Lezing Albino Barrera
Why Read The Bible When we Have Piketty?
Radboud Reflects, 26 mei 2016
By theologian and economist Albino Barrera
What Unique Economic Insights Does Theology Offer?
Examples from Christian Social Thought on the Economy
Visiting Professor, Radboud University
Professor, Providence College
Christian social thought is a good illustration of how faith can complete and empower reason. While faith and reason may come up with the same diagnosis of the economy’s ills, faith presents a different set of reasons for remedial action and ascribes a much more exacting scope and strength to the obligations that we owe one another. Christian social thought brings to the public square of ideas a new way of understanding our shared economic lives by imbuing it with a transcendent dimension. By providing a much better (though not complete) understanding of God and divine providence, faith can offer us a much better self-understanding of who we are as individuals and as a human community. As a result, it reveals profound possibilities of who we may yet be. This necessarily affects our moral choices, including those in socioeconomic life.
The paper articulates what difference faith (Christian social thought in particular) can make in economic ethics.
Marketplace outcomes have brought a winter of discount both in North America and in the European Union member states. There has been uproar in the U.S. on its rising inequality, with Occupy Wall Street and other similar movements vigorously protesting the growing gap between the one percent that has captured most of the economic gains in the last decade and the ninety-nine percent that saw a decline in their economic fortunes. The middle class has been hit particularly hard, especially in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial debacle. Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital, became an instant bestseller in the U.S. because the book’s findings and statistics resonated with people’s experience that contemporary globalization has gone awry and inequality has gotten out of hand.
The Catholic Church has been said to be the longest standing critic of market excesses (Kuttner 1999, 54). And, indeed, both the mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches have written much in the last century on economic morality.1 Modern Christian social thought arrives at many similar findings and policy proposals as secular critics. If non-religious grassroots movements, commentators, and academics reach the same conclusions as Christian thinkers and theologians, then what, we might ask, is the value that theology brings to economic ethics? What unique insights does Faith offer that would not have otherwise been accessible to secular sources? Is theology redundant in matters of economic morality?
[1 See, for example, American Lutheran Church (1980), National Conference of Catholic Bishops (1986), O’Brien and Shannon(1977), United Church of Christ (1989, 2000) and Third International Conference on Christian Faith and Economics (1995).]
These are valid and important questions because of the problems that religion brings in its wake in a secular public square. Take Christianity as an example. Its bedrock foundation is divine Revelation, a phenomenon in which God takes the initiative to self-reveal the interior life of God. The claims of such Revelation cannot be empirically verified. After all, Revelation is not meant to be empirically validated to begin with. Revelation is simply accepted at face value as the inspired Word of God. Revelation is accepted with an assent of faith.
This immediately gives rise to a threefold problem in the secular public square of ideas. To begin with, not everyone believes in a God. And even if we were to assume (for the sake of argument) that everybody believed in a God, we nevertheless have to deal with a second difficulty—people believe in different gods. And even if we were to assume (again for the sake of argument) that everybody believed in the same God, we are not out of the woods either because they will most likely fight in their interpretation over what their common God reveals.
One only has to look at the schisms within various religious traditions. In other words, theology brings with it a significant downside. Thus, if secular and theological sources converge on the same findings and conclusions on the malaise that afflicts our economic life, then, it is perhaps best to avoid bringing in religion altogether when we talk of economic morality. Faith had better bring something substantively unique and significant to the public square of ideas in order to warrant having to deal with its "baggage"—the aforesaid threefold problem. What value does Creation—Sin—Redemption add to economic ethics that secular sources have not already provided?
Let us take the case of inequality as an example. Piketty and many others have gathered empirical evidence documenting our worsening inequality. They identify the more significant causes of such phenomenon. Implicit in their presentation is the premise that inordinate inequality is wrong. They also articulate reasons why we ought to be concerned with inequality. Numerous empirical studies and philosophical works show or argue that inequality damages the six goals of socioeconomic life, to wit: allocative efficiency, equity, growth, stability, harmony and sustainability. It goes against liberal values and fraternity.
