Moral Economics - What, Why, Whom, How, When, What For?

by Diego_Caleiro11th Aug 2015No comments



To contribute to moral economics, you can join the google groups (email Megan Crawford if you can't sign in), the slack #moral trade channel (email Ozzie if you can't sign in), talk to us during the Sunday EA hackaton, or simply post your idea for a moral economic concept of interest on a googledocs  and share it with our group who can help you edit it. 

I'm currently time crunched while deciding whether to create a Crucial Considerations research institute in the bay, so I won't have time to edit this, sorry for any egregious mistakes an editor could have corrected. 

Moral economics series


  1. Introducing Moral Economics

  2. Examples of Moral Economics Concepts

  3. Branches Within Moral Economics

  4. Moving Moral Economics Forward

  5. Direct Funding Between EAs

  6. Moral Economics - What, Why, Whom, How, When, What For?

  7. Certificates of Impact, Doing It Right - Giles Edkins

    1. Moral market failure: how COIs might help

    2. Problems with COIs, and their solutions

    3. Implementing COIs

  8. Agential Identity in Moral Economics



Moral Economics is the name of a cluster of concepts which are related to morality and economics at the same time, in particular concepts that relate to altruistic trade and exchange, and markets where values are partially determined by moral frameworks. Moral economics is particularly concerned with concepts that are useful for an aggregative consequentialist system of value, and forms of trade between agents that value actions according to these systems. Effective altruists are frequently good examples of such agents. 


The structure of moral reasoning has thus far been mostly the domain of philosophers, whereas economic reasoning has been the domain of economists and behavioral economists. Traditional economics has become a well developed academic discipline, with hundreds of specific concepts that help economic agents navigate the world. By contrast, in the domain of morality and economics we are in the beginnings of a barter-like system, with some tentative ideas such as certificates of impact starting to take momentum, and a single unpublished paper explaining moral trade in the philosophical literature. 

When we look at the intersection of Moral Agency and Economics as its own discipline, Moral Economics, we create the possibility of transferring knowledge from the domain of economics to this new sub-branch much faster. To do so, we examine concepts that are important in economics, find analogous concepts and how they diverge in Moral Economics, and allow them to surface by writing about them. Moral economics is the range of a function that maps the structures we know from traditional economics, taking the moral exchange realm as input. The end result is a new way of reasoning about Moral Exchange that can facilitate the creation of moral markets, which facilitate the funneling of resources from the traditional economic realm to a realm that is value aligned with the interests of moral agents. 


Moral Economics can be of use to: 

Moral Agents who would like to trade with other moral agents with similar preferences and distinct opportunities, or dissimilar preferences. 

Economists and Academics who are interested in further developing the similarities and differences in concepts, ideas, equations etc... when they refer to traditional economics and when they refer to altruistically oriented agents. 

Founders and Developers who are developing phone or desktop apps to facilitate trade among altruistically oriented agents, or who are developing stock markets and similar applications with moral currencies. 

Effective Altruists: if we map the development of ideas related to moral economics so far, the majority of ideas have come from and is of interest to effective altruists. 


To use the idea of Moral Economics fruitfully you can: 

1) Conceive of an economic structure that operates differently for altruists and write about it here in the EA forum. 

2) Seize an economic opportunity determined by a niche of trade that is currently occupied in Traditional Economics but hasn't emerged in the moral realm yet. 

3) Further develop one of the concepts in the preliminary list of economics concepts that map in interesting and different ways for altruistic exchange that I laid out here. 

4) Enter the googlegroups for moral economics and help others who are developing writings and ideas within the field, and help them edit their writings for the EA forum and other venues. 

5) Reach out to economists and financially savvy people so they join the creation of this domain of knowledge. 


Developing a better understanding of the opportunities that lie in the moral economic realm now is valuable for the same reason that globalization was valuable for the Asian tigers when they had their fast economic rise. It is cheaper, faster and more effective to copy an already existing technology than to create a new one from scratch. The field of knowledge known as economics is a well known and established mental technology for reasoning about interacting agents with values and the ability to trade. Moral economics is still in an economy of Barter. The faster we import from traditional economics, the faster the moral realm will grow as a fraction of use of resources. The opportunity window has just opened, and each individual has high counterfactual value right now. Once we have a better map of what can or cannot be done in the moral realm, and how to do get it done, this will no longer be the case. That, however, is years away. 

Though the original concepts which I'm suggesting are paradigmatic examples of Moral Economics which came from Toby Ord, Rob Wiblin, Ben Kuhn, Paul Christiano and many others, so far most of the momentum for Moral Economics has come from me and Giles Edkins - whose posts will soon appear here - and my intention is to continue endorsing the development of this sub-field for as long as needed for it to move on without my input, so we really need more people writing here and helping this build momentum. 

What for?

There are several market inefficiencies that can and will become more fluid as the moral market develops. Just as the Asian tigers had economic incentives to copy western technology in order to faster reach economic prowess, moral agents too have an economic incentive to achieve a larger moral economic capacity. We just have to gaze into the right direction and find the hidden niches of value. Our attempts are suggesting a direction for where to look; you are the one who will have to gaze at it. 

New Comment