Sex, money and religion!

Tom Woods has a piece at on Catholic social teaching discussing the relation between (resolutely free-market) Austrian economics and various papal pronouncements of the past century, and why orthodox Catholics who also like Austrian economics should follow what their economic theories say alleviates poverty or whatever rather than take the Pope’s advice when the two conflict.

It’s an important issue. Those who speak for the Church ought to be intelligent about things, but when it comes to economics they usually aren’t. Also, being stupid about economics helps the project of turning religion into a collection of this-worldly social goals, which is a bad thing.

Tom’s discussion raises a couple of questions, though:

  • Why is ignoring the literal meaning of repeated papal teachings on social justice because of what an economist says wholly different from ignoring the literal meaning of repeated papal teachings on sexual morality because of what a psychologist says?
  • What makes the terms of agreement between the parties the sole legitimate legal criterion in employment but not in other important personal relationships?

His argument is that moral dogma should respect the autonomy of the sciences and accommodate what they tell us about how the world works. Economics studies human conduct of a certain type as a system that operates in accordance with principles that can be uncovered by objective and (he says) value-free investigation. Moral doctrine should accept that the system works as it does. Its task is then to make recommendations as to outcomes to be promoted (e.g., greater well-being for the poor) and conduct within the system (e.g., no stealing or cheating, because they interfere with the system’s beneficial functioning and so are bad).

The effect is that if the Pope says “Yay for minimum wage laws” the doctrinal part of what he’s saying is “Yay for measures that reduce involuntary poverty,” and the rest is his (contestable and indeed false) theory about how to bring that about. Austrian economics tells us that the real practical application of the doctrine in question is “Yay for getting rid of minimum wage laws,” because that will maximize economic well-being not only generally but even for the poor. Catholic scholars have the right to point that out, and Catholic voters and lawmakers have the right to believe and act on that interpretation of the real import of Catholic moral doctrine.

It’s an impressive argument, but the autonomy of the social sciences could also be applied to other sciences or alleged sciences like psychology. Morality includes very general principles (the Golden Rule) and more particular applications (no usury, no sexual relations outside a particular sort of relationship). If you say modern social science should connect the former with the latter you have to deal with the consequences. A psychologist might claim that the function of sex in human life is such that institutional and public acceptance of “gay marriage” would the best way to promote the psychological flourishing of those who are sexually attracted to persons of the same sex. He might claim that if you improve on traditional misconceptions of psychological and social functioning then it turns out that “sex is for marriage,” the traditional statement of Church doctrine, should really be understood to mean “sex is for committed long-term loving relationships that have a right to be socially sanctioned.”

Also, the proposal seems to be that for a broad range of human relationships—those classified as economic—arm’s-length contract should be the exclusive legal standard. Other consensual relationships like marriage can and indeed should be legally regulated on other principles. What makes the bright line between the two types of relationships plausible? Economic conduct can be bad for non-economic reasons. Even if making divorce lawyers part of an employee legal plan makes economic sense because people want the coverage and it helps minimize disruptions due to sticky personal situations, it would be bad from a Catholic standpoint because it wouldn’t respect a particularly important human relationship, and human relationships often matter more than immediate efficiency. Could the same be said about making it too easy to fire people, or terms and conditions of employment that make it very difficult to understand employer and employee as joint participants in a common enterprise with a consequent personal connection? The employer/employee relationship is obviously much weaker and more variable than the husband/wife relationship, but it’s still a human relationship people rely on that can become part of their idea of who they are. Is a standard based purely on economic efficiency the one people will always be best off living with, so that legal intervention based on other considerations can be seen to be wrong without further argument? If so, why do people hate that kind of standard so much?

I don’t think the objections are crushing, but they have to be dealt with so the argument will make sense to people and fit in with other things they understand and believe. A problem with arguments from free-market economics is that they seem altogether too clever, so people don’t trust them, and it’s sometimes not clear how they relate to other kinds of reasoning that also seem legitimate and necessary. Questions like these touch on very basic things—sex, family life, economics, making a living, the relation among doctrine, practice and various types of knowledge and theorizing—and I don’t think they have snappy demonstrative answers. You need Pascal’s intuitive mind and Newman’s illative sense to deal with them. I think the accumulation of distinctions does show that a very different approach makes sense when you’re dealing with sex and family on the one hand and employment and markets on the other. You get into questions like:

  • How have Church teachings been presented—as generally applicable and definitive or as judgments regarding particular circumstances?
  • What do they relate to—something general and innate to human life like sex or something that depends on particular and shifting circumstances and institutions like industrial organization?
  • How stable, and how long and widely accepted, have they been?
  • What is the status of the purported “science”—are there good reasons other than the proponents’ claim of expertise for thinking it’s reliable and adequate to the issues? Has it been found to work?
  • And if it seems there’s something misconceived about a traditional teaching—the prohibition against usury for example—what were they getting at? Was it really just a matter of misapplying the principle that we should all be nice to each other, or is something actually wrong with the disaggregation of the various elements of economic activity that the practice of loaning money at interest creates?

