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Cosmos as Society in the Work of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew

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In the current issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality (14.1), Brian K. Strow and Claudia W. Strow challenge the economic impact of our definition of society in their article, “Social Choice: The Neighborhood Effect.” It occurred to me that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew implicitly challenges our definition of society on a different, though similar, level than Strow and Strow.  Strow and Strow analyze the changing results of economic utility functions based upon one’s definition of human society. In his book Encountering the Mystery (2008), His All-Holiness, however, broadens our definition of society not merely on the basis of relationship, geography, or voluntary associations, but on the basis of ontological groupings. This is not to say that he would equate a human child and a dog (or a dog and a flower, for that matter), but that, for the Patriarch, society includes the entire ontological hierarchy of all creation.

This perspective produces interesting results. For example, one may examine the case in recent years when Canada was still paying the state of Michigan to put Canadian trash in its landfills. Financially, Michigan was benefiting from the deal, but environmentally Canada succeeded in minimizing its trash and retaining unused landfill capacity. Economically, both can be considered capital, but they improve the respective societies in differing ways. The financial benefit of Michigan was purely a human benefit, whereas the environmental benefit of Canada benefited humans, animals, plants, air, and soil alike, even if only on a marginal level. As a country, rather than a state, Canada’s definition of society was not only broader in terms of humanity (whether relationally, geographically, or associatively), but also in terms of all creation.

However, as Strow and Strow’s analysis shows, if one were to expand the definition of society to the whole world, Canada did not succeed in producing any environmental benefit (the quantity of total world trash was not diminished at all, only geographically relocated). However, Michigan’s financial gain may have redistributed wealth in a way that still (again marginally) improved the world as a whole (raising per capita income, perhaps), while globally having an indifferent effect upon the environment.

The challenge of His All-Holiness Bartholomew, I believe, is to define society as broadly as possible, not only in terms of relationship, geography, or association, moving from individual to family to state to country to the world, but also moving from particular (one human) to group (family, state, or country) to species (all humanity) to genus (all animals or even all living things) to most general genus (all creation), to use classical categories. If one seeks to find a final say in the Patriarch’s work with regards to the relationship between economics and ecology, one may have many criticisms. However, if one takes his work as a starting point of discussion toward a Christian synthesis between these two disciplines, I believe one finds fertile ground for cultivating a productive engagement of economics and ecology on a global basis with such a cosmic view of society.

The Patriarch’s book Encountering the Mystery is published by Doubleday Religion and can be purchased at Amazon. The scope of the book is far broader than the subject at hand, but chapter VI, “The Wonder of Creation,” addresses his view of the relationship between economics and ecology from an Orthodox Christian perspective in detail. Additionally, his many talks, letters, and encyclicals related to environmentalism can be found here.

For more on Orthodoxy and Environmentalism, Very Rev. Fr. Michael Butler taught a session at this year’s Acton University, which can be accessed here.

For more on the ecological relationship of humanity to creation as a whole from a Christian perspective, see also Benjamin B. Philips, “A Creature among Creatures or Lord of Creation?” in the Symposium section of the current issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality.

You can subscribe to the Journal of Markets & Morality here.

Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.


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  • Roger McKinney

    Strow and Strow’s article is very interesting. If nothing else, it shines a light on the enormous hubris involved in creating social welfare functions. Not only does the definition of society matter, but the time period matters, too. What is good in the short run, forced redistribution of wealth, is awful for the longer run. Should we include future citizens in our definition of society.

    In anti-trust policy, the definition of the market is critical in a similar way. A monopolist is someone who controls 100% of a market in which there are no good substitutes. (That’s the economic definition, not the anti-trust definition.) For example, Boeing has monopoly on jet liner production in the US, but not in the world. Boing shouldn’t be considered a monopoly because buyers can easily substitute Airbus purchases. So in an international market, the world should constitute the relevant market, not the neighborhood. However, it it were impossible for US airlines to buy Airbuses, then the US would be the appropriate market.

    Seems to me that the definition of society will change with the issues under discussion in a similar way. What would be the appropriate guide for defining society for a particular issue? Maybe sphere of responsibility and subsidiarity could be the guides. Society is going to be different depending on the sphere of responsibility. We can have multiple societies all interacting.

    For example, personally I have no responsibility for a poor person in Bangledesh because I don’t know him, have no control or influence over him and few ways of helping him. I do have responsibility for my family and geographical neighbors that I know.

    My responsibility to my nation as another society in which I am a part is much narrower and tenuous than my responsibilities toward my family. My responsibilities to the world society of which I am a part is even smaller.

    How does this apply to policy? The same way that economics applies. Every individual has different societies of which they are a member and very different responsibilities. One concept of society and social welfare is just as arrogant and harmful as central planning is to an economy.

    Therefore, the state should have no social welfare policy at all. It should stick to its sphere of responsibility, protecting life, liberty, and property, and leave the rest of us alone to take care of ours. Such a non-policy would free borders for open immigration and free trade between nations.