Economics is not moral theology

Economics is not a business science, although it has applications to business. Rather, it is part of the liberal arts and is a science of human action. Economics studies the actions that most people take in response to circumstances in their lives, but especially those actions that are visible to us. This is why economists are interested in what people buy, sell, and produce, as these things are available to them to observe and measure, as opposed to those actions people may take in private.

Humans share a common nature and possess common ways of acting. This comes about because our minds function according to a similar mechanism, and because we have comparable needs. The mechanism is this: where we have discretion, we make choices based on our values. This is called subjective valuation.

If I had a nickel for every time a person argued that this means that economics does not accept the idea of objective values, I could buy a candy bar (since the currency is so inflated). While it may be true that some economists do not believe in objective values, the existence of objective values has little bearing on the analysis of choices. People make choices based on the values that they subjectivize, whether they are objectively better or not.

Take the case of Michelangelo’s statue of Moses. Very few people would deny that this statue is, objectively speaking, a powerful and impressive sculpture. Yet some tourists in Rome have no understanding of art, and if asked would not want to spend their time admiring that statue; based on their subjective valuation of art, it isn’t on their list of priorities. This in no way undercuts the objective power of Michelangelo’s work.

And this is just one of countless possible examples. When you eat cereal for breakfast and are confronted with a number of different brands, you choose the one you like best, based on what you value. If you are trying to live a healthful life, you might choose the box whose contents look like rabbit pellets. If taste is more important to you, that will be the basis of your choice, and you may opt for the sugary, chocolate cereal.

Economics is a science about persons and their actions, not about whether they should or should not make certain specific choices — that task belongs to ethics or moral theology. Nor does economics focus on the interior workings of the mind; that is for psychology. As individual persons, and as believers, economists are concerned about all of these things, of course. But as economists, the study of moral theology, ethics, and psychology falls outside their discipline.

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