Economics and Morality
I may have to turn in my Catholic Geek card for this admission, but I still haven’t finished reading Caritas in Veritate, I’m only about ten pages in. Though I’ve tried the usual background reading, Benedict’s prose (though more readable than some of his predecessor’s) is not really the sort of thing one can read one paragraph at a time in between working. And while I do usually have 30-60min between 11pm and midnight in which to read before falling asleep, I must confess I’ve mostly been devoting that time to finishing a spy novel rather than turning tired eyes to Catholic social thought.
However, if I may nonetheless take the liberty of addressing some of the general discussion of economics and morality which has been stirred up by the encyclical, there is what seems to me a familiar dynamic coming into play as people discuss whether the Church can or should teach on matters of economics. The situation strikes me as somewhat similar to the argument about whether the Church can teach on matters of science.
On science, I would like to think, the terrain if fairly well understood. The Church does not and cannot teach with any particular authority on scientific theories themselves: Is the universe six billion years old, or only 6000? Is string theory a load of rubbish? Does the Earth revolve around the Sun? Will the expansion since the “big bang” end in a “big crunch” or in the heat death of the universe?
However, the Church can and must speak on issues of theology or morality which are brought up by scientific and technological progress: Do humans have immortal souls despite being descended from animals? Is in vitro fertilization acceptable? Should we clone or genetically engineer humans?
All these the Church can and should speak to, because while science provides us with powerful tools for explaining the physical world around us and developing new technologies, it does not provide us with any sort of guidance about what the world actually means or what we ought to do in it.
Now, with science, there are those on both sides who disagree with this assessment. On the one hand, creationists insist that the Church does have special insight into the physical workings of the world and that we should take the indications in revelation above the indications of our senses and empirical science. On the other hand, there are people who insist that the Church has no business talking about the morality of embryo destroying research or cloning because “that’s mixing science and religion”, or indeed deny that there is anything beyond the physical world that can be known at all.
With economics we again have a field of study (one with, arguably, roughly the same strength descriptive power yet inability to account for all factors that characterizes evolutionary biology as well) which different people take in different ways as regards its relation to religion. For convenience sake, I will attempt to name them:
Indifferentists basically hold that economics are deterministic and economic decisions are not moral decisions. As in the Greek myth in which the king casts his daughter and grandson into the sea in a basket and rationalizes, “I have not harmed them. If they drown, it is Poseidon’s fault,” these people consider, “That is what the market determined,” to exculpate any moral responsibility for an action.
Structuralists hold that Catholicism requires a particular set of social and economic institutions, and are prepared to dismiss any evidence from economic science that these might not actually achieve the desired effect. This often involves denying some fairly basic economic insights, such as that supply and demand affect the price of wages in much the same way as any other good or service. The sentiment among this group seems to be that what look like basic economic laws are in fact just tendencies in our particular society, and if another set of institutions is adopted, economic laws an be safely ignored.
Economic-moralists, on the other hand, accept the findings of economics, and support economic and social institutions which they believe will be most conducive to economic development, but also hold that all economic actors retain a moral responsibility to behave justly towards others, and a civic responsibility to support social programs or structures which will mitigate against any short term suffering caused by allowing economic development to more forward freely.
Now, it seems to me that much of the sound and the fury surrounding Catholic discussions of economics centers around Structuralists holding Economic-moralists to really be Indifferentists, since the Economic-moralists do not support the Structuralists’ call for radically changing economic institutions. Meanwhile, the Economic-moralists, perhaps add to the confusion at times by denying that there are any Indifferentists.