back to

Can Economists and Humanists Ever Be Friends?



As a writer, John Lanchester is a rarity: he is a critically acclaimed novelist who also understands the nuances of economics and finance, as evidenced in his journalism and nonfiction books. (He united these seemingly divergent interests in his 2013 novel Capital.) Lanchester seems like the perfect person to confront the question of whether economics and the humanities can ever see eye to eye, as he does in this week’s issue of the New Yorker. After examining a trio of recent books that make a laudable attempt to bridge the divide between the two disciplines, Lanchester concludes that it simply can’t be done: “The project of reducing behavior to laws and the project of attending to human beings in all their complexity and specifics are diametrically opposed.” Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

Economics, Morson and Schapiro say, has three systematic biases: it ignores the role of culture, it ignores the fact that “to understand people one must tell stories about them,” and it constantly touches on ethical questions beyond its ken. Culture, stories, and ethics are things that can’t be reduced to equations, and economics accordingly has difficulty with them. Morson and Schapiro’s solution is to use the study of the humanities, and particularly of realist fiction, to broaden perspectives and to reintroduce to economics those three missing factors. Realist fiction, in their view, is the territory of the fox. It is, they argue, based on casuistry, which gets a bad rap but historically was the idea that the ethics of a situation are based on the specifics of the actual case. The authors’ hero is Tolstoy, who understood in his fiction that abstract principles should not triumph over human realities. It is an old idea in philosophy, clearly spelled out by Aristotle: “About some things it is not possible to make a universal statement which shall be correct.” The way to convey this truth is through the humanities, which, “properly taught”—an important part of their argument, since “Cents and Sensibility” has plenty to say about the defects of the contemporary curriculum—“offer an escape from the prison house of self and the limitations of time and place.”

Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Two Archaeologists (detail).


I find this article raises fair point if one accepts a conventional understanding of mainstream economics as would be taught, say, in a business school in the United States of America today.

But the article lacks historical depth and contemporary breadth in its characterization of economics, and I find that puzzling. Surely, the author knows the history and the breadth.

  1. Economics historically was a branch of moral philosophy, since it concerns goods and the norms of their ordering in a society. It was inextricable from politics as a result. Why give economics to an extremely narrow and ultimately contradictory convention of it today, even if that convention is hegemonic? Why not use the critical space in its history and concept to open up the question? After all the article’s question is about the possibility of conceptual schemes cohering.

  2. Economics today does include the capabilities approach, which is majorly institutionalized at the United Nations and in the Human Development and Capabilities Association, whose conferences boast hundreds of academics from around the world every year working in the area. True, at these conferences, there is a clear tension between development economists and, say, scholars of philosophy or political theory. The author’s tension does reappear there. But it’s also not true that the organization does not find a platform and a framework for bringing discussion together around these tensions.

More to the point, the capabilities approach – while not the perfect thing – still most definitely does involve the role of culture at its core and helps analyze it (see the discourse on adaptive preferences, for instance, or on specification of capabilities), emphasizes the narrative imagination and the stories people tell about what they are able to do and to be (I think especially of the subfield of children’s capabilities and education and capabilities here), and is thoroughly involved in moral questions for which it has a coherent and non-exogenous framework.

So there’s some hastiness, overstatement, or something else going on in this article. I find the New Yorker has edited / supported this more than once in the last years, as if it is being sensationalist in a low-burning way. (The other example I have in mind is Paul Bloom’s article on the anti-empathy, anti-sense-of-humanity folk. It was one-sided.)


Jeremy Bendik-Keymer