Christian social thought has long been concerned with excessive inequality. It proposes an array of social principles to explain why it is wrong, such as, the principles of universal access to the goods of the earth, subsidiarity part I and part II, solidarity, preferential option principle, and participation, among many others. However, pointing to these social principles is not good enough from the point of view of Christian social thought. One has to articulate why these principles and their claims are valid. Thus, Christian thought and praxis have had to carve deeper, and we find herein their most important and unique contribution, namely, a theology, anthropology, and cosmology that permit us to get to know what is and what ought to be and why. In studying the nature of God (theology), the nature of the human person (anthropology), and the nature of the earth (cosmology), we get to know God, ourselves, and the earth much better. Moreover, Christian thought and praxis allow theology, anthropology, and cosmology to mutually reinforce one another. In getting to know God better, we get to know and appreciate ourselves, one another, and the earth better. And to know more about ourselves, one another, and the earth, we get to know and appreciate God even better. Such knowledge provides the larger moral backdrop within which socioeconomic life unfolds. This is the value-added of Christian thought and praxis in the public square of ideas. Given this paper’s limited length, I can provide only a non-exhaustive and a quick thumbnail sketch of Christian thought’s contribution to economic morality. Consider the following bedrock propositions of Christian theology and their implications for evaluating economic morality.
Contribution #1: The notion of creation
An unavoidable starting point for the signal contributions of Christian theology to economic morality is the notion of creation. Note the difference in the nature of the existence between God, on the one hand, and creatures, including human beings and the earth, on the other hand.
God cannot be dependent on anything or on anyone for God’s existence, if God is to be worthy of the title of God. God must be able to guarantee God’s own existence if God is to be God at all. Thus, we can logically conclude that it is in the very nature of God to exist. (Ipsum esse subsistens.)2 Moreover, God’s existence is eternal and not subject to time. Furthermore, God is immutable and not subject to further development.
[2 Summa Theologiae, I, q.4. a.2.]
In contrast, creatures, including human beings, cannot guarantee their own existence. Speaking from experience, we know that our physical survival, growth, and development are contingent on many other factors, such as the satisfaction of our basic needs and the nurturing assistance of family and community. Moreover, there was a time when we were not (before our birth). There was a human history even before we were conceived and born, and there will most likely continue to be a human history long after our physical death. In other words, our existence is not necessary, unlike God. We cannot guarantee our own existence, nor do we know what will happen to us in the next minute, much less going forward into the future. This is one empirical observation that is evident to all.
There is a second empirical observation that is equally apparent. Despite not being necessary in our existence, we know that we exist right now. Thus, we are confronted with having to explain and reconcile these two empirical observations. How is it that creatures, whose existence is merely contingent and not necessary, nevertheless exist? It can only be that our creaturely existence is a mere participation in the existence of One whose existence is necessary. Moreover, since our existence is not necessary, it can only mean that our existence is continuously sustained by whoever effected our existence to begin with.
The aforesaid differences in the nature of God’s existence, on the one hand, and creaturely existence, on the other hand, vividly underscores a whole set of important theological insights:
1. Creaturely existence is merely borrowed (or participated) from One whose existence is necessary.
2. Such creaturely existence has to be nurtured and sustained in continued existence. This is called divine providence. Without such divine providence, creatures will revert back into non-existence since it is not in their nature nor is it within their created qualities to sustain themselves in continued existence.
3. Creation (including its ensuing divine providence) is an ongoing divine activity.
4. No creature escapes the absolute sovereignty of God. Most important for purposes of our topic is that the natural world and human affairs are merely part of a much larger divine order of creation, and therefore subject to divine governance and its requirements.
