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.