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A Reflection on Economic Anthropology: The Theistic Synthesis, the Imago Dei, and Personal Economic Exchange

By William H. Rooney

Self-realization, not self-interest, drives sustainable economic activity. 

Read the original essay by Mrs. Erika Bachiochi, “On Human Ecology,” to which this essay is offered as a response. 


Erika is surely correct that economic life is an important element of human ecology.  John McNerney in Wealth of Persons argues that we should “regard . . . commercial life, not as a separate . . . region of activity, but as an organic part of our whole personal and social life.”[1]  From that perspective, economics is more about the person in productive action than supply and demand.
I will try to present a personalist anthropology of economic exchange and so will offer more of a complement to, than a direct comment on, Erika’s insightful remarks on human flourishing and Tiernan’s thoughtful reply.
Does self-interest drive commercial transactions?  Does self-interest not harm human ecology?
My thesis is that self-realization, not self-interest, drives sustainable economic activity.  Both the buyer and the seller promote self-realization through the exchange of value.  If the seller is motivated by greed, he will not persist in his business.  If the buyer is motivated by materialism, he will not satisfy his true needs.

The Theistic Synthesis

The foundation of my thesis is metaphysical.  My understanding of being yields a conception of the human person.  That conception provides a view of economics.
I locate my metaphysical foundation within the Christian tradition.  My main premise is that material existence is contingent – it cannot sustain itself.  Contingent being flows from that infinite source of non-contingent being whom we call God.  We exist only because God “knows” us into existence.  Bishop Barron, via St. Thomas, has popularized that ontology as “participatory metaphysics.” [2]  The “theistic synthesis” thus holds that all of reality originates from, is grounded in, and is destined for God.
The Christian tradition offers a particularly strong form of the theistic synthesis.  It professes that God is “the maker . . .  of all things visible and invisible,” and that, through Christ, “all things were [and are] made.”  A corollary is that being is convertible with the good.  The fuller, or more actualized, our being becomes, the better, or more fully human, we become.  Saints are fully developed human beings.

The Imago Dei

Man is the only creature who can deliberate and choose.  We are, therefore, inescapably moral agents.  The ancient biblical injunction teaches that we are made in the image and likeness of God – the imago Dei.[3]  God is pure goodness, has no need, and so created man not instrumentally but for man’s sake.  We must follow suit, and treat each other as intrinsically good.
We reflect God’s ways ontologically by “participating” in the created order – by relating to others as we relate to God.  That insight led Father Norris Clarke to describe man as “substance-in-relation.”[4]  Father Clarke thereby enriched the traditional definition of the human person.  We are not only individual substances of a rational nature, but our nature is also relational, dynamic, and participatory.  Our being – indeed, our goodness – is enhanced by our relations with God and others.
Relation is a two-way street.  We give something of ourselves and receive something of the other.  We do so in the image of the communal, Trinitarian God.  Saint John Paul the Great spoke of the law of the gift:  We increase our being to the extent that we give ourselves to others.[5]  The reciprocal is also true:  We participate in the increase of another’s being by receiving something, not just from, but of, him or her.
Giving and receiving our unique and sacred substances as intrinsic goods:  That is the imago Dei paradigm.  It is grounded in the theistic synthesis, and, specifically, in the relational, Triune God.
One final point before we move into economic territory:  The theistic synthesis, and the imago Dei paradigm, cannot be set aside as secular disciplines proceed autonomously according to their own protocols.  That would constitute a form of “extrinsicism” that has afflicted our intellectual life at least for the last 60 years.[6]
The theistic synthesis and the imago Dei paradigm are truth claims that describe reality.  They must provide the context for, and inform, all intellectual endeavors.  Professor John Hill puts that pivotal point this way:
God’s existence is the cardinal assumption of all philosophy . . . .  We cannot cabin our ideas about God from our metaphysics, nor our metaphysics from our politics and our morality. . . . To believe in God’s existence is to invest in a comprehensive vision of reality, a metaphysical mosaic of the world . . . . One cannot excise God while retaining the rest of the metaphysical picture intact.[7]

