The Morality of Economists

IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is charged with attempted rape. (Photo by Harold Cunningham/Getty Images)

L’affaire Strauss-Kahn underscores my view that we economists are as immoral—but also as principled—as any other professionals. Innocent until proven guilty, and all that; but I now know of, or even know personally, economists who have engaged in sexual assault, embezzlement, murder and, of course, clearly immoral acts that are not criminal.

Yet it is also true that we are as generous as any other group. As Yezer, Goldfarb and Poppen showed in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, 1996, learning economics makes you no less charitable in your actions (although not in what you profess) than does studying any other discipline. And each of us can recount instances of personal charity and sacrifice by well-known economists, often on behalf of younger, less well-known colleagues.

As with so many other pairs of individual characteristics, the correlation between morality and, in this case, occupational choice is very low.

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  1. Chris MacDonald says:

    Doesn’t a claim of that kind require more than “I now know of, or even know personally,” a few examples?

    Of course, we have little prior reason to expect that training in any particular discipline will make people better or worse, morally. And surely it depends anyway on the kinds of wrongs that are at stake. One might expect economists, for example, to be particularly aware of the consequences of certain kinds of behaviours (because that’s part of what they study). But that probably isn’t relevant to cases like this one.

    Chris MacDonald

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  2. Mark says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  3. AaronS says:

    Although I tend to regard economists as purely evil (just as a matter of principle–*smile*), I cannot help but think that while the leader of the IMF no doubt richly deserves any comeuppance he gets, this smacks of Nixonian “dirty tricks.”

    Here’s a man who appears to have a good chance of winning an upcoming major election…and right on the cusp of such events, he makes a mistake like this–a crude, boorish sexual attack on some innocent hotel maid?

    Yes, it’s possible that he’s that stupid. And if so, he deserves the electric chair for not only sexually assaulting someone, but for being filthy rich AND French at the same time!

    Sounds like political “tonypandy” (to quote from “The Daughter of Time”).

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  4. MarkWolfinger says:

    Did anyone suggest otherwise?
    Why so defensive?

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  5. shepshedrichtea says:

    Oh dear – all economists work infinance -lets include bad economists with the – feminist economists kind – sure they shag around as well!?

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  6. Even when given the chance to demonstrate their moral rectitude they don’t take it. See ‘ Ethical Economists’

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  7. Corban says:

    I agree that economics does not appreciably affect your morality compared to other professions. However, Strauss-Kahn is not a good example of immorality. Details of the maid-IMF encounter are incongruent with what we’d expect as a classical “old man bangs hot maid” narrative. Her looks affect the magnetism (and thus likelihood of impulsivity) and we don’t know that yet.

    However, we do know that it took them a LONG time to report this encounter. Given that this is a 5-star hotel, a single scream would have several barrel-chested security officers pouncing on anyone who tried to get away. That the finest security was not activated might mean this is a Mixed Motive crime. Namely, something went on between her and the IMF man which caused her to delay. Entering a man’s room while he was naked is probably one of them.

    We can’t ask her to clarify, since she has an incentive not to be truthful. How would an economist tackle this problem?

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  8. Joseph Ryan says:

    Yes sir! Captain Obvious

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