The Prudential Science

I ran into this quote going through an old EconTalk the other day, and thought it interesting:

As economists, we’re specialists in prudence only.

That, as you say, is not what Adam Smith recommended. Not at all. I and a number of other people would like to get back to a Smithian economics, which although it didn’t throw away the very numerous insights that we get from thinking of people as maximizers — maximizers in this narrow sense — acknowledges that temperence and justice and love and courage and hope and faith can change the way the economy works.

UIC Economist, Deirdre McCloskey

I’m trying to decide if I agree with it or not. I would certainly agree that economics basically only looks at certain prudential concerns, it doesn’t consider humanistic or theological questions. However, I’m not sure if economics should acknowledge those concerns, or if it is more the case that economists (and others dealing with the field) should clearly acknowledge that there is much more to any question than the question of what is most economically efficient.

The immediate parallel I find myself seeing is to evolutionary biology, where it strikes me as important that scientists (if they are to have a full understanding of the human person) realize that human beings are more than the sum of what can be said about them based on their physical make-up. And yet, when some fellow Christians argue that science must acknowledge that God is the creator of all things, I’m unsure what exactly can be meant by that from a scientific point of view. Certainly, scientists should acknowledge that, if they are to be in touch with the whole of reality (as I understand it to be.) But given the limits of science as a field, I’m not clear there’s any meaningful way in which science can take the knowledge into consideration other than by its practitioners keeping in mind that they are not dealing with the whole of reality. It seems to me that the situation may be similar in regards to economics — as in, I’m not clear that there is a need for (or indeed that there can be) a “Christian Economics” so much as that economists should be Christian.

[And yes, I’m aware that McClowsky is a rather odd fish, but that didn’t seem relevant to the question or the interview.]

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  1. I’m not clear that there is a need for (or indeed that there can be) a “Christian Economics” so much as that economists should be Christian.

    My feelings exactly.

  2. I think you have answered your own post rather effectively when you bring it full circle to the idea of economists as Christians and not the other way around.

    The very concept of a dichotomy in science between a Christian and secular reality is absurd. The pursuit and measure of science has to be the preciseness with which it conforms to and describes the reality which it seeks to know. And as a corollary, the scientifc accuracy of knowledge is not a function of theology.

    It is self-serving and disingenious of McClowsky to talk about prudence without recognizing that prudence, like any virtue, depends on the underlying theological/philosophical base from which it takes meaning.

  3. In what respect can “Economics” be called a science? In physics and the physical sciences, things are discussed in terms of measure, weight and number: the whole of related physical things which is the universe.

    Newman called science an organized body of knowledge. But then one must agree rigidly on terms.

    What can economics do with, for example, taste [about which there is no disputing] when it comes to eating cake, or fashion in clothes. What can it do about the weather, which is so important in agriculture? J.K. Galbraith, son of a farmer, answered simply: there is no real economics of agriculture, as the Soviets discovered.

  4. # j. christian Says Wednesday, August 5, 2009 A.D. at 5:45 pm
    “It is scientific inasmuch as a disorganized approach to the economy is not helpful”.

    # PDiddy Says Wednesday, August 5, 2009 A.D. at 6:38 pm
    “It is science in terms of that which be evaluated based on a cause and effect relationship”.

    These are not much by way of definition of the nature of science. The first is merely negative. The second raises the issue of whether cause and effect can be clearly and rigidly defined.
    And then there is the question of defining what is meant by”the economy”. What does it include, what exclude?

  5. Just out of curiosity, Gabriel, how much have you studied economics? It’s hard to tell what you’re getting at it without knowing where you’re coming from.

  6. j. christian Says Thursday, August 6, 2009 A.D. at 12:25 pm
    “Just out of curiosity, Gabriel, how much have you studied economics? It’s hard to tell what you’re getting at it without knowing where you’re coming from”.

    When someone defines economics, I will learn how much I have studied. [Would Keynes’ GENERAL THEORY count?].

    I note, if you will forgive my saying, that you, perhaps unconsciously, resort to an attempt to reduce the discussion to a personal matter. It seems to be an increasing malady these days. “That’s just your opinion”. It is like the malignant studies of “the influence of XYZ on ABC”.

    I am reminded of our schoolyard insult “Your mother wears army boots”.

  7. DC, regarding your comment on science more generally, I’d propose that one of the “meta” problems of contemporary science is the methodological denial of formal & final causality (to the detriment of science). While natural science may not be able to formally address those forms of causality, it ought not proceed as if they did not exist.

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