Implications for economic life
The terrain within which economic life transpires is subject to the objective requirements and standards of God’s larger order of creation of which the natural world and human affairs are a part and to which they contribute. This has practical implications for both economic theory and praxis. First, it means that human freedom is not absolute but is bound by both negative and positive duties (cf. consumer sovereignty). There are economic choices that are intrinsically morally unacceptable based on the larger order of divine creation (e.g., self-indulgent and conspicuous consumption, avarice, idolatry of wealth, abuse and destruction of the ecology). There are lines that humans may not cross (negative duties). In addition to these boundaries to human action and choice, this larger order of divine creation also specifies particular actions that must be undertaken as moral obligations, such as almsgiving and working for the common good according to our means (positive obligations).
For mainstream economic theory and practice, the premiere duty is to fulfill one’s contractual obligations for the sake of allocative efficiency. In contrast, theology recognizes that market participants are also subject to many more extra-market, non-contractual obligations. There are residual duties that we owe one another even after we have satisfied our contractual obligations. For example, we have moral obligations to mitigate or pay for the cost of our economic conduct’s unintended harmful effects, such as, global warming, pollution, etc. Voluntary carbon offset programs come to mind as an example of such an ameliorative effort.
In other words, theology does not merely propose a list of don’ts, but it also has a list of do’s. Not only are there lines that may not be crossed (negative obligations), but in addition, there are certain duties that must be discharged (positive obligations). Economic agency comes with a set of moral duties. Human freedom is not absolute and is necessarily limited by the objective requirements of the larger divine order of creation that governs all creatures.
Second, theological creation brings home the point that everything in the world that we see around us is pure gift. Divine providence presents us with three gifts—the gift of the earth, the gift of one another, and the gift of self. We did not bring ourselves, our loved ones, or the earth we enjoy into existence nor do we sustain them in continued existence. It is God who does so. Consequently, stewardship, rather than proprietorship, is the proper tenor of our economic agency. Nothing is our own. All is a gift. Thus, biblical writers, Patristic Fathers, Scholastic Doctors, and modern Christian social ethicists uniformly teach that even while property ownership may be private, its use is nevertheless social. After all, God gave the goods of the earth for the benefit of all. The proper care of these three gifts is yet another example of the positive obligations that arise from this larger order of creation. This notion of gift brings to the fore once again human accountability before God. Economic agency comes with attendant moral obligations.
Third, human accomplishments are not in competition with God’s. Even our skills, talents, or whatever human capital we may have assiduously developed over the years with a lot of hard work and sacrifice are ultimately founded on our natural and innate endowments (e.g., intelligence). God’s creative activity is still the basis and source of these signal personal accomplishments. Gratitude, rather than self-ownership, is the proper larger context of socioeconomic life.
Contribution #2: Imago Dei
Following closely from the theological notion of creation is a second equally important theological insight that can only be known through Revelation, namely: Human beings have been created by God for their own sake in order to share in divine life and happiness. Furthermore, they have been created in the image and likeness of God. Such imago Dei is concretely manifested in the moral agency which human beings alone possess. The faculties of reason and will are what distinguish human beings from the rest of creation. It is what makes them human. A number of theological implications follow from this belief in imago Dei, namely:
1. Humans enjoy real freedom. Unlike other creatures, humans can choose. Unlike plants, animals, or non-sentient creatures, they are not pre-determined by universal laws of nature in their activities.
2. Humans enjoy a dignity worthy of their imago Dei. It is a dignity unique to humans alone.
Implications for economic life
First, economic agency is not the result of a deterministic material world. To be sure, there are many occasions of economic coercion (compulsion). There are numerous instances of what Aristotle calls involuntary action.3 Nevertheless, economic agency in the marketplace is, for the vast majority of cases, the result of free choice. Economic life is not the result of material determinism in which outcomes follow antecedent non-moral events. In other words, the nature, character, and quality of economic life are the result of the exercise of individual and collective freedom. It is moral agency that is ultimately responsible for the marketplace and not some immutable universal law of economic life. Human freedom is not only real, it is also potent. Humans have the means at their disposal to shape socioeconomic life either in conformity with or against the larger order of divine creation.
