Teaching Economics While
Keeping the Faith
Charles K. Wilber
I HAVE SPENT the past thirty-five years as a professor of economics. Over the course of my tenure at American University, in Washington, D.C. (1965–75) and the University of Notre Dame (1975-present), however, I became ever more disenchanted with the capacity of traditional economic theory to enable people to lead a good life. I found myself unable to accept the values embedded in economic theory, particularly the elevation of selfinterest, the neglect of income distribution, and the attempts to export these values into studies of the family, the role of the state, and so on. Christian thought and biblical tradition make self-interest a central aspect of fallen human nature, which as believers we are bound to strive to counter with prayer, good works, and the cultivation of virtue. As a result, I started researching and writing on the nature of economics and the role of ethics in economic theory.
This work has led me to two important conclusions. First is the conviction that economic theory is not value-free as is so often claimed. Rather, it presupposes a set of value judgments upon which economic analysis is erected. Second is the realization that the economy itself requires that the self-interest of economic actors be morally constrained. My current research attempts to explore the role that ethics actually plays and should play in economic analysis and policy. My teaching has tried to make use of these insights.
Since economic theory is based on a set of assumptions that are problematic for Christians, this provides an opening for the teacher to encourage students to examine critically the dominant