Moving Past Hume and Back to Aristotle: Sachs on a New Moral Paradigm for Economics

While working this evening I had the distinct pleasure of watching Jeffrey Sachs’ talk at the LSE from two weeks ago, on “Economics for the Common Good,” and I haven’t listened to talk this good in a while. Boiled down, Sachs says that the entire field of economics has missed the point, and goes back to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics to find the point. Focusing particularly on Hume, he says that a bit more than two hundred years ago (i.e., during “The” Enlightenment), “economics went off track, by a profoundly flawed model of human nature, and therefore a flawed model of human purpose, and therefore a field that doesn’t know where it’s heading, because it doesn’t have much of a clear trajectory of what the good is…” The consequences of his argument, and the great difficulties of implementing it, he is well aware of, but devotes the talk mostly to elaborating on argument itself. That is, interpreting and applying the components of Aristotle’s concept of Eudaimonia (“well-being built on virtue”) to modern society, the components being the Individual, Social Norms, and Material Conditions. The warrant for all this is recent advances in neuro-psychology, among other fields, that are changing how we measure progress, happiness, success, etc. (epitomized in the World Happiness Report, which Sachs refers to extensively).

As someone who has come back to embrace the need to articulate a moral center in one’s teaching and writing (let alone living!), this is very exciting stuff. There are connections (and counter-arguments) here to Pinker’s recent work, as well as Max Roser’s site on global living conditions, that I’m working out, but this is exciting stuff. The ideas presented here should be useful as well for shaping WesternCiv courses as well, particularly in Western Civ 2, where the impact of the Enlightenment has always been a bugbear to track, particularly when connected to a global economic approach to modern history, which is what I prefer for surveys.

A final note, Kalev Leetaru’s January ’16 article on mapping world happiness (and unhappiness) is directly connected to this topic. Leetaru’s article draws on his work in connection with GDELT, the Google deep-data tracking of human conflict and “seismic” events.