Understanding theological ethics and their intersection with history, moral psychology and sociology – Fellows’ seminar by Arne Rasmusson

5 June 2019

“There is a long-standing debate in theological ethics (as well as in moral philosophy) between, on the one hand, theories that see ethics as a form of decision theory that can overcome the contingency and arbitrariness of the human body (emotions and intuitions) and the socio-historical context, and, on the other hand, understandings that see ethics as an embodied practice embedded in traditions, narratives, social practices, institutions, and concerned with moral formation. In this project I will develop the second approach with the help of empirical studies in moral psychology and sociology, focusing on the Christian tradition,” said STIAS Fellow Arne Rasmusson of the Department of Literature, History of Ideas, and Religion at Gothenburg University.

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STIAS fellow Arne Rasmusson during his seminar on 30 May 2019

“I am exploring the resources of moral psychology and sociology (and cognate disciplines) for better understanding the embodied and social nature of ethical reasoning and formation. As a theologian, my focus is on the Christian tradition.”

“The moral development literature is impoverished,” he added. “And there has been a lack of research on many of these issues in Africa.”

In a two-part presentation, Rasmusson first sketched a theoretical framework using theological and moral psychological tools: discussing the interaction of cognition and affections, the role of moral ‘exemplars’ and moral communities, and how institutions and practices shape moral life. In the second half, he used this framework to discuss contemporary and historical cases in the Christian tradition of everyday morality, ‘extraordinary’ examples of morality, and situations of ‘radical’ moral change. He showed the importance of ecclesial structures, institutions and practices, and outlined an alternative narrative of how the modern world emerged.

“A narrative that has been around for more than a century, but never really developed,” he said.

He began by explaining the concept of moral psychology.

“Moral psychology has changed a lot in recent decades,” he said. “It was previously very much based around behavioural and cognitive moral-development theories.

“Moral psychology helps us to understand the psychological and micro-social processes behind moral reasoning and formation. At the same time, sociology helps us to better describe the institutional and structural context of these processes.”

“As humans we constantly attune ourselves to a changing moral situation,” he continued. “The affective system is an integral part of our cognitive, evaluative and decisional capacities. Even a well-reasoned argument is not good in isolation.”

“Knowledge is not strongly motivating. Even when we know what we should do, we don’t necessarily do it,” he added. “Even teaching theoretical ethics does not make the teachers more moral – they may even use their knowledge of ethical theory to rationalise their behaviours.”

He pointed to the importance of culture, institutionalisation and co-operation in moral reasoning.

“People are social beings,” he said, “dependent on cooperation, but also at risk for group thinking and confirmatory bias. Even an individual’s belief doesn’t have the same impact as co-operative friendships in the church setting. Being part of a structure immersed in shared practices (like Eucharist, baptism, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, meeting the stranger) is extremely important.”

“Within these free, safe spaces people, over time, may develop different practices with the moral and social support of the group.”

“Moral leaders or ‘exemplars’ are usually part of strong communities and their strongest characteristics usually include humility, gratitude, forgiveness, humour and realistic hope.”

Rasmusson then went on to outline his theory about the role of religious ethics in the development of major historical movements like abolitionism, democracy and feminism.

“There are a wealth of studies investigating the role of religion for, say, democracy, social trust, economic development, or attitudes towards immigrants. They tend to show that different moral practices in part depend on the specific nature of religious institutions and practices.”

“The non-conformist, dissident, independent churches which emerged in England from the 1600s were independent from the state and therefore begun to create an independent civil society, sometimes had female preachers and argued for religious freedom, fostering some of the early ideas and practices of democracy. Similarly in America, where it was the Baptists and Quakers who ensured that religious freedom was included in the Constitution.”

“Even in my own country – Sweden – the first Baptist Church was formed in 1848 in which males and females had equal voting rights.”

“The Quakers, Evangelical Anglicans and Methodists were a main driving force behind the anti-slavery movement. It was the same in North America. Abolitionism had much of its driving force and social base among Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists and New Divinity Presbyterians. They also established colleges where males and females, African-Americans and whites studied together and were very socially progressive.”

“Many of the well-known leaders of the early women’s movement in the US came from the same background. The same was true in countries like New Zealand (the first country with women’s suffrage), Finland (first in Europe), or my own Sweden. Organisations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union played a crucial role. The social and moral capital learned in the churches became important for their work in the women’s movement. Many used Bible arguments to promote women’s equality.”

“Later many of the American civil rights leaders were also church leaders from similar traditions.”

“If you look at South Africa – some of the early ANC leadership – like Dube, Luthuli, Mandela – were shaped in the same type of church traditions, in these cases Congregationalism and Methodism.”

“These individuals arose from so-called activist, non-conformist religions which initially involved small minorities without political power. But the ideas, habits and practices moved into social and political life spreading across the world.”

“Christianity was originally a fringe religion – especially supported by women, slaves, etc. so it makes sense that these ideas grew with the religion,” he added.

But he warned it can also work the opposite way where moral arguments are used to espouse exclusion from religious and then other institutions. “To some extent Apartheid was created by white Christians – who argued that the ’weakness’ of white people’s faith meant that they couldn’t sit at the same Eucharist table as their black brothers and sisters, turning an argument from the Apostle Paul upside-down Later on, when this practice was established, it was not seen as temporary anymore, but the separation of races was said to be built into the creation.”

Rasmusson believes that this theme of the role of theological ethics in the development of social and political ideas has not been developed systematically.

“My study aims to use empirical studies to develop a more realistic account of theological ethics,” he explained. “I’m also asking: Does it change anything? Does it change the narrative of history?”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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