What a society counts as moral or immoral is subject to the particular zeitgeist—the spirit of the times. “At the time of the slave trade, for example, most people who were slave owners thought it was moral. Even a few blacks, once they were freed, had slaves,” explains Sharon Welch, Professor of Religious Studies. As a social ethicist, Welch researches not just the way individuals make moral choices, but how a whole society begins to decide “what counts as moral.” To that effect, all of her projects coalesce around such issues of social morality.
Regarding her book After Empire (2004), Welch says: “One of the things I’ve always been very interested in is the ethics of peace and war and the kind of debate that is going on now about whether the United States should take on proudly and without hesitation the mantle of empire.” Examining both sides of the issue Welch notes that “every empire becomes one of domination and coercion. And a basic lesson of history is that people don’t like to be dominated, and they’re going to resist. There’s a cost to empire. There’s a cost not just to the people who are controlled, but there’s a cost to us who are the empire.” Hence, it is crucial at this uncertain historical juncture that “rather than use our power to be an empire, we use our power to put in place a kind of world order that we would like to see when we’re no longer the dominant political power, bringing the rule of law to the international sphere” between nations.
Humanities-related research involves studying the work of other scholars (e.g., philosophy and comparative religious ethics) and then synthesizing those ideas. For example, Welch has taken up the challenge to dominant ethics by Native American and Engaged Buddhist philosophers. Using certain techniques like interactive theatre in the classroom, she is applying qualitative measures to determine the effect of these pedagogical techniques. So far she has learned that these interactive theatre experiences can really change the way many students see the world around them.