Ethics and Economics
Using the rational-actor paradigm in this wayto change behavior by chang- ing incentivesmakes some students uncomfortable because it seems to deny the altruism, affection, and personal ethics that motivate most people. These students resist learning the rational-actor paradigm because they think it im- plicitly endorses self-interested behavior, as if the primary purpose of econom- ics were to teach students to behave rationally, optimally, and selfishly. These students would probably agree with a Washington Post editorial, When It Comes to Ethics, B-Schools Get an F,1 which blames business schools in general, and economists in particular, for the ethical lapses at FIFA, Goldman Sachs, and other organizations. A subtle but damaging factor in this is the dominance of economists at business schools. Although there is no evidence that economists are personally less ethical than members of other disciplines, approaching the world through the dollar sign does make people more cynical. What these students and the author, a former Harvard ethics professor, do not understand is that to control unethical behavior, we first have to un- derstand why it occurs. When we analyze problems like the one at OVI, were not encouraging students to behave opportunistically. Rather, were teaching them to anticipate opportunistic behavior and to design organizations that are less susceptible to it. Remember, the rational-actor paradigm is only a tool for analyzing behavior, not advice on how to live your life. It is also important to realize that these kinds of debates are often de- bates about value systems. Deontologists judge actions as good or ethical by whether they conform to a set of principles, like the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule. Consequentialists, on the other hand, judge actions by their consequences. If the consequences of an action are good, then the action is deemed to be good or moral. We illustrate these contrasting value systems with a story about price gouging.2 When Notre Dame entered the 2006 season as one of the top-ranked football teams in the country, demand for local hotels during home games rose dramatically. In response, local hotels raised room rates. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Hampton Inn charged $400 a night on football week- ends for a room that cost only $129 on non football days. Rates climbed even higher for games against top-ranked foes. For the game against the University of Michigan, the South Bend Marriott charged $649 per night$500 more than its normal weekend rate of $149. On a campus founded by priests of the Congregation of Holy Cross, where many students dedicate a year after graduation to working with the underprivileged, these high prices caused alarm. The Wall Street Journal quotes Professor Joe Holt, a former priest who teaches ethics in the schools executive MBA program, It is an act of moral abdication for businesses to pretend they have no choice but to charge as much as they can based on supply and demand. The article further reports Mr. Holts intention to use the example of rising hotel rates on football weekends for a case study in his class on the integration of business and values. Deontologists like Professor Holt would object on principle to the prac- tice of raising prices in times of shortage.3 We might label this the Spider Man Principle: with great power comes great responsibility. The laws of capitalism allow corporations to amass significant power; in turn, society should demand a high level of responsibility from corporations. In this case, while property rights give a hotel the option of increasing prices, possession of these rights does not relieve the hotel of its obligation to be concerned about the conse- quences of its choices. A simple beneficence argument might suggest that keep- ing prices low would be better for consumers. Economics, on the other hand, gives us a consequentialist understanding of the practice by comparing high prices to the implied alternative. An econ- omist would show that if prices do not rise, the consequence would be excess demand for hotel rooms. Would-be guests would find their rooms rationed, perhaps on a first-come, first-served basis. More likely, arbitrageurs would set up a black market, by making early reservations, and then selling their reser- vations to customers willing to pay the market-clearing price. Not only would consumers end up paying the same price, but these arbs would make money that would have otherwise gone to the hotel. Without the ability to earn addi- tional profit during times of scarcity, hotels would have less incentive to build additional rooms, which would make the long-run problems even worse! Versions of this debatebetween those who criticize business on ethical grounds and those who are trying to make moneyhave been going on in this country since its founding. Although a full treatment of the ethical di- mensions of business is beyond the scope of this book, many disagreements are really about whether morality should be defined by deontology or conse- quentialism. Once you realize that a debate is really a debate between value systems, it becomes much easier to understand opposing points of view, and to reach compromise with your adversaries. For example, if the government were considering price-gouging laws that made it illegal to raise prices on football weekends, a solution might involve donation of some of the profits earned on football weekends to a local charity. This might assuage the concerns of those who ascribe to the Spider Man principle. As a footnote to this story, when someone offered our former priest $1,500 for his apartment on home-game weekends, he took the offer and now spends his weekends in Chicago. Apparently, his principles became too costly for him.