Skip to main content

What devalues human life? Our times are undoubtedly characterized by a lack of respect for the dignity of the human person. Many who proclaim the culture of life fault the free market for devaluing human life. It is thought that the market reduces people to mere economic actors, valued only for their earning potential or their productive capacity. However, this misunderstanding of the market economy hinders our allies against the forces that degrade the human person. Let us reflect on the interaction, tension, and ultimate reconciliation of the culture of the market and the culture of life more deeply.

I want to be clear about definitions. The culture of life is the recognition that this life is a temporary stage of our eternal existence and that life itself is a gift entrusted to us by our Maker that should be preserved with the utmost responsibility and care. Life carries a sacred value from its inception to its end, and every human being has the right to have his life respected to the fullest extent possible. The market is not a mere abstraction of economic production and distribution, but, rather, people themselves – people who save and invest, keep contracts and watch markets, take risks and make dreams. In their economic lives as producers and consumers, they are cooperating in a vast network of exchange in which people half a world away buy their products and make products for them.

The market strengthens the culture of life and its moral order in three important ways. First, the market promotes peace among people. From the simplest to the most complex market exchanges, they all have one thing in common: people trading voluntarily with each other to their mutual self-satisfaction. Second, the market offers people the best opportunities to employ their creative gifts and become full participants in society, thus obeying God's command to work and create. In contrast, legal barriers and perverse incentives erected by government prevent people from entering the workforce and keep many from perfecting their abilities and becoming a vital part of society's division of labor. Third, the free market promotes the material betterment of humanity. For example, it has brought modern medicine, electricity, running water, and, now, information access to an ever-broadening segment of the world population.

It is unfortunate and highly dangerous that many of the market's most eloquent advocates often overlook the moral foundations of freedom. To those who might be tempted to think that society can revolve around the bank statement, the culture of life delivers a message: Base motives can also exist within a market economy. There are values higher than profit and market success, among which is the preeminent value of life itself. What we propose, then, is a free economy that puts the human person at the center of economic actions because the human person is the source of all economic initiative. The market, imbued with freedom and virtue, is a necessary ally for a social order that respects human dignity.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico received his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London.  During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today's social problems.  As a result of these concerns, Fr. Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990.

As president of the Acton Institute, Fr.