Markets and Moralities

Advanced Seminar

May 3–7, 2009

Markets and MoralitiesMarkets and MoralitiesAdvanced Seminar Co-Chaired by Peter Benson, Postdoctoral Fellow, Program in Agrarian Studies, Yale University and Edward F. Fischer, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University.Markets and MoralitiesAdvanced Seminar Co-Chaired by Peter Benson, Postdoctoral Fellow, Program in Agrarian Studies, Yale University and Edward F. Fischer, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University.

“Moral values inform economic behavior. On its face, this is an unassailable proposition. Yet economics has long been treated as a moral world unto itself, a domain ruled not by passion and emotion but by the hard calculus of rationality,” wrote co-chairs Peter Benson and Edward Fischer in their proposal for a seminar that was pertinent to current events. “Although economic anthropology has documented how economies, even capitalist ones, are embedded in social processes in culturally specific ways, until recently the specific influences of moral values on economic behavior have remained largely unexplored.”

Building on emerging convergences in moral philosophy, economic anthropology, and behavioral economics, this seminar applied an integrated approach to the study of economic behavior through a renewal of the “moral economy” concept. “In our daily lives, morality is intimately intertwined with our economic decision-making,” said Fischer, using the popularity of fair trade coffee, green products, and the “simple living” movement as examples. “Our approach sees moral values—ideas about what is good and bad, fair and just—as a fundamental nexus of meanings and struggles related to global economic systems and institutions. Our seminar began to document how specific moral values are embedded in global economic systems, and it provided ethnographic examinations of how economic systems and institutions touch down in local and national contexts.”

Adam Smith’s assertion that pursuing one’s self-interest will facilitate the greater good has been oversimplified, said Fischer—Smith’s view was far more complicated—but from an anthropological perspective, “the problem with self-interest is that the self and one’s interests are defined differently in various cultures and contexts. So this understanding can move us toward a different view of enlightened self-interest.”

Co-chair Benson pointed out that “there are serious human conditions at stake—poverty, malnutrition, illness—and we brought this question to the table: What are the moral questions, values, and virtues involved when it comes to making social policy decisions and to shaping markets that can play a beneficial or a detrimental role in improving human conditions?”

The seminar participants brought long-term and in-depth behavioral, ethnographic, and economic research to bear on problems ranging from unemployment of 50 to 80 percent in sub-Saharan Africa and lack of access to energy resources in Bangladesh to ways major tobacco companies avoid effective control measures such as taxes on cigarettes and bans on smoking in public spaces. “These are some of the key case studies we’ll include in the resulting SAR Press volume, showing where markets and
moral questions come together in complicated ways,” said Benson. “Anthropology is looking at social meanings that are associated with consumption, marketing, and corporate behavior. Those meanings are crucial to understanding the complex relationships between markets and moral problems.”

This advanced seminar was generously supported by the Paloheimo Foundation.

Peter Benson, Chair Postdoctoral Fellow, Program in Agrarian Studies, Yale University
Edward F. Fischer, Chair Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University
Joao Biehl Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Princeton University
James Ferguson Chair and Professor, Department of Anthropology, Stanford University
Robert Frank Professor, Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell University
Jonathan Friedman Professor, Department of Sociology, Lund University
Deirdre McCloskey Distinguished Professor, Department of Economics, University of Illinois, Chicago
Anna Tsing Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz
Bart Victor Carl Turner Professor of Moral Leadership, Owen Graduate School of Management, Vanderbilt University
Caitlin Zaloom Assistant Professor, Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University

Sponsored by Paloheimo Foundation

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