Exploring questions of morality in politics and economics
The intersection of politics, economics, and morality has never been more important than it is today. Yet many times, these three subject areas are treated as distinct, unrelated categories. The goal of the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics program at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University is to rejoin the three disciplines — and show how much they impact our daily lives.
In the past, philosophy was closely related to economics, because thinkers’ view of economics was borne out of their moral convictions. But today, the disciplines increasingly diverge. That is where the UNC-Chapel Hill PPE program steps up.
“Our distinctive feature is bringing together these three academic disciplines in a comprehensive and cohesive way, with a particular emphasis on the moral significance of each,” said Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, Director of the PPE program at UNC-Chapel Hill.
As the only joint UNC-Duke program at the undergraduate level, PPE has distinguished itself as a valuable addition to the repertoire of learning at both schools.
The program is ideal for students who want to challenge themselves and better understand the forces that shape our culture and economy. It’s geared toward those considering careers in business, politics, and law.
Students who successfully complete the program will gain a stronger basis for jurisprudence, a deeper appreciation of the explanatory and predictive powers of financial economics, and the bearing of rational choice theory on human institutions and human behavior.
“PPE re-unites the three core social and moral philosophy disciplines in a way that allows us to consider important ancient questions anew,” said Dr. Mike Munger, Director of Duke University’s PPE program. “What is the good society? What are the roles of liberty and property rights in human flourishing? What is the importance of economic and political liberty?
The John William Pope Foundation was instrumental in creating the PPE program in 2005. The Foundation has provided $775,000 since that time.
A unique minor
To complete the minor at UNC-Chapel Hill or the certificate at Duke University, students are required to take two courses — a Gateway course and a Capstone course. Afterward, students select three courses from a bevy of electives in the three disciplines of philosophy, politics, and economics.
“One of our goals is to encourage students to see the world through these different lenses, and to think about the extent to which they offer complementary or contradictory ways of approaching the relevant issues,” said Jonathan Anomaly, a core faculty member in the PPE program.
“Sometimes the three disciplines integrate quite nicely, and offer us a richer and more comprehensive way of seeing the world,” Anomaly added, “but other times they force us to choose which set of principles is more appropriate for dealing with a particular problem.”
The Gateway course introduces students to the quantitative techniques used in political science, the formal tools of economics, and the normative resources of philosophy. The course explores the ways in which the disciplines complement each other to allow a richer view of the world.
Wrapping up the program, the Capstone seminar presents a more advanced exploration of the three disciplines by focusing on such issues as rights, taxation, and globalization. This encompasses a special project for students designed to bring the insights of PPE to an area of particular interest to them.
“Since there are markets for murder and markets for cupcakes, PPE students learn to think about how markets work, which markets might be morally justified, and also what kinds of consequences might result from trying to regulate markets in various ways,” Anomaly said.
The elective courses include such offerings as “The History of Economic Doctrines,” “Commerce and Civilization,” and “Morality and Business.”
Beyond the coursework, PPE offers students the chance to participate in a student club that includes activities such as a reading group, public lectures, and conferences.
For the fall 2012 and spring 2013 semesters, the reading group went through Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations at meetings held over dinner. The Institute for Humane Studies generously supported these meetings.
“These are highly motivated students, and we try to give them whatever support we can,” Anomaly said.
Students regularly read, among other authors, the works of John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Friedrich Hayek, James Buchannan, John Rawls, and Robert Nozick.
PPE’s public lectures feature academics from UNC-Chapel Hill and other campuses. In early April 2013, the program featured Deirdre McCloskey, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, discussing the ethics of markets and innovation.
Each year, PPE hosts an annual conference that attracts the best PPE students from across the country, including learners from the University of Pennsylvania, Yale, the University of Virginia, Notre Dame, and Claremont. The value of PPE as an academic program is gaining recognition. New programs recently started at the University of Michigan, the University of Arizona, and George Mason University.
“In many ways, our program is a model for other schools,” said Sayre-McCord.
Prepared for life
The PPE minor at UNC-Chapel Hill averages 180 declared minors each year; of those, about three-fourths actually complete the minor.
The most common majors are political science, economics, and journalism. At the same time, a fair number of hard science majors come through the program.
“Some of these students in the natural sciences want a rigorous liberal arts education, but don’t have time to complete a philosophy or economics major in addition to their science requirements. PPE offers them a great option,” Anomaly said.
After graduation, many students go into consulting, law, public policy, engineering, and medicine.
“Students benefit greatly in life from the program’s coherent, self-contained exposure to tough and fair-minded treatments of ethical and economic problems,” Munger said.
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