Time for more theology?

Evelyn De Morgan, The Worship of Mammon (1909)

An embarrassingly bad story on PM about economics versus Christianity spoiled my drive home on Good Friday. I suppose they need to present something about religion at Easter, but can’t they do better than this?

The hook for the story was Glenn Stevens’ revelations at some ‘charity breakfast’ and on Sunrise that he’s a practising Baptist. If you go along with the PM story this is supposed to raise the issue of whether you can reconcile Christian faith with neo-classical economic doctrines.

But if this summary of the Chairman’s comments is anything to go by, then, as far as Stevens himself is concerned, PM’s take is a total beat-up. He chats pleasantly about the influence of religion on his personal life; all the rational reader wants to know, however, is whether his religious convictions affect his decisions. And on this he has two things to say. The first is exactly what we want to hear, namely, that for all practical purposes his religion doesn’t influence his analysis:

Well I don’t think that I would draw those interpretations about the judgment of God and so forth as a result of economic downturns. I think what we’ve learnt is something that we knew or should have known all along which is that market economies are characterised by cycles, that human behaviour is driven by alternately greed and fear and that therefore economic systems are occasionally prone to this kind of instability.

Whew. He’s a just a healthy Keynesian, it seems. The second thing he has to say is as innocuous as one could come up with:

I think if you are a Christian God has given you certain capabilities to do a job, to earn a living and the Bible teaches that you should do that as if you are doing it for Him, because you are, and that’s my attitude.

So it turns out that Stevens’ comments don’t point to any tension whatsoever between religious belief and public service. What, then, do we learn from the rest of the PM story?

Well, next we are introduced to Paul Oslington, economist and theologian, who’s worried that economists’ focus on individual preferences seems to disqualify ‘philosophers or theologians’ from making their own judgements.

This has a muffled ring of truth to it, but it isn’t that clear what he’s talking about. Is he talking about individualism as a positive methodology — the supposition that behaviour is best explained in terms of individual motivations rather than institutions, social conventions, shared meaning systems, and so on? Or is he referring to the fetishising of individual preferences as a gauge of welfare, the refusal to go beyond the Pareto criterion, that pervades orthodox welfare economics?

These are both issues of fundamental importance, but it’s absurd to suggest that the main challenger to atomistic individualist methodology or Paretian welfare econonomics has been Christian theology. If a curious neoclassical asked for a reading list to broaden his horizons amd escape from the individualist paradigm, you could prescribe a thousand treatises on sociology, political science and secular ethical philosophy before you thought about adding any Christian ones.

Then we hear from Robert Fitzgerald and Frank Quinlan about the need for economics to learn more from theology (and, for good measure, vice versa), and how Adam Smith’s thinking straddled both.

But again it’s far from self-evident that the theological element in Smith’s thinking should inspire us all to return to theology. Smith was a deist, and as far as I’m concerned it’s to his credit that he and other moral philosophers of the enlightenment succeeded in escaping the bonds of theology to the extent that they did. Prior to Darwin it would have been difficult to conceive that complex, self-adjusting systems don’t need designers.

It seems to me that the whole PM story is a manifestation of a lingering prejudice that ethics is the province of religion, and that the churches in particular are the conscience of society. With this assumption firmly in place, then, as soon as the media discover that this businessman or that technocrat practices religion, then instantly a story is born — about the contest between material and moral imperatives, and how certain brave individuals undertake a tortuous balancing act on behalf of society.

There is still a residual notion in the popular mind that Christianity exhorts us to ‘Sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.’ But the fact of the matter is that the Christianity of Luke 18:22 has long since been deemed impractical by the churches. Neither conventional morality nor mainstream Christianity objects to business or profits per se, provided they adhere to certain ethical guidelines. It might be avaricious to spend your fortune on your own consumption, or to risk other people’s money for your own enrichment. But the churches don’t teach that building a business empire is wrong..

Theology doesn’t provide any fundamental critique of capitalism nor offer any alternative system. Socialism and social democracy are secular movements which, on the whole, have been opposed by the churches even where they did not threaten religious freedom. On the plane of abstract theorising, rigorous theories of social justice have come from secular philosophy, not theology.

Of course the churches do a lot of good work ministering to the poor. But it shouldnt need to be pointed out all the tme that world’s three biggest philanthropists are non-believers. To quote Christopher Hitchens’ favourite challenge: “Name one moral act performed by a theist that could not have been performed by an atheist.”

People who wish to devote their lives to speculating on the nature and intentions of an all-powerful supernatural being have every right to do so. But as long as there is no evidence for those speculations, why should anyone else look to theology for enlightenment on the ethical dilemmas of contemporary capitalism?

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Nicholas Gruen
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
11 years ago

Thx for the post James with which I broadly agree.

Two quibbles:

“theological element in Smith’s thinking” – can’t see much there. I would have thought that whether or not Smith was a deist, which is what he professed to be, though some scholars argue he professed this for political, ideological or family reasons, rather than reasons of conviction, his project was to liberate social thinking from theology and certainly of the specifics of Christian doctrine as it had been interpreted by the church and plenty of others.

“Socialism and social democracy are secular movements which, on the whole, have been opposed by the churches even where they did not threaten religious freedom.” Perhaps this was true as these movements were being invented – with churches acting as guardians of the established order – the Anglican Church being the Conservative Party at prayer. But it’s not true now, either in Australia with the church associating itself with all sorts of soft left agendas nor in the wider world with movements such as Liberation Theology rummaging around.

