Operationalizing evil: Christian realism, liberal economics, and industrial agriculture

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The Enlightenment marked a shift in moral debates away from notions of sin and evil toward the more secular concept of virtue based in reason. Perhaps the most notable example of such liberal thought can be found in John Dewey's 1934 A Common Faith, where he argues that people should set aside bickering over religious differences and work in a utilitarian spirit to achieve public good through science. Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union, the Chinese cultural revolution, and the Cold War's threat of mutually assured destruction have inspired philosophers and theologians to revive the concept of evil to explain atrocities too extreme to be incorporated into conventional understandings of virtue and reason. In their struggle to explain the enormity of human capacities for destruction, they have replaced traditional religious definitions of evil with a more secular one: the construction and defense of a systemic contempt for life. Assuming that bad consequences are simply the unintended result of good intentions, social scientists have resisted employing such a conception of evil. Persisting in this assumption may prevent us from seeing the perversity of the liberal economic justification for promoting and perpetuating destructive tendencies in the industrial agricultural system. This paper seeks to operationalize a conception of evil and to apply it to policy debates surrounding the 1985 Food Security Act in the hope of evaluating our society's inability to resolve social and environmental consequences generated by industrial agriculture.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)205-216
Number of pages12
JournalAgriculture and Human Values
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2002

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Agronomy and Crop Science


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