A Short History of Ethics and Economics

A Short History of Ethics and Economics

The Greeks

James E. Alvey

Arising from a disenchantment with mainstream economics – a dissatisfaction that is widespread today – A Short History of Ethics and Economics sketches the emergence and decline of the ethical tradition of economics and the crisis of modern economics. In doing so, James Alvey focuses on four of the leading ancient Greek thinkers: Socrates, Xenophon, Plato and Aristotle.

Chapter 9: Conclusion

James E. Alvey

Subjects: economics and finance, economic psychology, history of economic thought


This chapter is made up of three sections. The first section comments on the overall influence of the ancient Greeks on subsequent thought. It must be recognized that social thought up to very recent times was framed within a religious orthodoxy (such as Christianity, Islam, or Judaism). The attention given to this aspect below may seem excessive to many readers today who live in secular societies. The second section provides an overview of the book. The third section offers a few examples of where the Socratics differ from modern economics. 1. OVERALL LEGACY OF ANCIENT GREEK THOUGHT The Sophists We began our intellectual history with a brief treatment of the Sophists. One of the major Sophistic innovations was the hedonic calculus by Protagoras. Lowry argues that Protagoras’ presentation of a type of ‘hedonic calculus’ is of fundamental importance for later thought (1987, p. 36). The most obvious successors to the Sophists were the Epicureans,1 who adopted a type of ‘hedonic materialism’ (Long 2006, p. 430). Even though the hedonic calculus was developed in the context of ‘moral conduct,’ it was later extended into a range of other contexts (Lowry 1987, p. 40). In the Middle Ages, the weighing of forgone current pleasure (or the incurring of current pain) against future pleasure was to play an important role in the evolution of Scholastic thinking, notably in legitimating some level of interest for lenders (usury).2 Later still, Protagoras’ hedonic calculus became the source for Benthamite utilitarianism,3 which played...

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