The best books on economic morality

Why am I passionate about this?

Two self-interested people will try to outperform each other. One will win, the other will lose. If they instead cooperate, both will win a bit, and lose a bit. Is this preferable? I say yes, because in the long term, winning a bit many times, is better than winning a lot, once. Choosing short-term gain at the expense of long-term benefit is a waste of potential for societies and individuals. Traditional morality works, sometimes, in some cases. Rational morality can fill the gaps, and expand the circle of morality so that when higher ideals fail or become too difficult to follow, rationality can be about more than just short-term self-interest.

I wrote...

The Morality of Economic Behaviour: Economics as Ethics

By Vangelis Chiotis,

Book cover of The Morality of Economic Behaviour: Economics as Ethics

What is my book about?

There can be an ethical theory based on self-interested, economic behavior. In The Morality of Economic Behavior I argue that morality can be a side effect of selfish behavior. The argument is not novel; Adam Smith approached economics as a social discipline, with moral implications. Many after him examined the links between rationality and morality looking for a more solid foundation for moral behavior. The book puts together arguments from moral and political philosophy, economics, and game theory to show that the links between economics and morality are stronger than one might think at first. Importantly, when all we ask of people is to be self-interested in order to be moral, moral behavior becomes applicable.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Community of Advantage: A Behavioural Economist's Defence of the Market

Vangelis Chiotis Why did I love this book?

The Community of Advantage is an excellent exposition of how moral philosophy informs and is informed by economics.

The title itself is taken from a political philosopher: John Stuart Mill. There is one caveat: Sugden speaks of behavioral economics, and as such, takes a different approach to rational agency than neoclassical economics.

Individual agency is not moral, but it is not assumed to be rational either. The book, and Sugden’s work as a whole, is of special relevance for two reasons: 1) It links morality with self-interest. 2) It uses society to argue for morality in self-interest.

By Robert Sugden,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Community of Advantage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Community of Advantage asks how economists should do normative analysis. Normative analysis in economics has usually aimed at satisfying individuals' preferences. Its conclusions have supported a long- standing liberal tradition of economics that values economic freedom and views markets favourably. However, behavioural research shows that individuals' preferences, as revealed in choices, are often unstable, and vary according to contextual factors
that seem irrelevant for welfare. Robert Sugden proposes a reformulation of normative economics that is compatible with what is now known about the psychology of choice.

The growing consensus in favour of paternalism and 'nudging' is based on a…

Book cover of Minimal Morality: A Multilevel Social Contract Theory

Vangelis Chiotis Why did I love this book?

Minimal Morality offers an account of moral pluralism to fit modern pluralistic societies that have competing and diverse values and norms.

As opposed to the other books in the list, the moral theory here starts with assumptions about the moral character of agents; “no moral in, no moral out” (p. 7).

However, the books is relevant to the discussion about the links between rational and moral behavior because it discusses different ways to be moral and offers a way to address moral disagreement, which can shed light on the discussion about how to reconcile rationality with morality.

By Michael Moehler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Minimal Morality as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Michael Moehler develops a novel multilevel social contract theory. In contrast to existing theories in the liberal tradition, it does not merely assume a restricted form of reasonable moral pluralism, but is tailored to the conditions of deeply morally pluralistic societies which may be populated by liberal moral agents, nonliberal moral agents, and, according to the traditional understanding of morality, nonmoral agents alike. Moehler draws on the history of the
social contract tradition, especially the work of Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Rawls, and Gauthier, as well as on the work of some of the critics of this tradition, such as Sen…

Book cover of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion

Vangelis Chiotis Why did I love this book?

Paul Bloom wants to persuade the reader to be against empathy, as he is, because morally we’re better off without empathy.

He is right, and I see his argument as similar to the argument made by Sugden, although its structure is very different. Bloome, rightly, says that we cannot rely on empathy to be moral – we need something more and something more tangible.

That something might be rationality, although Bloome himself prefers to speak of reason. Moral theories have for too long relied on unstable ground: empathy and moral character.

If we care about morality, we must ground it on more solid ground.

By Paul Bloom,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Against Empathy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a divided world, empathy is not the solution, it is the problem; a source of prejudice, not kindness.

We think of empathy - the ability to feel the suffering of others for ourselves - as the ultimate source of all good behaviour. But while it inspires care and protection in personal relationships, it has the opposite effect in the wider world. As the latest research in psychology and neuroscience shows, we feel empathy most for those we find attractive and who seem similar to us and not at all for those who are different, distant or anonymous. Empathy therefore…

Book cover of Signals: Evolution, Learning, and Information

Vangelis Chiotis Why did I love this book?

Brian Skyrms works on evolutionary game theory, among other things.

Signals is set in this context but focuses on the importance of information and communication for cooperation, and morality. We cannot cooperate, if we cannot communicate. And we cannot be moral, if we are not cooperative.

Thus, morality is born out of sociability, which is born out of communication. Like Sugden, Skyrms does not assume a moral character but ends up with a moral outcome.

An alternative understanding of Signals is focused on evolution. Signals, meaning and communication follow evolutionary dynamics, similarly to moral and social norms.

Understanding communication is vital to understand our social behavior, and it is especially topical today when communication takes many means and forms.

By Brian Skyrms,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Signals as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Brian Skyrms presents a fascinating exploration of how fundamental signals are to our world. He uses a variety of tools - theories of signaling games, information, evolution, and learning - to investigate how meaning and communication develop. He shows how signaling games themselves evolve, and introduces a new model of learning with invention. The juxtaposition of atomic signals leads to complex signals, as the natural product of gradual process. Signals
operate in networks of senders and receivers at all levels of life. Information is transmitted, but it is also processed in various ways. That is how we think - signals…

Book cover of A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution

Vangelis Chiotis Why did I love this book?

For Gintis, morality is the result of social evolution.

Humans are meant to cooperate and behave morally because of the evolutionary history of our societies. If humans are social animals, then it follows, they must be moral animals as well.

Gintis, unlike the previous authors in the list, focuses on the social, rather than the individual, to also argue for a moral theory that does not depend on or stem from individual moral character, or moral constraints on behavior.

This is an important argument because it highlights, at least implicitly, that we have a lot in common with social animals and as such, we can learn a lot from animal societies, as well as from early human societies.

By Samuel Bowles, Herbert Gintis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Cooperative Species as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why do humans, uniquely among animals, cooperate in large numbers to advance projects for the common good? Contrary to the conventional wisdom in biology and economics, this generous and civic-minded behavior is widespread and cannot be explained simply by far-sighted self-interest or a desire to help close genealogical kin. In A Cooperative Species, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis--pioneers in the new experimental and evolutionary science of human behavior--show that the central issue is not why selfish people act generously, but instead how genetic and cultural evolution has produced a species in which substantial numbers make sacrifices to uphold ethical norms…

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