By Mary L. Hirschfeld
Economists and theologians usually inhabit different intellectual worlds. Economists investigate the workings of markets and tend to set ethical questions aside. Theologians, anxious to take up concerns raised by market outcomes, often dismiss economics and lose insights into the influence of market incentives on individual behavior. Mary L. Hirschfeld, who was a professor of economics for fifteen years before training as a theologian, seeks to bridge these two fields in Aquinas and the Market, an innovative work about economics and the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas.
According to Hirschfeld, an economics rooted in Thomistic thought integrates many of the insights of economists with a larger view of the good life, and gives us critical purchase on the ethical shortcomings of modern capitalism. In a Thomistic approach, she writes, ethics and economics cannot be reconciled if we begin with narrow questions about fair wages or the acceptability of usury.
Rather, we must begin with an understanding of how economic life serves human happiness. The key point is that material wealth is an instrumental good, valuable only to the extent that it allows people to flourish. Hirschfeld uses that insight to develop an account of a genuinely humane economy in which pragmatic and material concerns matter but the pursuit of wealth for its own sake is not the ultimate goal.
The Thomistic economics that Aquinas and the Market outlines is thus capable of dealing with our culture as it is, while still offering direction about how we might make the economy better serve the human good.
Alexander William Salter on Christian Libertarian Review wrote:
"Aquinas and the Market is a pleasant surprise, because it takes both economics and theology very seriously. There are probably not many scholars who have doctorates in economics (Harvard) and theology (Notre Dame) and even fewer who can write an academic book that is almost entirely free of academic jargon. It is readable without versimplifying the subject matter. Sensible and profound at the same time, Mary Hirschfeld’s work may be in a class of its own. [...] If there is one shortcoming of this work, it is a neglect of the mediating ground between theology and economics, i.e. politics. [...] Hirschfeld the economist is aware of the costs as well as the benefits of modernity. Her theological training has given her the language and concepts to address these concerns. A convert’s faith makes her realistic about what may be possible here on earth and what is not. It is very rare to see such common sense and deep learning in one place."
"In brief, my opinion is that any scholar interested in topics at the intersection of religion and economics should have this book on their shelves. I recommend it wholeheartedly. In my review, I will first summarize her key arguments, and then go into one specific area where I think her claims can be challenged. [...] To recap: the problem with orthodox economics is it often fools its practitioners into making unexamined value judgments. Hirschfeld contends that this is due to economists taking the economic way of thinking too seriously. But perhaps the problem is that economists do not take the economic way of thinking seriously enough! [...] Hirschfeld’s volume is an excellent contribution to this literature, and one that was much needed. If economists and theologians come to understand each other better because of her work, the book will have performed a great service. Of course we should not overlook the more obvious benefit of the volume: it says much that is true."
- Radio interview with Hirschfeld about the book, Vatican News, 10 June 2019 (18 min)
Table of Contents of Acquinas and the Market
- To Serve God or Mammon? The Dialogue between Theology and Economics
- The Rational Choice Model and Its Limitations
- Happiness and the Distinctively Human Exercise of Practical Reason: The Metaphysical Backdrop
- Happiness and the Distinctively Human Exercise of Practical Reason: Virtue and Prudence
- Economic Life as Ordered to Happiness
- From Liberality to Justice: Aquinas’s Teachings on Private Property
- Toward a Humane Economy: A Pragmatic Approach
About Mary L. Hirschfeld
Mary L.Hirschfeld is Associate Professor of Economics and Theology at Villanova University. She has offered papers at such institutions as Notre Dame, USC, Fondazione Centesimus Annus pro Pontifice, in Milan, Italy, the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice in Rome, and Cambridge University in England. She has a B.A in Economics from Washington State University (Summa Cum Laude), an M.A and Ph.D with a focus on economic history and macroeconomics from Harvard University, and a Ph.D. in Theology from University of Notre Dame.
It is this problem and challenge that Mary Hirschfeld has determined to address: certain pathologies are increasing, with their psychological consequences; fear and desperation grip the hearts of many people, even in the so-called rich countries; the joy of life is diminishing; indecency and violence are on the rise; poverty is becoming more and more evident. People have to struggle to live and, frequently, to live in an undignified way. One cause of this situation is in our relationship with money, and our acceptance of its power over ourselves and our society.