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.
In After Empire Welch offers practical suggestions for moving toward an international rule of law: “A lot of people are opposed to war, but really don’t know what the alternatives are. They don’t know that there are millions of people all over the world trying to put in place those alternatives.” She speaks especially about one group of which she is a part, Global Action to Prevent War, an international consortium of NGOs and peace studies programs in over thirty countries. Having worked with the coalition that established the International Criminal Court, they are now working on the formation of a United Nations emergency peace service. Although Welch describes many “little successes,” they are not given much attention in the crisis-driven media. “We don’t really have a cultural script for the little successes,” she observes. “It’s not as glamorous to prevent a war. And how do you know you’ve prevented it? Maybe it wouldn’t have happened anyway.” Moreover, while war may be averted, racial and economic problems still remain: “With war, there’s a least the illusion of a definite end—one side surrenders,” whereas, with peaceful solutions “there’s no defined end; the struggles are ongoing.”