Mary Hirschfeld Suggests Economists and Theologians Have a Fundamentally Different Understanding of the Human Person

On hearing about the invention of the magnetic telegraph, Henry David Thoreau incisively observed that Maine and Texas could now communicate, but does Maine have anything to say to Texas?

Mary Hirschfeld, Assistant Professor of Economics & Theology at Villanova University, used this comment of Thoreau to emphasize the communication chasm between two disciplines in which she is an expert. “We obviously can communicate but do we have anything to say to each other?” asked Hirschfeld in her keynote address at the opening of the Sixth Annual Conference on Economics and Catholic Social Thought held at the University of Chicago.

Hirschfeld made a point to indicate the commonalities: economists and theologians share a concern about social justice; about material well-being for all people and an elimination of poverty.

But she worries that there is a “fair amount of static on the line” due to their divergent anthropologies, something that Francis Cardinal George, OMI, also outlined in his brief remarks at the start of the symposium. 

Hirschfeld—who holds doctorates in both economics and theology—understands the magnitude of the communication problem because she dealt with this “crazy cacophony” in her own head as she tried to reconcile the issues raised by each discipline.

One area of misunderstanding is in the economic concept homo economicus (or the economic human). “Homo economicus is widely criticized within the tradition of Catholic Social Thought,” said Hirschfeld. Catholics are under the impression that he is selfish and ruthless, concerned only about himself. But in reality, economists mean that people pursue the goods they value (i.e. Mother Teresa, in serving the poor, was pursuing what she valued).

Summer 2014 Newsletter_Page 1_2In her talk, Hirschfeld made clear that economists in fact do an admirable job of describing or “modeling” human behavior, but they fall short in not having a broader view of the human person that includes a hunger for the infinite (God) and an ability to cultivate the virtues and human excellence. She contrasted the economic model of the human person with a sketch of the human person from the perspective of St. Thomas Aquinas (she used Aquinas because he laid out his views in a model-like fashion).

Her most memorable illustration of the difference between the disciplines resulted from her explaining their understanding of the good. Both Catholics and economists believe that humans seek the good—but there is a striking disparity in how that good is defined.

For Catholics, the good that we seek in this life is genuine, but it is still a foretaste of what is to come. “The world is God’s love letter to us,” she said. With this in mind, she warned against mistaking the letter for the real thing. While on earth, our desire can only be temporarily satiated. What we see is a mirror, reflecting God’s beauty and goodness. So when confronted with the material goods of this world, our task is to discern and order those goods so that they create a “harmonious arrangement that reflects the beauty of God.”

Economists don’t share this transcendent view of human flourishing. They mathematically model behavior and believe we always want more (which upholds their rational choice model) and that infinite goods reach up like a ladder. “If only we had more time and money, we could get higher up the ladder,” explained Hirschfeld of the economic perspective.

The “rational choice model” adequately describes human beings as they are. Because of our “untutored passions,” we often aren’t very virtuous; we tend to forget about the infinite and desire instead more and more goods thinking they will make us happy. But it doesn’t leave room for a more extensive model in which human happiness consists in the perfection of our human nature, in the cultivation of virtue. “Prudence is the counterpart to the rational choice model in economics,” said Hirschfeld, “it guides us toward our happiness.”

Hirschfeld hopes that economists and theologians—having a better grasp of the thought process within each discipline—will start learning from one another. “Catholic theologians would do well to learn about the model of our ‘lower form of reason.’” Unfortunately, non-economists often reject policies proposed by economists because they don’t appreciate the insights economists have about human behavior (i.e. human beings respond to incentives). Though the language of economics is a secular one (it doesn’t talk about virtue, our desire for God, the tension between the temporal and spiritual, our being created as communal, social beings), it nonetheless excels in describing human beings in their fallen temporal state. “Economists have lots of value to teach us,” said Hirschfeld.

Over 500 people attended the April 3rd symposium on “The Human Person, Economics, and Catholic Social Thought.” In addition to Hirschfeld, Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I. (Archbishop of Chicago), Jesus Fernandez-Villaverde (University of Pennsylvania), Rachel Kranton (Duke University), and F. Russell Hittinger (University of Tulsa) offered 

Hirschfeld 2The event was co-sponsored by The John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, The International House Global Voices Program, The Seng Foundation Program for Market-Based Programs and Catholic Values, & The Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts at the University of Notre Dame.

Of special note was the presence of the president of the USCCB, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, and Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo—chancellor of the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and the Pope’s personal representative for the new anti-slavery Global Freedom Network. They joined other bishops and economists to elaborate upon the topic in greater detail at an all-day conference held in downtown Chicago on April 4th.