Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Adam Smith and Christianity

I recently read an article by James Halteman (Wheaton) in the Journal of Markets and Morality entitled "Is Adam Smith's Moral Philosophy an Adequate Foundation for the Market Economy?" Halteman wrote a book I mention frequently and is publishing another in December. I occasionally exchange emails with him, and he shared some thoughts with me on the God the Economist book that I posted on earlier this month.

Halteman is responding to an article which alleged that "Enlightenment ideology, which includes Adam Smith's moral theory, lacks any sense of telos and will, therefore, fail in the long run." It's similar in my mind to M. Douglas Meeks' critique of classical liberalism.

LinkHalteman uses Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments to show that Smith's moral theory differed from other Enlightenment philosophers and was a "telos-based moral philosophy." Smith's moral system had three checks on human self-interest: Moral sympathy with other people, the ability of individuals to step outside themselves and view their actions as an "impartial spectator," and the desire to "appeal to a still higher tribunal, to that of the all-seeing Judge of the world."

"Smith believed that the idea of life beyond death where justice is fully realized was a valuable contributor to the willingness of people to transcend a weak man within and a faulty man without...Religious values could be very beneficial to a social order. In this sense, Smith...did adopt a concept of telos that specified how people would behave if they lived up to their essential purpose."

Halteman concludes that while Smith's morality is by no means compatible with Christianity,
"Smith's moral sentiments do provide an adequate moral base for the survival of secular liberalism." Halteman offers up three alternatives for a moral foundation in economic life:

1. The Enlightenment view of Hume, Mill, etc. that nature has given us the tools to make moral judgements and coordinate social activity.

2. The Smithian view that the moral life presupposes "some exogenous moral force toward which the essence of our being points."

3. A Christian view
"which takes the Smithian approach further by personalizing the exogenous divine moral force in a relational God who is active in real time, drawing people toward enduring values through the revelation of Himself throughout history. A social order devoid of that influence falls far short of its potential. The purpose of human life is to glorify God."

Halteman concludes that if Smith's view is right, then
"the liberal social order may survive and perhaps thrive without being influenced specifically by explicitly Christian values...Regarding the role of Christians in the system...they do add value...by living out the radical teachings of Jesus which give full expression to the social passions...Smith felt were in too short supply to condition behavior effectively."
Halteman answers a sort of "How now shall we live?" question in his closing paragraph (bold mine):

"(S)eeing market capitalism as God's plan for economic life has been a common course of action (for Christians). On the other hand, withdrawing from the ambiguities of the world and retreating into enclaves of spiritual purity is hardly consistent with the life of Jesus...Somewhere on a continuum between these to extremes there is room for debate on how Christians should respond... the task of Christians need not be to save the secular system from collapse by infusing Christian principles into the system...What Christians can do is provide an alternative model showing how life can be more meaningful than the best the world can offer. By doing so they effect change on the margin without selling out to the spirit of the world."

My position is identical to what I interpret to be Halteman's: Scarcity, property rights, and other market fundamentals were not part of God's created order, but they are a good way to organize a fallen, sinful society in a way that respects the freedom and creativity of divinely created individuals. But Believers don't have to limit themselves to strict adherence to and insistence on those principles. We can be models to the world of a better way that demonstrates love (John 13:34) and invite the world to join us. Believers can show the world that the principles that best organize their fallen society point to a personal God who designed the world to work this way, and remind them that this world is temporary and passing away.

4 comments:

Rodney Reeves said...

JD,

Where is this happening?

"We can be models to the world of a better way that demonstrates love (John 13:34) and invite the world to join us. Believers can show the world that the principles that best organize their fallen society point to a personal God who designed the world to work this way, and remind them that this world is temporary and passing away."

The Church? America? Western Democracy?

JDTapp said...

The Church is where it should be happening, that's what I meant. We see a glimpse in Acts. You would know more about it than me, but I see Pauline-era Christians often having to create their own economy among their tight-knit community of believers due to persecution and such. That's the picture in my head--community.

JDTapp said...

I should say that I've not seen that picture of the Church in parts of the world I've worked in.

Rodney Reeves said...

"I should say that I've not seen that picture of the Church in parts of the world I've worked in."

Me neither. But, I like your vision.