Economists are frequently (a) subjectivists about value and (b) consequentialists. (a) and (b) are in tension.
Brief dialectical summary:
Non-Consequentialist Philosopher: What should we do?
Typical Economist: Maximize utility!
Philosopher: What should you do?
Economist: Pursue what I value.
Philosopher: What about when pursuing what you value doesn’t maximize utility?
Economist: With good institutions it doesn’t happen that much.
Philosopher: Yeah but why should you support good institutions rather than pursuing other values?
Economist: I like good institutions!
Philosopher: But what about when what you value and maintaining good institutions conflict?
Economist: It doesn’t happen that much.
Philosopher: But what if it happened? What would you have most reason to do?
Economist: It doesn’t happen that much.
Philosopher: <frustrated> But what if it did?!
Economist: <frustrated> But it won’t!
Philosophers typically say consequentialism is an agent-neutral moral theory. Following Doug Portmore (who denies this view), I will say that a theory is agent-neutral if it gives every agent the exact same set of aims and agent-relative otherwise. Consequentialist theories tell us that each person always has reason to maximize good and minimize bad. That is, the reasons for action it identifies are agent-neutral.
And all reasons for action are ultimately based on these. So if consequentialism says that you should follow a rule that maximizes good and the rule permits you to make honeybadger jokes because you like honeybadger jokes and (assuming a subjective theory of value) honeybadger jokes are good for you, then your reason to make honeybadger jokes, while relative to you, is only a reason because it is in accord with a rule that maximizes good.
Ok, so if you’re a consequentialist, then you should believe that reasons for action are fundamentally agent-neutral. So, most economists should believe that reasons for action are fundamentally agent-neutral.
However, economists are subjectivists about value. They think honeybadger jokes are valuable because they are valued by people. There is no such thing as “intrinsic” value because all value derives from valuers and so the value of anything could be removed if valuers valued them differently (oof).
Now it’s probably a conceptual truth that you have reason to pursue what is of value. So if you’re a subjectivist about value, then you think people have reason to pursue what they value. And of course people attach different values to different things, and so each person has reason to pursue different stuff. I have reason to make honeybadger jokes (though my fellow Alabamians have pretty much ruined them for me), but you have reason to indignantly maintain that LoLcat jokes are funnier.
Subjective theories of value (like the standard interpretation of utility theory) suggest that our fundamental reasons are agent-relative. It might be that all people share some reasons, but that’s just the contingent result of us all valuing the same thing in the same way.
So here’s the problem for economists:
(1) If consequentialism is true, then agent-neutral reasons are fundamental.
(2) If the subjective theory of value is true, then agent-neutral reasons are not fundamental.
So it is false that:
(3) Consequentialism & Subjective Theory of Value
I say ditch consequentialism.
Philosophers: If you like, I can discuss attempts to reconcile the first and third personal perspectives in another blog post.
UPDATE: After reading two responses to this post, I realized that I should emphasize that I’m talking about how economists employ the assumptions of their field in their more popular writings and in conversation. I do not think that economics as such requires specific metaethical assumptions.
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