A Moral Miasma

Disclaimer up front: don’t hold me to the veracity of the terms I am going to use.  I am thinking out loud using terms and concepts I think I remember from a Philosophy lecture from my freshman year of college in 1976.  I apologize in advance for everything I mis-remember…  After two weeks of first, Annual Conference, then a church trial, where multiple arguments centered in “who is right and who is wrong,” I marvelled at the intensity of emotion connected with defending one’s position.  Right and wrong, good and bad, winners and losers defines most of our disagreements.  And in every case, participants reduce their argument to morality, as if morals are clear-cut.  What comes to mind is what I (think I) heard in that lecture back in 1976.  The essence of the lecture was this: most of our problems in our culture emerge from reductionism in pursuit of “one right way” that should apply universally to all.  How we define how people should act is a “moral code.”  But there is not just one moral code.  Three equally valid, equally reasonable, equally viable moral codes exist: moral rationalism, moral sentimentalism and moral relativism — doing “right,” doing “good,” and doing “well.”

Examples from recent news: three young men cornered a slum lord and physically attacked him, sending him to the hospital.  The victim had allowed conditions in his buildings to deteriorate to the extent that vermin, mold, and filth caused many residents to become sick and two to die.  The city supported the slum lord was not in violation of any codes, so attempts to work through the system failed.  Moral rationalists look at such a situation and say, “the law is clear — you don’t beat people up.  The three young men are at fault and should be punished.  The city absolved the slum lord.”  Moral sentimentalists view the situation as one of fairness rather than law.  They would say, “there are mitigating circumstances, and the young men would never have acted in the manner they did had the slum lord or the city acted properly.”  Moral relativists will look more at what happened than at what could or should have happened.  The incident should be judged on its own merits and instead of seeking punishment, all involved should seek resolution.  Determining who is “right” and who is “wrong” in this case is a waste of time (since the answer is “yes”); the only value is in applying that which will benefit all.  What is, is; and determining what should have been is an exercise in futility.

In the church, we see these three perspectives applied to Biblical interpretation.  What does the Bible say about sin?  Moral rationalists are clear: the Bible says what it says – sin is sin.  If the Bible says it is so, it is so.  There isn’t room to argue.  Something like “suffer not a witch to live,” for example, leaves no ambiguity.  There is nothing to discuss.  Good witch/bad witch, practicing witch/non-practicing, born that way/chooses to be — none of this matter.  Witch?  Death.  This line of reasoning would be reprehensible to a moral sentimentalist, and would pose horrible problems in the area of definition.  In Hebrew society, a witch could be male or female, and could be characterized as one who could 1) perform alchemy (like turning water into wine), 2) defy natural law (like walking on water), 3) cast out or control demons, 4) communicate with spirits, and 5) could raise the dead.  You can see the dilemma.  The moral relativist would argue that an absolute and universal law is unacceptable.  There must be some distinction between those who use supernatural powers for good or ill.  An evil warlock should be judged completely different from a spiritual healer.  “Sin” applies to one, but not to the other.

In our contemporary culture, each of these philosophical spheres aligns with our political parties and positions.  Republicans tend toward a moral rationalism; democrats toward a moral sentimentalism, and the majority of our independent third parties center in a moral relativism.  Naming this doesn’t really help anything, but it does give a perspective.  When an issue arises like immigration, it does help explain the differences in opinion.  For rationalists, an illegal immigrant is an illegal immigrant and should be treated according to a clear set of laws and standards.  Sentimentalists see the humanitarian need and remind us that we are all descendents of immigrants and equality and fairness (justice) should trump law.  Relativists say you can’t legislate something this big — you need to treat each incident individually and do what is best in each case.

Every person will prefer one of these perspectives over another (though not always consistently throughout every aspect of life…) and will defend their perspective as the best one (or the right one).  No person ever adopts or defends a perspective that they believe is wrong, stupid, or indefensible.  This is why we get so deeply convinced that our way is the only way.  If it makes sense to us, it ought to make sense to everyone.  The problem doesn’t occur when we believe what we think is right — the problem occurs when we decide that what everyone else thinks is wrong.  This is the fine line between our ability to resolve our differences and create ways to co-exist in grace-filled and affirming ways and our inability to move beyond our divisions and disagreements.  It is the difference between heaven and hell.

9 replies

  1. The true beauty of moral sentimentalism and relativism, as you define them, is that they contribute to the lawlessness that destroys social order and interaction. From your example of the toughs who beat up the slum lord, moral sentimentalism allows the city conditions that support slum lords to continue — creating the likelihood that others will continue to oppress their tenants — and sanctions thugs who physically attack the “enemies of the people.” Next time perhaps the thugs will city councilors for permitting lax building codes or maybe just attack anyone who is prosperous, because as any good Methodist knows — people are poor only because the rich exploit them. Under moral relativism, on the other hand, we really don’t solve anything beyond the specific situation. Perhaps the thugs (i.e., misguided young men motivated by compassion for abused residents) apologize for the attack on the slum lord (i.e., business man trying his best to provide housing for the people whom society has forgotten and who have such difficulty in paying their rent that he cannot maintain the buildings as we would like) and the slum lord commits to working harder to maintain the buildings. After everyone’s warm feelings have passed, the community is stuck with the inadequate building codes and enforcement that permits slum lords to operate, the lack of affordable housing that drives the poor to that sort of housing, and the idea that physically attacking the “enemies of the people” is a good way to bring about change. Moral rationalism, by taking the law seriously, even when it is not perfect, provides the incentives for improving the law and helps to maintain the ever more fragile social order. As we are about to learn with a vengeance, once the civil order collapses, there is no justice for anyone. Similar considerations bear upon the church. If we have no respect for the Discipline, and many of our leaders do not when it differs from the “personal revelation,” then we are wasting our money holding General Conference and are kidding ourselves about being “connectional.”