The Personal Economic Exchange

The imago Dei enters the economic realm through work and the exchange of value.  Both are transitive – they move from one to another.  They provide the means by which the person, as substance-in-relation, perfects himself in economic activity.
Through work, we create, innovate, and invest ourselves in something of value that we offer to another.  Our intelligence, self-discipline, and creative initiative are constitutive of the imago Dei.  Work allows us to participate – at our own personal workbench – in the image of the Creator.  Man’s achievements are pursued not in rivalry with God, but as reflective of God’s glory.
Our personal workbench can be combined with those of others to form the firm, a “community of persons.”[8]  That community collaborates in an enterprise that produces value for others.
Economic activity seeks the good of an exchange of value.  The imago Dei achieves that good through excellence.  Excellence is the provision of value at a price and of a quality that meets the needs of another.[9]  The price paid is not lucre, but just compensation for the labor, materials, and value that the seller invests in his service to the buyer.
The buyer uses savings from his own work to pay for value that satisfies a need.  The buyer seeks excellence in the price and quality that are meet for his purpose.
When a buyer and seller agree, a freely chosen and value-enhancing exchange occurs in which both have acted as moral agents.  They are materially and ontologically better off.  Being has been actualized, the good has been achieved, and each person has become more fully human, by giving and receiving.  Therein lies the personal economy.

Testing the Personal-Exchange Model

But what of greed and self-interest?  Did Adam Smith not say that “[i]t is not from the benevolence of the butcher . . . that we expect our dinner, but from . . . [his] own interest”?[10]  But Smith was wrong about his anthropology.  A market participant who seeks only his own gain will not achieve the excellence necessary to participate durably in productive exchange.  He will neither enhance his being nor survive in his business.  He will turn in on himself, ignore the needs of his customer, and find his outstretched palm empty of the gain he seeks.
Compensation is the result of achieving an exchange of value through economic excellence, just as happiness is the result of achieving the good through virtue.[11]  In the economic realm, as in all other realms, the person should aspire to self-realization, not self-interest.  Self-realization flows from excellence; which seeks a good; which points outside of oneself – toward providing value to others.
Can an economy “exclude,” or even “kill”?  No, as an economy cannot be reified and has no moral agency.[12]  To attribute moral agency to an economy degrades our personal responsibility from which our dignity arises.  If a person unjustly harms another, he should be held accountable.  Notably, however, systematic economic exploitation is not sustainable, as demonstrated in 1989 in Eastern Europe.
How about consumerism?  The consumer, like the seller, must recognize himself as the imago Dei.  He should see the satisfaction of his material needs as instrumental in moving toward the One Thing Necessary.

Theo-nomics or Eco-nomics?

Has my discussion been more about theo-nomics than eco-nomics?  More about God as creator and sustainer, and man as creature and the imago Dei?  The answer is both, but theonomics first and economics second.
Culture defines economics.  Although the two interact – in the ecological way that Erika described – the primary line of causation runs from culture to economics.  And, as St. John Paul emphasized, the defining element of culture is what man believes about God, about theonomics.[13]
If we jettison the theistic synthesis, man is no longer the imago Dei but only a material composition whose vitality expires at death.  Physical well-being is the final end to which buyers and sellers aspire.  No ethic prevents one from using another as his instrument.  Work is reduced to toil.  The transitive surrenders to the intransitive.  Self-realization turns to self-interest.  Satisfaction lies in consumption.
But wait – does that describe much of our market economy?  Is the prospect, then, unrealistic that the contemporary West would broadly embrace the theistic synthesis, the imago Dei, and the personal economy?  No, that prospect is not unrealistic. The theistic synthesis is written on the heart of man.  Most people profess a belief in God, and have done so down the ages.  Indeed, “[God] made us for [himself,] and our hearts are restless until they rest in [him].”[14]
I agree, however, that the theistic synthesis is under siege in one, very important quarter.  The administration and faculty of the contemporary university exalt in their claimed autonomy and condemn belief in God as superstition and bigotry.  That any student emerges from the contemporary university with the theistic synthesis intact is remarkable.  Witness the many “nones” among recent graduates.
That places a special responsibility on the institutions that Erika identified – schools, churches, and families.  They must teach the theistic synthesis to children and adults alike as a matter of objective truth. And they must explain its implications for practical living.  Thought-leading institutions, like the Portsmouth Institute and universities with an authentic religious affiliation, must strongly proclaim three crucial propositions:
•That the origin, ground, and end of all being is God;
•That the material order is insufficient unto itself; and
•That man, as the imago Dei, aspires to union with God.
Those propositions have a biblical history of 3000 years, a philosophical pedigree of 2500 years, and a rich Christian tradition of 2000 years.  If embraced, that tradition surely provides a firm foundation on which to rebuild a culture of belief, of respect for the imago Dei, and of personal economic exchange.

