Whither Humane Economics? In Defense of Wonder and Admiration in Natural Science

What is needed for a humane economics is not theological economics, but a rediscovery of the call to understand the world through an economic science replete with wonder and admiration—something missing in contemporary economics as much as in the drab theology of many ethicists. Properly delineated, this is not a rejection of ethics in economics, but a recovery of the normative dimension of reality.

Mary L. Hirschfeld’s volume on economics, Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy, has been long awaited. This is for good reason. While she is not the first to raise thorny questions about the nature and use of the rational-choice framework in economic thought, and not even the first to propose that economics belongs to moral philosophy and not to positive science, she is the first to attempt a systematic integration of the economic model with Aquinas’s treatise on happiness. And she’s well-qualified to do it: after obtaining a PhD in economics and working for several years a professor of economics, she went back to school and earned a second PhD, this time in moral theology, and now teaches both theology and economics at Villanova.

Her project is ambitious, and while I find myself ultimately unsympathetic to the integrative portion of her project, it is nonetheless a serious work. Though it has several serious faults, the book has the potential to open many nuanced conversations about the nature of economic science and its role in the acquisition of human knowledge.

What’s Wrong with Economics?

It doesn’t take a theologian, or even an economist-turned-theologian, to observe that there is something fishy about mainstream economics—as it is taught, as it is studied, and as it understands itself. Economists without any theological instincts whatsoever have been saying this for more than a century, spurring great debates over the nature and meaning of economic science.

Thus, Friedrich Hayek wrote in 1945 that “many of the current disputes with regard to both economic theory and economic policy have their common origin in a misconception about the nature of the economic problem of society.” The character of that problem, Hayek believed, had “been rather obscured than illuminated by many of the recent refinements of economic theory, particularly by many of the uses made of mathematics.” Prominent critics of an economic science that was increasingly enamored with reductionist mathematical models included Carl Menger, Philip Wicksteed, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, and Alfred Marshall, who put all of the mathematics for his Principles textbook in the appendices. He famously remarked in a 1906 letter that if an economic hypothesis couldn’t be explicated in plain English and described in terms of real-life examples, it would be better left unwritten.

Collectively—though without coordination—scholars who questioned the deterministic turn generally aimed to recall economic science to the space marked out by Adam Smith. James Buchanan (who would go on to win a Nobel prize in 1986) observed this in 1964, when he quoted Lord Acton: “It is not the popular movement, but the travelling of the minds of men who sit in the seat of Adam Smith that is really serious and worthy of all attention.” Buchanan’s view was emblematic of these other schools of thought, which sometimes even adopted the qualification “humane” to distinguish themselves from the mainstream. Buchanan made an appeal for an economics—following Smith—concentrated on a “particular form of human activity [the propensity to truck, barter and exchange], and on the various institutional arrangements that arise as a result of this form of activity.” Economists “should at least try to know their subject matter,” Buchanan complained, which begins with the study of “man in his ordinary business of making a living.” Economics does not begin, Buchanan believed, with the problem of allocation driven by choice under conditions of scarcity, even if the reductionism implied by the latter is sometimes a help to the former.

Hirschfeld, for her part, agrees that the reductionism inherent in rational-choice theory is problematic, but she disagrees about the kind of reductionism that should worry us most. The economists cited above are primarily concerned with a science of “choice” that caricatures the sphere of human action. Hirschfeld, as a theologian, is more concerned with a reductionism that limits the scope of inquiry to a putative attempt at describing the world as it is, coming up willfully empty-handed on the subject of virtue and ethics. This “willful empty-handedness” arises, she argues, from the false conceit that rational-choice theory is value-neutral, when it comes rather with a host of metaphysical distortions baked in. Consequently, where the “humane economists” look to recover the science by recalling it to the study of characteristic human activity, Hirschfeld calls for a “theological economics” that abandons the pure economic project in favor of a robust integration of economics with a master discipline capable of supplying ends. But this is problematic for a number of reasons.

We Need Better Economics, Not More Theology

To get her project off the ground, Hirschfeld takes two dubious steps. The first is to attribute an untenable unity of thought to economics. “Economists are essentially unified in their foundational assumptions, their notion of what constitutes proper economic method, and the idea of the content of their field,” she writes. Apparently the mere use of the name “economics” can establish this claim. But this is as if one were to say—having only analytic philosophers in mind—that “philosophers are essentially unified in their central assumptions and methods.” In truth, the same kinds of deep disagreements run through both areas, and both fields have seen the same shunting aside of historic schools by something like a successful academic revolution.

It is difficult to overstate the problem with such an assertion. Either Hirschfeld does not believe this but is willing to set up a strawman in her presentation of economics in order to support her favored Thomistic framework, or else she does believe this and is profoundly ignorant of the history of economic thought.

It is this step that allows Hirschfeld to sweep away the competing path to a humane economics, leaving it wholly unconsidered. Writing as if there has not been a long and serious debate within economics about the nature of the field and its content, she promotes rational-choice theory to a place it cannot possibly occupy—as the central impulse of economics and the economist’s expression of the pursuit of happiness—and then offers theological insights in place of economic ones.

Such theological consideration of economic questions is fine as far as it goes, and it will interest readers who are curious about the project for professional or scholarly reasons. But if we want to know how to actually move toward a humane economy, as Hirschfeld promises us, it will not do. We need better economics—not theology.

Economics as an Independent Discipline

A second and related step is that Hirschfeld undertakes her project without offering a compelling and attractive account of economic science beyond the rational-choice framework. Grant that mainstream economics, or graduate economics in the most prestigious institutions, is deeply unsatisfying. What, then, were we and others interested in when we chose economics as a field of study?

