In order to live, man must act; in order to act, he must make choices; in order to make choices, he must define a code of values … He cannot escape from this need; his only alternative is whether the philosophy guiding him is to be chosen by his mind or by chance.

The quote, from Philosophy and Sense of Life by Ayn Rand, is a less pithy (and less fatalistic) version of Socrates: “An unexamined life is not worth living.”

From A Man For All Seasons by Robert Bolt:

Margaret: In any State that was half good, you would be raised up high, not here, for what you’ve done already. It’s not your fault the State’s three-quarters bad. Then if you elect to suffer for it, you elect yourself a hero.

Thomas More: That’s very neat. But look now … If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good, and greed would make us saintly. And we’d live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes. But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and have to choose, to be human at all … why then perhaps we must stand fast a little — even at the risk of being heroes.

Now, back to grading essays on business ethics …

Despite Nick Carr’s insistence that Greg Mankiw stop blogging to concentrate on his comparative advantage as an economic thinker, I’m glad Mankiw continues with his inefficient pursuit. From a recent entry:

If, however, beauty is correlated with income, which it is, then like height, it should be taxed, even according to the logic of utilitarianism.

Professor Mankiw, citing evidence that better looks lead to higher incomes, notes that a social planner (with commonly assumed preferences), would wish to allocate income from the rich and beautiful to the poor, less well-endowed among us. I fully expected a dismissal of the ethical consequences, in the traditional economic mold, but instead was treated to this:

Most people would reject a beauty tax as absurd, which only goes to show that that most people do not share the moral sentiments often assumed in the economic literature on optimal tax policy.

I sometimes make the mistake of raising a question with colleagues in economics and finance about the ethical implications of traditional economic assumptions. I usually receive some form of “these are just assumptions, not ethical issues” in reply, taking neither side in the debate on scientists’ social responsibility, but simply sidestepping the rhubarb.

After all, how can normative statements in the study of the allocation of scarce resources (the traditional definition of economic science) possibly have ethical implications? Who would even ponder such a thing?

As Vizzini remarked: “Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons!”