Certain events and persistent trends in our culture tend to leave people perplexed. From whence come these periodic bloody rampages in our public schools? What inspires the entertainment industry to abandon true art and to glorify fornication and violence? Why do wonderful advances in technology, like the Internet, become so sullied by the purveyors of obscenity? Why is it that prosperity on a material level does not correlate with advances in ethics and virtuous action? In short, why does the human person appear to become less humane in the face of unprecedented wealth?
Into this sea of questions and concerns comes a welcome guest: The Journal of Markets & Morality. The journal is a scholarly publication begun last year by the Center for Economic Personalism at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich. It wrestles with questions related to economics, free market capitalism, religion and ethics. To my knowledge no other publication has focused its energies on these related fields.
The journal's approach is to gather scholars of diverse specialized disciplines in theology, philosophy, economics and business and to have them engage questions and concerns that straddle and intersect their specializations. The theological-philosophical roots of the publication are Christian. Its mission statement says, “We welcome any attempt to synthesize the principles and concerns of Christian social thought with those of economic science.”
The most recent volume is typical of the journal's sophistication in dealing with the difficult questions of culture, faith and wealth of our day.
Jesuit Father Avery Dulles contributes an article titled “Centesimus Annus and the Renewal of Culture.” The article was originally a speech given at a conference on the encyclical.
Father Dulles argues that most of the human concerns of our century have been posed in the context of two conflicting worldviews held by the East and the West. The East has attempted to improve the condition of man through the politicization of culture. The state becomes man's savior. The West has attempted to cure man's ills through commerce and the increase of wealth. Material comfort will allay man's suffering.
While Father Dulles accepts that both commerce and politics have crucial and irreplaceable roles to play, he argues that culture cannot be reduced to such an impoverished set of alternatives. Educational and research institutions along with literature and arts, promoted by society at large, must operate with a degree of autonomy in order to assist man in answering the questions that have perennially accompanied him.
It wrestles with questions related to economics, free market capitalism, religion and ethics.
Father Dulles also accords a special place to the role of the Church. “As the ‘pillar and bulwark of the truth’ (1 Tim 3:15), the Church can teach the meaning of human existence in light of God's revelation. … A culture without a basis in revealed religion would be incapable of meeting the real needs of individuals and societies in our time or, in fact, in any time.”
One cannot help feeling the force of this statement in the wake of the abolition of God from our public schools and the consequent rise in violence.
The current volume of Markets & Morality also contains an article titled “A Short History of Economics as a Moral Science” by James E. Alvey, a lecturer in economics at Massey University in New Zealand. Alvey offers a historical sketch of the relationship between morality and economics as it developed over the centuries. He points out that only recently has the discipline of economic science been divorced from the field of ethics or moral science. A modern paradigm has emerged in the last century that places the work of the economist in a positivist/materialist perspective. This tendency attempts to make economics more objective by linking it primarily to mathematics and even to the methods of verification in the physical sciences.
Alvey's sketch unfolds the story of an economics that used to be rooted differently than that — rooted in the norms of moral science. Before the modern emphasis, thinkers like Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Adam Smith, and to a lesser degree John Stuart Mill, approached economic science within an ethical perspective. Alvey focuses at length on the work of Adam Smith because he is touted by many as the father of modern economics. Alvey shows, however, that Smith's roots were decidedly ethical and not mathematical.
“We see in Smith,” Alvey says, “an analyst who uses the moral framework to criticize the alienating workings of the commercial economy. Some of the strongest moral criticisms of existing society ever made are to be found in The Wealth of Nations; Smith's economics is not an apologia for the status quo. There is neither the sharp fact/value distinction of the later economists who adopted positivism, nor a ‘divorce between economics and ethics.’” Economics is more than mathematical models. It is about virtue, the production of wealth and the right ordering of our lives once riches are achieved.
The Journal of Markets & Morality does not purport to offer immediate solutions to the difficulties in our public schools, the entertainment industry or cyberspace. In fact, the journal goes beyond daily events and headlines to focus with scholarly precision on the ideas that undergird oaur culture, especially in the domains of commerce and ethics. Anyone with a more than casual interest in these topics should pay attention to this new publication. lts intellectual contribution may take us beyond the unsatisfactory solutions to today's problems that are proposed by so many others.
Father Christopher Meade writes from Cheshire, Connecticutt.