based on decisions that value some lines of research above others. If we are absorbed in rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic when we could have helped chart another course, we will bear some moral responsibility for the ship going down.

Alternatively, we as economists may realize the relevance of ethics, but consider it to be in the domain of the Philosophy Department. Paying more attention to ethics might seem to mean that we must become versed in deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics, Kant, Rawls, Aristotle, and the like — or at least read those economists who try to translate such material into more familiar terms. Believing that such an investment is necessary before one can take an ethical stand, however, could be compared to believing that one must invest in economics graduate training before one can be allowed to make a purchase at the grocery store. Ethics is not something owned by the philosophy department, but rather something we, inescapably, do — just as we also, by virtue of being human, participate in economic life. (more…)

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Ethics and the Economist: What Climate Change Demands of Us

by Julie Nelson • May 5, 2011 @ 10:44 am

The following is based on Julie Nelson’s  paper for E3 Network, Ethics and the Economist: What Climate Change Demands of Us.

Climate change is changing our world. Not only is it changing our physical world, but also our intellectual, social, and moral worlds, in ways that we could not have imagined a generation or two ago. The science of climate change, and the political impasses associated with dealing with it, demonstrate that we are in a profoundly unsafe, interdependent, and uncertain world. We are already experiencing levels of greenhouse gases, the likes of which have not been seen on earth for at least 800,000 years. We are facing a need for globally coordinated action that humans, having evolved in smaller groups of kin and nation, have never before attempted. We are—contrary to our usual processes of learning or transformation—facing a problem of having to act in advance, instead of after, actually experiencing the consequence of our actions. We are, if we are honest about it, facing the possibility that all the skills and knowledge we’ve gained through our physical and social evolution and scientific investigations to date may not be adequate, or of the right kind, to save the human race (and the rest of the life on the planet) from catastrophic, dislocating changes. (more…)

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