When we analyze the source of humor, one ingredient is surely incongruity, the juxtaposition of opposites. So when Tom Lehrer, the consummate Harvard mathematician, openly calls for plagiarism, this is funny because it is exactly the opposite of what we expect - it is absurd. And yet, from the viewpoint of modern economics, is plagiarism really so absurd? We teach our students to maximize short-term profits (in a moral vacuum). We drill them that producers minimize private costs of production (without reference to ethical codes of conduct). We expect economic agents to operate with atomistic selfishness, assuring them that this will magically produce the greatest good for society (ignoring Adam Smith's ethical foundations for the invisible hand). Why should we doubt that these messages, communicated over the decades, would not take root?

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Copyright © 2006, Routledge. This chapter first appeared in Ethics and the Market: Insights from Social Economics.

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