Economics, Academic Philosophy

Rawls on Economists and Philosophers

My colleague David Levy recently alerted me to a discussion in Rawls’s Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy (2007, p. 162) on the intellectual relationship between economists and philosophers.  As Rawls points out Hume and Smith were both utilitarian philosophers and economists, and the same is true for Bentham, James Mill, John Stuart Mill and Henry Sidgewick.  “Utilitarianism,” Rawls states,  “is perhaps unique in its collective brilliance. It has run at least from the early part of the 18th century to the present time and has been marked by a long line of brilliant writers who have learned from each other.”  He concludes that “As a result, having evolved continuously over nearly three centuries, it is probably the most impressive tradition in moral philosophy.”  Sadly, though he notes, “since 1900 the tradition has divided into two more or less mutually-ignoring groups, the economists and the philosophers, to the reciprocal disadvantage of both.”

What do you think of this observation by Rawls?

I also wonder what the implications are if we didn’t fall into “mutually-ignoring groups” — tonight in my seminar we will be discussing The Liberal Archipelago.  Kukathus’s book has been one of my favorite statements of the vision of a “good society” that I share.  The issue of minority rights and the least advantaged are of course central to the argument, but the critical point from my perspective in the institutional fix and safe-guards through political decentralization, within a broader framework that allows different groups to co-exist while also ensuring that exit is not just a theoretical aspiration.

Can that vision of the “good society” exist independent of the economic analysis of institutional structure and competition?

  • TracyW

    I have found myself wondering this from time to time. For example, Coases’s Theorem indicates that assignment of property rights to someone can be much more important for economic efficiency than who those property rights are assigned to. But economics doesn’t have a language for talking about who property rights should be assigned to, outside the language of incentives. And philosophers don’t seem to address such practical questions (or maybe they do and I’ve never just come across it). 

  • j_m_h

    Doesn’t the flip hold as well? What good is economic analysis of institution and compeition without a vision of the good society?

    Personally I think economics has lost more than philosophy. Reminds me of Jack High’s old question about economics really being “wertfrei”.