Feb 2, 2013

Morality and political economy in Hume

In his Treatise of Human Nature, Hume argues that reason does not motivate action but rather directs our judgement by informing us about their causes and effects. He distances, in his argument, passions from reason by claiming that passions are not ideas, do not represent anything, are self-contained and thus cannot be contradictory to truth or reason. Moral judgements, according to Hume, are passions and as such they cannot be contrary to reason. For Hume, morality does not consist of immutable principles to be discovered by reason; it is based on human passions, which, through repetition, human beings come to associate with certain moral characteristics. Following on this statement, I here explore the following point: to the extent economic behaviour is determined by passions such as greed, benevolence and pleasure, we cannot separate economic activity and morality. As an extension, morality and political economy are inextricably linked in Hume. This suggests that ethics, through the study of morality and political economy, and the study of economic behaviour and institutions are inseparable subjects. It is interesting to observe this in the work of Hume, a fundamental influence on Adam Smith, one of the most important precursors of modern economics. The paper underlines the importance of understanding the evolution of the history of economic thinking that led to modern-day economics and which, though claiming Hume via Smith as one of its progenitors, argues for a complete separation of ethics and economics. In particular, the separation of positive from normative economics becomes infeasible in light of Hume’s analysis, rendering problematic the claim of modern economics that Hume is the founding father.
From a new paper by Serap Ayşe Kayatekin (Cambridge Journal of Economics, January 2013). I did not find the full paper online.  

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