Can Moral Psychology Resolve Public Conflicts in Christian Morality?

Stephen Waldron
Thursday 17 March 2022
  1. Introduction
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

In places ranging from the U.S. to Brazil to India to Poland, religious viewpoints on morality are contributing to fierce political conflicts. These disputes largely follow a left-right pattern described by sociologists as “culture wars.” In the U.S., by the late 1980s Robert Wuthnow had noted that religious groups were now largely identified by their positions on these battles: “The issues themselves shift almost continuously, but the underlying sense of polarization and acrimony continues” (Wuthnow 1988, 6). A few years later, James Davison Hunter diagnosed a widening gap between the “progressives” and the “orthodox” in U.S. society ( Hunter 1992). More recently, George Yancey and Ashlee Quosigk have concurred with conservative theologian J. Gresham Machen’s claim nearly a century earlier that liberal and conservative versions of Christianity are no longer the same religion (Yancey and Quosigk 2021; Machen 1923).

Some recent analysis has pointed to the shifting terrain of culture wars. For instance, sociologist Philip Gorski describes “a transition … from regular to irregular forms of cultural and political combat” (Gorski 2021). According to Gorski, culture war in the U.S. has shifted into a mode in which the desire to win particular skirmishes often supersedes any overarching moral vision. Similarly, historian Daniel K. Williams has claimed that, looking back on the right-left theological disputes of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy one century later, the Protestant scene in the U.S. has largely just become more fractured (Williams 2022). On moral issues tied to gender and sexuality, a spectrum of relatively nuanced positions has emerged among U.S. Protestants, even as consistent right-wing and left-wing positions are loudly heard. Nevertheless, in this U.S. context, the ideological polarization that began with the partisan realignment of the 1960s has continued to deeply influence religious groups (Margolis 2018). The left-right divide has grown more intense, even while particular groups have tried to stake out nuanced positions. A comparably fractured and yet polarized dynamic has emerged in the religious politics of Brazil (Hunter and Power 2019). In that context, a variety of evangelical and Pentecostal groups have aligned with conservative Roman Catholics, while leftists from the same theological traditions have likewise aligned with each other as well as with secular political forces. As in the U.S., struggles over gender, sexuality, political economy, and national identity are linked to religious dynamics and moral claims, much as they are in India, Poland, and Hungary.

While sociologists have done much to describe these religiously-inflected culture wars, some psychologists have gone further in attempting to explain them. Much of this work is grounded in findings from fieldwork done by anthropologist Richard Shweder. Western psychologists had typically framed morality in terms of fairness (following Lawrence Kohlberg) and, after a feminist critique by Carol Gilligan, also in terms of an ethic of care (Gilligan 1982). During fieldwork in India, Shweder became convinced that these perspectives were inordinately focused on individual autonomy, missing concerns related to community and divinity that are actually key components of human morality in many cultural contexts (Shweder et al. 1997). This insight is foundational for two of the research programs in moral psychology addressed below: Moral Foundations Theory and the Cultural-Developmental Approach. For these two accounts, Shweder’s work offers a key to explaining how deeply divided moral cultures can develop within the same society.

As mentioned below, Christian theologians who have addressed culture war divides have mostly referred to sociological or historical perspectives on those divides. These perspectives have focused on the cultural aspect of such disputes. But moral psychology offers windows into possible biological dimensions of culture wars, dimensions that can potentially clarify and deepen our understanding of cultural fractures that are appearing in political, moral, and religious contexts. Each of the research programs discussed in what follows claims to be able to explain, if not even resolve, such discord. If that is true, theologians ought to be aware of what these perspectives have to offer. I discuss three research programs in this area: Moral Foundations Theory, the Theory of Dyadic Morality, and the Cultural-Developmental Approach. Since there are competing research programs in this area, theologians will first have to make sense of their rival contentions, then begin to apply them to research and practice.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Public Theology

Multiple theological subfields, including public theology, theological ethics, and political theology, could benefit from engagement with the moral psychology research discussed below. Public theology can be defined as the work that theologians do out of responsibility to society, alongside other responsibilities to church and academy (Tracy 1998, 3-31). With this responsibility in mind, some theologians have construed left-right polarization as a problem to be addressed by moving beyond culture wars (Poe 2000). Using the perspective of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Andrew Dole has proposed taking a long historical viewpoint on what he has called “religious polarization” (Dole 2019). But these engagements, helpful as they can be, rely on historical and sociological accounts of culture wars. The potential insights of anthropology and social psychology about the evolutionary roots of culture war disputes have been mostly absent from work on this issue in public theology.

