Jeffrey Bishop


principal investigator

Jeffrey Bishop
Associate Professor, Medicine and Biomedical Ethics
Albert Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics
Saint Louis University

Jeffery Bishop, M.D., Ph.D. has taught at four medical schools in two countries—the U.S. and U.K. He currently holds the Tenet Endowed Chair in Health Care Ethics and is the Director of the Albert Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics at Saint Louis University. His research focuses on the historical, political, and philosophical conditions that influence and constitute scientific and medical practices. Bishop’s first book will be out from  the University of Notre Dame Press in September 2011. The book (The Anticipatory Corpse: Medicine, Power, and the Care of the Dying) is a philosophical history of the care for the dying, from ICU care to palliative care, and examines the scientific ideas that have influenced medicine’s understanding of death and dying. He also sits on the editorial board of Christian Bioethics and Journal of Medicine and Philosophy and is on the editorial advisory board of Medicine Studies. He publishes in medical, philosophical, and theological journals.


M. Therese Lysaught

Associate Professor of Theology
Marquette University

Andrew Michel
Assistant Professor of Psychiatry
Vanderbilt University

The Economy of Virtue: Virtue Theory in Light of Neuroscience and Poverty
Neuroscience sheds crucial light on the contemporary debate about poverty and vice by illuminating neglected socioeconomic and biological dimensions of human agency in Western virtue theory. Public rhetoric in the U.S.—which shapes community ethos and public policy—has long assumed an association between poverty and vice. Some have held that poverty and the social structures that create it lie at the root of what is deemed personal vice. Others assert rather that vice itself leads to poverty. By employing both social and biological scientific techniques in order to study neural mechanisms, neuroscience provides a means of focusing on actual bodies and communities. Empirical studies increasingly demonstrate the myriad ways that poverty correlates with significant, sometimes life-long changes in the physiological substrate associated with particular cognitive and behavioral responses, responses this project hypothesizes to be crucial to the practice of virtue. Thus, neuroscience provides important data for reconceptualizing the role of embodiment, agency, moral formation, and community in academic and civic conversations about virtue. This project aims to explore this long-standing and complicated debate by re-examining virtue theory in light of contemporary studies on biological effects associated with impoverished contexts.

In recent years, there has been a large amount of literature emerging from the neurosciences, psychiatry, and psychology, a literature that seems compatible with the tradition of virtue theory in ethics. With mirror neurons, scientists have shown the importance of practice for neurological formation, but also the extreme plasticity of the brain shows the importance of habituation. Neuroscience has shown the importance of embodiment, but also the frailty of human living grounded in the vicissitudes of the body. The purpose of this project was to critically engage this neuroscientific literature, examining the social and political, as well as the historical and conceptual foundations for much of this work.

This project examined the neuro-genetic literature, the gene-by-environment literature, and the fMRI and PET-scanner literature, as it relates to concepts of morality, especially vice and virtue. The investigators also examined the social scientific and economic literature that supports many of the claims made in the neuroscientific literature, attempting to understand much of the political motivation for this research.

For example, in the psychiatric literature, one finds that morally charged words, like vice, are not utilized. However, there seems to be wide agreement among researchers that vicious activity is equivalent to antisocial personality traits and disorder, especially in the psychiatric literature. Likewise, there is very little literature that utilizes the term virtue, but there is widespread agreement on terms emerging from the positive psychology literature that virtuous behavior seems to be prosocial—the inverted image of antisocial. Moreover, this literature contains unexamined conceptual and operational definitions for terms like antisocial and prosocial attitudes and behaviors, which not only have moral valence, but also have political and economic valence. In other words, the scientific research is not just discovering truths of our embodiment, but is in part constructing those truths.

The investigators also examined the history of the political economy that gave rise to many of the concepts, methods, questions, and assumptions that inform the social scientific and neuroscientific studies. Of particular importance, the investigators found that economic theory moved outside of a teleological framework and into a emotivist framework, where choice and preference became operative terms. This shift parallels other shifts in both moral and political thought during the same era, as shown by Alasdair MacIntyre.

Finally, the investigators combine these two sets of findings, along with the Baconian drive that animates so much of modern medical/psychiatric science to examine a recent call to morally enhance the human species either through selection or through neuro-moral enhancement. There have been calls to select out genes—for example, the low-efficiency alleles of the MAOA gene—as these tend to produce, under socioeconomic stress, a proclivity to antisocial personality traits. Others have argued that we should find ways through neuropharmacology or neurotechnology to enhance virtuous—that is to say, prosocial—traits.

In other words, the project showed that much of the neuroscientific research is grounded in and is directed toward certain political understandings of virtue and vice, or rather prosocial and antisocial behaviors.

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