At Work & Economics 101 & Public Square

iPhones, Economics, and Absolute Truth

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I always want to have the latest technology, so when the iPhone 5S is finally released this fall, I will probably buy one. My sister, on the other hand, will likely spend her savings on the latest fashion trends. Whose choice is better?

The answer is, “neither.” The phone is better for me and the dress is better for her. It all depends on personal preference.

But how does personal preference reconcile with our belief in absolute truth? To answer this, it would be helpful to understand how personal preference works in economics.

The Economics of Personal Preference

To me, the new iPhone is worth at least two-hundred dollars, but to my sister, it is worth much less. The price that I pay does not reflect some constant, intrinsic value within my new phone; it reflects a middle point between the worth that a buyer and a seller put on it.This example illustrates the principle of subjective value in economics.

Because God created each of us as unique individuals according to Psalm 139:13-16, each of us has different preferences. Just because I value something enough to buy it does not mean that everyone will place the same value on it. The value does not lie in the good itself.

Thomas Taylor, author of An Introduction to Austrian Economics, explains that the individual’s “valuation is a subjective matter that even he cannot reduce to objective terms or measurement.”

Subjective Value and Absolute Truth

The principle of subjective value is at the foundation of economics. It is just common sense that everyone has personal preferences, and these play a huge role in determining how much we pay for something. But how does this economic theory fit with our belief in absolute truth?

While God created us to have different personal preferences, he also created the universe to operate under a certain order. That’s why we can explain the natural world through scientific law, and it’s why we each have a conscience, or an innate sense of right and wrong. It’s this set of ground rules that gives us the guidelines to treat each other with respect and dignity even as we seek to fulfill our individual goals.

When Christians compromise their values, believing them to fall within the realm of subjective preference, this leads to relativism. The belief that all religions are equal, or that one’s lifestyle doesn’t matter, are all examples of relativism. According to 1 John 5:3, Christians actually show their love for God when they keep his commandments. Thus, Christians understand that truth and taste are not opposed; the problem arises when truth is reduced to taste.

On the other end of the extreme, Christians sometimes forget the liberty that they have in Christ. This occurs when they elevate their personal preference to the level of absolute truth. If someone claimed that pianos were the only suitable instrument for worship, or that full-time ministry is the noblest occupation for every single person, he would be forgetting his Christian liberty. According to 1 Peter 2:16, Christ gave us ample freedom in how we live our lives, and we are to use that freedom to serve him most effectively.

When we compromise on biblical commandments or forget our Christian liberty, our understanding of faith and work may suffer. A proper grasp of the balance between absolute truth and personal preference can lead us to a healthier understanding of the issue.

Subjective Value, Absolute Truth, & Work

The Bible commissions us to be witnesses for Christ (Matthew 28: 16-20). That is an absolute commandment and we must not ignore it. At the same time, Romans 12:3-8 indicates that different people do this in different ways. One person may choose to fulfill the Great Commission through full-time ministry while another many choose to engage the culture through academia, law, social work, etc.

As long as the Christian is fulfilling God’s absolute commandments, he may choose the exact way that he does this based on his personal preferences, as Galatians 5:13 explains.

In fact, God’s absolute commandments recognize and protect our freedom to make choices based on our personal preferences. The eighth commandment states, “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15). That’s an absolute commandment that recognizes that individuals should be able to steward their property and possessions in the way they see fit, as long as their actions uphold other biblical commandments and principles.

Within that framework, I have no moral obligation to buy that iPhone 5S or choose one career path over another. These things are only worth the value that I place on them, and I can pursue alternatives that are equally glorifying to God. When we acknowledge the difference between God’s objective law and my subjective preference, the result is a clear system of rules which protect and uphold the uniqueness and free will of each individual.

How do you exercise personal preference within the framework of God’s commandments? Leave your comments here.

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