New Course Focuses on Economic Justice Income Inequality in Theory and Practice

This Fall, the Kennedy School curriculum will feature a new course called Economic Justice, centering on wealth and income inequality.  This new course will feature the work of Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig, Amartya Sen, and Michael Sandel along with classical works from Smith, Keynes, and Rawls. The Citizen caught up with Dr. Chris Robichaud, Lecturer in Ethics and Public Policy, at the start of the semester to talk about the new course.

Q: Your course, “Economic Justice,” is new this year. For those not familiar with the term, what does Economic Justice mean?

I see the term “economic justice” as picking out answers to the question, “What does justice demand of our economic institutions and policies?” The political philosopher Joshua Cohen, in the introduction to his collection of essays, Philosophy, Politics, Democracy, argues that political philosophy, which is preoccupied with questions about justice, is not some isolated subject divorced from politics, but rather, is very much a part of politics—it’s continuous with politics. I think that’s exactly right. Our public conversation about tax policy, minimum wage, wealth accumulation and the like is riddled with ethical claims about what’s fair, what’s just, what liberty demands, what people deserve, and so forth. My course focuses on that normative part of the conversation.

Q: You also teach first-year Ethics courses across the School. How will this new course differ from other Ethics courses at HKS, including the first-year MPP module?

DPI-201, the first-year MPP required course on political ethics, spends a good deal of time looking at a range of cases through a moral lens, casting the net as wide as possible, given that MPP students will leave here to occupy many different professional positions. So we move around from examining ethical questions surrounding whistleblowing and official disobedience to thinking about the moral dimensions of scarce resource distribution and cost-benefit analysis, just to name a few topics.

My course on economic justice is much more focused on economic policies and institutions, seeking to evaluate them from the distinctly normative position. Suppose you think that a great way to address poverty is to institute a basic income. Once we look at the specifics of the proposal, we’ll be asking: does it meet the demands of justice? Is it fair? Does it give people what they deserve? Does it treat people as equals? This course will equip students with a sophisticated array of potential answers to questions like those.

Q: Thomas Piketty’s new book came out earlier this year about income inequality. Was this an inspiration for the new course?

It sure was, and I’m excited that we’ll have an opportunity to tackle portions of his book directly. Of course, Piketty’s work is only the most recent addition to an ever-growing mountain of research on this topic, but it’s a spectacular addition, all the same. Still, our focus will be pushing the conversation to the next level. Suppose Piketty’s correct, and the mechanisms of capitalism will lead to a concentration of wealth among the very few. Is that morally problematic? Some people think the mere fact that there is a lopsided distribution of income and wealth within a country and across countries is enough to establish that something unethical is going on. But that’s not obvious—at least, it requires argument. Similarly, some people think if we focus on poverty alleviation rather than on inequality, there’s nothing morally interesting to discuss, because poverty alleviation is uncontroversially a good thing. And it is. But we can still have plenty of moral disagreement over the means used. Is it even the business of the state to address this, for instance? That’s not asking a question about efficiency, but about whether the means that the government would use to address poverty would be just.

Q: The course promises to incorporate theory and empirical findings, how will you do so while still maintaining relevance for potential policy implications?

Taking a look at the syllabus, students will see that I’ve crafted it in a way where we are constantly going back and forth between empirical findings, policy proposals, and theoretical frameworks. From a pedagogical standpoint, this is an attempt to create a dialogue rather than three separate monologues, which I don’t think would be useful. These three components actually work together quite nicely. Many theoretical frameworks do, ultimately, make empirical claims and predictions. So to evaluate them, we need to look at data. Similarly, it’s reasonable to assess the viability of a theory of justice at least in part on the basis of what our moral judgments are regarding the policies it would embrace. So when we look at policy proposals, and we’ll look at quite a few, we’ll look at them not only to provide examples of how certain commitments to liberty and equality would play out in practice, but, in light of how they would play out, to see whether this is a plus for the theory or a strike against it.

Q: What are you most excited about in teaching this new course?

I’m really excited to show students that there are many surprising areas of agreement and disagreement over matters of economic justice that you would never guess exist if you limited yourself to the way these issues are discussed in mainstream blogs and news channels. Nozick’s libertarianism and Rawls’s liberal egalitarianism are supposed to be at complete odds, and in many ways they are, but it turns out they both reject welfare state capitalism, which is one of the more popular games in town, as it were. We’re going to look at folks on the right arguing for universal access to health care and more financial market regulation, and folks on the left talking about exploitation and commodification without embracing Marx. Disagreement over matters of economic justice is not a stale and dry discussion among ivory tower intellectuals. It is a thriving and animated area of research that couldn’t be more relevant, given the global preoccupation with wealth and income inequality. I can’t wait to introduce students to this debate and show them how to use it to develop sophisticated ethical assessments of economic policies and institutions.

Students interested in the course can learn more via Shopping Day or the HKS Curriculum Guide. Economic Justice will meet Mondays and Wednesdays during Fall 2014 from 10:10-11:30am starting September 5th.

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