The insubordination of economics

Caravaggio, Christ Driving the Money-Changers from the Temple (1610; WikiMedia)

Paul Oslington’s essay—“Why are Philosophers and Theologians so Hostile to Economics?”—provides a case study of the academic phenomenon of failure to obtain joinder of issue. The essay is an underwhelming and confused mix of agreement and critique. My interest was drawn to reading it through because of Oslington’s claim about the effect that these hostile philosophers and theologians have upon Catholic seminarians, and thus priests, and thereby Catholics at large.

That is, the “bad writing [and bad thinking, I take it] by philosophers and theologians about economics is a moral issue.” The hostility leads to bad teaching which leads to intellectual malformation. In part, Oslington also claims, this is due to philosophers’s and theologians’s insufficient study of economics, unlike “When they write about other sciences,” when “they tend to inform themselves through formal study or through engagement with scientists.” And this is not confined to the “less eminent” thinkers. Even Alasdair MacIntyre’s “reading of economics” Oslington judges “seems not to have gone beyond introductory texts.”

Whether or not the texts upon which MacIntyre bases his critiques are also foundational, in addition to being introductory, is a different topic. The claims against MacIntyre are made against his two essential criticisms of capitalism—that it holds up the vice of greed as a virtue, and that it prioritizes individual goods over common goods—yet Oslington appears to grant these criticisms to a certain degree. He leaves more or less untouched MacIntyre’s views that “the fundamental problem with capitalism is that the virtues internal to the practices and the goods to which capitalism and economics are oriented are faulty,” and “ethical finance is a contradiction” in terms.

What Oslington offers instead is the suggestion that new interpretations of Adam Smith show him to be more of a virtue theorist than previously thought. Yet, this too is left unclear, for Smith’s conception of a virtuous economy with moral practices internal to it “is not exactly the same as MacIntyre’s Aristotelian-Thomist scheme, but it is much closer than MacIntyre seems to recognize.” Yet if it is not exactly the same, this gives away the game. After all, the entire burden of MacIntyre’s After Virtue is to argue that verisimilitudinous accounts of “virtue” and “morality” in modern philosophy explain our contemporary and fundamental conceptual incommensurability. It being “not exactly the same” in this instance makes it an insufficient account.

Oslington’s essay does have the virtue of indicating sources that make for worthwhile reading. For instance, MacIntyre’s essay “The Irrelevance of Economics,” which critiques the morality of finance, is insightful—and also available via Kindle preview. Earlier versions of this essay were criticized by Robert T. Miller in First Things several years ago. Yet that essay also fails to appreciate the fundamental incommensurability of competing analyses of “virtue” at work. Such is the judgment of Schaengold, who wrote in reply that

Miller’s failure to appreciate the radical difference between liberal and Aristotelian societies is perhaps connected to his unfortunately Whiggish reading of history: “Throughout history … cooperation usually has been secured by coercion and, ultimately, the use of force,” he writes. This statement requires Miller to ignore actual reports about life in pre-modern societies and to neglect basic inductive reasoning about the world around him.

This was also MacIntyre’s judgment, writing in his letter to First Things that 

if our present economic and social order were as satisfactory as Miller takes it to be, then the central thesis of After Virtue, about the corrosive effect of the individualism of modernity on the tradition of the virtues, would be false. Miller should have condemned my work from the start, as of course those who share his economic views have almost unanimously done. But that is his problem, not mine.

Oslington states that recent scholarship has suggested that Adam Smith’s work on economics ought to be read in conjunction with his moral theory. He refers to an essay by Samuel Gregg about this old “Adam Smith problem,” or how to fit Adam Smith the economist together with Adam Smith the moral philosopher. Yet this too is a problem to which MacIntyre draws the reader’s attention in “Irrelevance.” The issue is not merely that classical and neo-classical economics lacks distributive justice as an integral element that would render its account of human economic action complete (see Mueller, Redeeming Economics, reviewed here). Rather, the issue is that the intrinsic, teleological character of human action is not fully grasped, which is the commanding form that renders justice intelligible in the first place. Traded for it are sundry extrinsic, behavioral, pragmatic, or outcomes-based assessments.