2.2 Theological Ethics

Theological ethics is a diverse field with little clear organization. For a moral monist (one who believes in a universally valid ethical framework), this can be disconcerting. To give one example, theologian Roger Olson dejectedly gave up writing a history of Christian ethics upon realizing that, even within that one religious tradition, there was no consistent approach to theological ethics (Olson 2021). Moral psychology offers frameworks for acknowledging the scope of moral pluralism as a human reality. From there, theologians can address the factual situation with informed judgments as to the nature of meaning and values. In particular, theological ethicists often engage with issues that are adjacent to culture war disputes, so the psychological perspectives mentioned in what follows may be especially pertinent.

2.3 Political Theology

Political theology has drawn on Carl Schmitt’s friend/enemy distinction to address the agonistic nature of modern politics. While moral-cultural politics has (perhaps surprisingly) not been a major focus for this subfield, Aristotle Papapnikolaou has noted that transnational political alliances have brought the culture wars of the 1980s and 90s into a global context in the 21st century, a context with which political theologians ought to engage (“The State of Political Theology” 2019). In a book on what the white Evangelical wants, Tad Delay has engaged this problem from the perspective of Lacanian psychoanalysis (DeLay 2019). In a contribution closer to the current topic, Michael Hogue has drawn on Wesley Wildman’s suggestion that the position of liberal theology should be considered in light of Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) (Hogue 2013; Wildman 2011). Specifically, considering the evolutionary context of moral and religious politics in light of MFT is important for the kind of pragmatic political theology that Hogue has endorsed, concerned as it is with the situation with which political theologians have to work. While this is aligned with the position endorsed here, I contend that there are two other relevant research programs that have to be considered as part of this discussion.

2.4 Moral Psycology

What is moral psychology? As Michael Tomasello defines it, the moral domain contains that which is concerned with social obligation (Tomasello 2020). The psychology of this moral domain is both developmentally internalized and socially enforced, and it is grounded in the need for collaboration. Social cooperation as enabled by morality has emerged from evolutionary processes in which natural selection favored cooperation. Moreover, depending on whether one considers deities or communities to be moral entities, one may extend the moral domain to include them as well as including other individual human beings.

Among the research programs discussed here, Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) is the most widely discussed, having become relatively dominant in the field over the last two decades, as well as having been popularized in Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind (Haidt 2013). This theory is rooted in three major lines of thinking (Haidt 2007): 1) Moral judgment is primarily determined by social intuition rather than by the use of individual reason (Haidt 2001; Greene and Haidt 2002), 2) moral reasoning is to be understood in relation to social function rather than as an independent intellectual process, and 3) morality contains more than what Shweder called the Ethic of Autonomy (which addresses claims about care and fairness directed toward individuals), also intrinsically involving concerns about community and divinity.

Building on these suppositions, Haidt and his collaborators hypothesized that human morality is built on discrete “moral foundations” that have developed through processes of natural selection (Graham et al. 2013). In their initial research, they located five such foundations: care/harm, fairness/cheating, authority/subversion, loyalty/betrayal, and sanctity/degradation (Graham et al. 2011); in later work, they have argued for a sixth foundation, liberty/oppression (Iyer et al. 2012), but it has not been as widely adopted by other researchers. Each moral foundation is connected with an evolutionary backstory: for instance, a concern for fairness enabled trustful cooperation, while appeals to sanctity could help one to avoid pathogens. The individuals and groups who developed these moral foundations were more likely to pass on their genes, as well as their moral intuitions. In relation to Shweder’s framework, care/harm and fairness/cheating are identified with the individually-oriented Ethic of Autonomy, authority/subversion and loyalty/betrayal with his Ethic of Community, and sanctity/degradation with his Ethic of Divinity.

