Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Of what may we be sure? 

Modern economics teaches us that the human person is best understood as homo oeconomicus, a rational, calculating, creature that always seeks to maximize their utility subject only to budget constraints.  

Might there be other ways to understand the human person, an anthropology of the person that would lead to a different way of conceptualizing economics and economic behavior? 

Offered for your consideration:

Possible foundations for an understanding of economic behavior (and human behavior in general)

I.       Original Sin

By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state.  It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice.  And that is why original sin is call “sin” only in an analogical sense: it is a sin “contracted” and not “committed” – a state and not an act.

Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants.  It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is call “concupiscence.”[1]

II.    Bernard Lonergan’s Desire to Know

Deep within us all, emergent when the noise of other appetites is stilled, there is a drive to know, to understand, to see why, to discover the reason, to find the cause, to explain.  Just what is wanted, has many names.  In what precisely it consists, is a matter of dispute.  But the fact of inquiry is beyond all doubt.  It can absorb a man.  It can keep him for hours, day after day, year after year, in the narrow prison of his study or his laboratory.  It can send him on dangerous voyages of exploration.  It can withdraw him from other interests, other pursuits, other pleasures, other achievements.  It can fill his waking thoughts, hide from him the world of ordinary affairs, invade the very fabric of his dreams.  It can demand endless sacrifices that are made without regret though there is only the hope, never a certain promise, of success.  What better symbol could one find for this obscure, exigent, imperious drive, than a man, naked, running excitedly crying, “I’ve got it”?[2]

III. Saint John Paul II’s Work as Vocation

Through work man must earn his daily bread and contribute to the continual advance of science and technology and, above all, to elevating unceasingly the cultural and moral level of the society within which he lives in community with those who belong to the same family. And work means any activity by man, whether manual or intellectual, whatever its nature or circumstances; it means any human activity that can and must be recognized as work, in the midst of all the many activities of which man is capable and to which he is predisposed by his very nature, by virtue of humanity itself. Man is made to be in the visible universe an image and likeness of God himself, and he is placed in it in order to subdue the earth. From the beginning therefore he is called to work. Work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures, whose activity for sustaining their lives cannot be called work. Only man is capable of work, and only man works, at the same time by work occupying his existence on earth. Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons. And this mark decides its interior characteristics; in a sense it constitutes its very nature.[3]

IV. Thorstein Veblen’s Instinct

Like other animals, man is an agent that acts in response to stimuli afforded by the environment in which he lives. Like other species, he is a creature of habit and propensity. But in a higher degree than other species, man mentally digests the content of the habits under whose guidance he acts, and appreciates the trend of these habits and propensities. He is in an eminent sense an intelligent agent. By selective necessity he is endowed with a proclivity for purposeful action. He is possessed of a discriminating sense of purpose, by force of which all futility of life or of action is distasteful to him.[4]

V.    Adam Smith’s Propensity

This division of labour, from which so many advantages are derived, is not originally the effect of any human wisdom, which foresees and intends that general opulence to which it gives occasion.  It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual, consequence of a certain propensity in human nature which has in view no such extensive utility; the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.

Whether this propensity be one of those original principles in human nature, of which no further account can be given; or whether, as seems more probable, it be the necessary consequence of the faculties of reason and speech, it belongs not to our present subject to enquire.  It is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals, which seem to know neither this nor any species of contracts.[5]

VI. Abram Maslow’s Hierarchy

These basic goals are related to each other, being arranged in a hierarchy of prepotency. This means that the most prepotent goal will monopolize consciousness and will tend of itself to organize the recruitment of the various capacities of the organism. The less prepotent needs are minimized, even forgotten or denied. But when a need is fairly well satisfied, the next prepotent ('higher') need emerges, in turn to dominate the conscious life and to serve as the center of organization of behavior, since gratified needs are not active motivators.
Thus man is a perpetually wanting animal.[6]  (Maslow, 1943 394-5)

VII.    St. Augustine of Hippo
Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, Libreria Editrice Vaticana ed. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994), 404-5.
[2] Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, Bernard Lonergan, (New York: Longmans, 1957), p. 4.
[3] John Paul II, "Laborenm Exercens: On Human Work," in Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage, ed. David J. O'Brien and Thomas A. Shannon (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992), 352, Apostolic Blessing.
[4] Thorstein Veblen, "The Instinct of Workmanship and the Irksomeness of Labor," American Journal of Sociology 4, no. 2 (1898): 188-9.
[5] Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Cannan ed. (New York: The Modern Library, 1937), 13.

[6] Abram Maslow, “A Theory of Human Motivation”, Psychological Review, 50, no. 4, (1943). pp. 394-5.

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