Reflections on Moral Disagreement

Reflections on Moral Disagreement

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Keith Leong completed his Master of Studies in Science and Religion at the University of Oxford recently. He is a member of St Andrew’s Cathedral.




13 November 2016

Reflections on Moral Disagreement

It is a common experience for us to disagree with others, including Christian others, on any number of things; the best driving route to take, the safest way to handle a dangerous situation, the healthiest things to eat, the most loving methods of raising a child, and so on.

In the case of factual, or descriptive disagreement, because we are not omniscient, our opinions on certain matters and on the outcome of certain unpredictable events will very regularly rely on a mishmash of anecdotal evidence, advice from friends and family, and other miscellaneous sources of information that we can retrieve from memory.

Therefore, while many of us are willing, at times, to accept the limitations of our knowledge and predictive capacities concerning factual matters and events, especially after we’ve been proven wrong time and time again, we are far less willing – and rightly so – to alter our moral beliefs, especially those that directly connect with what we perceive to be the pronouncements of our faith.

Consequently, when moral disagreement (which has the potential to become far more emotionally charged and relationally destructive than descriptive disagreement) abounds among Christians, it is common for an escalation to name-calling and faith shaming [1] to occur because each side likely perceives their interlocutor to be morally deficient in some way and therefore deserving of admonition and sometimes even condemnation (as a side note, an example of the power of a few harsh words can be found in the events narrated in I Kings 11:41-12:24; see also Proverbs 15:1).

There is no doubt that genuine moral disagreement can occur, in which one party really is deserving of moral condemnation of their position. However, this article wishes to explore how a reflection on the distinction between descriptive and normative disagreement may aid Christians in seeing that we may not necessarily disagree with each other on moral matters as much as we think we do. It is hoped that by reflecting on this distinction, conciliatory attitudes and constructive dialogue among Christians who otherwise disagree may be better occasioned (for the value of Christian unity, see John 17:20-26).

The distinction between descriptive and normative disagreement may be best understood with an illustration: Suppose you are walking on a street and happen to see someone happily punching someone else in the stomach who is clearly hurt by it. Your first reaction would be to think this someone is committing a morally reprehensible act of violence toward an innocent other. But upon further inquiry you realise that in fact the puncher and punchee are friends, and that the latter suffers from a debilitating stomach condition that requires strong force to be applied to it regularly to prevent further crippling pain.

So, what on the surface seems like a moral, or normative “disagreement” between you and the puncher, is in fact little more than a misunderstanding concerning the factual, or descriptive (albeit unlikely) state of affairs between the punchee and puncher.

In this case, both you and the puncher are committed to the moral belief that reducing the suffering of a friend is a good thing. However, you were unable to notice this shared commitment because you did not, from the beginning, have access to the relevant facts. These facts, in turn, enable you to no longer believe that the puncher is morally deficient (based on the available evidence) and deserving of condemnation.

Can we also say the same thing about moral disagreement among Christians, that is, that some of them may stem from descriptive rather than normative differences? I think so.

Just as in the above example, we can imagine how different descriptive theological commitments can lead Christians who possess similar moral beliefs about justice, love, forgiveness, the sanctity of life, sin, and obedience to God to disagree on how actions concerning them should be discerned and expressed in particular cases.

To illustrate this, a hypothetical example of three Christians’ personal views on contraception based on their theories of morality can be offered:

1. Ken adheres to a Natural Law understanding of morality, a historic Roman Catholic belief, one that has been rather dominant in the history of Christianity, wherein God has imbued nature with purposes that one is morally inclined to obey. He therefore believes that certain kinds of contraceptive methods are morally forbidden since it prevents insemination from naturally occurring during intercourse. (see Genesis 1:11, 22, 27-28; Romans 1:20, 2:14-16)

2. Judy adheres to a Divine Command understanding of morality, supported by several theologians and Fathers of the Church, but perhaps known to be advocated by Karl Barth, whereby morality consists primarily in obeying God’s commands as narrated in the scriptures. She therefore believes that, since no explicit injunction has been made against modern contraceptive methods – barring a dubious interpretive extrapolation from Genesis 38:8-10 – some of these methods are not prohibited. (see Psalm 25:8)

3. Ariel adheres to the virtue ethical model of morality, adapted by several theologians following its revival by Elizabeth Anscombe’s seminal 1958 paper, which proposes that morality does not primarily consist of universally applicable injunctions to be adhered to or considerations of their utilitarian consequences, but to the development of character out of which moral actions flow. She therefore believes that it is primarily the intention, or motive behind using or not using contraception specific to each individual and circumstance that makes the action moral or immoral. (see I Chronicles 29:17; Luke 21:1-4; Galatians 5:13-26; Philippians 4:8-9)            

(The above theories of morality are far more diverse and complex, and there are versions that overlap with each other; but, for the sake of illustration, let’s assume that they’re simple and discrete. In fact, this assumption may not be far-fetched since, apart from a handful of academic philosophers and theologians who are paid to think very deeply about these things, much of our ideas about morality tend toward simplicity and discrete-ness especially when they are tied to considerations of timely action)   

As the illustration has hoped to show, Ken, Judy and Ariel are all committed to right and wrong as stipulated by their shared faith, but differ descriptively in their approaches to understanding how this right and wrong can in fact be discerned and acted upon. However, because their underlying factual commitments, (based, possibly on the theological traditions they were enculturated into when they came to faith) may not be as visible as their moral opinions on the matter, especially if, from the beginning, they refuse to communicate openly and respectfully to each other, their disagreement may lead them to each to assume that the others are morally suspect and therefore deficient in the faith.

This example may be a little too abstract. A more concrete example could involve two Christian parents, Susie and Tom, and their disagreement over corporal punishment of their children. Susie, having been caned as a child herself, is a strong advocate of corporal punishment since she believes that modern parenting methods are too lenient and will only produce lazy and rebellious children. Her plain reading of Proverbs 13:24, “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them,” (NIV 2011; see also Proverbs 23:13-14; 29:15) only strengthens her view on the matter.[2]

Tom was not caned as a child. His parents provided discipline but the punishments were never physical in nature and he felt that he had turned out just fine. When looking at the same passage, he cannot help but notice that the word “rod” is referred to in other parts of the Bible as the tool of a shepherd who uses it to gently guide his sheep (see also Psalm 23:4). He concludes therefore that the call to not spare the rod isn’t necessarily an injunction to beat a child with it. This strengthens his view that talk of godly discipline in his faith commends firm guidance and sometimes harsh admonition, but not corporal punishment.  

As we can see, Susie and Tom are both committed to raising their children in godly ways, but differ descriptively about what their faith commends them to do. A level-headed discussion between them about the relative merits of their theological interpretation of scripture and personal experience, without resorting to name-calling and faith shaming, will aid with conflict resolution.

Therefore, it seems that paying attention to the distinction between normative and descriptive disagreement can go some way in letting us see that those who disagree with us may not necessarily be morally deficient, but could simply hold alternative descriptive commitments concerning certain states of affairs, which a level-headed discussion would help to bring out.[3]

But there are limits to this distinction. As mentioned, there has been and will be cases of genuine moral disagreement which cannot be placed under the purview of this distinction, wherein one party is indeed justified in morally condemning the other. The historic use of the Bible to justify slavery, is one example. Passages of scripture commonly used selectively as justification include the stipulations of the treatment of slaves in the Pentateuch, the dubious identification of the African race with the descendants of Ham, Noah’s cursed son, which was erroneously used to justify their enslavement, and Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3:22; I Timothy 6:1 in the New Testament.[4]

The hijacking of the Bible as a tool of manipulation to bolster charismatic leaders’ fame, fortune, power and influence (or, at the more personal level, the use of faith as a tool for gaining power and status for the self; e.g., intellectual or spiritual status and domination within a faith community) [5] at the expense of the well-being of their followers and the sober but liberating truths of the Gospel is another.  

Many will also argue that disputes between controversial facts in certain cases can and should lead to condemnation of those who disagree. In some of these cases, descriptive and normative differences cannot be so easily disentangled. Normative pre-commitments may themselves influence descriptive beliefs, especially when the facts are uncertain (I leave instances of this open to the readers’ imagination)

Nevertheless, it is hoped that this article has offered an occasion for reflection on cases of Christian moral disagreement that we, as the body of Christ (Romans 12:3-21; Ephesians 4) should seek opportunities for sustained open discussion and an improved understanding of those who think differently.[6] The recent meeting of the Anglican leaders, delegates and ecumenical guests at the 6th Global South Conference, whose communiqué is available here on the same SAC Courier Online archive, may serve as an analogously positive instance of how this is played out in the life of the Church.  


Recommended Further Reading

A concise overview of the dominant moral philosophies, including natural law, divine command, virtue ethics, deontology and utilitarianism can be found in James and Stuart Rachels’, The Elements of Moral Philosophy 7th edition

A proposal concerning the intersection between the findings of evolutionary psychology and natural law, with a short section describing Thomas Aquinas’ concept of natural law, can be found in Craig A. Boyd’s “Thomistic Natural Law and the Limits of Evolutionary Psychology”, in Evolution and Ethics: Human Morality in Biological and Religious Perspective.

The Divine Command ethics of Karl Barth can be found in Nigel Biggar’s, The Hastening that Waits: Karl Barth’s Ethics. How this model can be applied to recent talk of the implication of selfish genes on human morality in the evolutionary biological literature can be found in Neil Messer’s Selfish Genes and Christian Ethics.  

Virtue Ethics can be found in N. T. Wright’s Virtue Reborn. His talk on the topic can be found here.

Concerning what intellectual virtue – a subset of Virtue Epistemology, which is related to Virtue Ethics – can contribute to settling moral disagreement, given psychology’s proposal that some fallacious patterns of thought seem inherent in us, see Robert Garcia  and Nathan King’s article titled “Getting our Minds Out of the Gutter: Fallacies that Foul Our Discourse” in the book Virtues in Action, edited by Michael Austin.   

Concerning footnote 4 on slavery in the Bible, Paul Copan’s book Is God a Moral Monster? is probably the most concise yet comprehensive treatment of the subject and therefore comes highly recommended. His talk on the subject can be found here. The Q&A of that talk can be found here.   


[1] The act of shaming someone of the same faith for not holding a belief that you consider necessary by the standards of said faith, such as with the statement: “you are not a real Christian because you don’t believe in x.”

[2] For non-Singaporean readers, parents caning their children were pretty much standard procedure among Chinese families here when I was a child. I’m not sure about their prevalence now.

[3] That is, lacking selective dishonesty [e.g., selective Bible quoting to support a position that one has no intention of changing in light of mitigating interpretive and contextual evidence to the contrary], ad hominem attacks [e.g., ‘you are a heretic’], obfuscating rhetoric, or any other disorienting / destabilising tactic to gain an unfair upper-hand in a dialogue, but rather, an overriding and dispassionate concern with the truth along with the courage, civility and openness normally required to approach it.

[4] It should be noted that slavery in the Roman world of the New Testament was not synonymous with our more familiar understanding of slavery in, for example, the American South and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Slaves referred to anyone ranging from that to those who were put in charge of large households, and had responsibilities and privileges much like civil servants today. Christians in the early centuries, who were a pretty small and oppressed group themselves, nevertheless promoted the ennobling of all peoples, including slaves, as children of God, children who could then perceive their less than ideal but only temporary circumstance and work as opportunities to serve Him. By the 2nd century, Christian churches were also cooperating to pool money to free slaves by purchasing them. Concerning the stipulations for slaves in the Pentateuch, roughly corresponding to the 1400 to 1000 BCE context of the Israelite exodus from Egypt, sojourn in the desert, and settlement in Canaan (see Exodus to Judges), it may be best to compare these stipulations with roughly contemporaneous legal codes in the Ancient Near East such as the earlier Mesopotamian Code of Hammurabi. When these comparisons are made, as Paul Copan’s book Is God A Moral Monster seeks to show, the concept of care and protection for the rights and dignities of human persons in their distinctive context, while certainly falling short of the ideals that a privileged modern person living in a 1st world country might experience and have, was certainly superior to, yet crucially in continuity with (for obvious historical reasons; otherwise, if the legal portions of the Old Testament scrolls were composed with 21st century Western assumptions concerning human rights and the like, we would have very strong reasons to doubt their applicability and authenticity) their cognate neighbouring thoughts on the matter.       

[5] One can normally see this in the way they regard other faith leaders and teachers, i.e., usually with contempt because they (consciously or sub-consciously; i.e. they may be self-deceived and may justify, to themselves as much as to others, their contempt by appeal to untenably arbitrary theological correctness) rob them of the influence and authority they desire for themselves.

[6] Some anthropologists and psychologists have recently pointed out that a good chunk of violent behaviour in the world has not been precipitated by an intentioned deficit in morality and justice among the perpetrators, but rather their perceived surplus. In other words, just about all perpetrators of violence believe that their actions are morally justified. Think, for example, of the moral outrage that is commonly invoked among extremists of any stripe to justify (physical, emotional and spiritual) violence toward some group. This may serve as a caution for us to think carefully about whether our moral disagreements are really merely descriptive in nature, and whether we are willing to co-exist with those descriptive differences, especially when the interpretive latitude in scripture, tradition and history can afford it.