Considerations like that are individually matters of degree, though, and that makes things messy. It means if someone wants to object he can find ways of objecting forever. Such is life.

17 thoughts on “Sex, money and religion!”

  1. I cannot respond in detail
    I cannot respond in detail to such a lengthy piece as Mr. Woods wrote, but I will throw out a couple of ideas: (1) He admits at the end that economics is not a hard science, and excoriates those who try to reduce man to an atom in a mathematical model, but he appeals to the fuzzy concept of “science” throughout, e.g. should not the church yield to the findings of a science? There are well established findings in economics, and there are matters that have not yielded consensus, even more so than in hard sciences. I sense danger when what is “fact” to the Austrian school must be accepted as fact by Christians, only to discover that another school denies that “fact”.

    (2) The really interesting problems will occur when we are consciously deciding to do that which is not optimally efficient, because non-economic priorities are being elevated.

  2. These complex articles are
    These complex articles are not reaching the many people who are unfamiliar with the embedded ideas from a philosophy education. They make us think, yet they are often impenetrable; I am above average in intelligence and education so it can’t just be me who is having problems. They appear to rely on numerous generalizations (factual premises) that are often not explicitly justified as reliable. This makes the articles often appear to be rambling and lacking coherence.

    For example, “Those who speak for the Church ought to be intelligent about things, but when it comes to economics they usually aren’t.” Where are the examples of economic theories that the Church has been wrong about? Who says they are wrong: the writer or economics experts (who propose as many conclusions about economics as CPA’s propose about how much tax a person owes)? Why is it wrong? What is the other side of the issue?

    Another example: “It’s an impressive argument, but the autonomy of the social sciences could also be applied to other sciences or alleged sciences like psychology.” Huh? What’s an impressive argument? What is the autonomy of the social sciences? Why should we believe psychology is not a science?

    My suggestion is to propose a conclusion that is capable of being explained and justified clearly using no more than the time and number of words the author has informally set for himself. At least the major premises should be identified, justified, and developed before moving on. The author is quite capable of clarity, which is indicated in his comments.

    It is frustrating to see the obvious and enormous talent, care, knowledge, honesty, generosity, and dedication that goes into the writings lost on many of us. I have put this off for a long time, considering that it is none my business what a Website owner wants to do. But I get the feeling the site is going by the wayside, and I don’t want that to happen. I am sorry if my words have are cutting.

  3. I think of myself as a dull
    I think of myself as a dull plodder, but I found the article clear enough:

    “His argument is that moral dogma should respect the autonomy of the sciences and accommodate what they tell us about how the world works…It’s an impressive argument, but the autonomy of the social sciences could also be applied to other sciences or alleged sciences like psychology.”

    Fascinating train of thought, albeit unfinished.

  4. Yes I am guilty of sloppy
    Yes I am guilty of sloppy reading by failing to recall the “impressive argument” was identified. The articles require such careful study that one quickly loses track and interest.

    It should be noted for any newcomers that I am not the author’s peer. His knowledge and intellect are so far above mine that I could never be his peer. I am pointing out that if it is the intent of the Website to interest a broad, well-educated but nonacademic audience, many articles don’t seem to be very successful for the reasons I have given.

    Maybe one idea is for the site to post a short article introduction containing a conclusion and a cogent series of justifications followed by an elaboration for the advanced reader.

    I dislike saying all this, but somebody has to do the dirty work.

  5. To Mr. Murgos,

    Mr. Kalb’s
    To Mr. Murgos,

    Mr. Kalb’s spare writing style does in spots require added “vigilance” by the reader, lest key points pass him by unawares. But reading the occasional sentence three, four, or five times until one has “got” it isn’t the end of the world—is it? On the contrary, I find I like Mr. Kalb’s austere style quite a bit. When the mathematician Gauss was gently chided for leaving out intermediate steps in his published proofs, such that other mathematicians—even some of Europe’s best at the time—had difficulty understanding them, he replied, “When one finishes building a building one does not leave the scaffolding up.” One sees the points you are making. Everyone, however, must write in his own natural style or risk suffering a deterioration of quality, rather than an enhancement.

    BTW Mr. Murgos, I always like your posts here and at VFR.

  6. Unadorned expressed my
    Unadorned expressed my sentiments perfectly.

    The posts from Jim Kalb and the regulars here, while sometimes challenging, are always enjoyable and enlightening reading. That’s probably why I keep coming back for more.

