The Customer is Not Always Right

At first glance, economics and ethics do not fit together as readily as springtime and baseball or politicians and controversy. But in the past some of the most brilliant economists were driven to address urgent social problems of their day. The father of neoclassical economics, Alfred Marshall, wrote that poverty and its removal "give to economic studiesà their chief and their highest interest." Yet the complexity of today's global economy makes thoughtful and relevant ethical reflection a challenge indeed. And the claim of many economists to be doing "value-free" social science has presented a roadblock for ethicists and everyday citizens to strike up meaningful dialogue.

Thus it is good news that the recent Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to Amartya Sen, an Indian-born scholar whose work displays the vital links between economics and ethics. Indeed, no person has thought more carefully about the moral aspects of the foundations of economic theory or of contemporary problems like poverty, population, and inequality. Sen helps us—whether economists, ethicists, or citizen leaders—to understand economic goods and services within a wider framework of what is right and good for persons and societies.

Ethical reflection like Sen's is needed in the face of the sweeping but unspecific claim that "capitalism" has proven itself as the only viable economic system. While it is clear that free markets will—and should—play an important role in modern Western (as well as Westernized) societies, we still must specify the form and role of the market mechanism within the wider society. Broad statements need to be transformed into careful ethical reasoning.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1999
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