Clarence Edwin Ayres, economist, philosopher, social critic, and university professor, son of William S. and Emma (Young) Ayres, was born at Lowell, Massachusetts, on May 6, 1891. The family's emphasis on learning and personal and social morality influenced Ayres throughout his life. In 1912 he received a B.A. in philosophy with honors as best scholar from Brown University. He attended Harvard for a year and then returned to Brown to receive a M.A. in economics in 1914. From there he went to the University of Chicago, where he received a doctorate in philosophy and stayed on as an assistant instructor until 1920. He then became an associate professor of economics at Amherst. In 1923 he, along with a large part of the faculty, resigned to protest the dismissal of Amherst president Alexander Meiklejohn. Ayres taught at Reed College in 1923 and 1924 and afterward worked as associate editor of the New Republic from 1924 to 1927. In 1927 he and his second wife moved to a ranch in New Mexico, where they remained until 1930. That year he accepted a professorship in economics at the University of Texas, where he remained until his retirement in 1968. Ayres was married twice, in 1915 to Anna Bryan, with whom he had three children, and to Gwendolyn Jane in 1924.
Ayres's consistent interest throughout his career was the integration of philosophy and economics. He had gone to the University of Chicago to study the philosophical instrumentalism developed there by John Dewey and the economic theory of institutionalism that Thorstein Veblen and his followers had developed at the same institution. Ayres's dissertation, The Nature of the Relationship Between Ethics and Economics, first attempted to establish a philosophical base for institutionalism, and he explored this theme in his teaching and popular writings throughout the 1920s. In his first book, Science: The False Messiah (1927), he dismissed the utility of pure science and described it as an invention of the technological perspective. In its companion work, Holier Than Thou: The Way of the Righteous (1929), Ayres analyzed traditional mores, which he called "ceremonialism," as opposition to technology and therefore inhibiting to human progress. After his Texas appointment he devoted himself to definitions of ethical values for his institutional theory; this activity culminated in his two most important works, The Theory of Economic Progress (1944) and The Industrial Economy (1952). Veblen and many pragmatists had accepted a cultural and moral relativism, which Ayres countered with the use of Dewey's idea of a continuum of means and ends. Ayres strove to identify universal moral values derived from a "technological continuum," defined as "the sum of human skills and tools." His system denounced mere statistical analyses, savings accumulation, and full employment as moral measures and recommended that governmental policy rather focus on "full production" or technological advance. Ayres's criticism of capitalism led to conflicts with University of Texas administrators and Texas legislators. He was one of four economics professors whom the regents unsuccessfully ordered Homer P. Rainey to fire in 1940. Ayres continued his outspoken ways and before a 1949 Texas Senate hearing called a proposed loyalty oath for University of Texas employees an insult. In 1951 the Texas House, by a vote of 130 to 1, passed a resolution demanding his dismissal and threatened to block funds for the entire economics department otherwise. Powerful friends and colleagues intervened, and the unrepentant Ayres continued to teach until the mandatory retirement age of seventy-five.
Toward the end of his life he was a member of the Committee on the Southwest Economy for the President's Council of Economic Advisors under president Harry Truman and a director of the San Antonio branch of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank (1954–59). In the 1960s Ayres was a governor of the Federal Reserve Board, received the University of Texas Students' Association award for teaching excellence, and helped found the Association for Evolutionary Economics in 1966. He was a twenty-year national committeeman of the American Civil Liberties Union and served as president of the Southwestern Social Science Association. In 1962 his Toward a Reasonable Society: The Values of Industrial Civilization was published. He died in Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 24, 1972.