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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Higher Education’s Moral Monsters

Are economics majors antisocial?

Economics makes you immoral.

That’s what Amitai Etzioni claimed in a recent article that reviews of 20 years’ worth of studies on the moral choices made by economics students. It’s reiterated in a recent blog post by sociology professor Lisa Wade, titled “Are Economics Majors Anti-Social?” (The first sentence of the post reads, in its entirety, “Yep.”)

Etzioni’s and Wade’s claims are based on studies like the one by Bauman and Rose from 2011, where students were asked

if they’d like to donate to WashPIRG (a left-leaning public interest group) and ATN (a non-partisan group that lobbies to reduce tuition rates).…They found that econ majors were less likely to donate to either cause (the selection hypothesis) and that non-econ majors who had taken econ classes were less likely to donate than non-majors who hadn’t (the indoctrination hypothesis).

Etzioni also refers to a 1981 study by Marwell and Ames in which

participants were given an allotment of tokens to divide between a return-generating private account and a public fund. If every player invested all of their tokens in the public fund, they would all end up with a greater return than if they had all put their money into their respective private accounts. However, if a player defected and invested in the private account while the other players invested in the public fund, s/he would gain an even larger return.

Students without training in economics invested equally in both funds. Students with economic training put 80 percent of their tokens into the private fund.

Clearly, these kids are moral monsters, and those who are training them should be driven out of civilized society.

Let’s look a little more closely

In that Bauman and Rose study, students were asked to choose between donating to a left-leaning public-interest group, donating to a group that lobbies to reduce tuition rates, and not donating at all. What would their results have looked like had students been offered another choice: donating to their church or to a cultural institution? Is it possible that economics students are more politically conservative than other students?

Might they be less likely than other students to think that lobbying for reduced tuition will actually result in reduced tuition, or that reduced tuition is merely an exercise in cost-shifting? Is there a chance that these students aren’t evil but just thinking differently about the choices they are offered?

In the Marwell and Ames study, the economics students are called immoral for investing 80 percent of their funds for their private benefit and investing only 20 percent in the public fund. The other students divided their investments equally. The study asks why the economists are so selfish.

Let’s ask a different question: Why did the economists put anything in the public fund? If economics students are really moral monsters, they should have gone all in on the private fund — keeping all their winnings to themselves. Instead, they chose to invest 20 percent of that potential profit in the public fund. What made them behave so well, given how clearly the game was designed to encourage self-regarding behavior? And why aren’t the other students moral monsters for putting only 50 percent into the public fund?

The studies Etzioni and Wade cite don’t seem to have asked those questions or even thought about them. Maybe they should have.

Let’s talk about fairness

But the big accusation these studies level at economics students is that they just aren’t responsive to questions of fairness. When Marwell and Ames asked the students what distribution of tokens would be fair, “over one-third of economists didn’t answer the question or gave ‘complex, uncodable responses’ (Marwell and Ames 2001, p. 309).” Etzioni also notes that students with economics training are less likely to think it’s unfair to raise the price of bottled water on a hot day. In fact, economics students tend to discount “appeals to fairness” in favor of following the rules of the games or experiments as they have been laid out.

That, according to these studies, is a sign of immorality, antisocial behavior, and moral debasement.

But the psychologist Paul Bloom, the author of Just Babies, has noted that fairness is not simple, clear, or fixed. He writes:

An understanding of fairness goes through considerable development as someone gets older. For young children, fairness pretty much reduces to equality — everyone gets the same. It’s only with development that we come to an appreciation of the complex ways in which fairness might diverge from equality, such as when one person deserves more (by working harder, perhaps) or is in greater need or has been short-changed in the past. In fact, even adults differ in our intuitions about what is, and what is not, fair. This is a domain in which there is a fascinating interplay between innate capacities, cultural learning, and the individual exercise of reason.

In other words, one person’s notion of fairness is often not the same as someone else’s. Might some students think that following the rules is fair? Is it possible that economics students have notions of fairness that are not reducible to simple equality? Could that be what their “complex and uncodable” responses were meant to convey? Perhaps questions about topics like raising the price of bottled water on a hot day require a complicated and nuanced response, not an instinctive and uninformed one.

Here’s the real problem

The real problem with these studies and with these articles that summarize them is not just that the research methods are shaky, the reporting methods are sketchy, and the terminology used — like fairness — is highly subjective. The real problem is the pretense, throughout Wade’s blog post and Etzioni’s article, that there is one, monolithic morality and all other moral inclinations are amoral or monstrous.

Let’s go back to the students in that first study. Many of them clearly felt that it was moral to donate money to a “left-leaning public interest group” or to a lobbying organization. Other students may well have felt that the public-interest group had immoral objectives, or that it is immoral to lobby the government for special (unearned) favors. Both kinds of responses are moral. Both spring from an ethical desire to use resources responsibly. The actions by which different people express that moral desire, however, will vary. That’s not a sign of immorality. That’s a reminder that morality is complicated and rich. It is varied and contextual. And we learn more about it as we practice it.

Think about the question about raising prices on bottled water during a heat wave. Both the noneconomists and the economists want thirsty people to have water to drink on hot days. The noneconomists assume that if you raise the prices, people won’t be able to afford bottled water and they will suffer from thirst. The economists have taken basic micro and perhaps read Economics in One Lesson. They know that if you don’t raise the prices on bottled water during a heat wave, some people will buy a lot more than they need, and lots of people will go without. But if you allow the price of water to rise, more people will be induced to sell water, fewer people will buy more than they need, and everyone will be better off. Faced with the bottled-water question, the intentions of both the economists and the noneconomists are moral. But the consequences are very different. And in many cases, the consequences matter to the questions of morality.

We should be highly suspicious of anyone who claims that studying a particular subject will lead to moral debasement. We should be even more suspicious when the studies on which they base that claim are filled with question begging, facile assumptions, and research design so flawed that even a student of literature can spot the problems.