Interview: Economics and the Reality of Things
Religion & Liberty Online

Interview: Economics and the Reality of Things

A while back, Bevan Sabo and Ariel Goldring at Free Market Mojo interviewed me on a wide range of subjects. They’ve kindly granted us permission to post some excerpts:

FMM: Capitalism requires a large degree of selfishness. Though there is certainly room for charity in a free-market system, individuals and firms must pursue their own selfish interests in order for an economy to thrive (or even succeed). How does a Christian love his neighbor as himself and still function as a capitalist?

Father Sirico: I do not share the use of the word selfishness in the way that it is employed in this question. A proper self regard is based on the belief in my own inherent dignity and this requires “self love” but not an inordinate self-love or self-preoccupation which is willing to subordinate others to my own ends, either coercively or in a manipulative manner which disregards the same dignity of others. The word selfishness as it is used in common parlance does not reference rational self-interest but rather a self preoccupation and disordered priority.

From a Christian anthropological point of view the human person (who is much more than “the individual”) is a combination of his individuality and his sociality, his autonomy and relationships. From the first moment of our existence we are simultaneously autonomous (in that we are genetically distinct from our mothers), yet in relation to her while in the womb. The whole of our existence following is a working out of this interplay of our autonomy and our social nature. A Christian’s love for his neighbor is rooted in solidarity which is the recognition of a profound connection between human beings. It is, in a sense, a recognition of myself in the other. Because all human beings share an intrinsic dignity we ‘love our neighbors as we love ourselves’. Capitalism, which is only the economic extension of this anthropological truth, can be lived out from this perspective, but in order to be secure, just, and enduring, it needs to rooted in the historical development of such an anthropology.

FMM: In July of last year, the Guardian reported on Pope Benedict XVI’s third encyclical, entitled Charity in Truth. For me, the following is a particularly disturbing paragraph from the article:

The pope today called for a “profoundly new way” of organising global finance and business, calling for a new social and ethical dimension to capitalism and arguing the case for a new world political authority to help champion “the common good”.

The idea of the “common good” goes against the spirit of individualism that is an essential part of capitalism and any proper government. Can you discuss Charity in Truth, particularly, its ramifications for those who consider themselves both Christians and capitalists?

Father Sirico:
If one is going to really understand papal encyclicals one must understand the tradition and theological milieu from which they emerge and attend to the precise definitions that are given to various specific phrases or concepts. In the case of the latest encyclical Caritas in Veritate many have asked questions about what the pope was addressing when he called for a “New World political authority”. I very much doubt your readers want from me a full exegesis of this section of the encyclical, but let me summarize by saying that this phrase is used in context with the references to subsidiarity elsewhere in the encyclical (e.g., no. 57) which is therein described as “the most effective antidote to any form of all-encompassing welfare state.”

Thus it is explicitly NOT the pope’s intention to be calling for some kind if ‘super state’, but rather for a global solidarity and authority “which cannot be imposed by force” (cf., Mater et Magistra, no. 130). The encyclical also cites a number of other references it is drawing upon, all of which are noted in the critical apparatus of the encyclical itself and all of which repudiate any kind of ‘super global state’.

The “common good” in Catholic understanding does not justify collectivism; it is in fact an antidote to it. Rather than some kind of claim of common ownership to goods, it is seen as the overall conditions in which the human person can best flourish – that is, the total set of circumstances for the betterment of humanity, kind of like benchmarks. This definition includes the freedom of the human person and other elements I addressed previously.

Part of the problem with the Randian understanding of the human person is that it is an abstraction of man and thinks of him as a being who somehow just sprung into existence “out of the mind of Zeus” as it were, i.e., it ignores the fact that people come from people, they inherit a language and a culture among other things. This abstraction makes it difficult for the strict Randian to account for social necessities like culture, prudence, children (and the ‘irrational’ demands they make on parents) and charity, other than my observing something to the effect, “well, if people want to do that it is there business”. I do not think that to be a substantive answer to these critical realities.

FMM: A few months back, Free Market Mojo had the opportunity to interview Dr. Yaron Brook, president of the Ayn Rand Institute. Ayn Rand was very opposed to faith, believing that man should live by reason alone. We asked Dr. Brook if it was possible for a person of faith to live by the three principle values of John Galt: reason, purpose, and self-esteem. Here is Dr. Brook’s reply:

To the extent someone follows a policy of faith—of believing in some supernatural being for which there is no evidence and whose alleged powers contradict everything we know about science—he is doing the opposite of living by reason.

