Note: this post is ended up being much longer (~4800 words) than I had intended for it to be. What can I say? This is a fascinating subject, and I couldn’t help myself. So, because it’s so long, I’ve divided it into chapters based on the sub-headings. Click on the bullet point below to skip ahead to the desired section. If you want to get my final say on the matter, feel free to skip to the last section. Thanks for stopping by!
- Care/Harm Foundation
- Fairness/Cheating Foundation
- Loyalty/Betrayal Foundation
- Authority/Subversion Foundation
- Sanctity/Degradation Foundation
- What’s the Bottom Line?
I first stumbled upon Moral Foundations Theory when I read psychologist Jon Haidt’s The Righteous Mind at the beginning of 2013. I’ve revisited it a few times over the years, and it has really helped me in understanding the cultural foundations of where our notions of morality come from. In the last two years, I’ve experienced a renewed interest in my faith, and this got me thinking…what are the most important moral foundations for a Christian? As a Christian, what is the standard by which I should measure right and wrong?
Of course, the obvious Sunday school answer is, “The Bible!” But, as we’ll soon see, that answer is not so simple as it seems. In The Righteous Mind, Haidt makes a compelling argument about how we make moral judgments. He says that we have gut reactions, or what he calls “moral intuitions,” that determine our positions on right and wrong. Then, we use our reason to rationalize and justify why those positions make sense. “Our moral thinking,” says Haidt, “is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.”
As Christians, I think we do the same thing with The Bible. We tell ourselves that we’re merely being faithful to the Word, but the truth is that there are deep-seated unconscious reasons for our moral convictions–and we tend to go to the Scriptures only so that we might find evidence to support them. And, sure enough, there is Biblical evidence for every single one of these moral foundations–even the ones that often conflict with one another.
In this post, I would like to go through each of these five “moral foundations,” and discuss how appropriate it is for a professing Christian to hold them. What does the Bible say in support of each foundation? In what ways does a Biblical worldview challenge each foundation? How does the sociopolitical climate of today influence the moral foundation to which we as Christians are likely to gravitate? And, finally, which foundation–if any–should take precedence for the Christian over all the others? Let’s dig into it…
The care/harm moral foundation suggests that behavior is wrong to the extent that it causes harm. If it doesn’t hurt anyone or anything, then it can’t be said to be wrong. Conversely, its positive character would be revealed in helping, or caring for, others. Right behavior is behavior that contributes to the well-being of others.
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
In Luke 10:25-28, Jesus affirms that love is the key to inheriting eternal life–love of God and love of neighbor. The implication, I think, is not that these are two separate loves but that they are really one in the same. We love God by loving our neighbor, for “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar” (1 John 4:20). Jesus reiterates this dual command in Mark 12:28-34 and Matthew 22:34-40.
In Luke, Jesus goes on to tell a very famous story about what it means to be a good neighbor. A Samaritan, an outsider to the community, sees an Israelite in distress and goes out of his way to help him–even though other Israelites had simply passed by and ignored him (Luke 10:29-37). In this story, Jesus puts it simply: right behavior is helping people; wrong behavior is failing to do so. He proposes a similar moral injunction in his “least of these” illustration in Matthew 25:31-46–suggesting we will be judged based on how well we treat those who we tend to think of as “less” than us.
The Apostle Paul has a great deal to say regarding the care/harm foundation as well. “For the entire law,” he says–reiterating Jesus, “is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself”” (Galatians 5:14). So, he promotes the “care” part of this foundation, and then he also repudiates the “harm” part of this foundation. “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10).
These texts, of course, merely scratch the surface of references to the Christian ethic of love pervasive in the Scriptures. Few would deny that love should be a key motivating force in Christian morality. And yet, there are circumstances in which Christians feel justified in causing harm. This is done not by denying the obligation to love but, rather, by reinventing the meaning of love.
We may deal harshly with people if we deem the treatment to be “for their own good.” This is manifest in the idea of “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) or in the idea that “the Lord disciplines those He loves” (Hebrews 12:6). This interpretation of “true love” can be seen in such contemporary acts as protesting at the funerals of gay soldiers. If we think that our behavior can bring about in the person a state that we believe will make them “better off,” we can easily justify it as love–even if it harms them in a direct and concrete way.
The fair/cheating foundation suggests that behavior is wrong to the extent that it causes inequity. If the behavior causes someone to be treated favorably to the detriment of another, then it is considered wrong. If the behavior treats all parties equally, then it’s right. In other words, from this perspective, morality is justice.
On the one hand, this moral foundation may be considered the backbone of liberation theology, or the “social justice” strain in contemporary Christian thought–perhaps embodied most strongly in the admonition from Micah 6:8…
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly[a] with your God.
Similar principles can be found in other prophetic texts, such as Isaiah 1:17, “ learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” And, let’s not forget Jesus’s reclamation of the prophetic passage in Luke 4:18, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” Clearly, a moral imperative in Christian thought is to bring about justice through righting wrongs and restoring balance of power.