If MFT’s scientific explanation of human morality holds true, its originators have argued, it has implications for understanding modern political and religious disagreements. They have found that, while political liberals (in the U.S. sense of being on the left side of the political spectrum) mostly rely heavily on the care/harm and fairness/cheating foundations, they do not share very much concern for the other moral foundations that conservatives prioritize: authority/subversion, loyalty/betrayal, and sanctity/degradation (Graham, Haidt, and Nosek 2009). In the terms that Haidt has used to popularize this hypothesis, liberals draw on a more limited set of the “moral taste buds” offered by evolution than do conservatives. Conservatives, meanwhile, share liberal concerns about care and fairness, though often to a slightly lesser degree, but, the MFT researchers have contended, also draw on the other three moral foundations.

This leads, according to their hypothesis, to a situation in which those leaning toward the political left simply do not understand much of the moral universe inhabited by those on the political right (Haidt and Graham 2007). For example, a conservative view on decreasing international aid funding may seem incomprehensible from a perspective informed only by care and fairness concerns. But this conservative viewpoint might be grounded on in-group loyalty considerations about one’s national compatriots that are just as much in the “moral” domain as are those claims of care and fairness. This example illustrates how two major features of MFT are worked out in its hypothesis on left-right moral differences: 1) It has inherited Shweder’s moral pluralism, the idea that social scientists are not dealing with one purportedly universal form of “morality” (as Kohlberg’s approach had assumed), but with the contradictory world of actually existing human moralities. 2) It is an avowedly empirical approach that is not concerned with whether people are “right” in their views so much as with how those moral viewpoints are built on biological structures that have been sculpted in the distant past by large-scale processes and inculcated in particular social contexts that build on that biological inheritance.

How, if at all, does this hypothesis apply to religious conservatism and religious liberalism? While MFT researchers used text analysis of sermons by Southern Baptist (generally conservative) and Unitarian Universalist (generally liberal) pastors to confirm that this “moral foundations hypothesis” (MFH) mostly held true (Graham, Haidt, and Nosek 2009), a later study found that such findings did not replicate with sermons from clergy in other denominations (Frimer 2020). According to Frimer, the association of religious or theological conservatism and liberalism with reliance on different moral foundations is thus questionable. This may be due to the fact that religious conservatism and liberalism are not yet adequately theorized for the use of social scientists in the same way that the left-right political spectrum has been (Radom 2011), though some efforts have been made to do that (Wildman et al. 2021).

MFT has attempted to do many things: to serve as a sort of “unified field theory” of human morality, to be scientifically accurate, to offer a fine-grained analysis, and to explain a wide variety of specific moral differences in various domains of human life. The researchers, led by Kurt Gray, who have developed the Theory of Dyadic Morality (TDM) have made far simpler claims that they contend have greater scientific adequacy than those of MFT. Like MFT, TDM contends that moral judgments involve intuitive perception before reasons are invoked. For TDM, this moral sense identifies perceived harm that violates norms and it involves negative affect (Schein and Gray 2018). This theory is dyadic in that it claims that negative moral judgments always involve perceiving two parties: an intentional agent and a vulnerable patient who is harmed by that agent. Furthermore, TDM claims that perception of other minds is a necessary component of moral judgment, since to make a moral judgment one needs to see harm as both intentional and felt (Gray, Young, and Waytz 2012).

From the perspective of TDM, political and religious conflicts around morality ultimately come down to this simple form of moral perception. Because people perceive harms (or the lack of harms) in a variety of ways, they make differing moral judgments. Thus, liberals and conservatives are using essentially the same moral equipment but come to different conclusions because of differences in what they perceive to be (or not to be) harmful (Schein and Gray 2015). In the example used above, a political conservative may perceive international aid funding as harmful to their own nation, while a political liberal will likely perceive the denial of aid as harmful to vulnerable persons in other nations. Furthermore, each instance of what MFT calls a moral foundation can, according to TDM, be simplified based on the dyadic template: unfairness, disloyalty, subversion, and degradation can all be construed as harmful to other persons, whether they are human beings or other entities perceived as persons (including non-human animals, deities, and social groups). For instance, a failure to make a required sacrifice may harm a deity through the implied irreverence of that failure, which in turn may also harm persons in one’s community if that deity exacts retribution. I will discuss the debate between MFT and TDM in greater depth in section 3.

