Economics as a Moral Science: Dr. Jeffrey T. Young’s Franz Lecture Highlights  

When most people think of our economy, and the capitalist principles that undergird it, “moral” or “sympathetic” are usually not the terms that come first to mind. But according to Dr. Jeffrey T. Young, lecturer in economics and business, there’s actually a strong connection between moral—even Christian—principles and our economy. By leaning into these principles, we can improve our economy and the personal interactions we have with others. 

On Thursday, March 14, Gordon College hosted its annual Franz Lecture, a legacy event that’s been happening for over 30 years in honor of the late Professor David Franz, a visionary who helped shape the social sciences at Gordon. This year Young presented the lecture, based on his newly published book Adam Smith’s Theory of Value and Distribution: Economics as a Moral Science Once Again. This year’s event also had a special panel discussion following the lecture, featuring business and economic professionals from Gordon’s faculty and alumni, who discussed whether Smith’s ideals of moral principles are relevant to modern economics and business. 

Sympathy and Ethics in Economics

The famous economist Adam Smith has long been a controversial figure among economic philosophers, with many myths circulating around him, Young stated. These include notions that Smith created paradoxes, separated key principles of value in economics, set back price theory hundreds of years and more. Another myth is that Smith believed if each individual person is selfish, then all that selfishness will add up to economically benefit society. 

Young cleverly debunked each of these myths during his lecture. His main focus was rethinking Smith’s views on selfishness by explaining part of his moral theory, called the Sympathy Model. In this model if a cause (like someone’s coffee machine breaking down) happens to an “agent,” or person, this makes them take a certain action (buying the latest coffee machine). This leads to an impact on a second agent (which would be the seller of the machine benefiting from the first person’s actions).  

A third party watching, an impartial observer, places themselves in position to judge whether this person’s action is appropriate in context (was the trending coffee machine the right choice?). They engage in sympathetic identification with the first person and they experience a sympathetic copy of the first person’s emotions. Sometimes this leads to them performing the same action. This happens in our own economy, when people buy the same goods or services they see someone else buying. 

“One human mind is imaginatively entering into another human mind without any verbal communication,” Young said. “They wonder, if they were that other person, would they respond the same way? In other words, would the cause produce the same emotion and effect? It’s a technical concept that Smith is using to make a scientific explanation of how moral judgment takes place among human beings.” 

Young attested that these people are not the self-interested egoists that populate modern economics textbooks. Rather, they are following the Golden Rule—doing for others what they want others to do for them. These “wants” lead to the exchange of goods and services that run our entire economy. In this way economics at its heart is a moral science. And given the strong morals God has given Christians, we are well-poised to instill positive change in the market. 

Christian Moral Philosophy in Today’s Market 

From left to right: Dr. Jeffrey Young, Dr. Paul Brink, Ryan Hulbert, Dr. Kent Seibert, Sam Solberg, Dr. Kristen Cooper

After Young’s lecture four others joined him for a panel discussion on the interplay between the economy and philosophy in today’s society, especially Christian moral philosophy. Sam Solberg ’18, business analyst at The Nexxus Group, started by talking about how his job is all about providing value to clients and sympathizing with them—putting the needs of others first.  

“The value of what I do is determined in our economy by the fact that it has some use to someone else,” he said. “If I want to gain value, I must give value to someone else. My company only exists because of our partners. Anything that we do is for their benefit and their value.” 

Ryan Hulbert ’21 agreed with this point, referencing his job as a lab project manager at Deloitte. The interactions he has with his clients are all about helping them. “It doesn’t matter what the problem is, we’re literally just there for them, even if they end up leaving the company. As a result the relationship is with them, and we are simply investing in them as individuals. And I would argue that’s very sympathetic.” 

Paul Brink, professor of political science, pointed out that, “Smith’s model of sympathy does not guarantee virtuous outcomes. The chief value is that it expands the stereotype that we are just narrowly focused on our own interests. Sympathy allows us to go and enter imaginatively into someone else’s head. That could allow us to do bad things really well. It doesn’t guarantee it, but in terms of its conception of the person, it’s an improvement.” 

Kent Seibert, professor of business, added, “I’ve also heard people claim that this selfishness is the foundation of modern capitalism. Admittedly, most of the interactions in today’s market are not really out of the goodness of one’s heart, but I think what Smith is arguing is that it starts from a place where humans are dignified—a sympathetic understanding of what people actually need.” 

The Impact of Christian Economic Ethics 

While the conversation about morals and economics in today’s market will continue to go on, Young insisted that Smith and his ideas are just as relevant to us today as they were 300 years ago. Because we’re all deeply under the influence of economics as participants in America’s market, we have a role to play as Christians to bring God’s kingdom to this part of our society as well. 

“When we’re talking about Smith, we’re really grappling with a set of ideals,” Young said. “We’re not just trying to set this historical record straight—we’re dealing with how to understand the world. We’re trying to understand human nature, how to understand the economic system, how to visit the larger conflict. Smith is dealing with issues that are still with us, like the theory of moral sentiments. It speaks to us as human beings.”