Book Review: Aquinas and the Market. Toward a Humane Economy, by Mary L. Hirschfeld. Harvard University Press, 2018, 268 pp. Winner of the 2019 Centesimus Annus—Pro Pontifice Foundation’s “Economy and Society” International Prize.

There is no one better than the author herself to explain the purpose of this book:

“The key question at the heart of this project would be how to balance pragmatic realism about the fact that humans are most often driven by incentives with the need to address humans directly as rational agents capable of discerning what goods are worthy of pursuit, in a form that is better suited to attaining genuine happiness but is not well captured by the rational choice model” (xvii).

We shall unpack this into its two main elements, a critique of mainstream economics, anchored on the rational choice model, and a proposal regarding the foundational premises of a “humane economy,” which turns out to be a “theological economics.”

Not much is new in the characterization and objections presented to the rational choice model, except perhaps for the observation that even the latest trends in the discipline, such as behavioral economics, continue to fall in line. Hirschfeld describes the rational choice model through four major features. First, in its underlying anthropology consisting of individuals with unlimited wants who, despite scarce resources of income and time, manage to efficiently procure the optimal bundle of goods and services for themselves. Second, the presumption of omniscience among agents in their choices, notwithstanding the cost of information and the persistence of systematic cognitive errors. Third is its mathematical robustness, allowing the model to accommodate a plurality of motivations within identical formulas for analysis. Thanks to this mathematical sophistication, economic thinking could rightly claim the scientific status proper to the deliberations of an objective, impartial observer. And fourth, the explanation of the decision making process in terms of tradeoffs between costs and benefits among alternatives. Differences between values and material wealth are eliminated and both are subject to the same standard of preference weightings. 

Without a doubt, the rational choice model is highly appropriate when it comes to choosing the most suitable means to a previously determined end or objective. However, it tells us nothing about which ends or purposes are choiceworthy in the first place. For this Hirschfeld turns to the theology of Thomas Aquinas.

In her project of a theological economics, Hirschfeld makes use of theology as a source of independent or non-committal principles with which to evaluate economic life and reasoning. Before deliberating on the suitability of means or instruments, a fuller account of rationality requires that we consider which ends or objectives are worth pursuing. After all, economic efficiency derives from relative ease with which these goals are achieved. What Aristotle established as eudaimonia or flourishing as the end or perfection of human life, Aquinas has completed or recast as God himself, the one to whom human life is and ought to be ordered. This brings along at least two highly significant and related consequences, referring to the nature of the economic good within the context of human life as a whole and the rationality with which we ought to guide or orient our decisions within this realm. 

On the subject of the overall economic good Hirschfeld insists that it cannot be purely quantitative, as the accumulation of wealth, an aggregate of utilities, profit maximization,  unlimited growth, or an indefinite progression up a ladder of satisfactions, and so forth. This hardly makes sense, for granted that human desires are unbounded and resources scarce, “we will always be infinitely far from satiety, so what sort of good does economic growth actually achieve?” (63). The genuine, overarching economic good cannot be the result of a sisyphean task. Rather, it is qualitative and perfective in nature, based on the proper ordering of goods, of artificial wealth to natural wealth, such that human beings are able to exercise their highest faculties in the best possible way or excellently, that is, by practicing the virtues. Only then will human beings be able to fulfil their final end and give glory to God, by deliberately reflecting in their life and work, in the distinctive manner only they can, the order God has established for the whole of creation. 

Neither can the practical reasoning conducive to the attainment of such a theological economic end be purely technical and calculative of efficiency, as the rational choice model purports. Theological or religious economics overlaps with theological ethics, and therefore cannot be indifferent with regard to the (final) end or purpose. Aligned with what Pope Francis criticizes as the “technocratic paradigm,” Hirschfeld propounds the exercise of prudence, the art of choosing the right means to the right end or habitually doing the right thing the right way. Specifically, she follows Yuengert in differentiating prudence from the constrained maximization model of rational choice theory: it implies a reflection on purposes or ends; it deals with situations of uncertainty (where probability distributions are unknown); it requires the freedom that comes from self-mastery over wants and desires; and it is socially embedded, rather than universal and abstract (p. 115).

Much as Hirschfeld attempts to disentangle the story behind this volume from her own intellectual and religious conversion, in the end, she proves quite unsuccessful. However, given the social embeddedness of practical wisdom, her personal narrative of how an economist, without ceasing to be one, also becomes a Catholic theologian can only give further strength and credence to her claims. Certainly, her personal witness will not detract from its value. 

Having introduced and defended the role of prudence in economic decision making with a view to human flourishing and perfection in accordance with Aquinas’ account, Hirschfeld leaves pending the precise way in which this form of practical, ethical knowledge is supposed to engage with the formal, mathematical methods modern economics continues to develop. That would be an excellent place to start, should she plan on writing a follow-up volume.   

Alejo José G. Sison teaches at the School of Economics and Business at the University of Navarre and investigates issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and the common good. For the academic year 2018-2019, he is a visiting professor at the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He is an editor of the recently published “Business Ethics: A Virtue Ethics and Common Good Approach” (Routledge 2018). He blogs at Work, Virtues, and Flourishing from which this article has been republished with permission.   

Alejo Jose G. Sison

Alejo José G. Sison teaches ethics at the University of Navarre and Georgetown. His research focuses on issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and...