Thus, Miller includes an inadvertent admission that MacIntyre is essentially right, laid alongside the following astounding claim:

When people respond to the financial incentives capitalism creates, they often are not doing much to improve their souls, but the capitalist system has done more—much more—to improve the material conditions of mankind than all the corporal works of mercy performed by all the Christian saints throughout the ages. For this reason a foundational attack on capitalism is an attack on the material well-being of the human race and especially an attack on the poor, who have been most helped by capitalism.

Yet a bit further on, “capitalism” is not a substantive ethical view but a neutral one:

Capitalism is a system of legal rules, most of them concerning private property, the enforceability of contracts, and minimal governmental intervention into economic transactions, and it is manifestly compatible with a great many views about what the final end for man may be. 

The contentless economic positivism implied in these essential features of capitalism reveal the “material benefits” argument to be a red herring. Material benefits are only one part of what the final human end actually is in point of fact, and so the moral neutrality insisted upon means that capitalism inherits all the debt of problems that supposedly “neutral” theories of politics have racked up.

It is essential to MacIntyre’s position that economics (whether positive or normative) is a subordinate part of a more encompassing theoretic order. And the reason that it must be subordinate is a reason MacIntyre proposes and to which Miller essentially agrees: the functional purpose of capitalism is the creation of endless wealth. Here, the equivocity of “endless” points to the justice of the demand that economics be measured—be given an end-goal and theoretic limitations—by something outside of itself. Just as mathematics or the natural sciences “cut off a part of being” whose whole concern belongs to metaphysics (and consequently, metaphysics qua sapiential tells the specialists where and how to cut), so also, economics “cuts off a piece” of the breadth of the philosophy of human action whose whole concern belongs naturally to political philosophy and supernaturally to theology.

Economic philosophy needs and deserves a more substantive account of the human good, lest it always remain insubordinate to the moral and theological architectonic vision of its place in the order of the moral cosmos. Thomas Storck convincingly argues, for instance, that this intellectual and affective disconnect prevents many from taking papal teaching on social and economic issues fully to heart. Perhaps this insubordination is the reason so many philosophers and theologians ought to be “hostile” towards such inadequate proposals from the dismal science.

5 thoughts on “The insubordination of economics

  1. Sure, a vacuous version of capitalism is easy to dismiss. But once it is seen that the very discussion of the meaning and value of capitalism requires private property rights to body, brain, thought and expression it is seen at the same time that the contentful version of capitalism is also deeply ethical. The recognition and protection of private property through the non-aggression principle is both ethically best and economically most productive. Anything else is both immoral and destructive of wealth.

    1. I’m not sure who is dismissing a vacuous version of capitalism. The debate described above is whether or not a “content-full version of capitalism” is a check that will always bounce. The ethical principle you bring up is rightly a sound economic principle, but is not capitalism’s private intellectual property.

      1. Thanks for the response, sincerely. I am taking the non-aggression principle as the heart of capitalism. You must envision something other than anarcho-capitalism (the only version worth defense) as instantiating the non-aggression principle. Interesting. I don’t see how any other system does.

      2. Ah—I think I misunderstood you and took “non-aggression” too generically, not as a technical term. So, my comment depends upon how the non-aggression principle is defined. I doubt I would agree with most versions of it in libertarianism. However, the understanding of the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, when applied to economics, would instantiate a more generic and I think true non-aggression principle.

  2. It does me some good to see the odd divide at work in the world of capitalist promoters identified. Capitalism is always values neutral when it is being accused of enabling exploitation, and always productive of good otherwise. Always just a system/reality or a moral necessity. It’s disorienting.

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