Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Critical Variables in Moral Discernment

 I promised an April series on the morality of abolishing the death penalty.  I intend to follow through with that promise.  But I have noticed in comments from our various discussions a need to discuss more the way in which people make moral judgments or come to moral convictions.  Below you will see what I can reproduce of a chart first created by my teacher, Glen H. Stassen.  The full chart should have arrows from each box toward every other box (because every dimension influences the others), an arro w from the whole chart sticking out to the right showing the particular moral decision or conviction or conclusion, and a “feedback loop” of an arrow from that particular outcome back into the whole process, again.  I will discuss each element of each dimension in a series of posts.

Perception:  Way of Seeing

Authority: Locus, Degree


Threat: Nature, Degree


Social Change:  Acceptable or not; speed; acceptable allies; method(s)



Integrity of Information:  Open or not; manipulative or not




Style of  Reasoning


Utilitarian or Deontological


Virtues, Practices,  Rules

Loyalties, Interests, Passions

Friends, Mentors, Models




Community Loyalties


Ultimate Loyalty




Basic Convictions


God and Human Nature


Justification & Sanctification

(Forgiveness & Discipleship)


Love and Justice


Mission of the Church in the World


Now, each of the four large boxes are  key dimensions in the formation of moral character and the making of moral judgements.  The top left box relates to moral perception: the elements in that box are the  critical variables that shape how we perceive the moral world.  The top right box relates to the mode or style of moral reasoning. In many ethics textbooks or discussions, this is the only dimension covered. But humans are more than cold intellects and more goes into our moral character and judgments than just our style of reasoning.

The bottom left box details our loyalties, interests, and passions.  These affect our moral character and judgment far more than most of us believe.  Take, as an example, the debate over abortion.  People do not just follow logical reasoning processes.  One has a commitment to a child with severe handicaps and sees any abortion based on fetal defects detected prenatally as an attack on the worth of that child (and on their care and loyalty).  Another has a sister who was raped and chose a “morning after” emergency contraception and reacts to any bill that would make abortions harder for rape or incest victims as an attack on his sister’s mental, physical, and spiritual health.  (One reason I have had a harder time with the issue of abortion than other  issuess is that I have complex loyalties on both “sides” of the debate.)  Notice that this is not mechanical: Not everyone loyal to a rape victim or a child with physical handicaps automatically comes out in the same place on abortion, for instance.  But to deny that these loyalties, interests, and passions influence our moral judgments is to deny reality.

Finally, the bottom right box depicts the critical variables among our basic convictions or our “ground of meaning beliefs,” those things that we do not usually argue for, but argue  FROM.  Now, in this chart the critical variables are labelled for believing Christians.  But if one holds to another faith or to a non-theistic moral philosophy there are analogous convictions that shape your basic moral character, too–and I will try to show that as we wade through this series.

Now, while walking us through this diagram, step-by-step, I may use particular moral debates as illustrations, as I already did with abortion and loyalties.  During this series, that’s all these are: illustrations.  Please do not attempt to sidetrack discussion in the comments to a debate over those particular moral issues.  That needs to be saved for another time.  This discussion is about understanding better how we live and think morally and why we not only disagree, but often seem to talk past each other on particular moral debates.  Feel free to use your own illustrations or refer to mine in discussion, but let’s keep the focus on this question, okay?

Now, why are these elements called “critical variables.”  A variable is an element that if modified or changed affects the outcome.  Think of x or y in an algebra problem: change the value of x or y and you change the outcome.  So, for instance, we have far more basic convictions or “ground of meaning” beliefs than the ones listed (even for Christians). But these are the ones that Stassen, in investigating the massive literature, found were critical, i.e. changes in them led to greatly different outcomes.

I have found this chart to be a very useful tool in analyzing not only my own moral beliefs, discernments, changes, but also those of others.  When I listen to a sermon on a moral topic (e.g., war) or read an op-ed on a matter of public moral debate (e.g., immigration), I ask myself  questions like “What kind of moral reasoning is the author using? Deontological or utilitarian?  Or is the author arguing for a particular group to engage in particular practices that  form particular virtues and, if so, why these and not others?  Is the author arguing on a rules level or principles level, etc? What interests or loyalties are discernable (or do I know based on other information about the author)? Where is the threat as this author perceives it?

This is a deeper analysis than just asking, Did the author make a logical error (although that is not unimportant)? And, yes, sometimes it is easier to see these things in others than in oneself. I  have had others point out to me how a particular variable was affecting my views  on a particular moral issue in ways I had not seen.  Sometimes, that leads to rethinking and, maybe, changed views.

I hope this series will prove useful.  Next time we will begin with the bottom right box: the basic convictions dimension.  (I start here because, in the classroom, I found that beginning anywhere else is not helpful. The class keeps wanting to discuss  this box first.)

Note: When finished, this series will be indexed and filed under the popular  series page, as will the series on the death penalty which follows it. If you are a new reader to this blog, I encourage you to peruse that page for interesting past discussions.

April 13, 2009 - Posted by | ethics, moral discernment, theology


  1. OK, I’ll bite – to the ultimate detriment of getting the laundry done… .

    The critical variable that interests me is loyalty. How often does loyalty to the things of man simply trump all? In its positive form, loyalty (dox) might be an expression of love, kindness or faithfulness; on the negative side, it’s partiality that either hopes to gain favor, avoid disfavor, or protect “the tribe” at all costs (church, convention, denomination, heritage, political party, family, socio-economic group, profession, etc.). It’s the latter — the sin of partiality — that we rarely acknowledge.

    Comment by K Gray | April 13, 2009

  2. K., I am starting with the convictions box, but I will address those questions head on when I get to that box.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 13, 2009

  3. […] and Moral Discernment, 1 Recall the chart of 4 dimensions in moral discernment:  https://levellers.wordpress.com/2009/04/13/critical-variables-in-moral-discernment/  We begin with the lower-right hand […]

    Pingback by Convictions and Moral Discernment, 1 « Levellers | April 15, 2009

  4. […] the chart of 4 dimensions in moral discernment:  https://levellers.wordpress.com/2009/04/13/critical-variables-in-moral-discernment/  We begin with the lower-right hand […]

    Pingback by Convictions and Moral Discernment, 1 | texas secession | April 16, 2009

  5. […] and Moral Discernment 2 Continuing our series begun here  and here on moral discernment.  The second pair of “critical variables” in the […]

    Pingback by Convictions and Moral Discernment 2 « Levellers | April 17, 2009

  6. […] and Moral Discernment 3 We began this series here discussing critical variables in moral discernment, using an interpretive model with 4 dimensions […]

    Pingback by Convictions and Moral Discernment 3 « Levellers | April 21, 2009

  7. […] and Moral Discernment We have been discussing the dimensions of moral discernment, using the 4-dimensional diagnostic tool designed by Christian ethicists Glen Stassen.  Moving clockwise from the lower right, we have […]

    Pingback by Perception and Moral Discernment « Levellers | April 26, 2009

  8. […] Moral Reasoning/Modes of Moral Discourse With this post, we come to the final dimension of the 4-dimensions of moral discernment, according to Glen Stassen, Christian ethicist and my mentor.  Although this series has not proved […]

    Pingback by Styles of Moral Reasoning/Modes of Moral Discourse « Levellers | April 26, 2009

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