    Mr Murgos, I include you in that list of commenters I enjoy. I hope my previous response gave no offense. I certainly meant none.

    You’ve raised some interesting points. Who is the typical Turnabout reader, and to whom is Mr. Kalb addressing himself? Is this blog, like most others, a place where the author posts notes to himself and allows others to look on? Or is there an educational or persuasive purpose?

  7. Look — the other side,
    Look—the other side, through forcing our side at every turn to justify the obvious, is obliging us to actually break new philosophical ground: a lot of “the obvious” has never been challenged before. The obvious can be a hard thing to justify as anyone knows who has tried—and of course our side doesn’t use sophistry to do it, the other side’s stock in trade. The task the other side has set itself of tearing down society is on the other hand not a hard task because the way they go about it—merely denying the obvious at every turn—is based on sophistry, a tool of complete mindless charlatans and exceedingly easy to wield. (Were they not using sophistry there’d be no dispute since in that case the truth would lead them straight to our side’s views.) Laying down brand-new philosophy on demand (in this case, the often difficult analysis of what is normal and why)—is, well … demanding. Thinking it through can be demanding, and so can comprehending what others have thought through. You’d think it would be philosophically easy to defend normalness but it takes real wisdom and deep understanding. When the dialogue gets a bit hard to follow as a result, we don’t mind the extra work. What everyone must understand is that the level of discussion at Turnabout is completely and utterly over the head of someone like Jonah Goldberg, a person out of his depth anywhere above the level of, say, a high-school newspaper.

  8. Thanks to Charlie for the
    Thanks to Charlie for the flattery and to Unadorned for saying he appreciates my point. Our fearless leader hopefully is thoughtful but unperturbed by my comments.

    I am biased because my style (often unrealized because of time constraints) is mechanical, a statement of a conclusion followed by explicit justifications. Perhaps this style induces nausea in gifted individuals, as Unadorned suggests. I don’t claim I am right; I merely want to contribute information that might be helpful.

  9. To Unadorned:

    A minor
    To Unadorned:

    A minor quibble perhaps, but history shows that the obvious has been challenged for thousands of years. It seems there have always been those who have turned away from the truth, have refused to look at it, and have constructed elaborate “proofs” that there was nothing there in the first place. Denial is rarely simple; it is usually accompanied by the kind of massive rationalization necessary to blind ourselves to what we are doing.

    Such people are to be pitied. Rescued, if possible.

    There are many people who are “turning about” and looking back whence we came. I don’t think the intellectual discussions here will ever persuade anyone who hasn’t already made that turn —who hasn’t already recoiled in horror from the abyss into which so many others seem to be madly throwing themselves.

    But the residue of thousands of years of the Enemy’s lies still clouds the minds of many of those who have turned back. Philosophy is the therapy of choice for those of us who need to think things through before we can believe, before we can *see* once again.

    There’s no need for a brand-new philosophy. The truth hasn’t changed.

  10. Mr. Murgos wrote,

    ” … my
    Mr. Murgos wrote,

    ” … my style … is mechanical, a statement of a conclusion followed by explicit justifications. Perhaps this style induces nausea in gifted individuals, as Unadorned suggests.”

    If I suggested that, I didn’t mean to in any way whatsoever, and I apologize. I always very much appreciate Mr. Murgos’ posts. (And we all write partly in the style he describes, of course.) As for “gifted individuals,” it is often they who get us into trouble—in so many cases their basic human instincts are so shriveled by who knows what biological or social process that they lack the simple common sense wherewith to distinguish right from wrong, appropriate from inappropriate, true from false, normal from degenerate, male from female, black from white, decent from indecent. Look at Princeton “ethicist,” “Professor” Peter Singer, someone literally on the level of the Nazi Party yet not a peep of outrage or even stern disapproval is heard from most of “the gifted individuals” on the other side.

    “There’s such a thing as ‘homosexual marriage’ and it is an unalloyed good for society; marriage to men is bad for women but to other women is good for them; men in general are bad for women, children, and society at large; men and women need generally to reverse roles in life so that men play what’s always been the woman’s role and women the man’s (as if either could); the white race is bad and needs to be extinguished as quickly as possible before it realizes what’s going on and mounts effective resistance; countries must not be allowed to exist; etc., etc., etc.” Mr. Murgos, these lies are what nauseate me, not anyone on our side using any writing style he likes. Charlie, these lies are the sort of thing I meant when I referred to how the other side denies the obvious in ways that are new, whereof the refutation calls forth new philosophy. Of course sophists, morons and wicked people have always sought to deny the obviously true, the good, the right, and the beautiful, but never before in these particular ways (or in the myriad other new ways which we know all too well).