Finally, the Cultural-Developmental Approach (CDA) to moral psychology, developed by Lene Arnett Jensen, offers a very different lens on many of the same issues addressed by MFT and TDM (Jensen 2018). Like Haidt and MFT, Jensen drew on Shweder’s research; unlike MFT, CDA uses Shweder’s notions of an Ethic of Autonomy, an Ethic of Community, and an Ethic of Divinity without substantial modification. At the same time, Jensen’s approach is developmental, offering (like Kohlberg had) a theory of how moral development occurs across the human lifespan (Jensen 2008). But, unlike Kohlberg, Jensen builds a pluralistic account of morality into her developmental theory, showing how each of Shweder’s three Ethics may be invoked differently in contrasting cultural contexts, impacting how morality develops over an individual’s lifespan.

This pluralistic and developmental account is rooted in Jensen’s fieldwork among religious congregations and individuals in the U.S. and India. Using Hunter’s conception of “orthodox” and “progressive” factions in a culture war, Jensen studied and contrasted fundamentalist and mainline Baptists in central Missouri (Jensen 2015). She found that, while both groups emphasized Ethic of Community concerns, the fundamentalists much more frequently invoked moral reasoning tied to Divinity concerns, while the mainline Baptists were more likely to invoke moral reasons linked to Autonomy concerns. When Jensen conducted similar research among Hindus in Bhubaneswar, India, she found that the same pattern held among the more religiously orthodox Hindus living in the old town and more culturally progressive Hindus who lived in a newly developed part of the city (Jensen 1998b): the “orthodox” more commonly invoked Divinity concerns in their moral reasoning, while the “progressive” more often invoked Autonomy concerns. Although the cross-cultural pattern here seems clear, Jensen contends that cultural particularities are often morally salient when specific issues are discussed. For instance, Jensen found that suicide was universally negatively perceived by conservative Christians in the U.S. context, while sati, the self-immolation of a widow, was more positively construed by a substantially minority among conservative Hindus in India. Differing religious and cultural contexts have complex textures that inform moral reasoning, an important “cultural” aspect of CDA.

This is related to a key contrast between Jensen’s approach and that taken by MFT and TDM. While the other two approaches use intuitionist accounts of moral judgment, finding that moral reasoning is mostly post hoc justification for gut-level reactions, Jensen finds this to be an overly reductive erasure of significant worldview elements that inform moral judgment. Although MFT in particular certainly allows for a socially constructed component of intuitive moral judgment, Jensen argues that moral worldviews are too significant a shaping factor to be regarded as secondary to moral emotions (Jensen 1997). Consequently, Jensen argues that moral language is important for understanding moral debates and that such understanding cannot be reduced to underlying intuitions of the sort proposed by MFT or TDM without significantly impoverishing that understanding (Jensen 1998a). Thus, CDA is more sociological on this point, conceding that there is an important limit to scientific explanations of moral disagreements.

Lastly, it should be noted that CDA is developmental in that, drawing on research such as that summarized above, it hypothesizes specific patterns of moral development that are particular to each side of liberal-conservative divides (McKenzie and Jensen 2017; Jensen and McKenzie 2016). On both sides of such divides, CDA proposes that Ethic of Community concerns grow in salience from childhood through adolescence into adulthood in roughly equal proportions. For both sides, moreover, Divinity concerns are absent in childhood, but become massively important in conservative cultural contexts during adolescence, while they generally remain absent from moral reasoning in progressive contexts throughout the lifespan. And, while Autonomy concerns are extremely high throughout the lifespan in progressive contexts, in conservative contexts they begin at a moderate level during childhood (when moral concerns rooted in Community or Divinity are developmentally implausible) before declining slightly during adolescence and into adulthood. Overall, a prototypical conservative pattern of moral development involves Autonomy concerns being eclipsed by overwhelming Divinity and Community concerns, while a prototypical progressive pattern involves high Autonomy concerns throughout the lifespan being joined by rising Community concerns during adolescence.

