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Overcoming Positivism In Economics: Amartya Sen'S Project Of Infusing Ethics Into Economics


  • Alvey, James E.


Logical Positivism, which arose in philosophy early in the twentieth century, proclaimed the sharp distinction between facts and values. Despite objections at the time, positivism was imported into economics in the 1930s. Over time, objections lessened; economics was transformed and ethical considerations were driven out of its core. In the 1950s, debates about positivism arose within the discipline which had exported it. According to the American philosopher Hilary Putnam, the fact/value distinction is now discredited in philosophy. If that is so, the methodological foundations of contemporary economics are also discredited. In this article I examine Amartya Sen’s moral science of economics. First, I will present his historical account of the connections between economics and ethics. Sen claims that there was a close connection between the two until positivism was imported. Second, I will sketch some of Sen’s ethical objections to modern economics, which is still suffering from positivism. Finally, I will lay out some of his ideas on how economics can be returned to an ethical path. Once the ground has been cleared of positivism, ethics can re-emerge in economics in various ways. One path has been marked out by Sen.

Suggested Citation

  • Alvey, James E., 2005. "Overcoming Positivism In Economics: Amartya Sen'S Project Of Infusing Ethics Into Economics," Discussion Papers 23702, Massey University, Department of Applied and International Economics.
  • Handle: RePEc:ags:masddp:23702

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Sen, Amartya K, 1980. "Description as Choice," Oxford Economic Papers, Oxford University Press, vol. 32(3), pages 353-369, November.
    2. Sen, Amartya K, 1973. "Behaviour and the Concept of Preference," Economica, London School of Economics and Political Science, vol. 40(159), pages 241-259, August.
    3. Pundarik Mukhopadhaya & Srikanta Chatterjee, 2000. "Unfashionable economics selected contributions of Amartya K. Sen: 1998 economics nobel laureate," New Zealand Economic Papers, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 34(1), pages 25-51.
    4. Sen, Amartya, 1983. "Poor, Relatively Speaking," Oxford Economic Papers, Oxford University Press, vol. 35(2), pages 153-169, July.
    5. Sudhir Anand & Martin Ravallion, 1993. "Human Development in Poor Countries: On the Role of Private Incomes and Public Services," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 7(1), pages 133-150, Winter.
    6. Klamer, Arjo, 1989. "A Conversation with Amartya Sen," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 3(1), pages 135-150, Winter.
    7. Srinivasan, T N, 1994. "Human Development: A New Paradigm or Reinvention of the Wheel?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 84(2), pages 238-243, May.
    8. Alvey, James E., 2004. "Context And Its Relevance For Adam Smith'S Theological And Teleological Views, The Foundation Of His System Of Thought," Discussion Papers 23715, Massey University, Department of Applied and International Economics.
    9. Sen, Amartya, 1993. "Internal Consistency of Choice," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 61(3), pages 495-521, May.
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    Cited by:

    1. James E. Alvey, 2011. "The foundations of the ethical tradition of economics: Plato'sRepublic," International Journal of Social Economics, Emerald Group Publishing, vol. 38(10), pages 824-846, August.
    2. Diebel, Penelope L., 2008. "Ethics and Agriculture: A Teaching Perspective," Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Western Agricultural Economics Association, vol. 33(3), December.
    3. Mejía Cubillos, Javier, 2012. "Ética y Justicia. Reflexiones a partir de The Idea of Justice de Amartya Sen
      [Ethics and justice. Reflections on The Idea of ​​Justice by Amartya Sen]
      ," MPRA Paper 37458, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    4. James E. Alvey, 2011. "A Short History of Ethics and Economics," Books, Edward Elgar Publishing, number 12674.


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