Philosophy of Money and Finance

Boudewijn de Bruin, Lisa Herzog, Martin O'Neill, Joakim Sandberg

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingEntry for encyclopedia/dictionaryAcademicpeer-review


Finance and philosophy may seem to be worlds apart. But they share at least one common ancestor: Thales of Miletus. Thales is typically regarded as the first philosopher, but he was also a financial innovator. He appears to have been what we would now call an option trader. He predicted that next year’s olive harvest would be good, and therefore paid a small amount of money to the owners of olive presses for the right to the next year’s use. When the harvest turned out to be as good as predicted, Thales earned a sizable amount of money by renting out the presses (Aristotle, Politics, 1259a).

Obviously, a lot has changed since Thales’ times, both in finance and in our ethical and political attitudes towards finance. Coins have largely been replaced by either paper or electronic money, and we have built a large infrastructure to facilitate transactions of money and other financial assets—with elements including commercial banks, central banks, insurance companies, stock exchanges, and investment funds. This institutional multiplicity is due to concerted efforts of both private and public agents, as well as innovations in financial economics and in the financial industry (Shiller 2012).

Our ethical and political sensitivities have also changed in several respects. It seems fair to say that most traditional ethicists held a very negative attitude towards financial activities. Think, for example, of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple from moneylenders, and the widespread condemnation of money as “the root of all evil”. Attitudes in this regard seem to have softened over time. However, the moral debate continues to recur, especially in connection with large scandals and crises within finance, the largest such crisis in recent memory of course being the global financial crisis of 2008.

This article describes what philosophical analysis can say about money and finance. It is divided into five parts that respectively concern (1) what money and finance really are (metaphysics), (2) how knowledge about financial matters is or should be formed (epistemology), (3) the merits and challenges of financial economics (philosophy of science), (4) the many ethical issues related to money and finance (ethics), and (5) the relationship between finance and politics (political philosophy).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
EditorsEdward N. Zalta, Uri Nodelman
Publisher Metaphysics Research Lab Center for the Study of Language and Information Stanford University
Publication statusPublished - 2023

Publication series

NameThe Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
ISSN (Print)1095-5054


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