Do Normative Economists Need Explicit Moral Premises?
By Bryan Caplan
At the Mont Pelerin Society, the Swedish economist who commented on my paper criticized me for stealth utilitarianism. Since economics by itself has no policy implications, any economist who gives policy advice requires a moral premise. Since I didn’t explicitly endorse any moral premise, he concluded that I was blithely taking utilitarianism for granted.
Most of my reply was fairly obvious: (1) Of course you need moral premises to give policy policy; (2) I’m not a utilitarian; and (3) You don’t have to be a utilitarian to accept my policy advice. Yet in the process of saying the obvious, I realized something: In many cases, there is no need to state your moral premise, because (economics + almost any moral premise) will do.
Suppose legalizing the market in human organs would make sick people healthy and poor people rich. What moral premise would imply “don’t legalize”? Sheer malevolence? Blind adoration of the status quo? While these are coherent moral premises, they’re so rare that addressing them is a waste of time.
Think about it this way: If a doctor told you to wash your hands, would anyone demand to hear his “moral premise”? If you can prevent serious disease with ten seconds of your time and a penny of soap and water, exactly what moral premise would raise doubts about the propriety of hand washing? Yes, it’s trivial to produce logically consistent answers to this question; try the moral premise that “washing hands is infinitely evil.” Frankly, though, who cares about people who morally oppose hand washing? If a view is both ridiculous and rare, why don’t we just silently note that “the marginal benefit of merely acknowledging its existence is less than the marginal cost” – and leave it at that?
I grant that popular moral premises occasionally give conflicting policy recommendations. But if an economist finds that protectionism sharply reduces economic growth and hurts the poor, or that labor market regulations increase unemployment and reduce happiness, he might as well go ahead and condemn these policies without apology – and without further explanation.