Handbook of Economics and Ethics
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Handbook of Economics and Ethics

Edited by Jan Peil and Irene van Staveren

The Handbook of Economics and Ethics portrays an understanding of economic methodology in which facts and values, though distinct, are closely interconnected in a variety of ways. From theory building to data collection, and from modelling to policy evaluation, this encyclopaedic Handbook is at the intersection of economics and ethics.
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Chapter 60: Joan Robinson

Prue Kerr


Prue Kerr Joan Robinson (1903–83) was passionate about social justice. Her topics of study ranged from unemployment and poverty in the United Kingdom in the 1930s to the arms race as an entrenched feature of capitalism in both rich and poor nations in the post-World War II era. Robinson was also concerned with the relationship between values and economic theory, drawing upon her economic theory to argue her moral position. In 1932, at the outset of her long career, Robinson undertook a methodological introspection which culminated in two pieces of writing. One was published as Economics is a Serious Subject: The Apologia of an Economist to the Mathematician, the Scientist, and the Plain Man (see Harcourt [1990] 2001). The other, ‘A passage from the autobiography of an analytical economist’, was for more limited exposure (see Aslanbeigui and Oakes 2006). Both documents reveal Robinson’s absorption of the pervasive language and structure of the local logical positivists. Sharply distinguishing between ‘values’ and ‘facts’, she declared ‘the subject matter of economics is neither more nor less than its own technique’ (Robinson 1932, p. 4). Hence, the method pre-empts the problems with which it deals. She saw economics as a ‘box of tools’. Robinson initially required axiomatic assumptions. It was perhaps her acquaintance with Sraffa, Kahn and Keynes that soon led her to favour ‘realistic’ assumptions (Robinson [1933] 2002). The adequacy of a theory, for her, then became a matter of the realism of its assumptions and the logical coherence of its arguments....

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