[3 Recall that this is the case of the wind-tossed ship in danger of sinking. In an effort to save the ship, the crew tosses cargo overboard (Aristotle 1951: 201, Book III, i).]
Second, since the person is created in the image and likeness of God, his/her dignity stems from being rather than having.4 The measure of the human person is who he/she is rather than the abundance or dearth of his/her possessions. Consequently, the idolatry of wealth is folly. Humans should anchor their self-understanding and their sense of security, not on their riches or power, but on the dignity of their personhood (their being made in the image and likeness of God). This is in addition to the even greater gift later on in their redemption by Christ.
[4 See Jon Paul II (1991, #36) and Vatican Council II (1965, 35).]
Contribution #3: Human sin
Combining these first two theological contributions leads us to a third theological insight—the reality of human sin. Theological creation means that there are objective requirements in the natural world and human affairs set by the larger divine order of creation to which the world and humans belong. Note that with imago Dei, human freedom is real and consequential. Thus, in the same way that humans can choose to conform to the objective requirements of the larger order of creation, they can also choose to do otherwise. To go against the divine order of creation is to sin. Evil is a privation of the good (Augustine 1953). Moral evil is the misuse and abuse of human freedom that mars perfections that had been given to us in creation and perfections that we can and have yet to attain (e.g., moral excellence). To sin is to go against our own nature; it is to go against our own well-being. Sin is self-defeating because it imposes obstacles to human flourishing—to being everything God created humans to be, that is, sharing in divine life and happiness.
Implications for economic life
The marketplace is often described as amoral because it does not evaluate the moral worth of activities that it facilitates. As a result, it does not block harmful exchanges. Extra-market institutions have to do such vetting. For example, we have government regulation or taxes curtailing pollution and global warming or civil society mitigating the market’s injurious unintended consequences, such as protecting sweatshop laborers.
The conduct of market participants cannot be viewed merely as economic agency and nothing more. Economic agency is moral agency and has to be weighed and evaluated accordingly. The reality of human sin means that there are right and wrong actions in the marketplace.
Economics assesses the conduct of market participants only as economic agency. Theology goes much further in evaluating economic agency as moral agency. Economics itself acknowledges that social phenomena are bound by universal laws specific to socioeconomic life. Even the actions of participants in the marketplace are shaped by these universal economic laws. (For example, a drop in the price of normal goods leads consumers to increase the quantity demanded for such goods). Humans are studied only in relation to their economic agency, that is, whether or not their actions conform to or are predictable according to known universal economic laws (e.g., the laws of demand and supply). Economics, by the limited nature of the discipline, does not assess the objective requirements of the natural world and human affairs beyond those that are relevant for socioeconomic life. Thus, it is not concerned with the moral praiseworthiness or blameworthiness of economic choices. After all, entering the realm of moral agency immediately brings up questions of right or wrong. In other words, economics will go so far as to deal with economic agency alone, but not moral agency. It is a self-imposed truncated view of agency.
In contrast, theology assesses market participants’ conduct as moral agency. For example, theology will ask whether it is praiseworthy or blameworthy to demand more of that good in response to a drop in its market price. Should the market participant be even consuming that good to begin with? It will distinguish between needs and wants. Moreover, more is not necessarily better. Furthermore, unlike economics, it will "launder" anti-social preferences in the economic actor’s utility function. Indeed, the choices and freedom of action of homo oeconomicus will be much more limited from the point of view of theology, based on the objective requirements of the larger order of creation. There are limits to consumer sovereignty in light of the human vulnerability to sin. Clearly, one difference between economics and theology is the much broader scope that the latter brings to bear in assessing human action.
In sum, economic choices and decisions in the marketplace are moral choices. They are either right or wrong. The larger backdrop against which we weigh the praiseworthiness or blameworthiness of market behavior is the larger divine order of creation.
