There is to some degree in tension between economics and ethics,
another of the most basic social sciences, which tends to
avoid quantification and emphasize balances of rights. Modern
economics deals with this tension explicitly - according to
some thinkers a theory of economics is also, or implies also,
a theory of moral reasoning. One way economists deal with
this is to qualify discussions of economic choice by noting
that "all else being equal..." referring to moral
or social factors that are supposedly held equivalent for
all choices that one might make. For exploration of this issue,
see the moral purchasing article.
Another premise is that economics fits within a finite ecosystem
where there are at least some abundant resources - for instance,
when fueling a fire one is usually concerned with finding
the wood, and not so much with finding the air to burn it
with. Economics explicitly does not deal with free abundant
inputs - one criticism is that it often conflicts with ecology's
view of what affects what. Human beings are, according to
ecologists, merely one species participating in a vast energy
system on this planet - economy is a subset of ecology that
deals with just one species' habits and wants. See nature's
services for the economic view of ecology and green economics
for the view wherein economics is a subset of ecology.
A third premise is that economics suggests market forms and
other means of distribution of scarce goods that do not just
affect "desires and wants" but also "needs"
and "habits". Much of so-called economic "choice"
is involuntary, certainly given the conditioning that people
have to expect certain quality of life. Much of the welfare
state that developed nations have built has no basis whatsoever
in the study of economics in academia. This is viewed as a
failure to respect economics by libertarians, and viewed as
a failure of economics to respect society by socialists. This
led to both 19th century labor economics and 20th century
welfare economics before being subsumed into human development
The debates above are all quite old. The term economics was
coined in around 1870, and popularized by influential "neoclassical"
economists such as Alfred Marshall. Prior to this the subject
had been known as "political economy" and referred
to "the economy of polities" - competing states.
The older term is still often used instead of economics, especially
by radical economists such as Marxists who strongly question
assumptions of "mainstream" technical and quantitative
economics. Use of this term often signals an intent to challenge
or reframe economic assumptions about scarcity.
Some mainstream universities (such as the University of Toronto
and many in the United Kingdom) have a political economy department
rather than an economics department. Political economy explicitly
brings political considerations into economic analysis and
therefore tends to be more normative - for instance it would
describe assumptions in common between green politics and
green economics rather than assuming the latter objective.