research institute for compassionate economics

On honor in economics

Written by Dean Spears on February 24th, 2011
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Waiting in the airport, I just finished philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. With visits with Kant and Prince Hal to the Ming dynasty, Sicily, and northern Pakistan, Appiah explores the tight links between feelings of honor and moral behavior — not so much everyday moral behavior, but the big revolutions that sometimes reshape how people treat one another. Honor can be an ugly, exclusive, and violent social force, but Appiah wants us to embrace honor and bend its course.

As case studies, he considers the end of dueling, Chinese foot binding, and the British slave trade. A professional ethical arguer, Appiah recognizes that ethical arguments did little to advance these revolutions — by the time dueling, footbinding, or this slavery ended, the arguments against them were long well-known. Instead, the sense of honor that had perpetuated them suddenly dismantled them: dueling became silly, footbinding unbecoming, slavery a national disgrace.

Appiah’s previous book was Experiments in Ethics, where he argued that not only do psychology and economics experiments have important things to tell philosophers about what is ethically valuable and achievable, but moreover they have been — from a long and wide enough historical perspective — an important part of ethics all along. So, it is no surprise that he takes honor seriously as a real sense that powerfully motivates people around the world. Like it or not, honor is part of the world we live in — part of us — and can be put to good uses or bad.

Could Appiah’s insights help RICE and others working for poor people? Appiah’s analysis made me wonder if a moral revolution towards the global poor could be hoped for. Like in his cases, philosophers from Jesus Christ to Peter Singer have long argued persuasively that the sorts of middle-class people I am now watching walk through the airport have a serious duty to importantly help the poor (and could do so without sacrificing much at all). Yet, few much consider doing so. Could this be because not helping is not embarrassing, not dishonorable? Would the Americans give more generously if ignoring the distant poor reflected badly on them? On their families? On their country? Should it?

Perhaps development economists like me should turn the honor code on ourselves. The rules of statistical inference depend on everybody privately holding herself to unreasonably high standards. Like in Appiah’s examples, everybody knows that we do not. My netbook can run 20 regressions faster than I can type the command to do so. Researchers are expected to show the robustness of their results to slight changes, but it isn’t hard to search through these. Economists have an economic solution: increase the information (require people to disclose their programs), increase the price of cheating. Yet, the biggest opportunities to cheat — and the temptations that I know because I, too, feel them — come before you ever type the do file, when you are asking your survey questions, designing your experiments, selecting your data sets, deciding which projects to finish… I have come to suspect I lack the self control for empirical research.

Economists sometimes take pride in highlighting their own rational self-interest. Graduate student dinner conversation delights in it. Could we do a better job if instead we had a shared sense of mutual honor? Could advisors impart this to their students? It is almost hard to take seriously the notion of “behavior unbecoming an economist” — and maybe that’s the problem. Of course, it is not at all clear how to get there from here. Perhaps a first step would be to shift honor away from the one-shot clever paper — for example, by hiring graduate students based on their entire dissertations? What might honor among economists look like?