As a person of faith, I would very much like to give you the opportunity to respond to this line of thinking.

Father Sirico: The question of epistemology is a broad and complex one and this response must, by its nature be brief:

The mind employs reason to apprehend the truth of those things immediately available to our senses and in so doing one presumes the reliability of the mind. A first question might be to ask, how does one know the mind itself is reliable? And how does one account for that part of reality not available to the senses? This is where the evidence for transcendence enters the picture.

It is my contention that we know the mind to be a reliable tool of cognition because the mind itself is designed by Intelligence. As Pope Benedict puts it, “Reason cannot emerge from non-reason.” I find it difficult to understand how people can believe that Mind can come from non-mind or that persons can emerge from non-persons and still argue for the reliability of the mind or the dignity and rights of human persons. To say that the mind is simply the result of a series of chance amalgamation of matter does not demonstrate the reliability of the mind.

We apprehend the reality of things by reason, to be sure, but if this notion of epistemology descends into ‘scientism’ it becomes an ideology, and an approach that was criticized by F. A. Hayek in The Counter Revolution of Science and refuted by Michael Polyani in Personal Knowledge. Empiricism may give us data, but it does not give us meaning.

We also apprehend reality of things through faith, intuition, aesthetics, tradition and the like. All of these need balance, correctives, boundaries and proper definitions, but not to employ them properly or to deny their importance leaves us with a rigid and limited mode of knowing. There is a logical problem in asserting that reason can account for all of reality and at the same time say that because transcendence is beyond normative observation by the senses, it does not exist.

In a certain sense we all have faith, for example in our belief that the sun will come up tomorrow, even though we do not have direct evidence for it observable to our senses; yet we order our lives according to his faith. A man has faith in the fidelity of his wife (even though this may be mistaken; faith need not be infallible to be reliable anymore than reason). These are beliefs based on certain indications of reliability. To say that to define faith as a belief in that for which no evidence exists is not a Christian definition of what faith is. The New Testament defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. (Hebrews 13:1)

The state has a limited responsibility with regard to keeping its members from harming themselves. The discernment of what the boundaries of those things are has to be sorted out based on the principles both of truth and of human dignity. To say for instance that man has the right to obliterate his mind through the abuse of drugs and/or alcohol does not itself address the question of that man’s freely undertaken responsibilities toward his family for instance. In the Summa St. Thomas Aquinas certainly makes a distinction between the prescripts of the natural law and the implementation of those prescripts in the form of positive law. And I think that it is very wise for the legislature to be extremely modest in what it attempts to prescribe both because it is impossible merely by law to make men moral, but also we must remember that the legislator himself is a flawed human being and to place in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats the responsibility to make other people’s lives moral is a very precarious endeavor. So in general I would say that we should allow for the maximum amount of liberty as is consistent with the general stability and good of society and be prepared to engage the prudential discussions about when and where and how under what circumstances of these come liberties or restrictions should be implemented.

Read more on Free Market Mojo.

Rev. Robert Sirico

Rev. Robert A. Sirico received his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America, following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London. During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today's social problems. As a result of these concerns, Fr. Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990. As president of the Acton Institute, Fr. Sirico lectures at colleges, universities, and business organizations throughout the U.S. and abroad. His writings on religious, political, economic, and social matters are published in a variety of journals, including: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the London Financial Times, the Washington Times, the Detroit News, and National Review. Fr. Sirico is often called upon by members of the broadcast media for statements regarding economics, civil rights, and issues of religious concern, and has provided commentary for CNN, ABC, the BBC, NPR, and CBS' 60 Minutes, among others. In April of 1999, Fr. Sirico was awarded an honorary doctorate in Christian Ethics from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and in May of 2001, Universidad Francisco Marroquin awarded him an honorary doctorate in Social Sciences. He is a member of the prestigious Mont Pèlerin Society, the American Academy of Religion, and the Philadelphia Society, and is on the Board of Advisors of the Civic Institute in Prague. Father Sirico also served on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission from 1994 to 1998. He is also currently serving on the pastoral staff of Sacred Heart of Jesus parish in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Fr. Sirico's pastoral ministry has included a chaplaincy to AIDS patients at the National Institute of Health and the recent founding of a new community, St. Philip Neri House in Grand Rapids, Michigan.