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Orthodox Theology, Morality, and Impersonal Markets

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Today at Public Orthodoxy, the blog of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University, I have an essay on the need for Orthodox theology to more seriously engage modern economic science. The argument would likely apply in some degree to other theological traditions as well.

I write,

Personal relationships and the monastic life have different norms than impersonal markets. This does not mean that markets have no norms, nor that the norms of markets should overrule any other concerns. But it does mean that if we wish for our economies to be more moral, whether we hail from the political right or left (or somewhere outside of that simplistic binary), we must first understand what they are and how they function.

In the article, I quote Peter Hill and John Lunn on this distinction, but it can be found in the work of Paul Heyne as well. For example, in his essay “Are Economists Basically Immoral?” citing a newspaper article about Mother Theresa (now officially recognized as a Roman Catholic saint as of this past Sunday), he wrote,

I shall conclude with two recent newspaper items. One is a short news item reporting that Mother Teresa was about to appeal to prevent the execution of a convicted California murderer. I don’t know whether she did appeal or not, but the newspaper said that she was going to call the Governor and say that this man should be forgiven because that is what Jesus would have done. Now I don’t want to get into the issue of capital punishment; I just want to point out that if Mother Teresa made that argument she was mixing different moralities. I choose Mother Teresa because I can’t think of a person for whom I have more respect; she is a far better person than I am. But forgiveness is appropriate only in face-to-face relations or for God. The criminal-justice system of the State of California is not God nor is it running a face-to-face society. A judge who forgives a convicted criminal is not a candidate for sainthood but for impeachment. The morality of large social spheres is simply different from the morality of face-to-face systems. Arguments against capital punishment must take those differences into account, and so must our arguments for revised economic policies.

This is a crucial distinction that I have come back to again and again, and one that I explore in more detail at Public Orthodoxy today. Read my full essay 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.

Comments

  • Well done. Reminds me of Hayek’s discussion of family/tribal economics vs impersonal econ. Is the Orthodox leadership averse to learning from the Catholic theologians at the University of Salamanca? It seems they wouldn’t want to rediscover fire. But they’re going to spin their wheels if they stick with just the NT. There is very little there. The best foundations for economics comes from the Torah and there is a lot there.

    • Roger: I would start them on something much more introductory, perhaps Paul Heyne’s excellent “The Economic Way of Thinking.” Put all the bishops in a small auditorium (there aren’t that many of them: http://www.assemblyofbishops.org/assets/maps/BishopsAndTotalParishesInCounty.pdf), like an Econ 101 class, and work them through key principles. To be grossly generalistic, many would initially have difficulty accepting key insights such as the reality of scarcity, wealth creation through free exchange, and the like.

      • That might work. I assumed that they might be more inclined to learn from other theologians than economists, again assuming that they would want the theological justifications for some of the foundational economic principles you mention.

        Another approach would be to take Mises’ a priori approach. This is from the intro to Mises’ book on epistemology:

        “As thinking and acting men, we grasp the concept of action. In grasping this concept we simultaneously grasp the closely correlated concepts of value, wealth, exchange, price, and cost. They are all necessarily implied in the concept of action, and together with them the concepts of valuing, scale of value and importance, scarcity and abundance, advantage and disadvantage, success, profit, and loss. The logical unfolding of all these concepts and categories in systematic derivation from the fundamental category of action and the demonstration of the necessary relations among them constitutes the first task of our science. The part that deals with the elementary theory of value and price serves as the starting point in its exposition. There can be no doubt whatever concerning the aprioristic character of these disciplines.”