The Gospel And Moral Foundations Theory

The Gospel And Moral Foundations Theory August 25, 2014

Moral Foundations Theory is an effort by several psychologists, the most famous of whom being Jonathan Haidt, to map out the common grammar of human morality, and I find it very interesting, and it also helps enlighten many debates. (So does my Patheos colleague Leah Libresco.)

According to Moral Foundations Theory, there are five major moral categories from which groups and individuals build stories and narratives that, in turn, give flesh to their moral perspective. Those categories are: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation. Because some of us are more attuned to some of these foundations than others, we have different moral perspectives.

I find this quite consonant with Christian ethics. It wouldn’t be hard to go through the Bible and, at various points, to view each category emphasized. One way to approach it from a Christian ethics perspective is to view it through a kind of Platonic lens, whereby the absolute Good, God revealed in Jesus Christ, is present to us in the Spirit, but each of us has moral “perceptors” tuned differently, so that the Gospel resonates more strongly along some axes for some than for others. And this, in turn, would be why we have such radically dissonant perspectives on the Gospel.

For example, to paint with a very broad brush, you have “social justice” Christians for whom the care/harm dimension of the Gospel resonate very strongly and who then tend to view non-social-justice-oriented Christian behavior as, take your pick, pharisaical, tepid, or borderline apostasy. Conversely, you have your “traditionalist” Christians for whom the authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation dimensions resonate very powerfully and therefore see the “social justice” folks as missing the point entirely.

The point here is neither to say that someone’s right and someone’s wrong nor to put forth a kind of moral relativism, but rather to, beyond providing food for thought, perhaps to call for greater mindfulness of the metanarratives we bring to various moral and ethical discussions, even within the Christian family.


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