A Theological Anthropology of Homo Economicus: Economists Model and Misunderstand Human Beings

“Follow the money” is sage advice for tracking the flow of cash to uncover hidden information and to discover the truth behind many ethical situations. Following the money is a tool for exposing the motivations and interests of the people involved in a particular decision or moral choice. To this end, classical economists such as Vilfredo Pareto, C.S. Devas, and John Stuart Mill in the 19th century coined the term Homo economicus (or “Economic Man”) to describe the general desire of every person to obtain the highest possible utility (or well-being) given the available information about lifetime opportunities and constraints. In every situation, Homo economicus was expected to rationally calculate the cost and benefits of every action before making a decision based to maximize self-interest through increasing material possessions, enjoying greater leisure, displaying more luxury, and extending family relationships.

This abstraction of human behavior was designed to discover laws and principles both to accelerate growth within the national economy and improve the welfare of ordinary citizens. The assumption that all people behave in this manner has been a fundamental premise for many economic theories over the past century. Since public policy recommendations are influenced by these economic theories and their modeling of human behavior as Homo economicus, it follows that public decisions can only be as good as the accuracy of this abstract model of human behavior. This realization leads to the question as to how closely Homo economicus truly models a theological anthropology and accurately predicts Homo sapiens decisions and behavior. It is fundamental to the Evangelical Theological Society that the Word of God provides inerrant truth in the original autographs, and therefore a biblically-based theological anthropology will provide more precise insights into human behavior and decision-making. Such insights might significantly change the outcome of economic modeling of consumer choices and commend different public policy choices by Christians.

This paper seeks to define Homo economicus according to its classical roots in political economy, and then compare this model of human beings for areas of consistency and divergence with a biblically-grounded theological anthropology. For example, economic man is assumed to be rational, but sin is intrinsically irrational in its effect on behavior. Economists assume that humans are narrowly selfish in choices, but this notion stands in marked contrast to the humble and sacrificial choices expected of Christians. Other assumptions about stable and well-defined preferences and inner conflicts between short and long-term goals will also be examined with respect to Scripture.

Since economic models, ethical decisions, and public policy recommendations are based on Homo economicus, a refined understanding from a theological anthropology will serve the church to improve ethical decision-making, personal discipleship, and Christian citizenship.

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