Moral Agency within Social Structures and Culture

A Primer on Critical Realism for Christian Ethics

Edited by Daniel K. Finn
Foreword by Margaret S. Archer
Afterword by Lisa Sowle Cahill

"[A] brief, accessible and enthusiastic introduction to a method that will surely be of benefit to many."
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Christian ethics has addressed moral agency and culture from the start, and Christian social ethics increasingly acknowledges the power of social structures. However, neither has made sufficient use of the discipline that specializes in understanding structures and culture: sociology. In Moral Agency within Social Structures and Culture, editor and contributor Daniel K. Finn proposes a field-changing critical realist sociology that puts Christian ethics into conversation with modern discourses on human agency and social transformation.

Catholic social teaching mischaracterizes social evil as being little more than the sum of individual choices, remedied through individual conversion. Liberation theology points to the power of social structures but without specifying how structures affect moral agency. Critical realist sociology provides a solution to both shortcomings. This collection shows how sociological insights can deepen and extend Catholic social thought by enabling ethicists to analyze more precisely how structures and culture impact human decisions. The book demonstrates how this sociological framework has applications for the study of the ecological crisis, economic life, and virtue ethics.

Moral Agency within Social Structures and Culture is a valuable tool for Christian ethicists who seek systemic change in accord with the Gospel.

Table of Contents



Part One: Overviews

Who Gets to Decide what Freedom Is?

A Christian Perspective C. Rosalee Velloso Ewell

God-Given Freedom: An Islamic Point of View Tuba Işik

Freedom in the Contemporary Context: Trends in Intersections of Religion, Development, and Foreign Policy Azza Karam

Part Two: Islamic Texts on Freedom

Aspects of Human Freedom: Reflections on Selections from the Quran and Hadith Abdullah Saeed

The Quran and Hadith on Freedom: Selections for Dialogue

Freedom as a Theme in Islamic Thought: An Introduction to Selected Pre-Modern Texts Lejla Demiri

Pre-Modern Islamic Writings on Freedom: Selected for Dialogue

Modern Muslim Elucidations and Contentions on Freedom: An Introduction to Texts for Dialogue Martin Nguyen

Islamic Thought from the Modern Period: Texts for Dialogue About Freedom

Part Three: Christian Texts on Freedom

Freedom in the Hebrew Bible: From Exodus to Ezekiel, by way of Reba McEntire and Rage against the Machine Christopher M. Hays

Old Testament Texts About Freedom: Selections for Dialogue

The Motif of Freedom in New Testament Texts: An Introduction Susan Eastman

New Testament Texts About Freedom: Selections for Dialogue

Thematic Dimensions of Freedom: Christian Texts from the Classical Period Jonathan Chaplin

Christian Thought on Freedom in the Classical Period: Selected Texts for Dialogue

Freedom in Modern Christian Thought: Introduction to Selected Texts Peniel Jesudason Rufus Rajkumar

Christian Writings from the Modern Period: Selections for Dialogue About Freedom

Part Four: Reflections

Conversations on the Theme of Freedom: Reflections on the Building Bridges Seminar at le Château de Bossey Lucinda Mosher

Subject Index

Scriptural Citation Index

About the Editor


"Faced with a world of dizzying complexity, even the most thoughtful participants in social decision making rely on unchallenged assumptions and implicit biases. We all stand to benefit from adopting an explicit meta-ethical approach to life in society. By providing a primer on the methodology of critical realism with such remarkable clarity, this ground-breaking volume supplies a much-needed foundation for constructive ethical reflection and responsible moral agency. Each chapter contains rich insight and vivid illustrations that will lead the reader reliably through the many thickets of the heavily contested ethical terrain we all face today."—Thomas Massaro, SJ, Professor of Moral Theology, Fordham University

"This is a primer in the best sense. It is an easy-to-read introduction to an important social theory that holds significant promise for Christian social ethics. In clear prose, the authors explain the basics of critical realism and illustrate in a variety of ways why it is relevant to Christian ethics. Finn and his colleagues are to be commended for advancing the conversation between theologians and social scientists in such an informed and helpful manner."—Kenneth R. Himes, OFM, Professor of Theological Ethics, Boston College

"Moral Agency Within Social Structures and Culture: A Primer on Critical Realism for Christian Ethics, edited by Daniel Finn, is a splendid and foundational work on critical realism. . . as a sociological analysis of the role of social structure and culture [and] their impact on human agency, including moral agency . . . . This is an important and foundational work which sociologists and ethicists will find truly enlightening, provocative, and helpful. I very highly recommend it."—John Coleman, SJ, Casassa Professor of Social Values, Emeritus, Loyola Marymount University

"This thorough but accessible introduction to critical realism is rich with concrete illustrations that offer the reader a good sense of how its theoretical perspective stands to deepen and refine social analysis in Christian ethics. A must read for scholars interested in questions about agency and structure."—Christina McRorie, assistant professor of theology, Creighton University

"[A] brief, accessible and enthusiastic introduction to a method that will surely be of benefit to many."—Studies in Christian Ethics

"This book does a good job of applying the conceptual insights of critical realism to large, real-world issues."—Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies


Margaret S. Archer Lisa Sowle Cahill David Cloutier Daniel J. Daly Daniel K. Finn Theodora Hawksley Matthew A. Shadle

Supplemental Materials


About the Author

Daniel K. Finn is a professor of theology and the William E. and Virginia Clemens Professor in Economics and the Liberal Arts at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. His books include Consumer Ethics in a Global Economy: How Buying Here Causes Injustice There (Georgetown University Press, 2019), Christian Economic Ethics: History and Implications, and The Moral Ecology of Markets: Assessing Claims about Markets and Justice.

136 pp., 6 x 9

ISBN: 978-1-62616-800-8
May 2020

136 pp., 6 x 9

ISBN: 978-1-62616-801-5
May 2020

136 pp.

ISBN: 978-1-62616-802-2
May 2020

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