Perception 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 discussed the way basic convictions (or “ground of meaning beliefs”) shape our moral judgments and then the way our varied loyalties, interests, and passions also shape our moral discernment. We now come to the upper left-hand box in our 4-dimensional diagram, the dimension of Perception, that is, how we see our moral environment, and the moral “issues” or decisions or problems or judgments that we encounter. This dimension of perception is another part of ancient ethics that was lost for awhile with Western ethics concentration on disembodied moral reasoning, but is being rediscovered in both moral philosophy (philosophical ethics) and moral theology (theological ethics). See, e.g., Stanley Hauerwas, Vision and Virtue (1981); Judith A. Dwyer, Vision and Values: Ethical Viewpoints in the Catholic Tradition (1999); David McNaughton, Moral Vision: An Introduction to Ethics (1991); Duane L. Cady, Moral Vision: How Everyday Life Shapes Ethical Thinking (2005).
Once again, Stassen identifies several critical variables that shape our moral perception. One is authority. There are authorities in every life. In logic arguments from authority are considered weak arguments. But no one can master every field of information. We all take some things “on authority.” If we identify the locus of authority for persons (religious leaders, government officials, parents, teachers, respected elders, etc.) we know a key factor in how people perceive the moral world around them. But in addition to the locus of moral authority(ies), we also need to pay attention to the nature and degree of a particular authority, asking “What kind of authority is it?” and “How much authority does it have?” My own commitments in politics are to rest authority with the people through elected representatives with lots of checks and balances, critical inquiries by a vigilant free press and answerable directly to the people. (Yes, this is an ideal rather than current reality. One works to make reality closer to the ideal.) In religion, my Free Church commitments are similarly to non-heirarchical authorities, answerable to the gathered community and the whole people of God. For Christians, Scripture is also an authority: For Eastern Orthodox Christians, Scripture is embedded in the liturgies and writings of the early Church Fathers. For Roman Catholics, Scripture and Church Tradition form parallel strands of equal authority mediated by the Magisterium and the unique institution of the Pope who, when certain conditions are met, is believed to give infallible doctrinal and moral teaching. (There is a whole discussion of ordinary and extraordinary papal tradition that goes well beyond our purposes here. See what you learn when you’re a Protestant who gets the chance to teach at Catholic universities?) For Protestants, Scripture alone is to be the final authority in matters of faith and practice, but there is wide divergence in approach to interpretation.
For persons of other faiths or persons who have no religious faith (atheists, agnostics, etc.) there are also moral authorities. Identifying their locus, nature, and degree is just as critical in understanding their moral perception.
Another critical variable in moral discernment is identifying the moral or existential threat, including both its nature and degree. For example, in discussing stem cell research through the destruction of human embryos, some find the threat to be to the sacredness of human life while others see the threat in terms of the genetic diseases that could be cured if such research is allowed. (Notice how we are back with different convictions about the nature of human beings. Each dimension of moral discernment influences the others. This cannot be emphasized too much.)
In the debate over torture (and I have to write a post showing why even having a debate over torture is already a sign of moral confusion and decay that didn’t exist even in America even a few years ago) some see the threat of terrorism as justifying torture. Others, such as myself, see torture as a threat to both the dignity and well-being of the tortured, to the torturer, and to the moral fabric of the society which allows it.
Another critical variable is social change. Is any social change acceptable? If it is, what speed or rate of change is acceptable? What allies are acceptable in working for change? What method or methods are acceptable?
During the civil rights era, the influential Christian ethicist Paul Ramsey was conflicted, not because he was racist (far from it), but because he had a strong sense of order. Ramsey supported the work of the NAACP which tended to work for change through the courts. The nonviolent movement led by such organizations as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee struck Ramsey as “chaos in the streets.” The threat of such rapid and “undisciplined” social change was greater for Ramsey than the threat of segregation or the slower disappearance of segregation.
The final variable in the perception dimension is the integrity of information. Is the moral agent (or community) open to new information or not? Does the agent manipulate information to fit a predetermined answer or does the agent allow new information to lead to new perspectives? How does the agent handle information which contradicts previously held views? This is not to say that one surrenders convictions easily (that’s what makes them convictions, rather than opinions), but one wants to make discernment based on accurate information, not innacurate or manipulated information.
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