May 20, 2011

Let’s Have at Those Caveats! (IV): Conflating Science and Ethics (1)

“Another Caveat,” Mr. Ferrara’s second and final postscript to his book’s meager first chapter, consist of two paragraphs in which he
(a) prejudicially mocks as a “diversionary tactic” any (so far unexamined) rebuttal to his charges based on economics as that word has been understood post-Xenophon;
(b) imputes evasiveness to any Austro-libertarian critic who maintains that questions of justice have a value-free economic dimension that we must consider apart from the value-laden dimension (to which the other cannot be reduced) and then
(c) exempts himself from his own anti-theoretical proviso.
Although we are tempted to review this strategy-summarizing section line-by-line, we will resist and confine our comments to a few characteristic sentences. We will answer that strategy as implemented in detail and seriatim. (In this post, all quotations from TCATL are from page 11 unless otherwise indicated.)
. . . this book [TCATL] is not concerned with “economics” as an academic discipline involving such technical matters as supply and demand curves and schedules. 
This express lack of concern, odd in a book subtitled “the Catholic Church’s Teaching on Man, Economy, and State,” has consequences for one’s thinking on ethical matters, consequences we will itemize.
Rather, it is concerned with economics in the classical sense of the word . . . . (Mr. Ferrara appends a footnote on the derivation of “economics” from the Greek οίκονομικóς [oikonomikos], which he might have further analyzed into οίκος [oikos, household) and [νόμος, nomos, law].)
Here’s what Mr. Ferrara means by “economics,” which must not be confused with the “academic discipline” on pain of misunderstanding the mischief Austro-libertarians are allegedly up to:
. . . a practical ethical science whose aim is commutative and distributive justice among men in their dealings concerning the bounty of the earth—but men first and foremost as members of families, the fundamental units of society. . . . [Economics is] a branch of ethics—moral philosophy . . . .
Now, if economics is a branch of moral philosophy, Mr. Ferrara argues, then every faithful Catholic must regard economics as "lying within the domain of moral theology and thus subject to the teaching authority of the Church, as Pope after Pope has insisted (contrary to the opinion of Austrians).” 
But if it isn’t, then it doesn’t. And, to belabor what should be obvious, papal insistence is not, contrary to Mr. Ferrara's opinion, a criterion of logical demarcation of one kind of question from another. 
In the history of every science there occurs an intellectual breakthrough that enables scientific community to advance from an understanding of things in their relationship to the inquirers (e.g., our observation of apples falling) to an understanding of things as they relate to each other (e.g., f = ma). That is, an explicit theoretical interest emerges out of the practical and ethical interest, and that emergence entails a shift in horizon. The theorist doesn’t deny but merely prescinds from the practical or ethical or moral dimension of the object.
An earlier, “classical” stage in the history of a scientific inquiry is not necessarily nobler, truer, more innocent, less corrupt than its “modern” offspring.  One may as well claim that geometry lost its way when it ceased to be the measuring of land and began to be a study of the properties of shapes; or insist that physics, the science of motion, space, time, force, and mass, has not been faithful to its origins as the study of things that grow. The more abstract understanding encompasses the more concrete, but liberates our understanding of the concrete from its contingent circumstances. Reasonable people may argue about whether this kind of abstraction enriches or impoverishes our understanding of reality, but for Mr. Ferrara there is no debate.
The phrase “bounty of the earth” diverts attention from the salient fact that virtually all material goods, between the Garden of Eden and Paradise, are scarce (non-abundant). That reality anchors the economic question. "Scarcity," however, is a word we never encounter in his book. It apparently has no relevance for him to the formulation of   practical problems.
To the satisfaction of which of several competing wants does a parent, landlord, capitalist, pirate, gangster, or finance minister first employ a unit of a given resource? What opportunity cost does his or her choice entail? The answers to both questions (to list no others) require us to think about the logical (not psychological) parameters of human action. To differentiate such questions from “What morally ought I do with that unit?” is to take a significant step in one’s intellectual development. 
Mr. Ferrara shows no sign that he grasps this differentiation, let alone its significance.
To Be Continued