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Economics: Morally Neutral or Normative?

Seth Billingsley is a rising senior at John Brown University where he is pursuing a degree in international business and political science and a minor in economics. He was a participant in the 2020 Summer Honors Program course on “Are Markets Moral? In Search of a Humane Economy” taught by Dr. Mary Hirschfeld.


At school, one of my economics professors frequently wears a green hat embroidered with prominent, white letters. The hat, my professor says, was specially ordered to display one of the phrases he is most associated with: “Neutral Economist.” I am quite fond of this professor, and though I laugh when he quips that wearing this hat exempts him from entering the dangerous realm of normative economics, I also know him personally to be a kind, good man. Despite the message of the hat, he does not actually shy away from normative questions.

Unfortunately, economics as a discipline seems to wear a “Neutral Economist” hat unironically. In other words, the discipline focuses extensively on models, math, and measurements, and not enough on the intrinsic subjects of these models: people. The discipline ultimately falls under the social science umbrella, but more often than not, journals and books featuring an economic label shy away from discussing the human person, choosing instead to favor big picture, systemic views. So frequently, it seems, this essential field sidesteps the ethical and interpersonal questions that are inextricably woven into human nature, and by extension, economics itself.

When the question of whether markets are moral was first posed to me, I argued that markets themselves are amoral; they have no intrinsic moral nature or value, but have the potential to operate in either moral or immoral ways, depending on their process or the good they deliver. At the time, I believed my argument to be sufficient, but I no longer hold to that view. In my response, I conflated the question of whether markets in a theoretical vacuum possess a moral nature with the question of whether real, active market forces do. In only considering the former and avoiding the latter, I took the very same route that so many economists do: I sidestepped the larger issue at hand. Market forces bring ethics into the study of economics because they affect real people and influence moral choices. Our ethical perspectives and worldviews shape every element of our lives, so why should economics not incorporate the large, ethical questions of life into its purview?

Humans value beauty, creation and improvement, not just utility maximization, yet our systems often fail to honor these elements of our nature. Certainly, no economic policy will ever perfectly account for these core elements of our being, but exploring the intersection of economics and virtue is a worthy pursuit. Christians engaging in economics ought to connect “virtue and beauty” with Gospel teachings and, more broadly, theology as a discipline. As Pope John Paul II asserts, inefficiencies “of the economic system [ought] not to be considered simply as a technical problem, but rather a consequence of the violation of the human rights to private initiative, to ownership of property and to freedom in the economic sector.”

This is not to say that economists should abandon the idea of utility maximization or relinquish their descriptive prerogative. Indeed, our society needs economists to model and plot human behavior. The quantitative work produced by the discipline has aided in the reduction of poverty, the liberation of women and minority groups, and so much more. However, knowing how people do behave in markets does not tell us how they should behave in markets. Unless we forge connections between ethics and economics, the second question (which is ultimately more important than the first) will remain unanswered.

Prior to my engagement with Dr. Mary Hirschfeld in the AEI Summer Honors Program course, “Are Markets Moral? In Search of a Humane Economy,” I had not spent a great deal of time exploring the relationships between the disparate fields of theology, ethics, and economics. Now, while I am certainly no theologian, I cannot help but pause when I consider the phrase “Neutral Economist.” Is there really such a thing? Can a field which so directly engages with people—spiritual and infinitely complex beings—really avoid the questions of faith, virtue and ethics? I think not.