Economic Personalism: Tool for Morality in Markets

No matter what your ideology, there is common disdain for market manipulators, fraud, and theft. There is little disagreement about the repugnance of taking advantage of senior citizens through deceptive investment schemes or conning vulnerable families into unsustainable mortgages. There is even growing consensus on the shamefulness of polluting factories and the exploitation of child labor in the far reaches of corporate supply chains.

However, what is still unclear is what is to be done about these social sins. Here is where Christian business leaders have a distinct opportunity. Using a uniquely theological view of the human person, Christian leaders can see the moral ramifications of economic activity—and act and react with meaningful conviction. This approach, known philosophically as “economic personalism,” provides a framework for balancing objective moral values and subjective economic valuation—so as not to reduce the human person to just another factor of production.

What is Social Sin?

In his 1984 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (“Reconciliation and Penance”), Pope Saint John Paul II reminds us that at its core all sin is personal because it is an outgrowth of the freedom of man. He goes on to explain that due to the reality that there exists a solidarity among men, as the Church describes as the “communion of saints,” there is also a corresponding solidarity in men’s failings—what Reconciliatio et Paenitentia calls a “communion of sin” related to the “law of descent” (RP 16). “Consequently one can speak of a communion of sin, whereby a soul that lowers itself through sin drags down with itself the [C]hurch and, in some way, the whole world” (Ibid).

In explaining the nature of social sin, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia outlines a three-fold understanding.  First, “there is no sin, not even the most intimate and secret one, the most strictly individual one, that exclusively concerns the person committing it.” Second, “some sins… by their very matter constitute a direct attack on one’s neighbor…. They are an offense against God because they are offenses against one’s neighbor.” Finally, the third aspect of social sin “refers to the relationships between the various human communities” (RP 16). In this aspect, man has constructed systems that create class struggle and disharmony. This type of discord can be found “between blocs of nations, between one nation and another, [and] between different groups within the same nation” (RP 16). Reconciliatio et Paenitentia is clear, however, that under this meaning social sin maintains an “analog[ous] meaning” because the “realities and situations [on such a macro level and] when they become generalized and reach vast proportions as social phenomena, almost always become anonymous, just as their causes are complex and not always identifiable” (RP 16).  Nevertheless, it is still incumbent upon man to “shoulder his or her responsibility seriously and courageously in order to change those disastrous conditions and intolerable situations” (RP 16).

The one thing that Pope Saint John Paul II makes very clear in this explanation, however, is that despite the temptation to transfer guilt or collective responsibility for social sin to a broader community, it is crucial to accept that must ultimately be personal responsibility for all sin.

At the heart of every situation of sin are always to be found sinful people. So true is this that even when such a situation can be changed in its structural and institutional aspects by the force of law or-as unfortunately more often happens by the law of force, the change in fact proves to be incomplete, of short duration and ultimately vain and ineffective-not to say counterproductive if the people directly or indirectly responsible for that situation are not converted (RP 16).

In areas of social activity pertaining to the market, responsibility falls to each and every business person.

What is Economic Personalism?

To understand the philosophical framework of economic personalism, it is helpful to first be familiar with the precedent notion of personalism. The philosophical notion of personalism has its roots in a “person-centered” approach to philosophy that can be traced to two 20th-century French philosophers: Jacques Maritain and Emmanuel Mounier. Personalism can be understood to be an ontological structure in which reality is fundamentally personal. This philosophical approach is predicated on notions of the potential of rationality in man and on man’s unique personal identity. Personalism takes on a uniquely Christian flair when that uniqueness is understood in the context of man being made in the image and likeness of God.

These ideas are taken to the social sphere in the notion of economic personalism. The pioneer of this philosophical framework was the Polish moral theologian Karol Wojtyła, whose writings as Pope Saint John Paul II form the corpus of much of the contemporary work in the field and whose ideas have formed what is known in the field as Polish economic personalism.

To better understand the of essence of economic personalism, Gregory Gronbacher, Director of the Center for Economic Personalism, enumerates in a 1998 article entitled The Need for Economic Personalism in the Journal of Markets & Morality five key tenets that comprise the essential principles of economic personalism:

  1. The Centrality of the Human Person: The “human person [is the] ontological and epistemological starting point of philosophical reflection.” Therefore, “[t]he dignity and value of the person resides at the very center of [this] philosophy.”
  2. The Subjectivity and Autonomy of the Human Person: What is meant by subjectivity in this sense is that man possesses his own “inner conscious life.” This consciousness breeds an intuitiveness that enables man to psychologically relate to his surroundings. As such, man maintains freedom but with inherent responsibility. From this freedom, economic personalists believe that man is his “own master” in so far as he has been “endowed with the ability to respond most effectively to [his] needs.”
  3. The Recognition of Human Dignity: This tenet is derived directly from Christian theology and notes that “the incarnation of Jesus has elevated human nature into a position of utter uniqueness by being raised into the unity of the divine person of the Son of God. Every person is somebody unique and unrepeatable.” To economic personalists, “[t]he value of the person is not derived from an individual’s contributions, talents, or achievements but has to do with the ineffable ontological significance of [his] being.”
  4. The Social Character of Man: Economic personalists believe that man is designed to be relational. The nature of this inherent characteristic of man is derived by what Polish personalists describe as the Trinitarian nature of God. Man, who is born in God’s image and likeness, is like God also in his relations. “The Triune God, from whom both the order of creation and the order of redemption proceeds, is an infinite community of self-giving love.” As such, man is a person who is also giving of himself to others. “As beings created in God’s image, each human person is called to achieve the perfection of his own personhood by entering into genuine community with others.”
  5. The Intersubjectivity of Man: This idea is found in a variety of disciplines from philosophy to anthropology to explain the psychological relations among people. As it relates to our understanding of economic personalism, the concept of intersubjectivity of man highlights the importance that “each person ought to be affirmed for his or her own sake—in all social situations result[ing] in genuine solidarity. Solidarity is the state of social affairs in which full participation is possible for all.” These principles are derived from a methodology that seeks to understand man by focusing on his action and experience. The uniqueness of “person-mindedness “adds the connectedness of the economic agent or the economic object to the human social reality, that world experienced as personally meaningful.

Theology in Conversation with Economics

Although the Church does not subscribe to any particular economic order, economic personalists have sought to find dialogue with modern capitalist ideologies. That said, economic personalists are skeptical of Hayek’s rejection of the notion of social justice in the marketplace (Austrian School) and Friedman’s restriction of the social responsibility of business firm to make a profit (Chicago School). Even Pope Saint John Paul II has been critical of radical capitalist ideology on the grounds that it is often found to ignore the problems of marginalization and exploitation in economic life and instead blindly entrusting their solution to the free developments of market forces.

There is strong recognition, however, in the enormous power of the markets to create opportunity and to efficiently mediate transactions between members of society at all levels. Economic personalists seek to take the best of economics and infuse truths about the nature of man and his role as a fiduciary of the material world.

The Call of the Christian Business Leader

With a filter of “person-centeredness,” economic personalism arms business leaders with a framework for evaluating economic choices that might otherwise only be evaluated in relation to utility or profit maximization. Without man, there are no markets, and without an understanding and respect for the nature of man, there cannot be morality in markets. This is because, truth be told, moral challenges are not analyzable by means of economics. It is time that theology and economics come together, and the Christian business leader, with his understanding of the true nature of man, is in the very best position to lead. In so doing, the hope is that each of us in our own vocation will be able to recognize social sins when we see them, and more importantly begin to more easily see pathways to respect, redemption, and reconciliation.

[Feature image by Johannes Plenio via Unsplash]