I say that we were interested, like Smith, in the laws of order that can be discovered in the midst of seemingly chaotic human interactions: the fantastic formed-unformed dynamism of social life which, under the right circumstances, leads to a nearly miraculous degree of coordination, cooperation, and human achievement. But Hirschfeld in effect argues that if we were interested in human flourishing, we were really interested in theology all along, since theological science (at least, Thomistic science) has a superior account of human fulfillment. I do not disagree that sound philosophy offers a foundational account and that theology gives, as it were, a capstone, but surely the study of human industry and the laws of nature makes its own contribution.

I concede enthusiastically that economics, like any branch of study, is best pursued in the context of philosophy or theology. Liberally educated persons with a good background in those areas will be best at noticing the strengths and limitations of any special branch of study. But this is not yet to say that a special branch needs to be “integrated” into theology. Why does it need to be? And is the thought that would do this even Thomistic? Suppose I puff up a special discipline according to a standard, distorted way that some of its practitioners, not liberally educated, want to describe it—and then deflate it by casting suspicions on it and insisting that it must be subordinated to “Aquinas.”  How is this more Thomistic? We don’t call Aquinas’s treatise on law “theological law.” I gravely doubt that Aquinas would have been happy with “theological” as an adjective for economics any more than we today would want to defend the Church’s interventions on the motion of the planets as “theological astronomy.”

Like the critiques of rational-choice theory, the debate about the status of economics as science or moral philosophy isn’t fresh. A very fine treatment of the subject can be found in Philip Wicksteed’s 1910 The Commonsense of Political Economy.

Aquinas, Rational Choice Theory, and the Reality of Sin

A further difficulty is that Hirschfeld never tells us why Aquinas supplies the appropriate master discipline for such an integrative project. A satisfying answer—and the one I think she favors—is that Thomistic metaphysics is a true account of human fulfillment. But she doesn’t make the case, or even state the case. Why Aquinas instead of Hegel, or Kant, each of whom is an equally deep thinker?

Along the same lines, Hirschfeld does not succeed in showing that economics must perforce rely on metaphysical presuppositions. In the chapter where she describes the limitations of the rational choice theory, her claim seems to be that a practitioner who lacks a good philosophical foundation herself will by natural suggestion and association take the theory to imply some wrong things—such as the infinite insatiability of human desire—which, Hirschfeld mostly concedes, it does not logically imply.

Whatever she says about her sympathy with economics, Aquinas and the Market reads as if joy and exuberance at the discovery of the natural laws of economic order may be suspect dispositions, rooted in our disordered relationship with material goods. Only a long tour through Thomistic metaphysics seems to allow for certain qualified concessions to the natural sentiments we experience in improving our material condition: the convoluted treatments of private property and standards of living in chapter six illustrate this painfully well.

For all of this, I am simply not persuaded that the poor choices Hirschfeld highlights in relation to consumption and labor—the inhumane economy—arise from mistakes about human fulfillment derived from a logic of rational choice. Here I think she gives the model—and the field—far too much credit. The vast majority of people never take economics and yet exhibit the same tendencies. They seem to require no particular training to overconsume and overwork, nor do they need any nudge to grasp at a seemingly endless string of material acquisitions without circumspection.

The unexamined life simply isn’t a product of economic thought. If I were looking for an explanation, I might instead turn to the more simple story: human frailty and sin.

Restoring Wonder to Economics

In contrast to Hirschfeld, the “humane economists” believed that economics could be rescued as a wholesome science because they did not think that the apparatus of rational choice or Pareto analysis has any more to do with the heart of economics than matrix algebra has to do with the nature of statistics. These methods cannot take credit for what we take to be the great insights of economic thought, or for the habits and postures of mind that still inspire students to pursue economics. The path to recovery begins with a positive claim about what economics is, and what it is not—a move that shares the Thomistic instinct to get definitions right. Such a delineation authoritatively relegates rational choice theory to its proper place, and elevates humane inquiry as a mode of discovery about “man in his ordinary business of making a living.”

Surveying, for instance, the Nobel prizes awarded in the twentieth century, one would be hard pressed to argue that rational-choice theory is an essential feature of the best discoveries of economic thought. Regardless of the lip service economists give to the model, a profoundly Marshallian intuition remains in force. Nothing really passes muster as a great discovery if it cannot be formulated without reference to optimization models and the fictitious agents that inhabit them. The most one can say for the centrality of rational-choice theory is that, thanks to its elegance, parsimony, and amenability to mathematical treatment, it has attained primacy in the leading departments of economics over the course of the twentieth century—a phenomenon in many ways comparable to the takeover of philosophy by logical analysis.

The editors of the 1976 Glasgow Edition of The Wealth of Nations, R.H. Campbell and A.S. Skinner, note perceptively that Smith’s commentary on method in astronomy ought to be taken as foundational for his inquiry into economics. In that essay, Smith proposes that the sentiments of surprise, wonder, and admiration play a much larger role in the motive and undertaking of scientific inquiry than is often noticed. Surprise—at phenomena noted to be remarkable, or unusual; wonder—asking why it is so; and admiration—for the patterns in nature that are appreciable to us as exhibiting order and beauty. Smith’s own magisterial discourse began with surprise and wonder over the fact of some nations being poor and others being wealthy, and it contained a great many declarations of admiration for the seeming miracles of Providence displayed through division of labor, specialization, trade, sound legislation, and so forth.

What is needed for a humane economics is not theological economics, but a rediscovery of the call to understand the world through an economic science replete with wonder and admiration—something missing in contemporary economics as much as in the drab theology of many ethicists. Properly delineated, this is not a rejection of ethics in economics, but a recovery of the normative dimension of reality.

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