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.
“What I’m really interested in is called social ethics,” Welch explains. What a society counts as moral or immoral is subject to the particular _zeitgeist_—the spirit of the times. For example, at the time of the slave trade, “most people who were slave owners thought it was moral. Even a few blacks, once they were freed, had slaves.” As a social ethicist, Welch has been trying to understand not just the way individuals make moral choices but how a whole society begins to decide “what counts as moral.”
Welch has been working for the past six years with Suzanne Burgoyne of MU’s theatre department to employ an interactive theatre technique in classrooms and workshops that teaches conflict resolution skills. This research and pedagogical approach is on-going. Recently it morphed into something called the Difficult Dialogues Project—an interdisciplinary initiative involving MU and 42 other institutions to address the threats to academic freedom at the university. The project is designed “to empower students to express opposing views respectfully and in the spirit of open-mindedness.”
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.