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.
“One of the most dangerous stories that as Euro-Americans we tell ourselves is that we can defeat evil,” Welch explains. “Whether we think we defeat it through violence, or persuasion, or coercion, the notion of defeating evil is often the cause of some of the greatest evil.” This becomes most obvious in the case of war, “where in order to defeat the enemy we become the enemy. In order to stand up to torture, we ourselves become torturers. To protect the rule of law, we give up the rule of law.” Welch contends that “a great deal of evil is done by people who are just doing their jobs, being efficient, following orders.” The Holocaust is a painful example of this syndrome. Welch seeks a way for our culture to break through this moral disengagement, observing: “It’s really easy to see someone else doing it, but much harder to see it when we are the ones doing it. How do we begin to see through the rhetoric that justifies evil—the euphemistic language, the demonizing, and the dehumanizing that goes on?”
The real challenge for Welch is how “to help people see that they too can be the agent of evil.” Given that most of our stories involve “good guys versus bad guys,” those are the cultural scripts we are given. Taking some ideas from Theophus Smith’s Conjuring Culture (1995), Welch argues that “it’s not just a simple divide of oppressor/oppressed.” While clearly there is blatant oppression, sometimes excessive shaming occurs—“the people who have been oppressive need to be shamed, need to be called to account,” yet, “there’s no way all that suffering is going to be redeemed.” When a single event or person becomes a scapegoat for all the suffering groups of people have experienced historically, “it becomes a way of driving a deeper and deeper wedge.” The goal is to find a way of balancing accountability without demonizing the oppressor.