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Time preference, deontology, and teleology

In the field of ethics, two primary approaches have the field. A deontological act is an act that springs from the motivation of duty. A teleological act is one which especially has in view a final goal. Time preference is a term used in Austrian economics in order to indicate that human behavior has to do with long term or short term thinking.

In the Bible, the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15) is presented without particular reference to any time issues. It is simply commanded. We would say that it is presented from a deontological standpoint. We should not steal because it is not the right way to act.

Again, from the Ten Commandments, we have the fifth commandment: “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee” (Exodus 20:12). Honoring father and mother is linked here with a teleological reason. The command to honor them is linked with a promise of longevity. Doubtless honoring one’s father and mother is also right deontologically, but that is not expanded upon in the commandment itself.

People who hold that the end justifies the means are operating out of a teleological ethic. People who say that one should do right simply because it is right are deontological in their outlook. As we can see, there appears to be validity in both perspectives. The teleological outlook contains a substantial pitfall, in that it may follow a chain of reasoning to a future that may not be attained.

Time preference says that all things being equal, economic factors such as scarcity can lead one to consume sooner rather than later. A high time preference is what one has who is focused more on his present well-being; a low time preference is the attitude one has who chooses his path based on longer look. A scrap of food is thrown to or found by pigeon at the beach or a duck in a pond. If he is hungry, he will immediately seek to consume it, because if he does not, it may be wrested from him by another bird.

A man who plants a garden knows that it will take time and careful tending for the vegetables to reach maturity for harvest. He takes this into account and still he invests his energies in maintaining the garden until harvest. At harvest tome he reaps the benefits of his labor. He reaps what he sows.

A thief usually also operates by the principles of time preference. He chooses to take from another rather than to exercise self-control and labor. Put simply, a thief steals an apple, a farmer harvests an apple.

In the Christian walk, one keeps his eye on the gift of eternal life and the rewards that come. He should serve God because it is right, and yet he takes note of the mighty incentive held out to him in the promises of God. He is building not for the moment but for eternity.

We may not all be cultivating gardens, but every one of us is cultivating a character. Our choices are shaping it, our motives are persistent and also are ever being more intentionally shaped. We look to the Second Coming of Jesus aware that when He returns he will give to every person according to their behavior. We are saved by grace and not by our deeds, and yet our deeds shape our heart and refine our character so that it is less Christlike or moreso.

There is a meeting of Christianity and Austrian economics in these points. We should live our lives with reference to the precious things that God will give us in the future, yes, but we should also do right because it is right. God has never suspended His law, and He will not; it offers a thumbnail sketch of His character. A future is coming in which yes, the Ten Commandments will still be there. It will still be right not to steal. Therefore, I am thankful for the lessons taught in Austrian economics, for it echoes the truth that we reap what we sow. To do right because it is right has the lowest time preference of all, for it is not owned by the short term. Persons living according only to the present may sidestep ethical behavior, but their long-term thinking opposites can be good neighbors for eternity. Austrian economics cannot help but make for better Christians.


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