Monday, May 24, 2010

Like, Totally

This continues a deliberation that I posted after the APEE conference in April: how do we reconcile (if that is even the correct word) our callings as Christians and as economists? The current context for that is Doug’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” readings group, which as he has discussed below, is working through the Paul Zak volume on “Moral Markets.” Given that the discussion at the group is specifically about morality and about markets, am I able to have constructive discussions with other economists who may or may not be Christians? My definitive answer is YES, KIND-OF, and NO.

YES: I don’t know of anyplace in the Bible in which it would be suggested that Christian researchers can not engage in the world of scholarly debate; Christian meteorologists or mathematicians or creative writers or economists all can have a professional calling that leads them to interact with Buddhists or agnostics or Druids. In fact, I believe that the alternative, floating around in a Christian bubble, is more problematic from a Biblical point of view---to me, that comes close to hiding the light of Christ under a bushel.

KIND-OF: However, on this particular topic, morality and markets, things are more complicated because my view of morality ---as opposed to my view of the optimal econometric technique to be used with censored data --- is directly informed by my religious beliefs. During most of the discussion, I can argue from a point of view that is informed by religion without making the discussion about religion. For example, I don’t believe that morality can de derived simply from logical deductive reasoning. There are many other people who come to the same conclusion but from an entirely different route.

On the other hand, there are times in these discussions that I hear some comments and think “That is just wrong” where my religious beliefs are a major reason that I have that opinion.

NO: The most important regard in which I cannot isolate my discussions about economics and morality from my personal faith is that I believe that I am human being and therefore subject to sin. This is sometimes called original sin or in the much more colorful Calvinist language the Total Depravity of Mankind (although I’m not sure Calvin ever used those words). A lot of people don’t like to use that language because it’s often misunderstood, but I think that properly understood it’s an important idea.

Total depravity does not mean that humans are incapable of acts of great kindness or love. It does not mean that every single action that we commit is sinful. Our sinfulness is “total” in that it affects all aspects of our life. Specifically, in Reformed Christianity it would be inappropriate to say “I sin as a glutton and I am covetous driver, but I never sin in my role as a father.” Total depravity means that there is no part of our life that we can wall off and say “I never sin here.” More to the point of the Moral Sentiments readings group, my reading of Calvin was that he was arguing against a contemporary notion that a human’s true self could be subdivided between the rational and the sensual, with sin residing only in the sensual self. Most specifically, this means that any human effort to develop and live a code of morality is itself corrupted by sin, even if that effort is guided purely by rational thinking. (Recall that the first rebellion in the Garden of Eden was eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of goodness and evil). Another wording, if you don’t like “Total Depravity,” is that we are unable to act in full conformity with God’s moral commandments our own …we require the assistance of the Holy Spirit. [If you are wondering if all Christians at all times have accepted this idea, the answer is “No.” Pelagius took the opposite view in his debates with Augustine.]

How many times have you sinned because you began with the idea “I’m going to go out and lie cheat and steal”? Sometimes people do sin when they give into to temptations that they “know” are wrong. But haven’t you also had the experience of sinning even when you sincerely argued to yourself “Logically, I’m the one in the right on this” ?

The implications of this “Inability” is that Christians must understand that not only even when we are discussing morality but especially when we are discussing morality that we are not God and therefore our opinions, statements, and discussions are susceptible to the sins of pride, jealousy, and so forth, just as anything else we do in our life, and thus ought to be a matter of prayer for guidance and wisdom.

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