Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from Jordan Ballor’s chapter in the Oikonomia Network’s new minibook, Economic Wisdom for Churches: A Primer on Stewardship, Poverty and Flourishing. In it, Ballor discusses the importance of families and churches helping form people’s economic preferences for what is objectively good. The conversation will be sure to continue at Karam Forum 2018, where Mako Fujimura, Amy Sherman, Stephen Grabill and Bruce Fields will discuss how the church can work toward this kind of formation. Be sure to join us! Additionally, a PDF version of the book is available on the Economic Wisdom Project webpage, and hard copies are available upon request to our ON partner schools.
Markets are great at giving us what we want, but what should we want? Economists have an unfortunate tendency to idolize consumer desires, treating them as self-legitimizing. Whatever people want, it’s good for markets to satisfy those desires. Economic flourishing simply means more and more consumer desires being satisfied.
We do need markets to accomplish most of the good things that we legitimately want. But we also need to resist the idolization of desire. We need to find objective standards that allow us to evaluate what we do want in light of what we should want…
Objective and Subjective Value
When we make decisions, we are deciding what we value. We prefer one object or choice to another because we think it has more value. But here we encounter a key difficulty. To decide to “value” one thing over another can mean different things, and the difference is essential to ethical decision-making…
No one is likely to argue that blue socks are inherently and absolutely superior to black socks on some objective scale of value. My preference for one sock color or the other is deeply subjective and relative to other options – particularly if I’m not violating some custom or standard of conduct with my choice…
Most of the choices we make every day are like this. We can choose among some range of prudential, morally permissible options without serious consequences. As we go through life, most of the choices we make are not between objective good and objective evil, nor even between what is objectively better or worse. They are between options whose desirability is subjective – depending on our own personalities and circumstances.
However, many choices we make do have deep moral significance. If I decide to skip work to go to the movies, and I advertise that decision via social media, I may not have a job the next day. If I fail to help a friend in need, I may not have a friend anymore.
Christianity teaches that, in a real and objective sense, some things are better than their alternatives – in economic language, some preferences are objectively superior to their opportunity costs.
Thus, we can see a distinction between something that I value subjectively – a choice or item that I think will fulfill some desire or help me achieve some purpose – and something that is objectively good, true, or beautiful. This is a distinction between value in both a subjective and an objective sense. Economists call this a distinction between the use value I have for something versus the intrinsic value it has…
God, Morality and Objective Value
Christians must break through the tyranny of mere subjectivism into the realm of objective truth, goodness, and beauty. God is sovereign over all of creation, including the realm of economics. Human sin leads us to make choices that destroy ourselves and others. For this reason, God has revealed norms through which we come to understand the boundaries of legitimate behavior…
During his earthly ministry, Christ spoke directly to the relationship between subjective and objective value, relating the economic and the temporal to the spiritual and the eternal. Commissioning his disciples to go out to the people of Israel, Jesus comforted them in the face of suffering with these words: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:28-31). Here Christ refers to the market price of birds commonly used by the poor for temple sacrifices, a very small sum. But if God has providential concern for these seemingly insignificant creatures, then God has much greater concern for the well-being of human beings, especially when they confess His name and suffer for His sake.
Understanding the qualitative distinction in the order of nature between plants, animals, and human beings can help us to understand, for example, why the Christian moral tradition has consistently taught that human labor is to be understood as more than a mere material commodity. Economists usually treat labor as something to be bought and sold in a market, like any other economic good, subject to forces of supply and demand and responsive to regulatory structures and legal requirements. Certainly, much of this description is true as far as it goes; market forces, laws, and regulations do shape wages. But a wage paid to a human worker is not objectively equivalent to a price paid for a commodity like wheat or gold. Because of the objective and unique status of the human person, concerns beyond the subjective or purely economic come into play when approaching questions such as what constitutes a just wage…
Families and Churches as Schools of Objective Value
One of the limitations of economics is that it tends to assume a given and static set of preferences. Where preferences come from and how they change over time are left unexplored, for the sake of methodological simplicity and mathematical comprehensibility. As the social thinker Michael Novak put it, however, “Democratic capitalism is not a ‘free enterprise system’ alone. It cannot thrive apart from the moral culture that nourishes the virtues and values on which its existence depends.”
Rightly ordered subjective values depend on the moral formation provided by other institutions, including families, schools, and churches.
Families are where we experience our most foundational and formative nurture. We are civilized and acculturated within the context of these familial relationships. Here we come to understand love, responsibility, respect, forgiveness, and interdependence. The Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck observed: “In the family we get to know the secret of life, the secret, namely, that not selfishness but self-denial and self-sacrifice, dedication and love, constitute the rich content of human living.” Thus “the family is the nursery of love and inoculates society with such love.” Our first experiences and experiments in human relationships occur in the family, and this institution has the primary role in the development of character and moral formation. Our parents and guardians teach us what we are to desire, how we are to behave, who we are to emulate, and what we are to believe.
If the natural family is the primary school of love, the spiritual family of the church is the school for learning the deeper foundations of God’s love for us and our love for one another. In the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the administration of the sacraments, we come to know and experience the grace of forgiveness and reconciliation. We die to our old fallen natures and live anew to Christ. The Christian understanding of conversion, justification, and sanctification provides a broader and transformative framework for understanding worldly realities, including economics. The Decalogue’s command against theft should be understood as a Christian mandate that I “do whatever I can for my neighbor’s good, that I treat others as I would like them to treat me, and that I work faithfully so that I may share with those in need.” [Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 111]
We are called as Christians in the midst of all of our activity to conform our desires to Christ and his kingdom. As the apostle Paul wrote, this requires wisdom to discern the appropriate responses to various and diverse situations. “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful,” wrote Paul, “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Cor. 10:23-24). Over time, such prudent choices form our characters, helping us build up and sustain virtuous habits.