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The Endless Construction of Charity: On Milbank's Critique of Political Economy

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In Theology and Social Theory, John Milbank critiques Scottish Enlightenment political economy and its attendant descriptive moral philosophy for “de-ethicizing” human action. A closer look at the development of theoretical understandings of sympathy, however, shows that instinct did not ultimately displace virtue. Moreover, a survey of practical responses to poverty calls into question the claim that political economy obliterated the Christian sphere of public charity. Many of the innovations Milbank criticizes as de-ethicizing in fact reflect serious efforts to absorb into ethical reflection and practice deep social and economic changes, which Christian theology could ignore only at its own peril. Moreover, it was sometimes non- or even anti-religious thinkers like David Hume and William Hazlitt who were soonest to see the dangers involved in appealing to instinctual behavior and providential coordination of social action. Returning to the roots of social theory allows theologians to recover lost possibilities for productive collaboration with “the secular.”
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Keywords: Hazlitt; Milbank; charity; de-ethicization; secularization; sympathy

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2004-06-01

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