Does Morality Interfere With Research?

Christine Whelan | Posted on 03/24/10

Do we need to be freed from morality to do good research?

Should economists be concerned with morals?

In a post yesterday on the Freakonomics blog, Stephen J. Dubner writes

economists - academic economists in particular - are generally free from the political and moral boundaries that restrict most people, and are therefore able to offer analysis or recommendations that politicians, e.g., wouldn't go near with a ten-foot pole.

I'm all for rigorous academic research and presentations of findings, even if we disagree with them. I find the research on the rise in premarital sex that Dubner highlights fascinating. And I'm a huge fan of the whole Freakanomics approach generally. But I'm stuck on the implication in this post that to be a good academic means to have no morals.

There are Institutional Review Boards at every major research University in the country that would disagree with this, I'd imagine.

My hope is that what Dubner meant to say was that economists work with the data and numbers and report what they find, regardless of whether it goes against conventional wisdom or tells us something negative about our culture. But taken at face value, the post does raise some interesting questions:

Do we need to be freed from morality to do good research? Or must we be guided by morals to search out true answers?

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