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Marc Cohen, Dean Peterson

Two (seemingly unrelated) discourses on markets: ethics and economics

This paper reports on a project aimed at integrating the teaching of ethics within the curriculum of Seattle University’s Albers School of Business and Economics. The project is sponsored by Seattle University’s Center for Business Ethics and involves faculty responsible for teaching business ethics and microeconomics. It builds on earlier work from the authors: Cohen and Peterson, “The Implicit Morality of the Market and Joseph Heath’s Market Failures Approach to Business Ethics,” Journal of Business Ethics, 2018, and Carrithers and Peterson, “Conflicting Views of Markets and Economic Justice: Implications for Student Learning,” Journal of Business Ethics, 2006. The paper begins by describing a problem—a disconnect in our teaching of markets, market economies, the ethics associated with markets and market systems—and the implications of this problem for students. All Albers students are required to take Principles of Microeconomics and they are required to take Business Ethics. Both classes devote considerable time to discussions of markets and market systems. Unfortunately, paradoxically, from the perspective of our students, the two courses are unrelated. To our students the two classes travel on different planes or operate in different, independent spheres. In microeconomics classes, students compute and study equilibrium and efficiency results; and the message regarding markets is generally positive—markets promote society’s welfare. The message in business ethics classes, however, is different. Arguments for markets are shown to ignore important ethical considerations—certain markets are shown to be outright unethical. Further, the market is often presented as a direct threat to the environment. For the student, then, one class shows the market as a positive force, the other shows it as the source of great harm. Such a profound separation makes it impossible for a student to appreciate the vices and virtues of a market system and completely unable to contribute as a citizen to discussions of economic policy. Having stated the problem, the paper next presents a set of curricular reforms designed to promote a complex, critical evaluation of markets and market activity. The curricular changes consist of new readings, changes in class discussions and new assignments. The goal of these changes is to make clear to students the overlap between economic theory and ethics and create a framework for understanding when arguments for markets are strongest and when they are weakest. Ultimately, this should allow for much improved participation in discussions of public policy.