Freud, Economics and Salvation

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud, 1856-1939

One of the great contributions of Freud and later psychoanalytic theorists is that they taught us to look sideways at ourselves. Sometimes what seems clear and straightforward is, on closer analysis, muddy and frustratingly complex.

This is one of the reasons why in recent years, I’ve found myself more and more interested in economic issues. Like psychoanalytic theory, economics brings a healthy dose of skepticism to any conversation about human action. Unlike Freud and his disciples, however, economic analysis is scientific in the sense that it offers for consideration hypotheses and theories that are empirically and logically falsifiable. Put another way, when Freud is right about our dark, unacknowledged motives, he is as right as any of the Church fathers are about the pervasive and corrupting consequences of sin.

And when Freud is wrong? Well this is where I think intellectual honest requires me to part company with him. Not so much because he and his followers are wrong but because how they respond to the shortcomings of their own work. There is a tendency in their theorizing not simply to resist but actively and even aggressively reject criticism and so correction. This is done by the use of a clever rhetoric device that allows them to take disagreement as evidence not of their own error but of their critics’ bad faith and resistance to the illuminating insight of psychoanalysis.  In a word, psychoanalysis lends itself to bullying.

So why my interest in economic issues?

Friedrich Hayek, 1899-1992

As I said above, I value the skeptical, critical voice of the social and human sciences in general and economics in particular. But where Freud would have us question our self-interest by undermining the integrity of the self, economics begins with the simple acknowledgment that what I do, I do because it interests me. Ironically economics strips self-interest of the romance that Freud (and really, modern though as a whole) gives it. For Freud the self is a construct, a fraud or at least a fiction. More than that, the Freudian self its more contemporary political equivalent, is the stage on which we play out—or maybe better the screen upon which we project—our great internal psychic, cultural or political battles. Freud and psychoanalysis is a moralizing enterprise which fosters in us a corrosive skepticism of ourselves and of our actions. Freud is like Calvin but without the possibility of divine grace.

Economics however points us to a self who acts. To be sure there is nothing in economics that precludes the storm of inner conflict that psychoanalysis examines. But neither does economic analysis require entertaining, as does Freud, ontological doubt about the self. We are actors and economics is the science of human action as Hayek argues.

By my actions, how I use my time and talents, and how I spend my money, all of these reveal the desires of my heart. Do I choose to pray this morning? I do but only if I value saying my prayers more than a bit more sleep, reading the newspaper or catching the morning news.

Where I think Christians—and secular liberals whose cultural roots are Christian—get uncomfortable with economic analysis is with its emphasis on self-interest. In economics (and the social and human science rightly understood) self-interest is empirically descriptive not morally prescriptive. To say I act in my self-interest is to say that I do what I want, that I am moved by desire and that the myriad decisions that I make everyday reveals not just the raw, relative value I have for things but what I love.

Freud makes love impossible while economics points (if only indirectly) me to the hard truth that my love is deficient. I love sleep more than prayer; I want a new car more than I want to help the poor. After more than a century of ontological self-doubt it is hard to hear I value this more than that as anything other than a moral judgment, an announcement of my sinfulness but one shorn of grace. The hermeneutic of suspicion has becomes so engrained, so culturally and personally habitual, that I can’t bear to look at myself much less acknowledge, as the Christian tradition always has, that purity of heart is the goal not the starting point of human life.

Sometimes gently, sometimes not, economic analysis returns me to myself and to what my actions say about the character and the depth of my love. But where Freud makes self-knowledge a source of despair, economics leaves open the possibility that I can value generosity, love and forgiveness more than food and drink and clothing.

The fact is that whether I am a sinner or a saint, I am still human and so I am a creature made for love. This is so even when, in the first case I neither desire nor understand it or, when in the second case, I stand before it in simple wordless awe. Freud reminds me that I’m a sinner. But this reminder, however true, is also cruel since if he doesn’t offer me the hope of salvation since the self can never be really free of my own darker motives.

Economics doesn’t offer me salvation either but it does leave open the possibility. And it does this in a manner that, if not precisely Christian, is consonant with the Gospel. To the economist,  salvation—like all my decisions—comes at a cost and I cannot be save unless I am willing to bear that cost personally.

Whatever its limitations, economics assumes a robust and active vision of the human person. We are actors who actions make clear the desires of our hearts. This self-revelation is not limited to great matters or small matters; everything I do reveals my desires and the relative value I place on persons, events and things. After more than a century of self-doubt this is essential even if, after over a century of self-doubt, it is a burden I am ill-prepared to bear.

But it is here, where desire and weakness converge, that we find Christ in human affairs. And it is where desire and weakness converge that the person is most open to the Gospel because it is in this place that we find Christ and Him crucified.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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