Economic Ethics, Moral Decision-Making, and the Moral Background
Much research on morality focuses on a particular kind of thing: moral decisions and choices. This includes both how choices are made (e.g., psychologists’ experiments) and how choices ought to be made (e.g., business ethicists’ prescriptions). It includes why decision-making might go awry (e.g., unethical practices in business and politics) and how to prevent it from going awry (e.g., incentives and nudges). In brief, concepts of decision, decision-making, decision-maker, and choice are prominent in scientific and philosophical work on morality in general—as well as economic ethics in particular. They are also prominent in lay understandings of economic ethics—as well as lay understandings of other domains.
Decision/choice concepts are common in representations of moral life and social practices. Why is that so? Where are they especially common and prominent? What makes them useful tools? How do they contribute to accounts of economic phenomena in particular? These questions aren’t about first-order moral norms, beliefs, and behavior, but about the second-order moral background that enables first-order norms, beliefs, and behavior. Thus, my project furthers the research program proposed in my book, The Moral Background: An Inquiry into the History of Business Ethics (Princeton University Press).
More broadly, I intend to offer a novel approach to the study of morality. In recent years, psychologists, neuroscientists, economists, anthropologists, and sociologists have devoted considerable attention to first-order moral norms, beliefs, and behavior. This is important work. However, my moral background approach is interested in empirical questions of a different sort: given certain moral practices, norms, and institutions in society S at time t, what are they made possible by? What needs to be in place for them to exist at all?
This might lead you to empirically investigate societies’ and groups’ repertoires of moral concepts, the kinds of moral reasons that ordinary people and organizations can and do draw on, and the metaphysical assumptions that they can and do make. It might lead you, too, to empirically investigate what counts as a decision, a choice, a decision-making process, and a decision-maker in S at t.
Max-Weber-Kolleg für kultur- und sozialwissenschaftliche Studien Universität Erfurt Postfach 90 02 21 99105 Erfurt