A Theology of Moral Agency in Capitalism Today

McRorie, Christina, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Mathewes, Charles, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Jones, Paul, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

This dissertation is a work within the fields of Christian political theology and social ethics. Its overarching aim is to propose a theological description of, and to a certain extent also critical response to, the ambiguous conditions for moral agency that capitalism today presents.

The first part of this dissertation builds toward this by diagnosing and addressing an obstacle confronting this project of moral description. It argues that both theological scholarship and public discourse demonstrate a certain amount of ethical inarticulacy regarding capitalism as a context for moral agency, and that this is in part due to the cultural diffusion of misleading representations of economic processes as naturalistic and/or deterministic, and therefore not as the result of (or responsive to) human agency. In light of an immanent critique of the economic theory undergirding these representations using heterodox economic scholarship, it argues that capitalism ought to be understood instead as a culturally contingent, although path dependent, social phenomenon. We understand capitalism more accurately, that is, when we stop trying to evade responsibility for it. We understand it better, moreover, by attending to how the contingent conditions we now inhabit have been shaped by the usage of misleading claims and assumptions about markets.

Addressing itself to capitalism so understood, the first part of this dissertation then models one way that Christian theological reflection may proceed, using the doctrines of creation, fall, and redemption. When considered together, it proposes, these offer a grammar of analysis that rules out the suppression of any significant aspect of capitalism’s (or any other social order’s) ambiguity and complexity. The moral description they enable thus improves upon the ethical inarticulacy of one-sided theological analyses, and of those based on misconstruals of economic phenomena. This part concludes by suggesting that moral descriptions such as this may also offer resources for enriching public conversations on economic issues.

The second part of this dissertation extends this initial theological description of capitalism as a moral context to address the situation of the individual agent within it. It does so by turning to two different descriptions of human moral agency within the context of creation, fall, and redemption: one emphasizing the role of grace (found in Lutheran theology, broadly construed), the other emphasizing humanity’s natural powers (found in Thomistic thought). These differ in how they conceptualize our fallen condition, and accordingly offer complementary idioms in which to consider various aspects of our agential predicament in capitalism today. For all these differences, however, these approaches share the assumption that human moral agency is deeply compromised after the fall. This is similar to the account of impure agency advanced by philosophical treatment of moral luck, but is fundamentally more tragic. A theological description of our agential predicament thus invites us to consider the extent to which we experience our moral agency in capitalism today as not only impure, but tragically compromised. It then proposes a framework in which to make sense of that experience, not as something unique to capitalism, but as a perennial feature of humanity’s fallen condition, which appears differently in different historical moments. This dissertation then concludes by suggesting that a fuller theological description and analysis of capitalism today would complement this attention to humanity’s fallen condition with attention to our current experience in light of God’s ongoing and gracious support of human agency in and through the goodness of creation, and of humanity’s calling to perfected agency through communion with God.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
capitalism, moral agency, economics, theology, heterodox economics, Christian ethics, Christian theology
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