    • A group of people “took the law seriously” in a certain colony, and yet the prevailing authority levied ever-increasing demands upon its inhabitants in the name of the prevailing law. In such examples, rationalism is applied but fails to preserve “an ever-increasing social order.” I make that point not to dispute the merits of your apparent bias towards moral rationalism but rather to illustrate the problems in a bias towards any of the models cited.

      However, your argument does illustrate a key ingredient in applying any of these models. (Your point about the well-meaning landlord is well taken.) Christians utilize the concept of grace. Grace mixed in any of these models will change their conclusions had grace not been applied. I suppose that means that I really don’t care too much which model is ultimately favored. What I do care about is the faithful, liberal (with no political or secular bias intended) application of grace. I’m willing to bet that whatever a person’s inclinations (sentimentalist, relativist, rationalist), a well-constructed (I dare say Biblical) notion of grace will provide the necessary corrective to any of these models’ shortcomings.

      Indeed, we are about to learn “with a vengeance” the challenges of a declining civil order. And we have a corresponding opportunity to reflect the standard of grace in a world that desperately needs to see it at work. To the extent that this is actually applied in the discourse of our denominational life is unclear. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the ultimate rule of our Discipline, the rule of grace, has been completely ignored at times. I say that from first hand experience. From my meager point of view, all I know is that when the Discipline’s rules are followed merely for the sake of the Discipline (without the application of grace), then we are reduced to another set of rules. We are better than that. (And I say that with no particular bias for or against the particulars of the recent trial.)

      • Apparently, my own bias wasn’t very clear at all — I now have folks indicating that I have favored each of the three above the other two… My points were/are: 1) that I remember three distinctive methods of moral reasoning; 2) each has merit, but 3) each is inadeqaute to cover every situation, yet, 4) people tend to operate from one prevailing perspective, and 5) thankfully we operate in community where we have a fighting chance of blending the best each has to offer if we can only learn not to dognatically presume that one (our own?) is superior to the others.

  2. This comment may be way out of line and off subject, but I just find the Book of Discipline getting thicker making us about ‘following rules’ and the literal interpretations of a 2000+ book (the Bible) way out of line with God’s edict to love one another. (Except those, of course, that we find too different or threatening from us.) If we can begin to at least try to love one another and understand that it does not mean we have to agree with them then we might have made a start.

  3. Trial? I thought he was talking about distribution of local church property.
    Trial? I thought he was talking about representation of the homebound in church local conference.
    Trial? I thought he was talking about closing churches.
    Trial? …
    I think the problem is not any one particular issue, or which approach is better, but to recognize that there are valid differences.

    We believe God defines law and sin. We believe God transmits the definition to us through people. We believe all people are fundamentally unique, flawed, or sinful. We believe God changes the definitions for different people and different times. We believe God leads His people through change toward perfection in the New Kingdom.

    If the Body of Christ is assembled from disciples with different gifts, then they will necessarily have differing perspectives and understanding. When the Body is led, the disciples will not move at exactly the same time, rate, or direction. Shear and conflict results. This is by design.

    Maybe our task is not to find the right answer, but to learn how to resolve toward God’s destination.


  4. What does grace make us choose between moral rationalism, sentimentalism, and relativism? It seems to me like the whole point of grace is to make me sympathetic to other peoples’ mitigating circumstances when they do something that impinges upon my rights. There are so many passages at the close of the Pauline epistles in which Paul exhorts the readers to cut each other some slack and stop arguing and judging. I think these passages often get skipped over because they’re seen as lacking theological meat. I’m not interested in exacting recompense from others for their wrongdoing. I’d much rather see them live according to the purpose for which they were created. Shalom rather than mishpat.

  5. Putting perfume on a pig won’t make the pig smell any better. I enjoyed “Boston Legal” while knowing that its constant resort to jury nullification would get the attorneys disbarred in short order in the real world. But, I recognize the difference between fantasy on television and real life.

    For all of the talk about “love on trial,” Rev. DeLong chose to obfuscate rather than answer the direct questions. Unfortunately, Beth Stroud possessed infinitely more integrity than Rev. DeLong does. The “reward” for that is that Beth Stroud isn’t an elder any more while Rev. DeLong stays as a member and only has to write a paper. This is a farce.

    We can have varying views about whether the gay clergy who have been allowed to be ordained over the years should stay in a guaranteed appointment system with retirement pensions and health benefits despite being in clear violation of the Discipline. But, we should be able to agree that the law matters and that the law should be obeyed. Civil disobedience doesn’t mean that you escape penalty because you have “a good reason.” It means that you are willing to risk what is precious to you for a principle knowing that you may lose something precious to you. The trial court instead overturned all of that and decided on a near-meaningless penalty because they do not believe in accountability. That cannot be defended and will result in successful petitions to amend the Discipline to provide for mandatory penalties for chargeable offenses.

  6. Whether or not you’re remembering the terms accurately, I am wary of naming them “rationalism” vs. “sentimentalism” vs. “relativism.” Sentimentalism and relativism both have rather negative connotations in a way I don’t think rationalism has (for most people). I’d definitely replace relativism with pragmatism, and I think sentimentalism would be better put as empathy or contextualism. Then, there are three relatively neutral terms in play. I think a moral rationalist came up with those first names!

    Dungeons and Dragons has an interesting system of morality with two axes: good-evil and law-chaos. This allows for nine potential alignments, when neutral is included; so someone might be lawful evil, neutral good, or chaotic neutral, etc.

    • Unfortunately, the trial court has put themselves into “chaotic neutral.” Do whatever you want.

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