Aquinas and the Market
Toward a Humane Economy
- ISBN: 9780674986404
- Published By: Harvard University Press
- Published: November 2018
In Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy, Mary Hirschfeld offers something not often found in the literature on theology and economics. Formally trained as an economist and theologian, Hirschfeld pursues an integrative and mutually informative account of theology and economics. As the title indicates, this theological economics is indebted to the work of Thomas Aquinas and his writings on virtue, happiness, and economic goods. For Hirschfeld, Aquinas holds the key to bringing together two seemingly disparate fields, encouraging pragmatic use of economists’ insights, and maintaining a critical distance from the economic realm in order to judge when economic activity is oriented toward human flourishing.
In the first two chapters, Hirschfeld carefully attends to the complexities in economic theory, while retaining the portions that prove useful for her project. For example, Hirschfeld investigates the literature on the rational choice model of human behavior, arguing that many critiques miss the mark and conflate the rational choice model with a strawman, while also contending that this model has severe limitations in how it conceptualizes the human good. This careful attention to economic literature allows Hirschfeld to offer a fair-minded critique of economics that opens the door to her own Thomistic account of economic good. Hirschfeld performs a kind of “rational reconstruction” of Aquinas’s economic writings. She readily admits that the economic context Aquinas lived in differs so radically from the present day that it seems difficult to imagine how his economic writings might have any relevance.
The primary conflict that Hirschfeld has with economists, and the primary argument of this book, appears to be that many economists assume an emaciated form of practical reason that paints humans as mere utility maximizers. This assumption makes it difficult for economists to account for both economic and ethical concerns that a person might have. It does not tell us whether some good actually contributes to our flourishing, even if it may be the rational choice. Aquinas, according to Hirschfeld, offers a corrective to this account, “integrating economic and ethical concerns, [and] allowing us to distinguish between the sorts of desires the fulfillment of which actually moves us toward genuine flourishing and those that do not” (69). Specifically, Hirschfeld believes that Aquinas’ substantive treatments of happiness and prudence offer a more capacious alternative to the practical reasoning discussed by economists. The bulk of this book offers an interpretation of Aquinas and how his writings might be applicable to our own economic life.
In chapter 3, Hirschfeld notes the importance of happiness in Aquinas’ theology. All humans desire happiness, which, in Hirschfeld’s interpretation, is a kind of perfection of humanity: “Like all creatures, we want to actualize our potential to the extent possible, that is, realize as fully as possible the way in which we reflect God’s goodness” (93). We achieve happiness through virtue, which is the subject of chapter 4. To obtain the perfection of happiness we must be shaped into the kinds of creatures capable of reaching it. Being rational animals, humans have some control over their passions and actions. Virtue trains people to properly know and choose the good: “For both Aquinas and Aristotle, true virtue lies in actively wanting that which reason has discerned is worthy of wanting” (103). Prudence is an integral part of virtue, and Hirschfeld contends that it represents a more desirable kind of practical reasoning than the rational choice model.
Hirschfeld contends that our orientation toward economic life has become distorted. Rather than our economic life being ordered to our happiness, we have ordered happiness to our economic life. As Hirschfeld demonstrates, Aquinas argues that artificial wealth (the amount of money we have) has value only to the extent that it provides natural wealth (what we require to survive), and natural wealth has value only to the extent that it is ordered toward happiness. In short, “neither markets nor natural wealth have value independent of their role in serving the higher goods they support” (133). Artificial wealth cannot be regarded as our proper final end, and the goal of human life is not profit maximization.
The final chapter details how we might approach building a more humane economy in a pragmatic manner. Hirschfeld recommends embedding economic analysis within a larger account of human happiness, She also argues that economists do not merely provide descriptions of human behavior but participate in the formation of culture and economic norms. Hirschfeld finds that a Thomistic economics more readily accommodates both compared to mainstream economic theory and she is hopeful that a Thomistic economics would allow theologians and economists to engage in productive dialogue for the good of building an economy that can contribute to human flourishing. It is at this point that a critical question emerges. It is clear throughout the book how the Thomistic framework offers a critical perspective from which to evaluate economics and economies. Aquinas and the Market is strong in this respect. However, it is less clear if this framework is meant to be adopted by economists to guide policy decisions. This outcome seems less likely, and perhaps more argument is necessary to understand why this theological framework is more likely to be accepted than others.
With that said, this book is deeply researched, carefully argued, and provides an important perspective on the prospects of bringing theology and economics into a productive dialogue. Hirschfeld represents an important voice in seeking to bring these two distinct fields together in an interdisciplinary manner. This book is recommended for anyone with an interest in theology and economics and would be useful for both novices and established scholars.
James Brumbaugh is a doctoral student in theology, ethics, and philosophy at Boston University School of Theology.James BrumbaughDate Of Review:June 29, 2022