There is another side to this notion of justice, though, that tends to find its place on the other end of the modern political spectrum. We mete out justice by “giving people what they deserve.” For example, Christians feel justified in advocating capital punishment, because they see it is fair. If we do not respond to the crime with an equitable punishment, we are being immoral.
The belief in justice among Christians can also take the form of buying into the “just world hypothesis,” assuming that society is already just because “God is in control” and God is a god of justice. If something is wrong in our lives, then, we must actually deserve it. A recent Washing Post article reported that “Christians are more than twice as likely to blame a person’s poverty on lack of effort.” Part of the justification for this comes from 2 Thessalonians 3:10, where Paul makes the passing remark, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
“Do not be deceived,” Paul writes in Galatians 6:7, “God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” Passages like these can be used to blame people for their own suffering. If God is just and you are suffering, then you must have done something to deserve it. If this sounds familiar, it’s because there is an entire book written on it. In the Book of Job, Job’s friends blame him for his predicament–although he is clearly innocent. They do this precisely because they believe that God is just and, therefore, Job must be receiving a punishment (Job 34:10-12).
“So listen to me, you men of understanding.
Far be it from God to do evil,
from the Almighty to do wrong.
11 He repays everyone for what they have done;
he brings on them what their conduct deserves.
12 It is unthinkable that God would do wrong,
that the Almighty would pervert justice.
Although most Christians read Job as an indication that temporal suffering and distress is not necessarily indicative of God’s punishment, Christians still use this kind of thinking to explain away negative events in the world–from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to the Ebola outbreak in Liberia. Human suffering is often still seen as God’s punishment for our sins.
The loyalty/betrayal moral foundation suggests that behavior is wrong if it somehow breaks the trust of the group. Doing something to benefit outsiders to the determinant of someone within our own tribe would be considered immoral. This type of moral motivation is seen in sports (rooting for the home team), in Patriotism (putting America first), and–yes–even in Christianity.
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
The passage above from 1 Peter 2:9 embodies an important Christian ethic: that we are a “called out,” special people in God’s eyes. The church is considered the sacred “body of Christ,” (1 Corinthians 12:27) and there are many Scriptural admonitions to protect it against the encroachment of outsiders and the false doctrine they might bring in (2 Peter 2:1-3, 2 Timothy 4:3-4, Jude 3-5).
Furthermore, there is the exclusivity present in Jesus being “the only way to Heaven,” as supported by texts such as Acts 4:12: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved,” and Jesus’s famous proclamation in John 14:6: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Passages such as these reinforce ideas of tribalism and in-group morality, discounting those who fall outside of the umbrella of Christianity. We find justification in this kind of thinking for going to war against Islam, for spewing vile insults at atheists, and even for opposing immigration into America.
Of course, this disposition is awfully ironic given the nature of Jesus’s own ministry. From the story of the woman at the well (John 4) to his habit of dining with the “tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:10-17, Mark 2:15-22, Luke 5:29-39), Jesus was all about spending time with outsiders. He regularly interacted with the Samaritans (John 4:9), women (Luke 8:2-3), tax collectors (Matt. 9:10), lepers (Mark 14:3), the blind, the lame, the deaf, and the poor (Luke 7:22). In the parable of the banquet (Luke 14:15-24), Jesus seems to suggest that it’s the dregs of society who will be welcome in his kingdom:
‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’
Of course, there are also the passages about showing hospitality to strangers (Romans 12:13, Hebrews 13:1, Leviticus 19:34); it can be really hard to reconcile these texts with tribalism and in-group loyalty. Does Jesus break down barriers between us, or does he raise them up?
The authority/subversion moral foundation suggests that a behavior is wrong to the extent that it is disobedient to authority and right to the extent that it is submissive to authority. For Christians, this moral intuition is perhaps most understood in the mantra, “God said it; I believe it; that settles it.”
Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. (1 John 3:4)
“If you love me,” says Jesus, “keep my commands” (John 14:15). “All Scripture is God-breathed,” writes the Apostle Paul, “and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” Believing that the Bible is absolutely and exclusively authoritative means that any behavior can be justified as moral as long as we can cite a Biblical reference to back it up. The Bible is the Word of God and God defines what morality is so, as long as we’re following the Bible, we are good to go.
In broader circles of human thought, this kind of thinking is known as “Divine Command Theory,” or the notion that an action is right because it is decreed by some divine authority. On the face of it, this seems perfectly reasonable. However, it can give us pause when we read about things in the Scriptures such as God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22), the Israelites to commit genocide (1 Samuel 15:3), and rapists to marry their victims as a punishment for the act (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). We can (and often do) rationalize such things away by saying to ourselves, “Well, God knows best. So, if God did or said something, it must have been okay–because God sets the standard for what’s right and wrong.”
When we really think about this, though, it doesn’t really make sense. In his dialogue with Euthyphro, Plato has Socrates ask a very interesting question on this matter.
Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?
In other words, “Is any given activity right because God says it is right, or does God say it’s right, because it’s right?” This is an important distinction, because it tells us which comes first. Does morality come from the Bible, or is the Bible built upon a moral foundation that already existed before it was written? Of course, the answer is quite obvious from the Biblical narrative itself. Before there was any kind of written or oral code that we are aware of, God says to Cain in Genesis 4:
If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.
