Economists Versus Human Beings?

A.M.C. Waterman
University of Manitoba

Date: January 30, 2002

Event Recap

On January 30, the Boisi Center’s Spring 2002 visiting scholar A.W.C. Waterman, Professor of Economics at the University of Winnipeg, detailed his current research program at a luncheon presentation entitled “Economists versus Human Beings?" Waterman explained that his involvement with public policy advocacy in the Canadian Anglican Church in the 1970’sbrought to his attention a gap between the methodological presuppositions and orientation of Christian social thinking and those of his own vocation as an economist. Waterman proposes in his research a critique of Christian social thinking that does justice both to the "spontaneous order" that economists recognize in human society, and to the organicism deeply imbedded in Christian ecclesiology.

As background to his project, Waterman explained that the divide between "economists" and “human beings" first arose at the beginning of the 19thcentury in the works of Thomas Malthus, who argued that scarcity of resources in the world posed fundamental problems which called into question the goodness of God’s creation. Subsequent work in political economy proceeded on the assumption of a methodological individualism which denied the possibility of recognizing a “common good" or collectively optimal course of action, but such an understanding of human society was in conflict with Christian social thinking’s understanding of the world as an organism or "Body Politick" modeled on the Pauline notion of society as the mystical body of Christ. Thus Waterman traced the hostility of Christian social thought towards the science of political economy to the foundation of economics as a modern science.

During his time at the Boisi Center, Waterman plans to learn more about how American Christians themselves understand their tradition’s social teachings so that he can account for not only the social thinking of those in the pulpit, but also of those in the pews. Once he has established what exactly is Christian social thinking today amongst both clergy and the laity, he plans to subject the doctrine first to the critical examination of the canons of economics, and secondly, to trace its departures from the traditional Christian social thinking of the 19th Century. Ultimately, he hopes to discover if the Christian tradition of inquiry concerning social questions can learn from the modern science of economics, or if the two versions of inquiry must ultimately be in conflict.