Smith, Bourdieu and Yoder on Postlapsarian Morality

The paper I’m presenting at the “Adam Smith as a Theologian” Conference is entitled “On Not Over- or Underestimating the Fall: Prospects for a Moral Economy in Smith, Bourdieu and Yoder.” I’m about half-way through, but decided to go ahead and start posting some of the sections. Here’s the introduction:

“The realization of a moral economy faces many impediments, among which the most commonly cited are greed, natural disasters, and ill-planned economic systems. To these a Christian may add what she regards to be a more fundamental impediment: the fallen state of the world. For this Christian, economic immorality is simply a postlapsarian fact, a “natural” outcome of our race’s long rebellion against God. Where a non-Christian might see a series of unconnected injustices, the Christian sees an old, awful coherence. Between the Christian and non-Christian, however, we find a basic agreement that the extent to which moral practices of distribution and exchange are realizable at all, is related to a belief in the degree to which “sin” or oppression pervades our societies. Put simply, if  oppression is all-pervasive, there will be no moral economy; but if there are limits to oppression, then there may be a moral economy, however imperfect.

There is, of course, a spectrum of attitudes between denial of the possibility of a moral economy and blind optimism in the same. This paper locates three thinkers—Adam Smith, Pierre Bourdieu and John Howard Yoder—on that spectrum and assesses their positions in relation to a normative biblical account of morality after the Fall. The biblical account is developed first; here we suggest that the work of Christ both exposes the inadequacies of our moral efforts and births the hope of moral practice. We then turn to Smith to argue that in The Theory of Moral Sentiments he underestimates our moral inadequacies; his optimism in human moral systems approaches what the Christian tradition has typically branded Pelagianism. Alternatively, Bourdieu’s treatment of symbolic violence leaves little hope for moral practice. Though he presents clear standards for moral transformation, it is unclear if, within his own system, those standards can ever be met. It is Yoder, we argue, who more closely approximates the biblical understanding of morality after the Fall: Yoder’s theology of the powers depicts society as essentially rebellious, yet still subject to the reign of Christ. Affirming Yoder’s position may seem obvious—he is the only Christian among the three authors—but he is often accused of holding a position closer to Bourdieu’s. Contrary to these accusations, we believe Yoder’s theology provides  the appropriate amounts of hope and skepticism needed to construct a truly moral economy. “

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2 Comments »

  1. 1
    Chase Says:

    I like this sentence a lot: “Where a non-Christian might see a series of unconnected injustices, the Christian sees an old, awful coherence.” I look forward to reading this paper in full.

  2. 2
    wess Says:

    sounds great!


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