Morality and ECON 101
By Jon Murphy
In Fall 2018, I was assigned to teach International Economic Policy (Econ 385) at George Mason University, a trade class for non-economics majors. As a student of Adam Smith, Frederic Bastiat, and Don Boudreaux, I was excited to teach this class. The miracle of the market was such an eye-opener for me as a high schooler. I could not wait to share my love of economics with students!
My enthusiasm was immediately dampened as I realized I faced many students whose mindset seemed hostile. Extolling the virtues of trade in the standard mutual-gains manner would not fly with this crowd. I had to find another way.
By coincidence, later that same day, Professor Daniel Klein pointed me toward an article in the January 2017 edition of Econ Journal Watch: “Econ 101 Morality: The Amiable, The Mundane, and The Market” by Dwight Lee and JR Clark. Lee and Clark discuss how, as young professors, they faced the same trouble I faced, and how a change of perspective can go a long way in getting people to open their minds to economics.
Lee and Clark explain that there are two modes of morality: (1) amiable morality, which includes the fellow-feeling and gratis things we do for friends and loved ones (virtues like love, charity), and (2) the mundane morality that consists of the rules of mere justice: simply not messing with other people’s stuff and keeping your promises.
Lee and Clark discuss that we come from an ancestral background of “band-man.” When we lived in small bands not much bigger than extended families, we lived always according to the amiable morality of familiars. Indeed, life in the band was enhanced by these virtues.
As our circles of interaction grew with agriculture, settlement, hierarchy, and eventually the expansion of commercial society, the amiable morality was less conducive, and mundane morality was increasingly relied upon. It’s hard to love a merchant whom you see maybe once a year and you cannot expect them to do favors for you. Unfamiliarity and mere justice began to characterize market interactions.
But our genes have not changed that much since 10,000 BC, and the band-man mentality is still natural to us. We are predisposed to see a downplaying of amiable morality as bad. Such instinct is where the student roadblock springs from.
If students see the downplaying of amiable morality as inhumane, then students will have a difficult time accepting the story of markets unless already predisposed to do so. Thus, Lee and Clark propose that we teach the mundane virtues that markets promote alongside the amiable virtues that the market complements.
Telling students about our evolved instincts has a humbling effect. It is a theory of why they are suspicious of markets. We have amiable morality in our bones, because amiable morality worked in the small simple society of familiars. But amiable morality is not sufficient in the modern society, because we live among and depend upon a vast division of labor, of unfamiliars. Amiable morality must be supplement by mundane morality if we are to enjoy prosperity and freedom.
I took Lee and Clark’s advice to heart. My second lecture was on the mundane and the amiable moralities. The students of the class were surprised: what did morality have to do with economics? Isn’t one of our assumptions explicitly that homo economicus is amoral? This discussion allowed a realistic notion of the human being. For the remainder of the semester, as we went over economic concepts, from trade to public choice, we tied it all back to mundane morality and the amiable morality. We discussed how some of the economic issues that arise come from confusing mundane and amiable moralities or treating one kind as superior to the other.
It was a roaring success; the students were engaged, asking great questions, and using the economic way of thinking very instinctually through the lens of the two types of morality. In Spring 2019, when I began teaching Intro to Micro and Macroeconomics at Frederick Community College (MD), I repeated this lesson with similar success. I was able to anticipate many of the standard undergraduate objections to economics and spend time on material. Maybe students were reluctant to seem like they were obstinately “band-man”!
Potentially hostile students were brought in as colleagues in a journey of human understanding. Economics was no longer a war of competing interests and “market power,” but a story of human coordination to achieve amazing things.
At the end of my Fall 2018 Econ 385 class, the student who had been the most suspicious on the first day of class approached me and asked, “what should I read to get more information about what you discussed in class?” I was more than happy to give him Lee and Clark as well as some other liberal writers. To reach out to this one individual and get him interested in engaging in the ideas was, I think, the greatest success.
Jon Murphy is a Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University, where he specializes in Law & Economics and Smithian Political Economy. He previously was an economic consultant in New Hampshire, and he also blogs at www.jonmmurphy.com.