University of Bayreuth, Press release no. 174/2023, 19/12/2023

Philosophical view of economic issues

Inflation is not just a number. Bayreuth philosopher Prof Dr Johanna Thoma argues that research in the social sciences should be based on different value orientations at the same time - also because this is important for democracy.

Above all, philosophy must stimulate reflection. But philosophical research is particularly valuable when it ties in with public discourse. This is currently often characterised by a tendency on the part of politicians to justify decisions scientifically and, at the same time, growing scepticism about both scientific expertise and the functioning of our democracy. Prof Dr Johanna Thoma, the new Chair of Ethics at the University of Bayreuth, has written an essay calling for a better role for science in decision-making in democracies. It has been published in the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs with the title "Social Science, Policy and Democracy". The article is also representative of the field of research at the interface between philosophy and economics, in which Bayreuth Philosophy has specialised through the Philosophy & Economics study area.

"The social sciences have to make value assumptions when researching issues relevant to politics, and politics often relies on the results of social science research," says Thoma. "If you want to measure economic growth or inflation, for example, you have to determine what constitutes a good standard of living and whose standard of living is important and how." To this end, economists make decisions in their research, which in turn are often highly relevant for political decisions.  In her article, Bayreuth philosopher Thoma therefore asks how this is compatible with democracy.

"Proposed solutions usually emphasise that science itself should become more democratic, that the value assumptions it has to make should correspond to those of the population. But the population itself is usually divided on fundamental questions of welfare and distributive justice," says Thoma. She argues that the greatest danger is rather a lack of parallel, different value orientations in the social sciences: "If scientific research and public reporting are focussed exclusively on a certain measure of inflation, the research reflects a one-sided social reality. This does not create a picture that is equally reliable, informative and practically relevant for everyone."

Prof Dr Johanna Thoma therefore concludes: "Greater pluralism of values, if and where it is possible without undermining other important values, is clearly desirable for democratic reasons."

DOI: Thoma, J. (2023), Social Science, Policy and Democracy. Philos Public Aff.

About the person:

Prof Dr Johanna Thoma has been Professor of Ethics at the University of Bayreuth since March 2023. She was previously at the London School of Economics in the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method. On 13 December 2023, she was also elected President of the International Network for Economic Method.

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Sekretariat Lehrstuhl Ethik


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