In oeconomics, rational choice theory hinges on the idea of actors making decisions on the basis of “utility maximization” and tries to quantify the factors involved. This is problematic, because a Christian cannot accept utility maximization as a true explanation of all real-life oeconomic decision-making. It’s a model that approximately predicts the outcomes, perhaps even very well, but philosophically it fails to account for actions not driven by philosophical utilitarianism. If left untended, this tension can greatly hurt the integrity of Christian thought.
The reason is this: even if we were to deny utility maximization as a paradigm for what ought to be but affirm it as a paradigm for what actually happens, we would be accepting that the reality (though not the worth per se) of God’s work is to be judged by its contribution to pleasure as summed among all persons. This could lead us to deny that God is living and active in the oeconomic realm. We would thus be judging things not by God’s standards but by man’s.
[My dad points out, as an aside, what the positive side may be: if we can reject an actual outcome by z-score tests of all viable theories, we can virtually conclude that divine intervention has taken place.]
A metaphysically deficient theory
As a theoretical claim, then, utility maximization under a consistently Christian worldview is a valid empirical predictor but not an adequate metaphysical explanation. Of course, some may avoid consciously thinking about metaphysics at all, thinking it to be above their pay grade; others may argue that oeconomic theory is by its very nature separate from the metaphysical realm, because it cannot produce any pronouncements about metaphysics: indeed, this must be the reason that modern oeconomics tries to avoid metaphysics altogether, because oeconomics as practised does not inform metaphysics.
I believe both approaches are flawed. In an area of the mind with a theoretical vacuum, something will come in to fill that vacuum. Without a healthy scepticism about the power of the utility maximization notion to explain metaphysical things empirically, someone who otherwise lives his life in affirmation of God’s sovereignty will begin to assume that this notion accurately accounts for metaphysical reality as well. He may even be willing to sign to a creed declaring God’s standard as the true standard, but when push comes to shove, he will act against what he says he believes about the faith.
Because of this, we cannot put all “perspectives” – which in this postmodern world are disguised truth claims – onto the same plane of authoritativeness: ultimately, God’s perspective is the only true one, and all other perspectives are valid only as far as they agree with it. St. Paul says,
We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ […]. (II Cor. 10.5)
Let us live accordingly.