Henry Stob, the longtime professor of philosophical and moral theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, authored a compendium of articles on various aspects of theological ethics in his 1978 book titled, Ethical Reflections: Essays on Moral Themes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans). The book is now out of print, but I ran across an excellent section that excellently captures the intent of the work of the Acton Institute.
In Chapter 2, “Theological Foundations for Christian Ethics,” he writes:
Because man does in fact have a horizontal dimension, and because he is in fact tied in with nature, the presence of “conditioning” factors cannot be denied. There is that in man which is amenable to “causal explanation.” Accordingly, the effect upon him, and upon his conduct, of chemical processes, biological instincts, psychological drives and complexes, economic determinants, and social pressures may never be ignored. It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that the natural sciences, or those social sciences which proceed by way of the quantitative analysis of empirical givens, are able really to interpret man and his behavior. The methods employed within these sciences, fashioned as they are for use on the horizontal plane, are simply not fitted to plumb the depths of man.
It is most narrowly the economic aspects of human relationships that the Acton Institute is concerned with, but more broadly other “horizontal” institutions are relevant, including disciplines such as political science and history.
One impressive piece of evidence that suggests that Dr. Stob is right in his analysis of the limits of social sciences is the current flowering of interest in economic theories of “social capital,” for example. These are attempts to get at some of the deeper aspects of human reality. Stob concludes that this is properly the realm of ethics, and this is underscored by Francis Fukuyama’s definition of social capital: “Social capital can be defined simply as the existence of a certain set of informal values or norms shared among members of a group that permit cooperation among them.”
Stob writes that since the horizontal dimensions do not exhaust the causal explanations for human behavior,
Attention must be given, therefore, to another set of answers to the question about man and his behavior. These answers, proclaimed by Christian ethics, arise out of theology and metaphysics, and reflect an apprehension of man’s vertical dimension. Integral to them is the recognition that, though man is undoubtedly tied in with nature, he is even more certainly tied in with God. This being tied to God, it is recognized, is precisely what accounts for man’s humanity. It is this which raises man above mere animality and constitutes him a moral person. It is this, moreover, which enables him to break through the causal nexus and transcend merely natural determinants. Being tied in with God, having a dimension of depth, oriented to some object of ultimate concern, he can rise above the influences playing upon him from the side and exercise a genuine freedom—the freedom to set himself ideals and to aspire after them.
It is in the intersection between the vertical and horizontal dimensions of human existence, specifically as ethics relates to economics, that the Acton Institute works. It is the deeper and more comprehensive view of the human person, particularly as revealed in Holy Scripture, that allows us to evaluate and appropriate elements of study of the “horizontal” planes of human relationships.