April 28, 2020

On Saturday, April 25, 2020, Institute for Humane Studies hosted two Busch School professors and thirteen students for a virtual colloquium on markets and morality. The students ranged in their field of study from economics to nursing. In preparation for the colloquium, our students read content from top economists including Nobel Prize winner Vernon Smith and Ludwig von Mises. The colloquium took place on Zoom and through this online plateform each student was able to share their thoughts, ask questions, and provoke healthy debates with each other. 

Dr. Catherine Ruth Pakaluk, Director of Social Research at Busch School, started the discussion off with a general and pressing question: is it immoral to raise prices in a time of crisis? This question is obviously extremely relevant to the economic nature of the United States and the rest of the world during the novel COVID-19 crisis. 

One student began the discussion by stating that in order to truly answer any questions about morality and the market, it is imperative that every economist have an absolute definition of morality. Going further, he tied in his Christian roots stating, “[As a Christian,] God’s law is absolute” and then considered how economists in the Muslim, Jewish, or Buddhist community might set their moral standards. As students of the Catholic University of America, a discussion such as this would not be complete without some tie to Catholic Social Teaching.

Another student argued that in order to link morality with economics, we must first consider “how economic life serves human ethics”. He referenced Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and how true happiness should allow for human flourishing. In his opinion, wealth is not the ultimate goal. “Individuals need to step up” said the student about the responsibility of the economic participant. Many other students agreed with these statements and furthered the discussion, stating things about the general distrust in society and how this distrust contributes to the discussion of morality. One participant mentioned how markets from different cultures respond differently to morality.

Up next was a deeper discussion about social cooperation in markets. It raised the important question: can we get everyone to socially cooperate within the positive aspects of the market? One student thoughtfully answered that market exchange can make people blind to differences. She explained that if people get what they truly want (profit) then it does not matter what people look like, where they come from, or their religion. But how can we use the resources at hand to make sure that this affability continues?

A response to this question involved the idea of government intervention. The general consensus was that most people are weary of the idea of government intervention, but it is ultimately necessary. One student offered that intervention may allow for communication that “desperate times call for desperate measures”, meaning that the problem of hoarding and price gouging may be lessened. “[We so often overlook,] the irresponsibility of the consumer” piped one participant. It is true that some people do not behave in a way that we hope they would, or the way we intend. She attributed this schism to each person placing a different value on certain aspects of the market due to their own circumstances. 

Dr. Michael New, Assistant Professor of Social Research at the Busch School, concluded the colloquium by asking the question again: can markets and morality really go together? The resounding answer is that it depends on the people in the market and on their ethical responsibility to others. Thanks to the IHS and the social research specialists at the Busch School, the students invested in learning about the economy and human behavior are on the right track. Learning how to observe markets and think critically about patterns is half the battle, applying this learning to discussion is the other, and Busch School events like this colloquium are perfect for growing in understanding.

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