All Commentary
Friday, November 1, 2002

Book Review ~ Ethics as Social Science: The Moral Philosophy of Social Cooperation

Edward Elgar o 2001 o 352 pages o $160.00

Reviewed by Gene Callahan

Professor Leland Yeager has had a long and distinguished career as an economist. The focus of his economic research has been on monetary issues, but regular readers of his work will know of his wide range of interests and not be surprised to see him taking on a topic like ethics.

Yeager is to be congratulated for the modesty of his central claim, as demonstrated in the title: Ethics as Social Science, rather than Ethics Is Social Science. It is an important distinction, the significance of which Yeager highlights early on, when he tells us that his approach “recognizes that fact and logic alone cannot recommend private actions and public policies; ethical judgments must also enter in.” Nevertheless, “[k]nowing that ‘good intentions are not enough,’ social science insists on comparing how alternative sets of institutions and rules are likely to work.” Yeager is not attempting to produce a “system” that, when fed an ethical dilemma, will spit out a correct course of action. Rather, he is offering a distinctive vantage point on ethical problems, an angle that may yield a newly illuminative view.

In fact Yeager, following in the footsteps of Karl Popper and William Bartley, explicitly rejects the search for absolutely justified beliefs, in ethics as in other fields. Instead, he endorses Bartley’s pancritical rationalism, holding that our beliefs only should be required to stand up to the best blows that rational criticism can deliver. The search for absolute justification is a snark hunt.

Yeager, as he acknowledges, is following in the footsteps of Ludwig von Mises and Henry Hazlitt in putting forward a utilitarian basis for ethics. He praises Hazlitt’s The Foundations of Morality as the “best single book on ethics that I know of.” Yeager’s book, in fact, “echoes Hazlitt’s ideas” in light of subsequent work in ethical theory. Throughout the book he contrasts utilitarianism with many alternative ethical views, including those of John Rawls, James Buchanan, Murray Rothbard, Robert Nozick, and Tibor Machan. (Among its other virtues, this book will leave the reader with a broad knowledge of current thinking on ethics.)

Yeager writes: “Utilitarianism as I conceive of it is a doctrine whose test of ethical precepts . . . is conduciveness to the success of individuals as they strive to make good lives for themselves. . . . Its fundamental value judgment is approval of happiness.”

Based on his dismissal of calls for the absolute justification of ideas, Yeager does not attempt to provide such a justification for his happiness-based ethics. Instead, he asks critics to put forward a more plausible alternative of their own. He examines many possibilities, finding them all wanting.

Yeager recognizes that “happiness” may appear impossibly vague as the basis for a theory of ethics. Therefore, he further grounds his approach in the notion that social cooperation is so universally necessary to a good human life that it can often serve as a proxy for happiness, albeit one more clear cut. And it is that proxy that yields a role for the social sciences, and especially for economics, in ethical discourse, since economists specialize in studying various attempts to organize social cooperation.

Yeager takes up some common complaints against utilitarianism. While it has often been confused with hedonism, sophisticated utilitarians, such as Hume, Mises, Hazlitt, and Yeager himself, certainly do not recommend a life treading the “primrose path of dalliance.”

Another confusion utilitarianism faces is the common failure to recognize the difference between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism, which Yeager finds untenable, holds that each particular action should be evaluated as to whether it will enhance human happiness or not. Since such an act-by-act evaluation is impossible, act utilitarianism tends to degenerate into simply doing whatever one wants. Rule utilitarianism, embraced by Yeager, holds that moral rules should be evaluated as to whether they will enhance happiness or not. Such an approach avoids the temptation present in act utilitarianism to discard ethical rules whenever you really don’t want to follow them.

Yeager goes on to discuss what is meant by “utility,” the apparent difficulties for utilitarianism posed by the impossibility of summing different people’s utilities, the charge that utilitarianism is immoral, and the relation of utilitarian ethics to duty and altruism. Each topic is covered in an enlightening fashion, building on previous insights.

Yeager’s book should prove valuable even to those who are not ultimately convinced by its arguments because it will persuade them to take utilitarianism seriously. There is an important conversation to be had between various libertarian approaches to ethics, but that conversation is aborted when non-utilitarians attack utilitarian straw men.

Gene Callahan is the author of Economics for Real People and is an adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute