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.
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.”
One of Welch’s projects involves the Center for Religion, the Professions, and the Public: “As the professions become aware of the different religious traditions with which people work, it raises questions about what constitutes ethical behavior. People have different meanings of what counts as ethical. How do we learn to adjudicate these in a better way?” CRPP’s ethics consortium brings people from multiple disciplines together to look at deep ethical issues. Another project with which Welch is active is MU’s Difficult Dialogues Project, a collaborative initiative that joins the forces of various administrative, faculty, and student groups. Using interactive theater, the project aims to address difficult multicultural issues in “an environment in which differing views are defended, heard, and considered by those who hold conflicting ideas and values across cultures.”