Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 03/2013

Poisoning the Well, or How Economic Theory Damages Moral Imagination

Julie A. Nelson

October 2012

Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University


Contemporary mainstream economics has widely “poisoned the well” from which people get their ideas about the relationship between economics and ethics. The image of economic life as inherently characterized by self-interest, utility- and profitmaximization, and mechanical controllability has caused many businesspeople, judges, sociologists, philosophers, policymakers, critics of economics, and the public at large to come to tolerate greed and opportunism, or even to expect or encourage them. This essay raises and discusses a number of counterarguments that might be made to the charge that current dominant professional practice is having negative ethical effects, as well as discussing some examples of the harms inflicted in the areas of law, care work, the environment, and ethics itself.