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The foundations of the ethical tradition of economics: Plato's Republic

James E. Alvey (School of Economics and Finance, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand)

International Journal of Social Economics

ISSN: 0306-8293

Article publication date: 30 August 2011




Economics was closely entwined with ethics up to the 1930s when this weakened subsequently. Amartya Sen first sketched this historical relationship in his book, On Ethics and Economics. This paper is in broad agreement with Sen. It aims to explore the ethical foundations of economics in ancient Greece, focussing on Plato's Republic.


Key aspects of Sen's ethical framework (ethical motivation, human well‐being, and social achievement) are used as a template to re‐investigate Plato's work. A close reading of Plato's Republic is undertaken in order to demonstrate the foundations of economics as an ethical enterprise.


First, Plato argues that there is a range of motivations and behaviors along an ethical scale. For Plato, the goal is to try to establish what constitutes ethical behavior and then seek conditions suitable to bring it about. Second, in the Republic, one sees an outline of Plato's understanding of human well‐being. Human functioning (physical and mental flourishing, including friendship), and gender equality are key parts of his picture. Third, Plato is painting the picture of a utopian society in the Republic. In discussions of the ideal society, the economy, laws, and other policies must be set within an ethical framework. In several respects, Plato anticipates Sen's capabilities approach to economics.


In recent years, great efforts have been devoted to developing and extending Sen's Capability Framework. Part of that work has been devoted to tracing the origins of Sen's approach back to Aristotle. This paper represents the first attempt to trace that framework back further, to Plato's Republic.



Alvey, J.E. (2011), "The foundations of the ethical tradition of economics: Plato's Republic", International Journal of Social Economics, Vol. 38 No. 10, pp. 824-846.



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Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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