Cooperation with Economics

One of the lessons I learned through my work on climate change is that philosophy needs to cooperate with other disciplines. Philosophy is immensely influential. Much of the modem world has been built on the thinking of philosophers: science grew out of philosophy, liberalism arose from philosophical thinking, and so on. But philosophy’s influence generally propagates slowly. A few lay people read the writings of philosophers and the message gradually filters through to the general public. Philosophy can influence the world’s response to climate change, too, but we cannot wait for its usual slow propagation. The problem is too urgent.

Instead, we have to work with a discipline whose influence is more rapid: I mean economics. Economists have the ear of governments and other institutions. And economists share with philosophers an interest in some of the same subjects, including aspects of value theory relevant to climate change. For example, they are interested in the value of preserving human life and the relative values of present and future goods.

Economists have a confused attitude to value. Although they make judgments of value all the time, they often think they should not. Look at the following remark from the Synthesis Report of the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report, published in 2001. This is the work of natural scientists more than economists, but it reflects a view that is widely held by economists, too:

Natural, technical, and social sciences can provide essential information and evidence needed for decisions on what constitutes “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” At the same time, such decisions are value judgments determined through socio-political processes.2

(IPCC, 2001, p. 38)

So judgments of value are supposed to be determined through ‘socio-political processes’ rather than by intellectual effort, as other judgments are. The IPCC at that time evidently thought of people’s judgments of value as similar to tastes: not to be assessed as right or wrong. Many natural scientists and economists are still in thrall to the logical positivists. Economists who think this way see their work as a sort of democratic aggregation of the value judgments of individuals (see, for example, Weitzman 2007).

But other economists think differently. Compare this passage, which I managed to insert into the recent Synthesis Report:

Decision-making about climate change involves valuation and mediation among diverse values and may be aided by the analytic methods of several normative disciplines. Ethics analyses the different values involved and the relations between them.... Economics and decision analysis provide quantitative methods of valuation which can be used for estimating the social cost of carbon, in cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness analyses, for optimization in integrated models and elsewhere. Economic methods can reflect ethical principles.

(IPCC, 2014b, pp. 76-77)

Economics makes ethical claims and must be founded on ethics. The job of economists is to recommend and assess economic policies and actions. They say that governments ought to do this or that, or that this policy is better than that one. ‘Ought’ and ‘better’ here can only mean ‘ethically ought’ and ‘ethically better.’

Many economists recognize that economics is founded on ethics. For example, the Stem Review of the Economics of Climate Change (Stern, 2007) says so explicitly. These economists are interested in moral philosophy and are willing to work with philosophers. The ethical arm of economics is oddly known as ‘welfare economics.’ There is no boundary' between philosophy and the deeper reaches of welfare economics. For example, the welfare economics of equality and the philosophy of equality merge together. When I started work for the IPCC, I expected to be fighting continual battles with economists. But actually I found the economists I dealt with cooperative. I think it helped that I have a PhD in economics.

When we came to write the SPM, the important affinity between economists and philosophers became increasingly apparent. I found myself in close alliance with economists, and particularly with the philosophically minded economist Marc Fleurbaey. The affinity is that our respective disciplines are each strongly analytical. We aim at tight, sharp argument. We like to say things precisely and demonstrate them rigorously. In writing the summaries for WG3, we came in contact with other social scientists who think differently. Conflicts arose between those who tried to be definite and those who wanted to soften our statements by caveats and qualifications. I like to use each paragraph in a text to say one thing and, if qualifications are needed, to add them separately. An alternative style is to say everything in one paragraph, replete with ‘although’ and ‘perhaps’ and other sorts of vagueness. The economists and the philosophers generally favored the first approach, and others the second.

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