    When I said above that these people can’t distinguish right from wrong, true from false, etc.—for example, they can’t see what’s wrong with a woman walking down a city street stark naked; what’s wrong with killing a healthy baby at term as it’s being delivered through the birth canal, by means of the “doctor” squashing its head then using a vacuum cleaner to vacuum its brains into a plastic bag so that by the time it comes all the way out of the mother’s body it’s stone-dead; what’s wrong with killing infants and toddlers up to age two in whatever state of health if they are felt to be inconvenient or for any other reason whatsoever [exactly what “Professor” Singer advocates, if that can be believed]; what’s inappropriate in forcing young boys to be in the exclusive charge of openly homosexual men while isolated on scout camping trips way out in the woods; what’s inappropriate in deliberately educating children and adolescents to be sexually promiscuous and if possible homosexual through what are called “sex-education classes” in government-controlled schools no law-maker sends his own kids to; etc.—when I said that, I meant the other side’s *fellow travelers* and *useful idiots.* Their *leaders* of course CAN so distinguish, and unerringly promote what is false, wrong, harmful, and degenerate precisely in order to bring society down. The *leaders* know exactly what they’re doing.

  11. J’ACCUSE

    I will name one of

    I will name one of the other side’s leaders and a potent one: Je t’accuse, George Soros.

  12. “And if it seems there’s
    “And if it seems there’s something misconceived about a traditional teaching—the prohibition against usury for example—what were they getting at?”

    The issue before us, of course, is whether there’s something misconceived about the traditional teaching on marriage—as the gay marriage proponents suggest—and if so, what was the Author of that tradition getting at?

    “It’s an important issue. Those who speak for the Church ought to be intelligent about things, but when it comes to economics they usually aren’t.”

    Substituting “sexual relations” for “economics” in this sentence seems to require us to also change the final clause to “they usually are.” Which neatly summarizes the state of the argument: for all they’ve written on the topic, psychologists have yet to show that they have a clearer understanding of the human soul and of morality than does the Church.

  13. “It’s an impressive
    “It’s an impressive argument, but the autonomy of the social sciences could also be applied to other sciences or alleged sciences like psychology.”

    The concern expressed here does not, or need not, arise in Catholic minds, because unlike economics, psychology does attempt to describe that which has always been the province of moral theology: the natural moral law. While it is possible to argue, with Prof. Woods, that economics—as a value-neutral science—is compatible with moral law, it is not possible to so argue with respect to those aspects of psychology which do not merely describe the human mind, but also prescribe standards of mental health which are in conflict with the Church’s teaching on morality.

  14. Thanks for all the comments!
    Thanks for all the comments! Actually, I post different sorts of things here. Most of them are specifically for Turnabout, but a lot of them—including some of the longer and more complicated entries—are emails to someone that I then edit to make a bit more comprehensible and then post because I think other people might find them somewhat interesting. The proportions vary from time to time and so do the number of posts.

    This particular entry was originally an email to Tom Woods, who I’ve known for years (since before he became Catholic). So it wasn’t originally for a general audience, but I put it up because I thought the issues were important. Some people did find it interesting—at least one other blog linked to it, for example.

    Thanks to Mr. Murgos for his comments, though. I know I don’t always make things as clear as they should be, and it’s good to be reminded of that occasionally. When I’m unclear a question might help clarify things for both of us.

    To Charlie: it seems to me that economics and psychology don’t differ absolutely. There’s old established moral doctrine related to economics—greed, theft, fraud, withholding wages, usury and encouraging vice for the sake of profit are bad, while almsgiving is good—and most of the things psychologists study can legitimately be studied from a secular scientific standpoint. Also, investigators in each field have varying theories that have varying implications for human life generally if they’re taken seriously. So it does seem to me that there are issues that have to be thought through about what the relation between morals and secular scientific theories should be.

  15. “I will name one of the
    “I will name one of the other side’s leaders and a potent one: Je t’accuse, George Soros.”— Unadorned

    If Unadorned is on a “tu” basis with the likes of Mr. Soros, then he travels in circles well beyond the reach of the rest of us!

  16. “The really interesting
    “The really interesting problems will occur when we are consciously deciding to do that which is not optimally efficient, because non-economic priorities are being elevated.”— Clark Coleman

    A Liberal Party opponent of NAFTA once put this in the starkest terms imaginable: “Canada has never made any economic sense.”

  17. I thought fleetingly of
    I thought fleetingly of putting “vous,” but “te” conveys more of a sense of addressing the person directly in this case, dispensing with formality and getting down to brass tacks. No one’s fooling anyone in this business: we all know the score. The subject is an elemental one. It’s beyond formalities. Soros stands accused by common decency. He cannot plead ignorance of how the world works. The man is evil.


Leave a Comment