Incentives & Virtue

I experienced a revival of interest in the intersection of Economics and Philosophy (or rather, the attempt to reconnect Economics with its philosophical roots) was sparked by Michael Sandel’s ‘Moral Limit of Markets’. I got to see his brilliance at the recent Rethinking Economics conference held in New York City. As it turns out, there is a passage from Analects of Confucius quoted by a recent article in New Yorker (it was a story about recent developments in cancer research involving the approach of targeting cancer cells and coaxing them to mature instead of dividing further):

If you use laws to direct the people, and punishments to control them, they will merely try to evade the punishments, and will have no sense of shame. But if by virtue you guide them, ad by the rites you control them, there will be a sense of shame and of right.

Of course, I’ve dealt with this before in something I once wrote introducing Sandel’s book. As a matter of fact indeed, Sandel is trying to draw to our attention something we already know at the back of our mind but decides to stay silent about.