In 2008, I was a couple years out of college and searching for answers. Up to that point, I had known what it was to be successful: you study hard, get good grades, earn awards and honors, and keep on progressing upward and onward – from high school to college, from college to graduate school. Having now completed my education and gotten my start at the bottom of the corporate ladder, I struggled with how to evaluate my self-worth and measure my success or lack thereof. Money, a girlfriend, influence, prestige – with any of these as a benchmark I objectively could not be considered successful. But I also had a deep-seated sense that these were not the right benchmarks anyway. I knew success had to be based on something bigger, and therefore different measures of success were needed.
At the heart of classical economic theory is the idea that success is a self-interested venture where the rational pursuit of self-interest leads to greater happiness. Building on utilitarian philosophy, economic self-interest is often defined as the attempts to maximize pleasure and minimize pain in a world of scarce resources. Following this theory, in any given transaction in a world of supply and demand, a buyer will seek the best value and lowest price while the seller seeks the highest price he can command for what he is offering. At the end of these self-interested transactions, those with more buying power have a greater ability to expand their utility or happiness. The collective process of each individual seeking his or her own self-interest through purchasing power is what is commonly referred to as “the invisible hand of the market.” In Adam Smith’s economic classic The Wealth of Nations, he contends that the virtues of such a system make for a better society as a whole: “By pursuing his own interests [man] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”
With the utilitarian concept of the market as a series of self-interested transactions, it naturally follows that our economic success or our failure is measured materialistically. At a macro level, usually economic success is defined by measures of output and production such as Gross Domestic Product, the unemployment rate, and consumer confidence. Similarly, for the individual’s economic success, status and value are often tied to their ability or future ability to produce or to spend. This often takes the form of one’s potential for upward mobility, the position of influence you hold at work, what’s in your bank account, or outward appearances such as houses, cars, clothes, or vacations.
Yet the utilitarian philosophy that underlies economic theory is not without its critics. In Karol Wojtyla’s book Love and Responsibility, Wojtyla criticizes utilitarian theory for assuming that all actions are done egotistically and therefore denies the very ideas of selflessness and altruism. Further, utilitarianism is a philosophy that values others based on their usefulness – and in this way treats the human person as a mere tool. What is overlooked in this equation is that human beings have a dignity in and of themselves. Indeed, better still would be an economics where people see themselves and others not by their usefulness, but for their own good in a spirit of love and charity. As Wotyla puts it, “Man’s capacity for love depends on his willingness consciously to seek a good together with others, and to subordinate himself to that good for the sake of others, or to others for the sake of that good.”
Examples of this economics grounded in the common good and love can be found in the saints. Whether that was Dorothy Day, Mother Theresa, or John Bosco helping the poor or Thomas Aquinas and Augustine writing philosophy, or the story of martyrs being persecuted and dying for their faith – these were models that simply could not be categorized as motivated by “self-interest.” Rather the underlying motivation for action is focused on discerning, acting upon, and finding joy in responding to a personal call from God. Rather, this economic motivation is better categorized as vocation – “the calling or destiny we have in this life and the hereafter.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church)
Vocation is perhaps the opposite of self-interest. It is, by its nature, not primarily concerned with the self and one’s own needs and desires. Rather, it’s about emptying oneself and allowing God’s will to transcend one’s own. It’s a paradoxical “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). Vocation runs counter to the utilitarian goal of self-interest simply as such work is not about maximizing one’s own pleasure and minimizing one’s own pain. On the contrary, doing such work may end up leading one to suffer and ultimately die a painful and untimely death. Yet, paradoxically, if one follows the saints in faithfully discerning and following such a call from God in perfect trust, no matter where that leads, there comes a peace and joy in this life, and the promises of even greater joy with God in the next.
A pursuit of economics as vocation rather than self-interest also shifts the relationship between human beings from one of competition for scarce resources to one of collaboration in a greater plan. In a world motivated by materialism and self-interest, the goals of being rich, being powerful, and being famous, simply by definition, necessitate one to have more money, more influence, and more attention than the common man – and therefore a race for these things competitively pits man against man. The competitive nature of working towards goals with self-serving ends makes such work a risky and fragile endeavor. One could work everyday for years with the goal to get to the top of a corporate hierarchy or win an Olympic gold medal, only to not get picked by the selection committee or to tear a muscle the day before the race. In comparison, if the goal is based on the love and joy of daily following one’s calling, it doesn’t preclude one from getting to the top or winning an Olympic Gold medal, but it doesn’t depend on it either. The pursuit of vocation requires a willingness to sacrifice for others and for God in order to discover our part in the greater plan. Such self-denials and willingness to put others ahead of ourselves provides the foundation for a cooperative economy of people mutually assisting each other in their respective journeys, calls and destinies.
With that, I can’t help but wonder what it looks like to view economic success based on the pursuit of vocation rather than a pursuit of jobs or economic production. This surely would require different ways to measure the economy, perhaps by replacing the current measures of economic success (Gross Domestic Product, consumer spending and confidence, the stock market and the unemployment rate, etc.) with a measure similar to how the Country of Bhutan developed a Gross Domestic Happiness Index. Perhaps it’s creating a measurement tool of whether people feel that they’re economic actions flow from and are acting in accordance to God’s call in their life. Here, I think St. John Paul II beautifully paints this vision of this economy based on faith in his apostolic exhortation The Lay Member’s of Christ’s Faithful People.
“The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both women and men, busy at work in their daily life and activity, often times far from view and quite unclaimed by the world, unknown to the world’s great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring laborers who work in the Lord’s vineyard. Confident and steadfast through the power of God’s grace, these are the humble yet great builders of the Kingdom of God in history.”
What is success for our economy and what ought to be our motivation in making decisions? While many assume that self-interest and the pursuit of upward mobility in money, power, and fame is the only way to be successful in this economy, it is important to note that there are economic alternatives. The discernment of a vocation to use one’s gifts, talents, and treasures to do God’s will can not merely be dismissed as “self-interest” but is an economy of a different sort – and perhaps, one that can best provide a sense of joy for the restless soul.