Neuroscience, Politics, and the Secularization of Virtue and Vice
University of Notre Dame, Center for Ethics and Culture, Conference on Radical Emancipation: Confronting the Challenge of Secularism
In his groundbreaking book Theology and Social Theory (1990), John Milbank attends to the role of political economy in the creation of "the secular." Yet many who explore secularization fail to attend to the key role of economics in these various processes. This paper explores the relationship between economics and the secularization of virtue theory (and, therefore, the virtues). It begins by tracing the classed nature of much of the virtue tradition: most philosophers and even some theologians writing on virtue from Aristotle forward presume an audience located in the upper socioeconomic and political tiers of their various cultural contexts, subtly incorporating economic presuppositions into various accounts of the virtues (and vices). This link between class and virtue becomes destabilized with Aquinas and the mendicants, laying the groundwork for a more democratic account of the virtues. Virtue and economics remain tightly linked, and embedded in theological contexts, for John Calvin and Adam Smith until the advent of the Chicago School in the 1920s, and their invention of homo economicus, wherein the secularization of economics—and the severing of economics, Christian theology and virtue into separate spheres—is accomplished. As will be shown, contemporary homo economicus presumes its own parasitical and heretical "theology" and account of virtue.