Contribution #4: Incarnation and Redemption
Human beings are enveloped in an ineffable and unmeasurable divine love. In Christian theology, Jesus Christ is the crown, perfection, and completion of divine Revelation. The Incarnation, gospel, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ vividly reveal the depth of God’s love for humanity. God’s self-revelation of divine love is seen and culminates in God taking on human flesh to be one of us (Incarnation) and in Christ taking on the sins of the world and dying in atonement for them. Sin need not have the last word. In fact, Christ has shown us that with grace, we can always rise above sin. Where sin abounds, grace abounds even more (Romans 5:20). The profound revelation in all this is the depth of God’s love.
Humans are created for their own sake to share in God’s divine life, love, and happiness. Such ongoing divine creation (including providence) is sustained by divine love—as seen in God’s track record in the trajectory of human history from Creation, Sin, Incarnation, and Redemption. Humans are created by love, with love, and for love. The fullness of such love is revealed in the self-giving of Christ crucified. Love is the formal defining characteristic of human life and existence. The latter is thoroughly permeated by divine love.
There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, men or women. All are brothers and sisters in Christ—sons and daughters of God (Galatians 3:28). The passion, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ inaugurated the One Body of Christ in which every member is endowed with unique gifts that are then put at the service of the whole body. Moreover, all hurt when a member of the Body hurts (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).5 The ties that bind us are not contractual but familial.
[5 Cf. Vatican Council II (1965, #1).]
Implications for economic life
The Incarnation and Redemption have transformed human life itself and necessarily change socioeconomic life as well. First, Jesus Christ shows us what it is to be fully and truly human—one who serves and puts others before oneself and who empties oneself in self-sacrifice for others. This is a community and economy of self-forgetfulness and mutual service. Furthermore, it is an agapeistic economy characterized by mutual solicitude and regard. Our neighbors are viewed and treated not as potential trading partners or consumers or customers, or factors of production. They are viewed as brothers and sisters. There is genuine empathy because one sees in others oneself and a fellow child of God. The early Christian community described in Acts 2:44-45 and Acts 4:32-37 and the Pauline churches taking up a collection for the poor of Jerusalem exemplify such a community. It is a familial, agapeistic, and self-emptying economy. Sacrifice for others is not a burdensome imposition but a joy, and it is embraced with alacrity.
Second, the goal of the economy and community is not merely allocative efficiency, equity, harmony, growth, stability, sustainability, public order, or a combination of all these. Mutual tolerance as liberalism’s highest social virtue is far from adequate. The goal is nothing less than the common good. The common good is difficult to define concretely given the complexity and fluidity of social life, but it manifests itself by its fruit—a union of hearts and minds in the here and now, as a prologue to our eventual union with God.
Third, the Incarnation and Redemption affirm legal justice (general justice) as bedrock moral obligations in the community, and the marketplace by extension. Legal justice is the obligation to contribute to the common good in the measure that one can.6 And it is a contribution that is provided with alacrity and not grudgingly, for one does it with the knowledge that it is done for the One Body of Christ, for one’s brothers and sisters.
[6 Summa Theologiae IIaIIae q. 58 a.6.]
Fourth, there will be numerous occasions of the privation of the good (both moral and physical evil). Human sin shadows and m-ars the marketplace. But no matter how sorry the state of the community and the economy may be due to moral evil, Christian optimism and hope are never dimmed because the fundamental belief in the abundance of grace whenever and wherever evil may strike and wreak havoc. The ensuing problems caused by sin are not accepted with resignation because of the belief that economic ills and moral evil can be corrected. Such correction begins with repentance and conversion in the human heart, both for individuals and the whole community. Forgiveness, restitution, and generosity can heal social ills, including malaise in economic life.
These are clearly difficult and challenging ideals to achieve. But the Incarnation and Redemption have made attaining these in socioeconomic life lie within the realm of the possible for humans, with the aid of grace. Indeed, belief in the potency and omnipresence of grace and the consequent heights to which humans can soar in their moral conduct in socioeconomic life is yet another unique contribution that theology brings to economic ethics.
Contribution #5: Transcendent dimension of human life, to wit: (1) union with God as the telos (end) of human beings and (2) their eternal life.
