We economists, and also other social scientists and policy specialists, are often criticized as follows: You recommend some policies over others, and thus make ethical choices. Yet your analyses are ethically naive and impoverished, including only a tiny fraction of the relevant considerations known to professional ethicists. Stop it, learn more on ethics, or admit you make only preliminary rough guesses.
Yes, I agree with this. I think one of the primary causes of confusion on ethical/policy questions comes when people confuse personal desires with institutional outcomes. This confusion occurs in both directions.Bleeding hearts see professionalised institutions acting in a cold/non-ethical way, and judge the institution to be bad because it is not behaving like a warm-hearted person;Self-styled rationalists see the economically beneficial outcomes of professionalised institutional behaviour, and judge warm-hearted people to be bad because their personal preferences do not conform to institutionally-generated optimal solutions.For example, accountants work to minimise the taxes of their clients. They might be criticised for tax avoidance. This misses the point that their institutionalised professional role is to do precisely what they're doing, and that having accountants with clearly-defined roles is better than not having them.But people who wish for taxes to not be minimised also come in for criticism for being impractical, or not understanding business, or whatever. This misunderstands the ethical role of individuals, who are not supposed choose optimal solutions all the time (if they did, we wouldn't need acountants in the first place).
You have a good point, but people have different uses for different ethical standards.
The Hippocratic oath is an excellent, functional *professional* ethic for physicians, because it induces trust in patients.
But, yes, this comes at a (potential, theoretical) cost to the welfare of society as a whole. Are you a strict utilitarian? Do you think it would be ethical for a physician to harvest organs from a patient who would otherwise recover, in order to save the lives of 2 other patients?
A strict utilitarian may not respect property rights - it's OK to steal if the recipients will benefit more than the victim is harmed.
But that has side effects. If you say it's OK to steal in such cases, that causes property owners to spend far more on protection against thieves. It has effects on willingness to make productive investments - no point in investing if someone else will reap the rewards.
These things are complicated. What is ethically correct isn't so obvious to me. Virtually every human society has decided theft isn't OK (except for Marxist ones).
The Hippocratic oath is also a terrible ethical standard. The same goes for the precautionary principle. It's like dealing with the trolly problem by saying: don't touch the lever, no matter what. Dumb oaths and principles just get in the way of doing the right thing.
I don't think it's such a terrible ethical standard - it's equivalant to the Hippocratic oath ("first, do no harm").
Economists, like anyone else, specialize in their thing. Their thing is *efficiency* - how to maximise what you want given limited resources.
"What you want" is what ought to be subject to ethical standards. Once we decide what we want, we should certainly try to get it as efficiently as possible without harming others.
I was referring to your second quoted paragraph. My reply is a general critique of economic efficiency.
Unfortunately, I'm pretty certain that most people most of the time (unless they're specifically and carefully primed not to) interpret all advice (and all explanation, for that matter) as normative (i.e. "here's how things should be") rather than descriptive (i.e. "here's how things are") by default.
I said nothing suggesting a rule of forbidding changes under which some might get less.
The idea of helping people to get more of what they want only if others do not get less of what they want is itself a pretty terrible ethical standard. It means - for example - you can't recommend increasing taxes on billionares and redistributing the wealth to the needy - since that would make the billionares worse off. It's a conservative standard that makes changes difficult - and favors the status quo. Economists are frequently accused of being biased in favor of the rich and powerful - who often pay their wages. This situation is a case in point.