Saturday, January 28, 2012

"The New Theories of Moral Sentiments."

The WSJ talks to Deirdre McCloskey, whose books are on my reading list. She's a major but controversial figure in the economics profession. 

What interests me in particular is she wants to bring the older ethical tradition of discussing the virtues back into economics. And of course I've been interested in those older ethical traditions recently too.


Ms. McCloskey sees a problem in the way that economic models are dominated by a strange, sociopathic character—"Max U" as she calls him, referring to the standard economic problem of maximizing utility subject to various constraints. Her own scholarly work has become increasingly focused on bringing love, hope, faith, courage and other virtues back into economics.


I've also been frustrated with the narrow focus on utility in mainstream economics. She says:


If her talk of ethics sounds fluffy, recall that in 1759 Adam Smith earned his reputation by publishing "The Theory of Moral Sentiments," in which he accounted for the emergence of sympathy and moral judgments. It was only in the 20th century that ethics disappeared from economics, partly as a result of the increased mathematization of the discipline. Ms. McCloskey says it was a fundamental error for economists to start making their arguments in terms of "Max U" alone. "In fact, 'Max U' would be a much more sensible person if he had gender change and became 'Maxine U,'" she chuckles.


She also has a controversial and quite sad personal life, as one of the more prominent transgender people in the country. Deirdre used to be Donald. 

Although many of her colleagues in academia were supportive of her crossing, that period was difficult for her and her family. Her children have cut ties with her, and she has never met her 13-year old grandson. "People throw away love too easily," she told me as we drove to Hartwell House.

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