Redemptive love brings to the fore the transcendent dimension of human life. There is a purpose to everything that is brought to existence—an end (telos) for which creatures exist. Such telos is unique to every creature. For humans, it is union with God in divine love and friendship.7 This is the most profoundly promising possibility of human life (Wadell 1992). Furthermore, such union with God bespeaks of eternal life. Humans have a beginning, a t=0, so to speak, in having been created. But as part of God’s goodness and love, they have been imbued with eternal life.
[7 Summa Theologiae IIaIIae 17.7; 23.3; 23.7.]
Implications for economic life:
The transcendent dimension of human life casts socioeconomic life in a completely new light and brings out in stark relief how and why it is that the Christian vision of economic life is completely different from the larger culture’s praxis. First, wealth, for which many labor and expend their whole lives, is transient. The idolatry of wealth is folly because it does not endure. There is more to life than the frenetic pursuit of riches and the power and comforts that come with them. At the end of the day, wealth leaves its suitors with an empty bag and a life expended for nothing.
Second, economic life (including our labor) and the goods of the earth are not ends in themselves but are merely means for the attainment of something much greater. In fact, humans are invited to reach out for nothing less than the highest of all goods—union with God.8 St. Augustine says it well in his Confessions (Book 1, #1): "our hearts are restless till they rest in thee." Economic agency and its fruits (e.g., wealth) are merely instrumental for even greater ends. Socioeconomic life (both individually and collectively) is at its best when orientated toward attaining the highest of human goods. Such is legal/general justice at work in social life.
[8 See St. Augustine’s distinction between frui and uti in Canning (1983).]
Third, not all ends are morally equivalent. Some are more foundational and more important, while others are only derivative. Nonetheless, all are merely intermediate ends, for there is only one ultimate telos (end) for humans—union with God. Herein is a task readymade for economics as a discipline. Economics is a science of choice. It touts itself for its ability to weigh opportunity costs and to put scarce resources to their respective best uses. For contemporary economic theory and practice, "best use" is associated with allocative efficiency, a phenomenon that leaves economic actors at the optimum level of their preference satisfaction. Economic analysis does not go beyond this. Theology does. Such allocative efficiency is meant to be at the service of the attainment of the human’s telos. Human excellence requires attainment or at least orientation toward this telos.
Fourth, the transcendent destiny of humanity adds yet another argument as to why humans enjoy the dignity that they do. They have been created and are sustained by God with a personal love, they have been made in the image and likeness of God (imago Dei), they have been redeemed by Christ, and they are invited to an eternal union with God. Such human dignity has important and immediate ramifications for economic life. In particular, the treatment of human labor immediately comes to mind. To begin with, human labor cannot be treated merely as a factor of production, no different from capital, equipment, raw materials, credit, etc. Laborem Exercens (#12) presents it succinctly when it notes that at the end of the day when it comes time to put a value on work effort and work output, it is the subjective dimension of work that trumps the objective dimension. In other words, one must always be mindful that it is a human person who is responsible for work effort and work output. It is a human person and his/her family who are dependent on such work effort and work output. Thus, humans are more important than material objects or money. The worker is more important than the work process. The primacy of labor principle means that workers ought to be paid a living wage and be provided with humane working conditions.
But there is an even deeper question that must be addressed in light of human dignity: Should human labor even be the object of monetary exchange in the marketplace? Is such not a commodification of labor? Is John Paul II correct in Laborem Exercens (#14) when he notes that the time has come when we should reexamine the way we organize the economy along the lines of wage-labor contracts. He proposes that it is perhaps time to consider alternative work arrangements, such as co-management, co-ownership, and profit-sharing. The common feature in the latter is how they all point to treating workers as partners rather than as hired hands.