3. Discussion

Each of the three research programs addressed above has strengths and weaknesses. Due to the prominence of MFT as a framework for research and its strong claims of scientific validity, it has been the target of particularly sharp critiques. One line of critique draws on a finding that the MFT hypothesis (that the salience of foundations for moral judgments corresponds to political orientation) does not replicate among African Americans (Davis et al. 2016). Moreover, other research has called into question whether the five-factor model at the heart of MFT is cross-culturally generalizable, using a research sample across 27 countries and 5 continents (Iurino and Saucier 2020). Both of these critiques point out that the large sample that was used to develop MFT was overwhelmingly white, potentially undercutting the theoretical cross-cultural strength to which MFT aspires.

Beyond this, other critics have pointed to similarities in moral judgment between liberals and conservatives (Frimer et al. 2013; Frimer 2020). Furthermore, as mentioned above, TDM researchers have claimed that the five-factor model used by MFT is unnecessary, since each moral foundation is actually reducible to harm perception (Gray and Keeney 2015a). If this is true, it could explain why some research indicates that liberals and conservatives draw on the same moral foundations in making moral judgments (Schein and Gray 2015). At a more basic level, TDM researchers have claimed that findings that purity is a moral foundation rest on the use of weird scenarios that trigger a disgust impulse rather than something actually inherently distinct about purity concerns as opposed to harm concerns (Gray and Keeney 2015b).

One way of adjudicating this dispute is to say that, on the one hand, MFT has made some overblown claims to scientific validity, such as that there may be distinct modules in the brain that correspond to specific moral foundations. In their drive to explain differences in human morality, MFT researchers may have slipped too quickly from particularities that can be used for the sake of adequate description into claims to a universal explanation.

At its root, the disagreement between MFT and TDM is theoretical (though empirical findings are rightly invoked to adjudicate it): should the findings of social psychology regarding human morality best be explained by a five-factor model or by a dyadic model solely focused on harm perception? For the sake of theologians using moral psychology, I would argue that it depends on what one is doing and whether description or explanation is more salient.

At this point, we can create a spectrum on which the three research programs addressed here can be placed: TDM lands closest to pure explanation, eschewing descriptive details that may in fact contribute to explanation. Those details are molded into the harm perception template used by TDM, which is sometimes too fine-grained to pick up details that may be relevant. MFT combines an attempt at scientific explanation with descriptive richness that lends it credibility in analysis of particular cultural, religious, and political contexts. CDA has the most descriptive potential, addressing particular cultural-religious contexts and differences across the lifespan within those contexts. But it does so by letting go of pretensions at being a universal theory rooted in biological hardwiring. Thus, it offers little to those looking for an evolutionary explanation of human morality. Each of these three research programs has a plausible and helpful explanation of the left-right dynamics behind many cultural, political, and religious conflicts. They are not, in my judgment, as incompatible as some of the researchers aligned with each may contend.

If all three of these research programs are potentially useful to theologians, how can they specifically be used? For public theologians, the goal may be to promote understanding in societies in which moral conflict has taken on both political and religious dimensions. Isolating and clarifying the underlying moral concerns at stake can help groups and individuals to recognize their own concerns and those of others. While there is certainly a need for moral conviction and certitude, theologians should not skip ahead of the kind of understanding that moral psychology research can provide. To use debates about immigration policy as an example, we can ask whether a given moral foundation (say, care or purity) is being invoked by parties in a debate. We can analyze where different groups perceive harm to be occurring and to whom (e.g., to asylum seekers or to national identity). We can weigh whether voices in the public dialogue are prioritizing Autonomy or Divinity concerns when they debate whether religious discrimination should play a role in immigration policy.

