The Moral Divide

The Moral Divide November 28, 2016

The recent election should help clarify what is (or should be) immediately obvious in inter-religious dialogue. There exist between and within religions substantially different moral frameworks.

I don’t mean by a moral framework simply different relative moral values. Most religions share relatively common sets of moral values. The weight given to these values determines one’s priorities and hence actions. So, for example, in much of the West the  individual self-determination and fulfillment is highly valued, as is the normalization of the wide varieties of ways of living to which the prioritizing this value leads. But in other societies the success of the family or clan may be more highly valued, leading individuals to give up a measure of self-determination and fulfillment for the sake of their siblings, or family wealth, or honor. Neither Western individualists nor non-Western collectivists deny the value of collectivism and individualism. But they value them differently.

Another example. In the modern West the value of having progeny relative to other values is clearly declining, with declining birth rates being the proof. Substantial numbers of people are happy to have no children at all. Similarly in the West the value of religion is in steep decline. However, in Islam progeny and the protection of progeny, as well as religion, are two of the five values that are the paramount interest of God and God’s law. (The intellect, private property, and life are the other three.) Its rather obvious that even with shared values there are very different moral frameworks.

But moral frameworks don’t consist of just values and the weight given them. They are also built on certain assumptions about the the human person, other creatures, and the greater natural world. For example, some will assume that there is a sharp distinction between humans and all other living creatures. Others will assume that they are basically a continuum and that the ethics of what can and cannot be killed for food will involve making decisions about where a creature lies on that continuum, or even denying that anything on that continuum can be killed for food. Some will assume that human actions on the material world are morally neutral so long as they don’t impact other humans. Others assume that the material world itself has moral value and thus some of its characteristics (forests, mountains, rivers, beautiful views, and so on) should be protected against human spoilage.

Finally, some moral frameworks involve prohibitions and demands, some of which may be absolute. And this is critical: when a prohibition or demand is absolute it cannot be weighed along a scale of values. There are no circumstances, no counter-balancing values, that change it. In Islam, for example, the prohibition on adultery is absolute. There are no counterbalancing values that would justify it. The same is true of the prohibition of idolatry or polytheism. In the Jain religion there is a prohibition against killing any sentient being, including insects. Just because people do it doesn’t mean it isn’t wrong, and the truly righteous simply never kill anything. In Hinduism marrying across caste lines has long been an absolute moral prohibition, and those who do so are cast out of the community. And Orthodox Judaism likewise, for all its incredible flexibility in interpreting the Torah, recognizes moral absolutes the denial of which places one outside the community.

What about Christianity? Well here we have something interesting. Since the advent of modernity some Christian moral frameworks have increasingly consisted of only moral values and moral assumptions, not absolute prohibitions and demands. And this makes sense. Theological liberalism begins with the idea that the human interpreter always stands between the transcendent source of moral prohibitions and demands and human society. We cannot know the mind of God, only what humans believe about the mind of God. And on that basis we can hardly assert absolute prohibitions and demands. We can only hope to identify moral values based on an interpretation of those prohibitions and demands found in scripture. We can raise those values to the status of absolute values, but they will never have the same role in the moral framework as absolute prohibitions and demands.

There is a significant difference between moral frameworks that have absolute prohibitions and demands and those that do not. This helps explain why it is that progressive Christians who otherwise are very attracted to Pope Francis cannot understand his stance on matters like abortion and gay marriage. Surely he should recognize that values like the freedom to choose how to care for one’s own body or to fully express one’s sexuality and thus authentic self are important. Right? But if, as the church teaches, abortion is an absolute evil, and thus absolutely prohibited, and marriage is absolutely and only between a man and a woman then these other values don’t even come into play. We are no longer discussing the relative weight of competing moral values. We are discussion what is always right and what is always wrong based on divine command.

And this is the hard edge of all ecumenical and inter-religious discourse; the difference between moral frameworks that consist of values and assumptions, and moral frameworks that consist of values, assumptions, and absolute prohibitions and demands. Recognizing that difference will not resolve our disagreements, but it might at least lead us to greater mutual understanding.


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