Though studies show that telling people that payment encourages organ donations increases support for legalising payments, other examples work in the opposite way.
Giving women information about the health and safety benefits of legalising prostitution seems to reduce support for legalisation—perhaps because women worry about the consequences of applying a cost-benefit approach to areas relating to their status within society.
Do the right thing
Not all economists avoid ethical considerations entirely.
Jean Tirole, another Nobel prizewinner, devoted a chapter of his recent book, “Economics for the Common Good”, to “the moral limits of the market”, for example.
He says economists should respect society’s need to set its own goals, then help devise the most efficient ways to attain them.
But, as Beatrice Cherrier of the Institute for New Economic Thinking argued in an essay addressing Mr Roth’s lecture, these questions are fundamental to economics.
The hard sciences deal much better with the ethical implications of their work, she says.
And moral concerns affect human behaviour in economically important ways, as Mr Roth found to his frustration.
To be useful, economists need to learn to understand and evaluate moral arguments rather than dismiss them.
Many economists will find that a dismal prospect.
Calculations of social utility are tidier, and the profession has fallen out of the habit of moral reasoning.
But those who wish to say what society should be doing cannot dodge questions of values.