February 28, 2008

Taking a break from current events (1918″€”), I’d like to recommend a fascinating book that re-imagines economics. Self-consciously bold, the book rejects the utilitarian view of man implicit in “€œneo-classical”€ thinking (Ricardo, Malthus, later Mises), which focuses on man as an imperfectly rational calculator of his own self-interest. Instead, it attempts to view the economic activities of men and women in a much wider context”€”that of their life as social animals, members of families and communities, and creatures of God. The volume, Human Goods, Economic Evils, by Edward Hadas, is one of the latest productions of the admirable ISI Books”€”which seems to be picking up the task once performed by Regnery Publishing, providing philosophical and cultural nourishment to what remains of the conservative mind. (ISI is stoking the frontal cortex, while other “€œconservative”€ publishers seem fixed on the reptilian brain. Who can blame them? I try to keep mine well-fed, granting it a single rat every day.) In an online article, Hadas sums up the motives for his writing:

The faithless reason of methodological atheism is dangerous to Christians, but it can be overcome. The task is not easy, because the atheistic explanations cannot exactly be disproved (‘falsified’, in the language of the fashionable philosophy of science). They can and should be ridiculed for making insulting claims about men and their motivations, for relying on preposterous unacknowledged motivations and for denying the power of goodness, but ridicule of one set of explanations can only be truly effective if it is accompanied by a superior alternative. What are needed are Christian reconstructions of the various social sciences, remade to be in the true image of man. In other words, a new reason must be created, one which corresponds with the teachings of faith. For scholars, the need is quite practical. If Christian social scientists and teachers cannot rely on working practices that are based on men seen as social, religious and moral creatures, they will inevitably fall back on the existing models, based on men seen as individualistic, worldly and selfish. The result will be incomplete and sometimes immoral analyses.

From that starting point, Hadas lays out in thumbnail what he sees as a more complete anthropology on which to base other human sciences such as economics. He nicely sums up man as “€œgood but weak,”€ and views human economic activity in the much wider context of man’s effort to “€œhumanize”€ his environment”€”to make a world more responsive to his needs and wants. These are inherently “€œgood,”€ but man is “€œweak,”€ and will frequently mistake his needs, and “€œwant”€ what he should not have (or far more of it than he needs). Instead of the value-neutral language of conventional economics, which exempts itself from judging human desires, instead relying on a kind of moral “€œprice system,”€ in which all desires are basically interchangeable, Hadas draws on the Classical and Christian tradition (and the work of Alasdair Macintyre) to incorporate serious value judgments into his cogent economic analysis. His goal, candidly stated throughout, is to create a solid theoretical framework that will unite into a more rigorous system the insights and injunctions of Catholic Social Teaching”€”a much debated subject which I discussed in brief last week.

I’m still only halfway through the book”€”which I’m reading because I’m speaking, alongside Hadas, at an ISI conference in April that celebrates Wilhelm Röpke“€”but I can already highly recommend it. There’s just one statement in it which provokes my dissent on a critical point, and which violates the deep common sense which animates the rest of the book. On pages 26-27, Hadas assaults the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham that underlies modern economic thinking, making sensible observations on the reality of everyday altruism:

In reality, however, men often look beyond themselves in their search for the good. A quick observation of the labor of mothers, fathers, coworkers, soldiers or lovers shows that men frequently search for the good of others, often so resolutely that they willingly make huge personal sacrifices.

So far so good. But the next two sentences, I think, plunge off the cliff: “€œA more Christian analysis suggests that men should search for the greatest good, which involves a profound denial of all selfishness and self-interest.“€

Here Hadas goes much too far, and makes of Christian ethics something like Ayn Rand’s caricature of “€œaltruism”€ which she pillories at tedious length throughout her novels. To move many notches up the scale of literary quality, this is the variety of Christianity which motivates the self-extinguishing clergymen in the brilliant Camp of the Saints“€”who welcome the conquest of the West by Moslems and Hindus in the name of selflessness. It is the same “€œunselfishness”€ that C.S. Lewis’ devil advocates in The Screwtape Letters.

If I could add a few qualifiers to Hadas’ language, such as “€œdenial of unjust selfishness”€ or “€œdistorted self-interest,”€ I could adopt his statement and move on. But given his use of “€œprofound,”€ I don’t think he’d let me, and because of that the point is worth arguing.

