Gary Saul Morson & Morton Schapiro: How the study of economics can benefit from the humanities

CentsEconomists often act as if their methods explain all human behavior. But in Cents and Sensibility, an eminent literary critic and a leading economist make the case that the humanities, especially the study of literature, offer economists ways to make their models more realistic, their predictions more accurate, and their policies more effective and just. Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro argue that economists need a richer appreciation of behavior, ethics, culture, and narrative—all of which the great writers teach better than anyone. Original, provocative, and inspiring, Cents and Sensibility brings economics back to its place in the human conversation. Read on to learn more about how the study of economics is lacking, the misreading of Adam Smith, and how the humanities can help.

You clearly think that economics as traditionally practiced is lacking in fundamental ways. Why?
We believe that economic models could be more realistic, their predictions more accurate, and their policies more effective and just, if economics opened itself up to learning from other fields.

But don’t economists already work on subjects within the typical domain of such disciplines as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and history, among others?
It is true that economists apply their models very widely, but they often expropriate topics rather than sincerely engage with other fields. Too often economists act as if other disciplines have the questions, and economics has the answers. It is one thing to tread on the territory of another discipline; it is quite another to be willing to learn from it. Economists have often been imperialistic, presuming that the subject matter of other disciplines could be put on a “sound basis” if handled by economic models. They rarely ask whether the methods and assumptions of other disciplines might help economics. We need a dialogue, and a dialogue goes both ways.

You say that economics can be improved by interaction with the humanities, and especially the study of literature. In what ways does economics fall short so that an understanding of literature might help?
Economists have an especially hard time in three sorts of situations: when culture plays an important role, since one cannot mathematize culture; when contingency prevails and narrative explanation is required; and when ethical problems irreducible to economic models are important. For instance, whether to have a market in kidneys—one topic we address—is not a question that can be adequately addressed solely in economic terms. Economic thinking has something useful to say in many such cases, but not everything.  Great works of literature have offered the richest portraits of human beings we have. If social scientists understood as much about human beings as the great novelists, they could have produced pictures of human beings as believable as those of Jane Austen, George Eliot, or Leo Tolstoy, but none has even come close. The great novelists, who were often keen thinkers who discussed the complexities of human feeling and behavior, must have known something! They also produced the subtlest descriptions of ethical problems we have.

Isn’t economic imperialism the legacy of Adam Smith, the founder of the discipline?
Not at all. Economists, who seldom read The Wealth of Nations and rarely ask students to do so either, present a version of Adam Smith that is largely fictional. A thinker with an immensely complex sense of human nature, and who insisted that human beings care for others in ways that cannot be reduced to self-interest, is presented as a founder of rational choice theory, which presumes the opposite. What has happened is that a few Smithian ideas have been represented as the whole, and then a model based on them alone has been constructed and been attributed to him. While Adam Smith is often invoked to justify a simplistic view of human behavior guided by rational self-interest, and of economic policies that reject any interference with the free functioning of markets, his work was much more nuanced and sophisticated than that. To truly understand The Wealth of Nations, one must also read his complementary volume, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Together, they provide the kind of far-reaching, inclusive economics celebrated in this book—an economics that takes other subjects seriously and embraces narrative explanations.

Don’t those two books contradict each other?
The idea that they do, and the question how the same author could have written them both, is often called “the Adam Smith problem.” In fact, the problem arises only when one misreads Smith. We offer a solution to the Adam Smith problem, which also shows how his thought looks forward to the great novelists to come.

You believe that narratives could teach economics a great deal. Is that why you argue that the humanities could be so useful in making economics more relevant?  How exactly does narrative help?
Stories are important, especially those told by the great realist novelists such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Austen. They help in at least two ways. First, in a world where genuine contingency exists, it is necessary to explain events narratively, and there are no better models for narratives about people in society than those in great novels. Second, novels foster empathy. Other disciplines may recommend empathy, but only novels provide constant practice in it. When you read a great novel, you identify with characters, inhabit their thought processes from within, and so learn experientially what it is to be someone else—a person of a different culture, class, gender, or personality. In a great novel you inhabit many points of view, and experience how each appears to the others. In this way, great novels are a source of wisdom. They appreciate people as being inherently cultural while embracing ethics in all its irreducible complexity.

That doesn’t sound like the way English courses are currently taught or accord with the currently predominant premises of literary theory.
Quite so. We are stressing a particular version of the humanities, what we think of as “the best of the humanities.” In a variety of ways, the humanities have been false to their core mission, which may be why so many students are fleeing them. In addition to the dominant trends of literary theory, we have witnessed a series of “spoof” disciplines, which purport to be humanistic but are actually something else. Sociobiological criticism, digital humanities, and other such trends proceed as if literature were too old fashioned to matter, and one has to somehow restore its importance by linking it—how doesn’t matter much—to whatever is fashionable. They all too often dehumanize the humanities, reducing their value not just to economics but to other fields as well. We celebrate, and recommend economists consider, the humanities at their best.

Are there any particular subjects within economics where engagement with the “best” of the humanities would be especially worthwhile?
There is a wide range of areas covered in the book—from economic development, to the economics of higher education, to the economics of the family—for which we believe a genuine dialogue between the humanities and economics is useful. We offer case studies in each of these areas, with some unanticipated results. We don’t pretend to conclude that dialogue in our book; we instead seek to get it started in a serious way.

Where do you see the dialogue of the two cultures leading?
The point of a real dialogue is that it is open-ended, that you don’t know where it will lead. It is surprising, and that is what makes it both stimulating and creative.

Gary Saul Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities and professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University. His many books include Narrative and Freedom, “Anna Karenina” in Our Time, and The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture. Morton Schapiro is the president of Northwestern University and a professor of economics. His many books include The Student Aid Game. Morson and Schapiro are also the editors of The Fabulous Future?: America and the World in 2040.