» Humanomics

Humanomics Students looking at screen on laptopHumanomics serves as a nascent interdisciplinary program to teach and research a humanistic science of economics. Economics and the humanities are often perceived as fundamentally disconnected. Economics asks why Homo sapiens is the most prosperous species in the history of the planet, but the tools of the discipline are inadequate to account for the wide range of human motives. In economics the human predicates of feeling, wanting, thinking, and knowing have been boiled down to the single motivation of naked “self-interest.”  What does prosperity have to do with justice, courage, faith, hope, and love? The answer in economics is, “That’s for the humanities to ponder.”


The humanities do ponder such virtues, and prudence, too. The humanities give voice to feeling and artistic shape to experience. Exploring human stories and ideas helps us make meaning of our lives.  Meaning is as much a part of the scientific evidence in economics as is behavior, and, of course, meaning influences behavior itself.  Through the Humanities, through literature and film, philosophy and history, we can come to better understand ourselves as human beings, broadening our perspectives of the world as we move beyond the boundaries of our own lives and culture, asking “What does it mean to be human?”  And quite fundamentally “being human” includes Homo sapiens’ unique propensity to specialize, to exchange, to create markets, the latter of which is often viewed skeptically from the humanities. Humanomics grew out of a desire to explore economics through the lens of the humanities and humanity through the lens of economics.

  • Spring 2018 Courses
  • Econ/Eng/Phil 357
  • Past Courses
  • Presidential Seminar
  • ECON/ENG 357: "Topics in Humanomics: Consumerism and its Discontents"

    Erik Kimbrough and Jan Osborn

    Click to view course Syllabus

    The consumer society that has blossomed since the Industrial Revolution is the wealthiest, healthiest and freest society ever known.  Yet with this wealth and the freedom to choose we see people opting to expend incredible resources on "conspicuous consumption", as they attempt to keep up with the Joneses (and Kardashians).  This course will explore the logic of consumption and ask whether it is possible to mount an ethical defense of consumption and the life of the "leisure class".  What do people want?  What do they need?  Where do those wants and needs come from?  And what should they want?  Who gets to decide?

  • Topics in Humanomics:

    Using Socratic dialogue this course engages students in dialogically exploring economics, philosophy, and literature texts to examine two questions at the core of Humanomics: What makes a rich nation rich? What makes a good person good? This course encourages in-depth study of the co-constitutive social texts regarding the exponential economic growth of the last two-hundred years, asking students to consider how knowledge, ethics, and aesthetics shape and reshape the basic principles of exchange and the human condition.  Examples of possible texts include but are not limited to: Paradise Lost, Goethe's Faust, Great Expectations, Frankenstein, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Polanyi's Personal Knowledge, The Fatal Conceit, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World.

    Current and Past Courses:

    Spring 2018
    ECON/ENG 357: "Consumerism and its Discontents"

    Erik Kimbrough and Jan Osborn

    Click to view course Syllabus

    The consumer society that has blossomed since the Industrial Revolution is the wealthiest, healthiest and freest society ever known.  Yet with this wealth and the freedom to choose we see people opting to expend incredible resources on "conspicuous consumption", as they attempt to keep up with the Joneses (and Kardashians).  This course will explore the logic of consumption and ask whether it is possible to mount an ethical defense of consumption and the life of the "leisure class".  What do people want?  What do they need?  Where do those wants and needs come from?  And what should they want?  Who gets to decide?

    Interterm 2018
    ECON/PHIL 357: "Social (In)Justice"

    Bas van der Vossen and Bart Wilson

    Click to view course Syllabus

    This course attempts to clarify our understanding of the pervasive concept of social justice in the modern world. F.A. Hayek contends that the concept, despite well‐meaning intentions, is meaningless, incoherent, and harmful to the prosperity of a free society. David Miller argues that when considered contextually the principles of desert, need, and equality can be used to delineate a theory of social justice as a viable political ideal. How do the dystopian aesthetics of the “Good E” and “Bad E” in L.P. Hartley’s novel shape and reshape Hayek’s and Miller’s ideas on economics and the human condition?

  • Interterm 2018

    Bas van der Vossen and Bart Wilson co-taught a course entitled, "Topics in Humanomics: Social (In)Justice."

    This course attempts to clarify our understanding of the pervasive concept of social justice in the modern world. F.A. Hayek contends that the concept, despite well‐meaning intentions, is meaningless, incoherent, and harmful to the prosperity of a free society. David Miller argues that when considered contextually the principles of desert, need, and equality can be used to delineate a theory of social justice as a viable political ideal. How do the dystopian aesthetics of the “Good E” and “Bad E” in L.P. Hartley’s novel shape and reshape Hayek’s and Miller’s ideas on economics and the human condition?

    Fall 2017

    Kyle Hampton and Keith Hankins co-taught a first year seminar course entitled, "Humanomics: Markets and Morality."

    What makes a rich nation rich? What makes a good person good? And what do these questions have to do with one another? Co-taught by professors from the Smith Institute for Philosophy and Political Economy, this course will use current events, television shows and movies, and historical and contemporary work in philosophy and the social sciences to help students answer these questions and challenge the perceived tension between economics and the humanities. In particular, the course will focus on three themes: 1) how have markets improved the human condition, 2) in what ways (if any) have markets made us worse, and 3) have markets improved the lot of some at the expense of others, and if so how did this happen and what should be done about it?

    Jan Osborn and Bart Wilson co-taught a first year seminar course entitled, "Humanomics: Exchange and the Human Condition."

