Kleptocratic rulers, the greed-driven collapse of financial institutions, and shop assistants crushed to death in sales provide contemporary warnings of the dangers of avarice, a theme of stories both ancient and modern, from King Midas to the character of Scrooge in Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. Nevertheless, what it means to have a disordered desire for money has long been ambiguous. An Aristotelian mean between two extremes, as in the classical account of temperance, does not apply well to the virtuous use of money as can readily be seen from: saintly exemplars at the extremes of poverty and wealth; the complexity of operations involving the flow, accumulation and dissipation of money; the utility of money in works of charity; and a good albeit expanded sense of a desire to have more, even in the parables of Jesus Christ.
This seminar draws inspiration from portrayals of the avaricious in Dante's Divine Comedy, together with recent research in social neuroscience, to offer an alternative account of avarice. Instead of divergence from a rational mean, the proposed key to avarice is an attempt to value second-person relatedness in third-personal terms, the root of a wide spectrum of further disorders up to and including betrayal and murder. Hence Dante draws attention to prosopagnosia ('face-blindness') as a metaphor for avarice, a sign of the loss of second-person relatedness. The characteristic of the opposing virtue, liberality, is the freedom that arises from contextualising money within a much larger and richer ethical framework, the key to which is love understood in a second-personal sense.
DR ANDREW PINSENT is Research Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, a member of the Theology and Religion Faculty at Oxford University and a research fellow of Harris Manchester College. He was formerly a physicist at CERN, has degrees in philosophy and theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University and a second doctorate, in philosophy, from St Louis University. He is the author of The Second-Person Perspective in Aquinas's Ethics: Virtues and Gifts, and a wide range of other publications on virtue ethics, neurotheology, science and religion, the philosophy of the person, divine action, and the nature of evil. He is the author of a forthcoming chapter on avarice and liberality in Virtues and their Vices, edited by Kevin Timpe and Craig A. Boyd, Oxford University Press, 2014.