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Moral development of the economic actor

By Stig Ingebrigtsen and Ove Jakobsen

Abstract

In this article we argue that the changes in moral content in economics can be explained as an evolution in accordance with the maturing process presented in Kohlberg's stages of moral development. Firstly, we describe and discuss the three levels of moral progress; pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional as presented in Kohlberg's theory. Secondly, we draw a distinction between classical economics, neoclassical economics, and ecological economics, and discuss to what extent the differences in ethics within the three theories can be explained by referring to the ethical development characterizing Kohlberg's moral stages. Thirdly, we discuss some of the hallmarks characterizing economics based upon what Kohlberg termed, "universal principles" at the highest stage in the development of moral reasoning. To exemplify the evolution of moral reasoning in different economic theories, we describe the changes that take place in the image of man over the last 2-300 years. The human being in economics has been discussed in this journal with reference to three different relations, to himself, community, and nature. We have used the metaphors "economic man", "social man", and "ecological man" to characterize the ethical content of the three first stages. At the first stage, "economic man" interpreted as an egocentric individual seeking personal gain, characterizes classical economics. At the second stage, "social man" seeks the best for a group of people within the perspective of neoclassical economics. At the third stage, "ecological man" is aware of the interrelatedness between economy and nature. Within ecological economics the agent is termed "ecological man" to indicate the interconnectedness between economy and the ecosystems. While being aware of the weakness in predictive power inherent in these kinds of stage theories, we find it stimulating to conclude with a description of economics based upon the ideas characterizing the highest level (stage 7) in Kohlberg's theory. We put forward a hypothesis concerning a fourth stage in the development of economics termed neo-ecological economics. We describe the economic actor as "cosmic man". "Cosmic man" has an extended self and incorporates all the other images of man.Economic actor Economic man Social man Ecological man Cosmic man Kohlberg's stages of moral development

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