Gary Saul Morson and Morton Owen Schapiro, Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities

Gary Saul Morson and Morton Owen Schapiro, Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 320 pp. £25.00 Hb, ISBN: 9780691176680

Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic is one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. His definition of a sentimentalist is one who sees an absurd value in everything and does not know the market price of any single thing. Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro have written Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities to keep both cynicism and sentimentality at bay – in economics and the humanities.

The book is an ethical one, prompted by Morson’s and Schapiro’s personal and professional experiences of the ‘twin crises’ in these disciplines. ‘Economics and the humanities are both in trouble’, they write, ‘though not for the same reason’ (4). The results, however, are similar. Each suffers from dehumanization; humanistic insights are lacking in economics, while humanists have reacted to the current humanities crisis by downplaying the intrinsic aesthetic and moral values of literature. Morson and Schapiro, by contrast, are not shy in their estimation of great literature ‘as a repository of wisdom’ (14). With a focus upon literary studies (and the realist novel in particular), they suggest three ways in which the humanities promises to enhance economics and, by extension, positively influence its impact on policy-making decisions. With the help of the humanities, economists can admit the crucial role of culture, learn to appreciate stories as tools for understanding people, and develop respect for the complex (and unavoidable) ethical dimensions of their work. Done right, not only will ‘the human’ enter economics for its betterment, but along the way the humanities should likewise be reinvigorated with a sense of its purpose and worth. Empathy, good judgement, wisdom: these are the rewards of a humanities-based education. Without it, they are not easy traits to develop, but neither do they belong only to the humanists among us.

In its delivery of three specific economic case studies and vibrant array of literary references (Morson’s expertise, for instance, in Russian literature and the theory of Mikhail Bakhtin is thematic), Cents and Sensibility manages to bring together the force (and some of the horror) of Cathy O’Neil’s discussion of algorithms in Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (2016) along with a more mitigating message of hope, like that found in Mark Edmundson’s range of books on the value of literary studies in Why Read? (2004), Why Teach? (2013), and Why Write? (2016). As a humanist and literary scholar who generally gives very little time to thinking about economics, I found myself filling the margins of this book with exclamation points – of incredulity, concern, and outrage – at almost every explanation of an economist’s way of thinking. Do economists really measure human value by the decimal point? How can they be so unwilling to consider qualitative data from case studies and storytelling? Do they actually categorize dumping toxic waste in developing countries as a ‘good’ decision? Who could disregard the ethical challenges presented by a wholly economic approach to higher education? How could anyone argue in favor of a marketplace for human organs? Or put a price on eyesight? The book quickly became a lesson in the cultural differences between disciplines. For Morson and Schapiro, highlighting this disconnect is precisely the point: ‘We have two distinct cultures when neither can believe that the other believes what it says it believes!’ (38). They zero in on this culture gap with some stark – and funny – comparisons. Economists deal in the quantitative; humanists in the qualitative. Economists assume that preferences are stable; humanists that they can change. ‘Humanists love to read and to write stories; economists do not’ (20-21).

But dialogue – not disparagement – is the way forward. Morton and Schapiro claim ‘genuine interdisciplinarity’ is ‘a dialogue of approaches’ (39), not an imperial takeover of one discipline over another (what they call ‘spoofing’). Their main takeaway: ‘Be open to learning from other disciplines, be ready to question the validity of your underlying assumptions, and most of all, be humble’ (63). Adam Smith’s double identity is a linchpin for Morson and Schapiro here; as the author not only of The Wealth of Nations (1776) but also The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Adam Smith occupies a unique position as an economist-moralist. Economists generally ignore the existence of the latter text; while I, a literary scholar, exemplify the humanist tendency to ignore the existence of the former. Yet, the texts interact, and Adam Smith is an excellent case study in and of himself. His versatility reminds economists and humanists alike of the rich conversation to be had between disciplines.

The most relevant chapter for humanists is Chapter 6, ‘The Best of the Humanities’, in which Morson and Schapiro address the current crisis in the humanities. They bring a slew of recent criticisms to the fore, drop it all in our laps, and ask: how do we justify the humanities? They are absolutely right to do so. Being aware of this criticism is essential for any humanist today – particularly if we want to argue that we have so much to offer other disciplines. Morson and Schapiro give their answer to this question: that to understand humanity in all its specificity and complexity is to be better equipped to understand the ‘richness and depth’ (16) of ethical questions, and that literature, and by extension the humanities, does this better than any (single) theory or disciplinary approach. But the bottom line? There is some real work for humanists to do in combatting the general view that the humanities do not really do anything.

Overall, in writing this book, Morson and Schapiro have acted as true humanists, valuing knowledge in its myriad forms and being chiefly concerned with its ethical uses – which includes fostering respectful, ongoing dialogue between two very different disciplinary cultures. They have chosen empathy and collaboration over acerbity or harsh criticism and are unstinting in their praise of both disciplines. The book exhibits the humility it exhorts. Sometimes they struck me being as too generous (with economists), but this perhaps is just another reason for humanists to read the book – for the chance to more authentically admit the limited perimeters we all face, regardless of discipline. We all need multiple perspectives. As economists, let us eschew our cynicism of the world; as humanists, let us cease to sentimentalize our subjects. There is real (and good) work to be done together.

Sarah Barnette, Independent Scholar