A Topic for a Ph.D. Dissertation

I am thinking about going for my Ph.D. in Catholic Studies. It is a 4 to 6 year process of research on a topic of my choosing that, once approved, I will work on every day for half a decade. All of this depends on employment opportunities, only one of which supplies enough income while allowing ample room for pursuing the degree.

I am most excited to write a dissertation, to focus on a narrow topic if interest and develop it into something new and creative. I was told that most doctoral dissertations are dull, and not to make too much out of it, but I do not care. To me, the work of research, reading, and writing are always exciting challenges, even if the outcome is 200 pages of yawn-fest for anyone other than me.

In deciding on a topic I wanted it to be something that I am passionate about, something that is crucial, that I struggle with personally, and that will keep me up at night seeking answers. 

But the thought of writing about catechesis for 4-6 years is not all that appealing to me. Nope, I think I came up with another idea, something that has been bothering me since I was 14 and something that I am constantly seeking an answer to, and constantly running into self-doubts, intellectual brick walls, and a lot of current argumentation in Catholic circles.

I think I am going to write about the relationship between ethics and economics, focusing particularly on Catholic Social Teaching from the Popes, the Distributism fostered by the Chester-Belloc School, and the small-but-growing Austrian School of Economics. 


I want to ask a basic question: Is economics a social science with its own positive, scientific methods, principles, etc., or is it, properly speaking, a subset of ethics or Christian morality?


The answer to this question is crucial because it changes the way one understands the social teachings of the Catholic Church. The Church condemned Socialism, and has condemned many aspects of Capitalism, advocating a number of "Third Way" approaches that mitigate, regulate, or otherwise alter free markets. If economics is subordinated to ethics, then it falls within the Magisterium of the Catholic Church's authority, for it belongs to "Faith and Morals". And yet, no one disputes the limits of the Church's authority when it comes to the Natural Sciences, and no pope ever thought that Einstein's Theory of Relativity was subject to his review and imprimatur

But when the Social Sciences are involved - psychology, sociology, economics - the distinction between morality and the various Social Science disciples is very much blurred. The Catholic Social Teaching since Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum has made many comments on the proper ordering of society, on the role of work and the dignity of the human person, and on the relations between these and the state and the economy. As a Catholic I want to follow scholastic project that Thomas Aquinas perfected so many centuries ago: "As far as possible, join faith to reason."

Economics as an area of study was always subordinated to ethics since the Classical period of Plato and Aristotle, and onward through Augustine to Aquinas, the Scholastics of Italy and Salamanca, to the many Distributists, Christian Social Democrats, and other Third Wayers today. The further complication is that Economics as a positive science with its own principles is a relatively new phenomenon, emerging from Enlightenment Liberalism and not from the heart of Christendom. To some opponents, merely this chronology is damning enough.

Here's two quotes of conflicting views that I wish to research, both of which are thoroughly and devoutly Catholic men. One, Dr. Peter Chojnowski, is a Distributist and a professor at Gonzaga University. The other, Dr. Thomas E. Woods, is a senior fellow at the Lugwig von Mises Institute, which is a libertarian educational institution.


Here is Dr. Chojnowski: 

Catholics! Forget Milton Friedman and supply-side economics. Shelve your ECO I textbook and leave the road to serfdom. Now is the time to put Fr. Pesch in the place of Ludwig von Mises. As you always suspected, morality really must govern economic life and Fr. Pesch’s Ethics and the National Economy will tell you why...

The most important fact to remember when considering Pesch’s text and, indeed, his entire system of Solidarism, is the specific challenge which it poses to those who would “separate” ethics from a scientific account of economic systems. Those who do separate ethics from economics—we think here of von Mises and his modern-day devotees—argue that to consider the ethical aspects of economic questions is to impose, arbitrarily, extrinsic considerations which would only obfuscate the necessary and universal economic “laws,” the understanding of which is requisite for a vibrant and well-functioning economy. Economics has its own laws, argue the neo-Liberals, and these must not be transgressed by the dislocating imposition of “heteronomous” (a Kantian term meant to express any kind of extrinsic influence) considerations.

The basic purpose of Pesch’s writing and apologetic was to indicate how ethics does not come into play in the field of economics in a purely extrinsic way, it is not merely “a personal ethical evaluation” of necessary and ineradicable natural laws of economic interactions between men. It is not even a sacrificing of economic prosperity to the exigencies of divinely revealed Church doctrine. Instead, Pesch’s system, as articulated in his Ethics, attempts to provide the reasons for his insistence that ethics is a science prior to, and more ultimate than, economics. Man is only an “economic animal” because he is first a free animal; a being with physical needs who is required to work and to make free decisions in order to fulfill those needs. Pesch, as economist and philosopher, rightly insists that, rather than being of ancillary import, ethics, or the science of how man ought to act in order to achieve the properly human good, is the very soil from which any truly scientific consideration of economic activity ought to emerge. Unless we understand the way in which the inner life of the human soul is ordered, both in relation to its own self and in its relationship to others, we will never understand the basic economic dynamic, which is a human dynamic.

A Review of Ethics and the National Economy


And now for Thomas E. Woods on ethics and economics:

Within the Catholic Church, supporters and opponents of the market economy often talk past each other. The difficulty they encounter derives from a confusion over the very nature of economics. The phenomena that economics touches upon, which include money, banking, exchange, prices, wages, monopoly theory, and many other topics, are themselves replete with moral significance.  But the positive, scientific statements about these phenomena that constitute the discipline of economics are necessarily value neutral.  Describing the workings of fractional-reserve banking is a positive task, not a normative one.  Discussing whether such a system is desirable is a normative task, and qualitatively separate from explaining the mechanics of that system.  One cannot make an intelligent comment about the former unless he understands the latter, and it is the latter with which economics, properly understood, concerns itself.

Likewise, economic policy may possess a moral dimension, but not a single proposition of economic theory involves a moral claim.  For example, Frank Knight conceived of capital as a homogeneous unit whose individual processes occurred synchronously, and therefore could be understood without introducing time into capital theory.  F.A. Hayek, as well as the Austrian School of economics to which Hayek belonged, conceives of capital as a series of time-consuming stages of higher and lower order, with the highest-order stages the ones most remote from consumers (mining and raw materials, for instance) and the lowest-order stage immediately preceding the sale of the finished product.

Nothing in the Deposit of Faith even comes close to deciding this and countless other important economic questions one way or the other.  Not even the most uncomprehending or exaggerated rendering of papal infallibility would have the pope adjudicating such disputes as these.  Yet misunderstandings or ignorance regarding such seemingly abstruse points are so often at the heart of the policy recommendations that bishops' conferences propose and papal encyclicals can seem to imply.

Catholic Social Teaching and the Market Economy Revisited: A Reply to Thomas Storck


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