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.
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.”
“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?”