The Secular Religions of Progress

The New Atlantis, Summer 2013

13 Pages Posted: 8 Dec 2013

See all articles by Robert H. Nelson

Robert H. Nelson

University of Maryland - School of Public Policy

Date Written: 2013


Economics has never been, nor could it ever be, free of value judgments. The economy is not isolated from the rest of society, cordoned off from the lively world of competing beliefs and values. Rather, questions of the organization of the economy, and of the economic policies to be pursued, are interwoven with other social concerns and public policy in general. Economists often lose sight of the altogether interconnected nature of the economic and the non-economic. This paper provides a brief historical overview of five traditions in moral philosophy that have contributed importantly to shaping the implicit value system of current economics: (1) the moral philosophy of Adam Smith of a “divine harmony” of market forces; (2) the “atheistic” utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and other utilitarians; (3) the “worship” of perfect productive efficiency and the scientific management of society of Auguste Comte and other French positivists; (4) the “faith” of Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes and other progressive economists that the abolition of economic scarcity will save the world; and (5) the newer anti-progressive, anti-economic messages of contemporary environmental religion. The paper shows how powerful values derived from these moral philosophies not only play a large implicit role in economic policy making but in ethically justifying the very use of the technical methods of economics itself.

Keywords: economics, religion of progress, environmentalism, moral philosophy

JEL Classification: B00, B5, O1, P00, P5

Suggested Citation

Nelson, Robert H., The Secular Religions of Progress (2013). The New Atlantis, Summer 2013. Available at SSRN:

Robert H. Nelson (Contact Author)

University of Maryland - School of Public Policy ( email )

College Park, MD 20742-1815
United States
301-405-6345 (Phone)
301-718-4377 (Fax)

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