James Farrell
James Farrell
11 years ago

I broadly concede both quibbles, and I anticipated that, among the deluge of comments, there would be at least one mentioning Liberation Theology. That movement, however, was itself born from frustration with the the traditional church’s acquiescence to repressive regimes in Latin Amerca, which acquiescence was often justified on theological grounds — the Church stands for peace, does not involve itself in politics, teaches that justice will prevail in the next life, and so on. In short, there was theology on both sides, which is to be expected, because it’s in the nature of theology that you can do what you like with it.

As far as the contemporary developed world is concerned, we need only think of Europe, where parties that explicitly badge themselves Christian are generally of the right.

Paul Norton
Paul Norton
11 years ago

I think it can be fairly said that, outside of the communist parties from 1917 onwards, the socialist and social democratic movements have been places where religious believers and secularists have rubbed shoulders reasonably comfortably. Dr. Andrew Scott, writing about the British and Australian Labo(u)r Parties in Running On Empty, noted that non-conformist Protestants played a significant role in the early years of both organisations. Fast forward to 1983 and we had a Federal Labor Government headed by an agnostic from the ALP Right (Bob Hawke), an atheist from the Centre-Left as Foreign Minister (Bill Hayden) and a former Methodist Church Minister as the leading figure in the Socialist Left (Brian Howe). At about the same time the leadership of the Communist Party of Australia was beating down the Leninist rump’s last resistance to the inclusion of Christians as members of the CPA in good standing.

Edward Mariyani-Squire
Edward Mariyani-Squire
11 years ago

1. Paul Oslington … “it isn’t that clear what he’s talking about”

I got the feeling he was talking about a few ideas which are sometimes held to be of a single cloth.
(a) A version of methodological individualism: social phenomena are reducible to the aggregation of individuals’ behaviour; an individual’s behaviour is reducible to transitive preference-based choices; therefore social phenomena are reducible to the aggregation of transitive preference-based choices.
(b) A ‘positive’ element of liberalism: the [normal adult] individual knows best what is in her or his own interest.
(c) A normative element of liberalism: the [normal adult] individual should be free to pursue that which is in her or his own interest, subject to a ‘no coercion of others’ principle.

One could certainly argue that these ideas are presumed in much work in the field of microeconomics, and in the school of New Classical macroeconomics, but I think one would be battling to demonstrate that they are explicitly articulated or even consciously believed axioms for most economists (Austrians aside). To say, as Paul Oslington does, “Contemporary economics has a particular view of the world. Economists tend to be individualists; when we see something out the window we like to think about it in terms of the actions of individuals”, is to concede too much. I’m not convinced most economists do that much thinking about something so grand as “Viewing The World” at all. And to say things like “Contemporary economics has a particular view”, is, for me, an annoying category mistake, pure and simple. It’s like the currently fashionably stupid line, “Islam says X”. Islam doesn’t say anything. Muslims do – and they say many things, often openly contradicting each other. Similarly, ‘Contemporary Economics’ is currently a panoply of sometimes conflicting, sometimes compatible, sometimes incommensurable theories (great and small), models, data series, econometric tools, statistical analyses, and yes, ethical and political preconceptions of a fairly mundane type. ‘It’ doesn’t have ‘a view’ on anything.

2. Adam Smith.

The debate over the importance of Smith’s theological views to his economic work seems to hang on different purposes. Roughly, (a) if you want to understand Smith’s thoughts ‘from the inside’, then one may well have to take into consideration the causal role of his theological and metaphysical views. Intimately understanding and incorporating, rather than cutting out, these views may be necessary to this task. (b) If however, one wants to understand what is useful and true in Smith economic work, then the theology and the metaphysics may prove unnecessary and irrelevant. By analogy, what is useful and true in Newton Principia can be grasped – and certainly grasped more efficiently – by jettisoning his deeply held motivating theological views (and his mad beliefs on alchemy and religious intellectual history).

These apparently competing views or purposes need not be in tension anyway. There is no harm in recognising that Smith’s theological views may have necessarily contributed in a positive way to the development of his economic insights and his policy recommendations. There is also no harm in recognising that we can now utilise those insights without having to subscribe to or lean upon the theology which made it possible for him to develop them.

3. Lingering Prejudices

“It seems to me that the whole PM story is a manifestation of a lingering prejudice that ethics is the province of religion, and that the churches in particular are the conscience of society.”

This could well to true, but I think it is only one of the lingering prejudices – and maybe not the main one – motivating the story. I suspect the main lingering prejudice is that economists are hard-headed and hard-hearted technocrats, oblivious or unmoved by any potential pain they may inflict upon people via policy. One thinks, for example, of how non-economists tend to react [with disgust] to the recommendation that a natural rate of unemployment should be maintained. With this assumption in place, when an economist of note such as Glenn Stevens affiliates himself to an institution that defines itself as being concerned with a nebulous realm from which moral truth issues forth, then as far as the ABC is concerned, one is dealing with paradox that is sufficiently interesting to serve as a filler on a slow news day.

11 years ago

“Theology doesn’t provide any fundamental critique of capitalism nor offer any alternative system.”

Well most western theologies don’t. But there are other ways of managing belief systems that don’t involve admin tithes.