Are Christians really called to a “€œprofound”€ “€œdenial of all self-interest”€?  In the most fundamental task which faces any of us, seeking eternal salvation, our first motive is the pursuit of eternal happiness with God. This is no hedonistic or shallow search for satisfaction, but the proper functioning of a human will as it seeks the goal for which it was created, which God Himself surrounded with rewards that will redound to the self (and to no one else”€”God doesn’t need us). The alternative, damnation, is equally hedged around with punishments which one will endure by oneself. It seems that the divine economy itself is set up based on the assumption that man will pursue happiness and shun unhappiness, and this is as it should be. In the writings of the most mystical of saints, we occasionally find such a pure love of God that the saint himself (or more usually herself) actually ceases to care about the happiness of heaven”€”so pure is his love of God. However, that is a difference of emphasis, not a contradiction. Where mystics have arisen who actually professed that they did not care whether their souls were damned or saved, they were typically condemned; indeed, this was one of the flaws that got the Quietists denounced. A certain eternal self-seeking is not just permitted; it seems to be commanded. (Jesus Himself was not averse to offering punishments and rewards”€”a fact for which Nietzsche condemned Him, as I remember.)

Let’s move to more controversial ground, the natural order. If man is to reject all self-interest, this must include every sphere of life”€”including the realm of eros. On a radically altruistic analysis such as this, none of us should seek out the company of people whose conversation we enjoy, or wed those to whom we are attracted. Instead, we ought to mortify such selfish inclinations, and seek out the loneliest person we can find. We should mortify biology, and find a spouse among the ugliest and least marriageable”€”lest the taint of selfishness attach itself to the sacrament.

Equally, I cannot see why we should prefer the interests of our own children or family members over those of strangers, or of our countrymen over foreigners. Strictly applied, such a standard would dynamite the Christian notion of subsidiarity, which ranks our obligations as proceeding outward from the self, with the greatest claims upon us made by those who are nearest (relatives and neighbors). Perhaps one could make a case that in strict justice we owe our own children nutrition before we owe it to strangers, but in dispensing it we would always have to be careful to disentangle any motives of personal affection or attachment, and strive not to take undue pleasure in it.

Does it sound like I’m addressing a problem that doesn’t exist, knocking down a straw man in a forest where no one will hear it fall? I wish I were. The first time I discussed this issue with a friend, she confirmed that she too had been troubled by the question of selfishness: “€œI’ve always wanted to adopt, and I still intend to. But for a long time I wondered if it was even moral to have my own children, when there are so many unwanted children out there whom I could raise instead.”€

To which I responded: “€œThat’s kind of creepy and sick, don’t you think?”€ She allowed that it probably was. Not everyone would agree. A decade ago I wrote an article addressing a book which literally argued that Westerners did not have the right to reproduce themselves in a world troubled by hunger, and I coined a word to describe the book’s position: “€œdemographic masochism.”€ The whole discussion reminded me of the words of a wise Christian psychologist, who inquired, “€œJesus said to love your neighbor as you love yourself. But what if you hate yourself?”€

Let me carry this reductio just one step farther”€”into the absolute ethical contradiction to which it leads. If all self-interest is evil, then what does it mean when I perform an act of kindness to someone (let’s say, I volunteer to shovel out his driveway)? Whose interests am I serving? His. If he accepts that offer, whose interests is he serving? His own. In other words, he is being selfish. Which is evil. Indeed, by even offering him this service, I am in essence serving as a near occasion of sin, a temptation to self-interest on his part. In which case, the kindest thing I could do”€”thinking of his eternal salvation”€”would be not to make the offer. Unless, of course, I was sure he would be virtuous enough to refuse. (Of course, continuing the regress, he might reluctantly accept, if only to allow me the chance to do something virtuous—just as the woman I did not want and who did not want me might unselfishly accept my marriage proposal, the better to let each of us make a lifelong sacrifice.) In such a world, everyone would be holding the door for others, who would smile but refuse to walk through them. And no one would get anywhere.

More realistically, the people who accepted this notion of unselfishness would be holding the doors for the selfish ones, who would prosper enormously in the absence of anyone defending even their most legitimate, just self-interest. Any claim of weakness by the unscrupulous would be immediately met with a wave of self-accusation by the scrupulous, who would avoid the crippling guilt by giving in to every demand. All of which pretty well describes current ethnic politics in America and Europe.

Instead of such a frankly hopeless standard, Christians are better off accepting the fact that they have selves with legitimate interests, which they should pursue”€”but keeping a skeptical eye, informed by justice and charity, on the excesses of selfishness which tempt us constantly. We need not make some universal moral calculus which determines if each of our actions is motivated by “€œthe greatest good”€ (and for whom? the greatest number?). Instead we must walk through the thicket of mixed and conflicting motives, asking always for the Grace which perfects, but does not abolish, nature.


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