Contribution #6: Imitatio Dei and imitatio Christi: prophetic and proleptic living in the here and now
Humans need not wait until after their physical death to experience the fruits of eternal life. It is possible to start enjoying the first installment of eternal life in the here and now through a prophetic and proleptic lifestyle. To be prophetic is to live a life of such witness as to remind the people around us of the kind of person that they too can be and are called to be. To be prophetic is to live a life in accord with the larger order of divine creation. To be proleptic is to start living in the here and now how we are to live in the New Age, at the Parousia when Christ comes back a second time. To be proleptic is to live in the love, peace, and happiness that are characteristic of eternal life.
Such prophetic and proleptic life is possible in the here and now because of the redemptive victory of Christ over sin and death. All we are invited to do in prophetic and proleptic living is to live as the new creatures that we have been re-created to be in Christ Jesus. We are merely asked to live and to be according to what we have become—children of one and the same Father and eventually destined for union with God. Our transcendent destiny and end should transform and indeed shape how we live today. It is the transcendent dimension of human life manifesting itself in the here and now through proleptic and prophetic living.
Implications for economic life
The possibility of living a first installment of eternal life in the here and now necessarily affects socioeconomic life. First, as new creatures in Christ (as a result of their redemption), humans are invited to live in accord with their new status and dignity as children of God. They are to act accordingly. This entails aiming for moral excellence. Christians are invited to live wisely and well as they orient their lives in pursuit of their highest good, their telos. Economic agency is put at the service of moral excellence. The pursuit of such moral excellence already entails prophetic and proleptic living.
Second, far from being yet another divine imposition or imperative, such a call to moral excellence (prophetic and proleptic living) is in fact a gift—the gift of participation in divine governance and providence. Grace works through nature. God provides for us through one another. At its root, economic agency is a participation in the divine providence and governance of the world. The fruits of our labor are put at the service of others. We can be "the hands and the feet" of God working to provide sustenance to God’s creatures, both in working for our neighbors’ well-being or in taking care of the earth. In fact, economic agency can be viewed as building in the here and now the Kingdom of God inaugurated by Jesus Christ.
Third, there is a reflexive dynamic to economic agency. As we imitate Christ in living an agapeistic community, as we orient our economic agency toward the attainment of our telos, and as we pursue moral excellence in our economic agency, we are in effect allowing the best in ourselves to shine forth. Imitatio Christi and imitatio Dei bring out the imago Dei in us to its fullest. Moral excellence in economic agency brings to the fore the One Body of Christ that we are as a community and as a family. Economic agency has a reflexive dimension to it for oneself and the community.
Summary and Conclusions
From the point of view of Christian thought, economics and faith are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are complementary. This is particularly so in Catholic moral thinking which is reliant on a quadrilateral foundation to ethical thinking: Sacred Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.9 Economics as an academic discipline falls in the latter three. One important hermeneutical rule in reading Sacred Scripture is that the Bible is not meant to settle empirical disputes. It is not meant to provide empirical evidence (Cosgrove 2002, 132-34). This is the realm of economics, not theology. This is how economics enriches and strengthens theology.
[9 See Thorsten (2006) for a similar approach in the Protestant tradition.]
Economics and faith are not mutually exclusive nor are they substitutes. They are complementary. Neither is dispensable as far as theology is concerned (Vatican Council II 1965, #36). Social sciences are acknowledged to be governed by universal laws peculiar to their respective fields. Thus, Christian social thought has always encouraged excellence in the sciences. This complementarity becomes even more evident when we examine theological insights that are beyond the reach of economics.
Economics as a social science takes the world as it is. It is not concerned with having to account for how the world came to exist. It does not purport to offer a theory of how things came to be. It simply takes the natural world and human affairs as is. It accepts these as a given. This limits both the scope and depth of economic analysis because it does not articulate the origins of the socioeconomic affairs that it seeks to explain. It does not drill down to the underlying metaphysical or cosmological bedrock of such socioeconomic affairs unlike Christian theology. This should not come as a surprise because economics as a discipline is concerned only with accounting for socioeconomic phenomena. It is specific in its task and limited in the scope of its query, just as theology has its own field of study and interest. To use the language of international trade theory, theology and economics have their respective comparative advantages. They can mutually reinforce one another through interdisciplinary collaboration.
