Teaching Economics As Though Values Matter

That’s the title of a paper published recently in the The Journal of Applied Public Economics. Here is the abstract:

Economics is permeated with value judgements, and removing them would be neither possible nor desirable. They are consequential, in the sense that they have a sizeable impact on economists’ output. Yet many economists may not even realise they are there. This paper surveys ways in which values influence economic theory and practice and explores some implications for the manner in which economics – especially welfare economics – is taught, practised and communicated. Explicit attention to values needs to be embedded in the teaching of economics at all levels.

Angner, E. (2023), Teaching economics as though values matter. Fiscal Studies, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1111/1475-5890.12336

This really and truly is a paper that you should read in full, so rather than give you my notes about it, I’ll simply note ten points that were very important to me. But I’ll urge you once again to read the whole thing.

  1. Hume’s law is worth noting: “You can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”.
  2. Check the premises of your arguments. Always and everywhere. Students who have just finished reading Ayn Rand might remember a particular phrasing on the part of one of her characters, but the point goes much deeper than that. In this case, what Erik Angner (the author of the paper) is saying is that we should be aware of what values are entering our arguments. To give you just one example: should there be a market for kidneys (or organs in general)? I’m not judging you for your answer, and nor should you judge yourself. But whatever your answer to this question, you are telling yourself a fair bit about your values.
  3. Disagreements can happen either because we fail to agree on what our understanding of reality is (which is relatively easy to correct), or because we have different value systems (which is much more difficult to correct). But begin by trying to understand where the disagreement comes from in the first place.
  4. “Public policy must be responsive to the values of the population in whose name policymakers take action. This is an important lesson for students of economics who subsequently are engaged in policy decisions.”
    This is also why studying only economics isn’t enough to become a good policymaker. Knowing economics is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for formulating policy. (Recommended reading: Where India Goes)
  5. “Most importantly, and particularly when it comes to teaching future generations of economists, we will want to enquire: ‘What and whose values ought to inspire our work – and how?’”
    Answering this question is hard, in part because no single value system has “won”. Perhaps none ever will, and that makes answering this question hard, important, frustrating and rewarding – all at once.
  6. “It is interesting to reflect on why economic pedagogy has become a surprisingly value-free zone. One reason may be that welfare economics itself (as discussed in the introductory paper in this symposium) has not been a prominent area of research for decades, with the publication of key texts dating to the early 1970s. Another is the lasting influence of positivism on economics as a social science committed to a particular conception of the scientific method, from Robbins (1932) through to recent continued insistence on the objectivity of economic analysis. Economists teach as we aim to practise our discipline, with courses – particularly at masters level and beyond – geared to the production of future academic economists rather than students who will work in policy or other domains of economic practice”
    Our job is not to produce more academic economists alone. Our job is also to produce economists who are employable in the world outside of academia. That is actually around eighty percent of our job! You’d be surprised at the number of academicians who do not et this point. At all.
  7. Question number three in macroeconomics is “What can we do to make the world a better place?” The word “better” is inherently subjective, and it is a value judgment. You can’t teach or study economics independent of thinking about, talking about, and explicitly incorporating values into your work.
  8. The work that we do, as economists, needs to be communicated. How we communicate it, through which medium, whether we communicate it or not, how we phrase our communication, are all value judgments.
  9. “Kuhn said a good scientific theory has five qualities, or cognitive virtues: empirical accuracy, consistency, scope, simplicity and fruitfulness.”
    What if you have two competing theories, one being very good in three of these, and another being good in two of these, but with no overlap? Which do you “choose”? How is this not a value judgment?
  10. Erik ends with an excellent list of suggestions that teachers could consider when designing a curriculum designed to surface values:
    Provide historical context | Provide alternative economic perspectives | Articulate relevant values | Practise normative reflection | Use case studies | Encourage epistemic humility

The paper’s concluding paragraph is worth quoting in full:

Recognising that values play an ineliminable role in economic theory and practice does not mean that anything goes, or that economics pedagogy should be used as a vehicle for promoting specific, parochial values and ideologies. It does mean recognising the centrality of values as an input in serious reflection about economic things, as well as helping us develop the requisite sophistication to engage in normative reflection as appropriate – in economic theory, practice, communication and teaching.

Angner, E. (2023), Teaching economics as though values matter. Fiscal Studies, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1111/1475-5890.12336