Faith and Scholarship Integration Essays
Brian Brenberg, Assistant Professor of Business
In economics, subjective value means that the value of a good or service depends upon who is evaluating it and under what circumstances. For example, a man in Phoenix and a man in Minneapolis are likely to reach very different conclusions about the value of a heavy winter coat. As a way of explaining how trade can be mutually beneficial, subjective value seems to be compatible with Christian teaching. The idea runs afoul of scripture, however, when we attempt to apply it to morality. In my experience, this is the practice of many secular proponents of free-market economics.
To illustrate what I mean, consider two transactions: money for bread and money for prostitution. According to the secular understanding of subjective value, these transactions are morally equivalent. Provided that both exchanges are consensual, we can assume all parties receive value in excess of their respective costs. To draw a moral distinction would be arbitrary, and to draw a legal distinction would risk sending the outlawed behavior “underground,” where one or both parties are more likely to be harmed.
In contrast to this secular view, the Bible draws a clear moral distinction between the two transactions. For example, Leviticus 19:29 instructs us, “Do not degrade your daughter by making her a prostitute, or the land will turn to prostitution and be filled with wickedness.” While the secular free-market position would regard this as an undue restriction on individual liberty, scripture suggests something quite different, that true freedom is found in our submission to certain moral strictures. Paul writes in Romans 6:17-18, “Thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted.” He continues in verse 22, “Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap is holiness, and the result eternal life.” Secularists misunderstand freedom because they misunderstand man’s end, which is to be united with a holy God. Introducing scripture into the classroom helps us grasp the compatibility of objective moral standards and genuine human freedom.
The secular position does, however, raise an important question about the socially optimal way to deal with sinful behavior. Research suggests that criminalizing things like prostitution or drugs can have profoundly negative unintended consequences. In the end, whether legal restrictions are an effective way to promote behavioral change seems to be an empirical question. But, as we read in the passages from Romans, God’s desire is wholehearted obedience, not just behavioral compliance. The secular position prompts us to consider the quality of change—superficial or heartfelt—that we get by criminalizing sin. In rejecting the moral subjectivity of the secular position, we do well to take seriously its critique of public policy as a means for social transformation.