Lay summary

The science of economics has been fundamentally criticized since its very inception nearly two and a half centuries ago—if we accept the common view of Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” as its unofficial birth certificate. Since then many have dismissed the economic view of man as being mainly, if not exclusively, driven by greed as descriptively inaccurate; others have additionally condemned the alleged destructive consequences of this view, especially in its manifestation as utilitarian moral and political philosophy, for virtues like solidarity and justice and accordingly for the cohesion of modern society. This fundamental criticism has gained momentum after what is nowadays called ‘neoclassical economics’ superseded competing approaches as the dominant paradigm of economic science after World War II. The main charge today is that economics increasingly lost contact to social reality primarily due to its increasing mathematical formalization.

It is, however, far from clear that this criticism has to be accepted since its methodological presuppositions are rarely made explicit. In order to clarify its merits, the project will examine the most important critical arguments more closely. It will do so by investigating the work of economist and philosopher Amartya Sen as a case study. This promises to be a fruitful approach because Sen has contributed to the critique of economics as an explanatory and as a normative science since more than four decades. In particular, he can be considered to be representative of the most serious criticism of economics since he has never settled for only negative criticism but has always tried to provide constructive alternatives in order to improve instead of abandon economics as a science. His critique of economic man as a ‘rational fool’ and his capability approach as an alternative to utilitarianism are also attempts to reintegrate economics and philosophy.

The project will mainly proceed by analyzing the two main pillars of Sen’s constructive research program diachronically albeit aiming at systematic insights: On the one hand, it will analyze the systematic development from Sen’s criticism of the ‘neoclassical’ theory of individual decision making to his own theory of identity in order to show its inherent tensions when it comes to his confrontation with Huntington’s notion of a clash of civilizations; on the other hand, it will analyze the inherent tensions in the development of Sen’s own theory of justice and its attempt to steer a middle course between ‘neoclassical’ consequentialism, i.e. utilitarianism, and Kantian contractualism as developed by Rawls or Scanlon.