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Dean Peterson, Department of Economics, Seattle University

Economics—reconsidering the nature of the inquiry

There exists a tension between the presentation of economics principles found in modern, orthodox economics texts and the ideas articulated in the New Paradigm for Jesuit business education. On one hand, economics presents itself as scientific. It celebrates its (unsuccessful) attempts to be aethical—value neutral. Its findings, its economic laws, and its conclusions about the value of market economies are seen by young students to have the authority of science. Claims regarding the law of demand or economic efficiency are seen as co-equal to claims regarding the law of gravity or, say, Carnot efficiency from physics. On the other hand, the Paradigm pushes in the other direction. Instead of rejecting discussions of ethics, the Paradigm celebrates a broader, more integrated understanding—including ethics. By no means does it reject the validity or role of the market economy. But it demands critical examination of the role of markets. And it demands that the discussion of markets be expanded—joined to related discussions in other disciplines. Happily, addressing the tension will develop in our students a deeper understanding of economics while simultaneously providing them a sophisticated understanding of the economic issues facing the global community and vision by which to consider policy. That the resolution is welcome and positive, does not mean that addressing the tension will be easy or without controversy. And, it will likely lead to a diminished role for economics in the formation of public policy. Following the above presentation of the tension between the presentation of economics and the ideas from the New Paradigm and its origins, the paper turns to specific features of economic principles. The paper will show that, despite the orthodox presentation of fundamental principles, and despite the disciplines’ commitment to being neutral and scientific, a set of ethical principles do fundamental work. Making these principles clear provides automatically invites discussion of the themes articulated in the Paradigm. A revision of how we present economic ideas offers significant gains for various stakeholders. First and foremost, students benefit. Once the discussion of markets currently contained in economics textbooks is presented in, and critically evaluated from, a wider disciplinary context, students will be better able to see where and when the market contributes to societal welfare and when market results are undesirable. This richer perspective will allow them to participate more thoughtfully in discussions of policy. Second, economics faculty benefit. For those who wish to engage in this process of revisiting the discipline’s vision, it provides a means for those who benefit from their formal economics training and feel that the discipline can play an important role in the formation of policy, but, at the same time, feel constrained by the narrow, self-imposed purview of the discipline. Lastly, Jesuit universities benefit. First, they are more faithful to the more holistic view of education they advocate. Second, it offers a way to differentiate their programs from those offering ‘business as usual.’ The New Paradigm is quite correct in its recognition of a great hunger.