Economics seeks to discover the universal laws that govern socioeconomic phenomena. This would have been adequate, if humans were simply like other creatures that do not enjoy moral agency. As mentioned earlier, human freedom is real. Human choices are not predetermined by a deterministic socioeconomic life. Hence, human choices can conform to or contravene the objective requirements of the divine order of creation. Economics as a social science can describe what is going on in socioeconomic life and no further. It does not weigh the moral worth of such economic choices. Theology does take this further step.
Unique contribution of Christian theology
The negative and positive obligations that come with economic agency and the need to examine such economic agency much more broadly as moral agency are findings that are not unique to theology. It is not only theology that can extend economic analysis. Social philosophy can do just as well. There are many schools of secular philosophical thought that arrive at the same conclusion. For example, recall the negative and the positive duties that arise from Kant’s categorical imperative, such as Rawls’ (1971) veil of ignorance and his rule on permitting inequalities only to the extent that they benefit the most disadvantaged. Note Marx and his view of the common ownership and proper use of the means of production. The literature in business ethics, social philosophy, and economic ethics provide abundant examples and numerous secular approaches that acknowledge similar restrictions to human freedoms (negative obligations) and positive duties. Even Piketty’s (2014) policy proposal to tax capital in an effort to reduce inequality reflects an underlying value commitment that puts limits on human freedom. What new insights, then, does theology bring to the table that we have not already seen in economics or in secular philosophy?
Secular sources and theology may converge on the same critique and even policy proposals for the economy, but theology’s contribution ultimately rests on the conceptual foundations that explain how and why such critique and proposals come about. Theology provides an account of how the world came to be and what its ultimate destiny is. The underlying anthropology and cosmology that it articulates is formative of our own self-understanding of who we are as a person and as a human community. It is such anthropology and cosmology that form the larger backdrop against which we evaluate market participants’ choices, not only as economic agency, but as moral agency. It is such anthropology and cosmology that shed light on the significance of socioeconomic life as a participation in the building of the Kingdom of God in the here and now and as a participation in the ongoing divine creative act.
Theology assists economic discipline with the latter’s moral disexternalities. Neoclassical economics does not distinguish between needs and wants. Consumer sovereignty is the order of the day. The economic agent may fill and then maximize his/her utility function with whatever preferences he/she may desire, even anti-social preferences. De gustibus non est disputandum. To each according to his/her tastes. After all, economic analysis is merely a positive exercise. It does not purport to be normative, in telling economic actors what they may or may not include in their preferences. Homo oeconomicus is merely a heuristic device to facilitate and simplify the modeling of socioeconomic phenomena. The assumption of self-interested utility- and profit-maximization is merely a modeling necessity in order to simplify the mathematics required.
Unfortunately, there are robust empirical findings that show that such economic modeling and assumptions produce moral disexternalities (Etzioni 2015; Boylan 2015). Unsuspecting students of economics take such models to be normative. To be rational or to follow the norm in the marketplace is to maximize one’s preferences and one’s profits. It is not to distinguish needs and wants. It is to assert one’s claims. It is to satisfy whatever one desires or however much one desires regardless of whether these are mere wants rather than genuine needs or regardless of whether others are adversely affected by one’s economic decisions. Any transaction in the marketplace is permissible for as long as there are two parties willing to exchange and for as long as the buyer has the purchasing power or credit to consummate such exchange.
Theology is an effective antidote to such a moral disexternality by providing the larger context within which socioeconomic life unfolds. Thus, it prevents the fallacy of composition in which people mistake the part for the whole. Theology’s broader scope of analysis and its assessment of the moral quality of human acts, including economic choices, underscore the inadequacy and incomplete picture presented by neoclassical economics’ heuristic model of homo oeconomicus as an account of socioeconomic life.
In sum, this paper argues that Faith, Christian social thought in particular, does bring unique insights to economic ethics that are not accessible to secular sources. It has much to add to the public square of ideas.
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