[1] J. McNerney, Wealth of Persons (Veritas 2016), 257 (quoting Philip Wicksteed, Common Sense of Political Economy, 3) (McNerney’s emphasis).

[2] See, e.g., Barron, The Priority of Christ (Brazos Press 2007), 12-16, 153-160; see id., 13-14 (“[F]or Thomas, God, as the sheer act of to-be itself (ipsum esse subsistens), is that through which all creatures exist.”; “[creatures are anchored in] their shared participation in God [and] grounded in a common source”; “in Aquinas’s’ participation metaphysics[,] the created universe is constituted by its rapport with God”).

[3] Gen. 1: 26-27.

[4] Clarke, Person and Being (Marquette University Press 2004), 14 (“[R]elationality and substantiality go together as two distinct but inseparable modes of reality.  Substance is the primary mode, in that all else, including relations, depend on it as their ground.  But since ‘every substance exists for the sake of its operations,’ as St. Thomas has . . . told us, being as substance, as existing in itself, naturally flows over into being as relational, as turn towards others by its self-communicating action.  To be fully is to be substance in relation.”) (footnote omitted); id., 17 (“The inseparable complementarity of in-itself and towards-others must be maintained:  to be is to be substance-in-relation.”); id., 6-24.

[5] See, e.g., Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility (Ignatius Press 1991), 125-26  (“Love proceeds by way of . . . renunciation, guided by the profound conviction that it does not diminish and impoverish, but quite the contrary, enlarges and enriches the existence of the person.  What might be called the law of ekstasis seems to operate here:  the lover ‘goes outside’ the self to find a fuller existence in another.”)

[6] Robert Royal, The Deeper Vision (Ignatius 2015), 191

[7] John Lawrence Hill, After the Natural Law:  How the Classical Worldview Supports Our Modern Moral and Political Values (Ignatius Press 2016), 270

[8] John Paul II, Centesimus Annus (St. Paul Books & Media 1991), 50

[9] Wealth of Persons, 188 (“[A] man can earn profits only by supplying the consumers in the best and cheapest way with the goods they want to use.”) (internal quotations omitted).

[10] Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (The Modern Library 1937), 14 (emphasis added); see also id., 423 (“[e]very individual . . . intends only his own gain”) (emphasis added).

[11] See, e.g., Wealth of Persons, 157 (“[P]ecuniary enrichment is not the primary motivating factor in different skills because, first medicine produces health, and then earning a living produces payment.  First the art of building produces a house, and then earning living comes along afterwards and provides payment.  And it is the same with the other arts or skills.  Each performs its own function, and benefits the object, of which it is the art or skill”) (footnote omitted); id. at 158 (“[T]he origins of Microsoft [have] little to do with money.”) (internal quotations omitted; emphasis in original); id., 252.

[12] See P. Seaton, “The Papal View from the Global South,” (First Things Website, April 20, 2017), 7/8 (observing that “hypostatiz[ing] ‘the global system’ [makes] the system itself the malevolent, maleficent agent of the evils” asserted)).

[13] Centesimus Annus, 34 (“At the heart of every culture lies the attitude a person takes to the greatest mystery:  the mystery of God.”).

[14] St. Augustine, Confessions (Penguin Books 1976), Book 1, 1, at p. 21.

The following is adapted from a speech delivered at the Portsmouth Institute’s 2017 Summer Conference, “Being Human: Christian Perspectives on the Human Person.” Lead sponsors for the conference and this publication include the Raskob Foundation for Catholic Activities, Drs. Timothy and Luba Flanigan, Mr.  Peter Ferry, Mr. Javier Valeunzuela and Dr. Mary Beth Klee, Mr. and Mrs. James V. Kearney, the Healey Family Foundation, Mr. William H. Rooney, Portsmouth Abbey, and Saint Louis Abbey. 

Bill Rooney is a partner in an international law firm that is based in New York City.  He chairs his firm’s U.S. antitrust practice and recently received the 2016 William T. Lifland Award from the New York State Bar Association.  The Lifland Award recognized Rooney as a distinguished antitrust practitioner and for his contributions and accomplishments in the field of antitrust and service to the antitrust community. Rooney is a lifelong student of philosophy and theology and their combination in “Christian personalism.” He undertook post-graduate studies in constitutional interpretation at the University of Oxford and earned a Diploma in Law.  He received the degree of Juris Doctor from Yale Law School and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Notre Dame (summa cum laude).  Rooney writes and speaks regularly on a wide variety of legal issues.

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