While disputes over the nature of economic science go back almost to its origins, the search for new directions and even some recasting has become more intense as slackening growth and virulent inflation heighten old quarrels over distribution and other issues. The alternative of “social” economics, itself at least 150 years old, has been subject to many attempts to formulate its essential character, from the early socialists and Catholic social reformers to the current resurgence of interest. My purpose here is to re‐assert that that which is of the essence of a social approach to economics must derive from placing values (I mean ethical or moral values) at the heart of economic enquiry; so that their nature and source cannot be passed over sotto voce as is often done, nor the real difficulties that arise from incorporating values within social science (see the first part of this article). Secondly, mainstream economics is currently undergoing a deep malaise, deriving partly from its over‐specialised character but more importantly from a certain loss of direction; and whether you choose or not to regard a values‐oriented social economics as merely one of several “paradigms”, it clearly can restore purpose to economic enquiry. This is discussed in part II of this article. My conclusion is that, while study of societal relations in the economic domain is rewarding and important, a social economics that is not centred on values will lose its historic opportunity to share in solving the widely acknowledged “crisis” of Western society.
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