After this kind of clarification, public theologians can normatively assess the relative validity of such concerns and can invite the public to do so as well. But understanding of the moral psychology that is likely at work is a helpful prerequisite to such assessment. Without understanding the underlying roots of public moral positions, public theologians risk adding more heat than light to already contentious debates. With such understanding, they may be able to contribute to genuine social progress, or at the very least to achieve a more truthful analysis of the situation.

For theological ethicists, the approaches taken by moral psychologists can enable self-reflexivity. To take one example, theological ethicists have offered differing perspectives on the moral issues surrounding abortion for decades. The perspectives from moral psychology described above at least offer new concepts for framing that stalemated debate. For proponents of the “sanctity of [fetal] life”, Divinity concerns attach to the entity described as an “unborn child.” For those who advocate for “reproductive freedom”, Autonomy concerns highlight the qualitative moral value of the life of the pregnant person involved. In terms of TDM, those arguing for a “pro-life” position tend to perceive harm as being enacted against the unborn child, while those arguing for a “pro-choice” position generally see a lack of reproductive choice as part of the harm inflicted by a patriarchal society against already vulnerable persons. Finally, in terms of MFT, both sides are likely to invoke care as a moral foundation, while authority and sanctity foundations are often also invoked by the anti-abortion position. By understanding the debate in these terms, theological ethicists can better understand both their own positions and those of others in ways that do not simply repeat long-standing arguments.

As for political theology, the subdiscipline has rightly recognized the importance of identity categories and social hierarchies as factors in political conflict. But many theopolitical disputes also revolve around morality and cannot be adequately addressed without considering conflicting moral positions. For instance, many Hispanic Americans support anti-immigration politicians in the U.S. and many low-income people support regressive tax regimes. Analyzing these positions from the standpoint of identity or more vigorously emphasizing what are typically progressive moral and political viewpoints will not have some of the results for which political theologians might hope: deeper understanding of the situation and tangible social progress. This would involve the recognition that people might “vote against their own interest” due to moral beliefs rooted in the moral foundation of authority or moral concerns based on an Ethic of Divinity. That is perhaps a bleak outlook, but it has explanatory value and puts political theologians in a better position to honestly assess and respond to situations without unrealistic bluster or confused disillusionment.

4. Conclusion

The approaches to moral psychology discussed above can give theologians significant insight into our public audiences, our empirical data, and ourselves. Too much theological work deals with moral topics without addressing empirical research on what it means to be a moral species. This research can demystify our moral nature while turning the heat of moral warfare into greater light shed on how we disagree and why. While some moral psychologists have drawn normative claims from their work on culture war issues, for instance urging relative moderation, I suggest that self-knowledge and understanding of others are appropriate goals. As theologians know well, positions on issues of meaning and values are existential options, taken within social contexts and often informed by deep traditions. What the approaches discussed above offer are clarifications of the available moral options and of why people opt for some rather than others.

In answer to the initial question “Can moral psychology resolve public conflicts in Christian morality?” we should offer a qualified answer. No, the research discussed above will not end the culture wars, however widely this research is acknowledged and understood. There are substantive issues at stake that deeply impact people’s lives and communities, and we should not expect research on the psychological contours of those issues to lessen their significance. But we can at least come to better understanding in several ways.

For one thing, theologians can take the work of moral psychologists into account as we interact with both educational and church institutions. Students and congregants need to understand how and why others come to different conclusions on issues that matter immensely. This topic can be integrated into university courses or adult religious education as appropriate, with the understanding that it will not resolve the issues at stake.

Ideally, public theology, theological ethics, and political theology can be enriched by interaction with moral psychology research on the roots of moral conflict. This research can help us to bear witness more truly to our deepest moral convictions and to those of our neighbors. It can also assist theologians to develop moral and intellectual humility as virtues in ourselves and in others while, again, not negating the need to existentially and publicly opt for what we, through our best efforts, judge to be good (Hill and Sandage 2016).


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Cite this article

Waldron, Stephen. 2022. “Can Moral Psychology Resolve Public Conflicts in Christian Morality?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 6).

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Stephen Waldron
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