The NY Times looks at economists and the ‘yuck’ factor here.
You can kill a horse to make pet food in California, but not to feed a person. You can hoist a woman over your shoulder while running a 253-meter obstacle course in the Wife-Carrying World Championship in Finland, but you can’t hold a dwarf-tossing contest in France. You can donate a kidney to prevent a death and be hailed as a hero, but if you take any money for your life-saving offer in the United States, you’ll be jailed.
Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale … conducted a two-year study to try to get at why people consider athletes who take steroids to be cheating, but not those who take vitamins or use personal trainers … The only change that caused the interviewed subjects to alter their objections to steroids was when they were told that everyone else thought it was all right. “People have moral intuitions,” Mr. Bloom said. When it comes to accepting or changing the status quo in these situations, he said, they tended to “defer to experts or the community.”
Often introducing money into the exchange – putting it into the marketplace – is what people find repugnant. Mr. Bloom asserted that money is a relatively new invention in human existence and therefore “unnatural.”
Economists are asking the wrong question, Mr. Bloom said[.] They assume that “everything is subject to market pricing unless proven otherwise.”
“The problem is not that economists are unreasonable people, it’s that they’re evil people,” he said. “They work in a different moral universe. The burden of proof is on someone who wants to include” a transaction in the marketplace.
There is, or ideally is, a permanent distinction in economics between positive statements (statements of fact, shorn of moral interpretation; a statement of what is) and normative statements (moral judgements; a statement of what ought to be). The distinction didn’t originate in economics. We’ve borrowed it from the philosophy department (that economics, like all branches of study, first grew out of). David Hume was using the idea back in 1739, for example.
It’s an enormously powerful technique. It allows us, for example, to observe that there are trade-offs to be balanced in creating optimal tax policy, or that there is a statistically significant correlation between increased rates of abortion and decreased crime rates 20 years later, or that the decision to be a prostitute may be a marginal one instead of a discreet one. These are statements of what is; they are positive statements and can be debated as such. But once a positive statement is agreed upon, it then informs the normative debate.
This is an awkward thing for many non-economists to grasp, because for most of us, our beliefs about facts and beliefs about morals are closely intertwined and even interdependent. None of which is to say that we always can separate the positive from the normative, especially in studying the economics of (government) policy. But even in these cases, attempting to make the separation and acknowledging where any given statement contains an element of the other makes for better, more informed debate.