    What makes a rich nation rich? What makes a good person good? And what do these questions have to do with one another? While exploring these and other questions about markets and ethics, students will challenge the perception of economics as distinct from the humanities. This course combines an economic inquiry into the human propensity to exchange with the cultural interpretation of the human condition in the HBO television show Deadwood. The instructional methods include Socratic roundtable discussions of the texts, laboratory experiments, journaling, focused free writes, and expository papers.

    Interterm 2017

    Keith Hankins and Bart Wilson co-taught an upper-division course entitled, "Humanomics: Adam Smith and the Morality of Markets," cross-listed in Economics and Philosophy.

    Originally rooted in moral philosophy, economics began as the study of political economy in the 18th century, the study of how polities create wealth.  The foundation of this inquiry was the simple observation that humans have the unique propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.  Springing as it did from moral philosophy, classical political economy was never a positivistic endeavor.  Adam Smith’s first requirement of a theory of economics was that it should fit the facts, but if the foundation of the inquiry are observations on what humans do, then  moral evaluations of how humans go about doing what we do are just as critical as other facts.  And so it was that the same brilliant mind that authored the Wealth of Nations also spent his career working and reworking The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  The aim of this course was to reintegrate ethics with economics, as was the case in the 18th century, by dialogically exploring Adam Smith’s two great texts.

    Fall 2016

    Keith Hankins and Jan Osborn co-taught a first year seminar course entitled, "Humanomics: Exchange and the Human Condition."

    What makes a rich nation rich? What makes a good person good? And what do these questions have to do with one another? How can the story of progress in health and wealth be one of both growth and inequality? While exploring these and other questions about markets and ethics, students will challenge the perception of economics as distinct from the humanities.  Co-taught by professors from the Philosophy Department, Economic Science Institute, and the English Department, this course combined empirical and theoretical methods of inquiry into the human propensity to exchange with investigation of the cultural interpretation of the human condition in novels, short stories, poems, and film.

    Interterm, January, 2016

    Jan Osborn and Bart Wilson co-taught an upper-division course entitled, "Humanomics: Knowledge, Satire, and the Facts and Values of Economics," cross-listed in Economics and English.

    This course dialogically explored Jonathan Swift’s classic Gulliver’s Travels and Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge to shape and reshape the basic principles of microeconomics.  By presenting Gulliver’s “plain facts” of economics, which are not “so studious of ornament as truth,” economists have done what Polanyi rejects, a severing of fact from value, economic science from humanity.  Our project reintegrated the personal involvement of the knower into our understanding of economics by juxtaposing Swift’s biting satire on the depravity of the human animal with Polanyi’s affirmation of humankind’s passionate commitment to discovery.  In short, the course developed a fiduciary approach to presenting the principles of economics.

    Interterm, January, 2015

    Jan Osborn and Bart Wilson co-taught an upper-division course entitled, “Humanomics: Liberty, Economics, and the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” again cross-listed in Economics and English.

    To be human is to know good and evil.  To be human is not to be an angel but to have the liberty to decide.  To be human is to be limited, to face trade-offs.  This course dialogically explored John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost and Thomas Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions to shape one of the most fundamental questions of economics outside the Garden of Eden—not what must be decided but who shall decide.  How do we apply the knowledge of good and evil in a society of strangers? Do we praise or blame the individual free to choose? Or the results of an economic order incomprehensible to any one mind?  "The world [is] all before [us], where to choose."

    Interterm, January, 2014

    Jan Osborn and Bart Wilson co-taught an upper-division course entitled, “Humanomics: Ethics in Economic Growth and Economic Growth in Ethics,” which was cross-listed in Economics and English.

    This course analyzed and synthesized, via literature, economic history, and film, the exponential economic growth of the last two-hundred years—the “Great Fact”—by exploring retail commercialism in its nascence and the new ethics of bourgeois dignity and liberty that not only make the Great Fact possible but also further embourgeoisfy and open society.  How can this economic growth be relentless but principled, destructive but creative? Has the Great Fact been narrowly exploitative or broadly prosperitive?  We considered literary works and economic theory as co-constitutive social texts that have historically both helped produce the complex structure of bourgeois ethics.

  • Inspired by Oxford University’s High Table, the Humanomics community regularly breaks bread together as part of the Presidential Seminar, creating and enhancing bonds between students across all four years, between professors, and between professors and students.

    Presidential Seminar Texts

    • Spring 2018: The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream (Cowen), The Locals (Dee)
    • Fall 2017: Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions Enriched the World (McCloskey), Candide (Voltaire), and La Bohème
    • Spring 2017: Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions Enriched the World (McCloskey) and Robinson Crusoe (Defoe)
    • Fall 2016: The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality (Deaton) and Great Expectations (Dickens)
    • Spring 2016:Markets without Limits (Brennan and Jaworski) and Frankenstein (Shelley)
    • Fall 2015:The End of Abundance: Economic Solutions to Water Scarcity (Zetland) and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (Hamid)
    • Spring 2015:The Logic of Liberty (Polanyi), The Study of Man (Polanyi), The Trial (Kafka), and The Complete Stories (Kafka)
    • Fall 2014:The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Smith) and The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky)
    • Spring 2014:Individualism and Economic Order (Hayek), Creative Destruction: How Globalization is Changing the World’s Culture (Cowen), and Netherlands (O’Neill)
    • Fall 2013:Personal Knowledge (Polanyi) and Gulliver’s Travels (Swift)
    • Spring 2013:The Ethics of Competition (Knight) and Faust (Goethe)
    • Fall 2012:The Constitution of Liberty (Hayek) and Germinal (Zola)
    • Spring 2012:The Constitution of Liberty (Hayek) and The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)
    • Fall 2011:Bourgeois Dignity (McCloskey) and Pride and Prejudice (Austin)