Orthodox Theology and Economic Morality

by Dylan Pahman

While a leader in environmental theology, the Orthodox Tradition lags behind others when it comes to modern social and economic thought. Economic science has been by and large ignored, if not dismissed, in official and unofficial statements, revealing a troubling disregard for the dignity of this science and a troubling willingness to speak about important issues of social justice without making an effort to gain the necessary preliminary competence needed to do so intelligently and effectively. It betrays a disappointingly unscientific posture toward questions of social morality and a closed stance toward economic insights in particular.

By way of example, the Council document “The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World” begins with the following admirable conviction:

The Church cannot remain indifferent before economic conditions that negatively impact humanity as a whole. She insists not only on the need for the economy to be grounded upon ethical principles, but that it must also tangibly serve the needs of human beings in accordance with the teaching of the Apostle Paul: By laboring like this, you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35). Basil the Great writes that each person should make it his duty to help those in need and not satisfy his own needs (Moral Rules, 42. PG 31, 1025A).

While I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment behind this statement (that the “Church cannot remain indifferent” to economic hardship), I find the recommendation inadequate and potentially harmful.

First and foremost, as a matter of proper interpretation, neither St. Paul nor St. Basil were speaking in these quoted passages about economic systems or markets but rather about personal conduct. St. Basil, furthermore, was speaking to monks, an atypical group of people who have taken vows to “help those in need and not satisfy [their] own needs.” He doesn’t have in mind, for example, a single mother who struggles to satisfy her and her children’s needs, not to mention having anything left over for charity or savings. Nor does he, for that matter, have in mind the billions of economic exchanges that take place every day through modern markets for the provision of human needs. His words are excellent guidance for monastics, and they carry insights that can be translated into other domains, but not without a careful hermeneutic informed by modern economic science that is absent from this document.

Second, as I have written elsewhere, there is a fundamental ambiguity to the statement that renders it meaningless: “Which economy? The global economy is a network of various national economies, and national economies are a web of various international, national, and local markets, all with unique competitive and regulatory structures, often expressly based upon moral principles, such as environmental and safety concerns or the right to own, trade, and develop private property.” By “the economy” do they refer to that of Greece, which is still a mess, or Romania, which has been steadily improving since the fall of communism there? Do they mean the economies of Alexandria or Sophia or Moscow? Which of these economies counts as “the economy”?

Rather than reiterate all of my criticisms here, let me return to the greater problem: by and large (and certainly among our hierarchs), we lack any serious engagement with the insights of modern economic science. The misuse of quotes from the Scriptures and the Fathers in the example above betrays a conceptual poverty that undermines any aspiration to help the materially poor. Personal relationships and the monastic life have different norms than impersonal markets. This does not mean that markets have no norms, nor that the norms of markets should overrule any other concerns. But it does mean that if we wish for our economies to be more moral, whether we hail from the political right or left (or somewhere outside of that simplistic binary), we must first understand what they are and how they function.

Of course, I can’t summarize Econ 101 in such a short essay, but I can illustrate this crucial distinction. Economists Peter Hill and John Lunn explain this well:

In personal relationships, one can cultivate good intentions and condemn a lack of concern for others. However, unless one wants to opt completely out of the world of impersonal exchange, one must accept benefits from unknown others and also provide benefits to others, without knowing much about their moral worthiness.

The point? On the one hand, it is impossible to design an economy for the world today in which each market actor seeks “not [to] satisfy his own needs.” When people buy things, they do so for their own purposes. That, basically, is all an economist means by “self-interest.” That could mean meeting their needs or providing for their dependents. I could be to give a gift. Or it could be for selfish indulgence. Neither markets nor those who regulate them can interrogate motives.

On the other hand, however, it also means that modern economies already satisfy this desire. When people sell things, they provide for the needs (and, of course, wants) of others. If they received nothing in return, they wouldn’t be able to produce anything more to meet any more needs. Nevertheless, every sale has this other-oriented side just as much as it is self-directed.

Where does morality come in? The most obvious way is nondiscrimination. Because a clerk cannot know the motives of a customer, she ought not to discriminate as if she did. Because everyone needs access to markets to provide for their needs, people ought not to shut others out, especially the poor. But as long as our hierarchs are content to ignore economic science and decontextualize personal moral guidance from Holy Tradition into economic platitudes, the Church will never be able to effectively witness to the Gospel by illuminating all the ways this happens and how it can truly be combated.

Dylan Pahman is a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty and managing editor of the journal Markets & Morality.