August 31, 2005

Boundaries of Technique Review

The book Boundaries of Technique by Andrew Yuengert is a technical and specialized book. It is one that I would only recommend to those with a deep interest in economics and ethics or those who are students of economics.

Having a tangential interest in economic theory and interest in ethics and the works of Thomas Aquinas I was initially very interested in reading this book. However, I quickly realized that my interest was not of the depth required to enjoy this book. Several times I have tried to pick up and get through the book and several times I failed. Yet having agreed to review the book I picked it up again determined to get through it.

This time I tried to approach it as if I had the interest of an economist and then the book was easier to read even interesting in ways. Once I could get past my initial holdups and accept that this book was not going to be light reading I was able to move through the book and grasp the main ideas in the book.

Yuengert, a professor at Pepperdine University focuses on redefining the distinction between positive and normative economics. He begins the book with a history of the rise in fact/value economic distinctions and separates that from positive/normative economic distinctions. This part may be tough to get through if you are not an economist - I found it was. Yet sticking with it you get to the more interesting part of the book - the author's thesis:

"It is the thesis of this book that an alternative account of the positive-normative distinction can be formulated from the moral philosophy of the medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas...The Thomistic approach differs from recent analytical approach in that its focus is on human action - it is practical, not theoretical. Such an account will focus on the values of economists (we will call them ends) and the ways in which they are expressed in research actions."

Yuenagert, using this Thomistic analysis is able to provide a new framework for looking at the positive/normative distinction in a practical way. The author examines how economists conduct their theoretical research and apply that in their actions. The book goes on to outline Aquinas's moral philosophy, discuss the ends of human action and their hierarchies, compare Aquinas's time with modern day context and examines flaws in the separation of ethics and economics. He concludes with a summary and suggestions of where to go from here.

This statement from his conclusion is worth mentioning:

"The Thomistic tradition offers a framework within which to think about the role of ethics in economics. I will be content if economists begin to reason within that framework. I am convinced that even a small move along the neglected dimension of human action will yield large marginal benefits for the discipline."

What Yuengert is really asking is that economists examine the "Why am I doing this" more than they currently do now. For an economists values, ethics, goals and purposes can and often will affect their research and work and therefore they need to be aware of this connection. While this may seem like an oversimplification of a complexly written book - in his conclusion Yuengert keeps coming back to this very issue.

Again this book is not for everyone. It is written in technical language, often reading more like a dissertation than a book for common consideration. Yet Yuengart's audience is specialized and if you fall into it you will enjoy the book and come face to face with some realities in modern day economics that need to be dealt with and possibly changed. Yuengert provides a framework for justifying more humanistic economic research and actions using the well known work of Thomas Aquinas. If you are an economist, or student of economics or even a philosopher you should read this book. If you have an interest in economics and research but are not a scholar you may still enjoy the book if you can adapt to the technical, scholarly way in which it is written.

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