Cain doesn’t say to God, “But how will I know what’s right unless you tell me?” Presumably, he already knows intuitively something about what’s right and wrong.
But the idea of morality not existing apart from God also just doesn’t make sense with regard to how we describe God. Christians believe that God is love (1 John 4:8), God is just (Psalm 25:8), and God is truthful (Numbers 23:19). By this, we mean that these are attributes of God. These characteristics exist apart from God and prior to our imposition of them on God. God is love, because God demonstrates behavior we deem as loving. God is just, because God demonstrates behavior we deem to be fair. God is truthful, because we see that God keeps God’s promises. We could not call God loving, just, or truthful unless we had some idea about what these words meant prior to ascribing them to God.
Despite this logical objection, many Christians still cling to the idea that following authority is the ultimate aim of morality. It sounds simple, but there’s always the matter of interpretation. For example, obedience to God has been used as a justification for everything from slavery to war. If we want to do something badly enough, we can almost always find something in the Bible to support it.
But it’s not just the logical incongruity and the potential for misinterpretation that makes the authority foundation dangerous. It’s also that there are times in the Bible when God appears to reward insubordination. For example, Moses argues God down at one point from entirely wiping out the Israelites–and God listens to him (Exodus 32:9-14). And then there’s that story of Jesus changing his mind about healing a woman’s daughter when she talks back to him (Mark 7:24-30). In her thoughtful reflection on the subject, seminarian Laura Jean Truman writes:
Well, maybe I’ll break my hip in the process of wrestling for justice with my God.
But my Scripture tells me that when we talk back to God, God saves cities, and God heals little girls, and God passes out blessings in the night.
The sanctity/degradation moral foundation suggests that behavior is wrong when it breaks some code of purity or violates some cultural taboo.
Undoubtedly, there is a purity ethic in Christianity—we are to “keep ourselves from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27), try not to “gratify the desires of the flesh” (Romans 13:14, and make an attempt to only even think about “whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” (Philippians 4:8). And, of course, much discussion on purity centers around rules regarding sexuality (Hebrews 13:4, 1 Corinthians 6:18, etc.).
Certainly, there is something to be said for creating an environment within the community that is pure, holy, and sacred. If the church is to be the dwelling place of God and God is holy, then the church must be holy as well. So, we have the tendency to frown on things we see as impure: profanity, tattoos, certain kinds of clothing, and deviations from sexual norms. It’s perfectly understandable—even honorable—that we would want to guard the sanctity of God’s house.
There is also a danger, though, to holding so tightly to a purity ethic in the church. Perhaps most significantly, doing so resembles almost precisely the moral motivation of the Pharisees—the great enemies of the Gospel. Time and time again, Jesus rejected ritual purity in favor of treating others with love and decency.
25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. 27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.
Not only did Jesus condemn prioritizing ritual purity, he also lived that condemnation. As mentioned earlier, he regularly interacted with the impure of society—the disabled, the leprous, foreigners, and “sinners.” In a fascinating podcast on the subject, psychologist Richard Beck makes an interesting point regarding the fear we often have in the church of being corrupted by the impure. He says it stems from the idea of negativity dominance—that something good can be corrupted but the contaminant cannot be purified. (Think about cockroaches getting into your food. No matter how great the food is, it isn’t going to “purify” the cockroaches enough for you to stomach it). Beck argues that this idea is inconsistent with the Jesus we see in the Gospels. Jesus actually manages to purify the contaminant so that we really have no reason to be afraid of being corrupted.
And, finally, there are also the teachings of Paul that suggest we shouldn’t be held to arbitrary standards of ritual purity. Most of these have to do with eating certain kinds of foods (1 Corinthians 8:8), but some have to do with circumcision (Galatians 2:3-5) and others have to do with celebrating holy days (Colossians 2:16). It’s not too much of a stretch to see how these ideas can be applied to contemporary circumstances of issues regarding moral purity. In his letters, Paul frequently emphasizes the idea of liberty, for “it was for freedom that Christ set us free” (Galatians 5:1).
“For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if is received with thanksgiving.” – 1 Timothy 4:4
So, Whats’s the Bottom Line?
So, I’ve gone through each of these “moral foundations” and shown how they may be working in complex ways to drive which Scriptures we gravitate to as Christians. Hopefully, this will give you a greater appreciation for the rich diversity that exists within the Christian faith. The Christian ideas of right and wrong are multitudinous. It can come from all kinds of directions. So, hopefully you can see why Southern Baptists may hold such starkly different views from Episcopalians; it’s not necessarily that one is faithful and the other is heretical. Rather, different moral foundations are under-girding their interpretations of Scripture, tradition, history, and culture.
It’s nice to understand something about where our moral motivations come from. But, once we recognize these root drives, there’s still a practical matter. When different moral dispositions collide, we still have to make a choice about which one will take precedence. I don’t think any of these moral foundations is wrong to hold in certain contexts but, as a Christian, is there any one that should take precedence over all the others? As Christians, which foundation should be the bedrock for our moral judgments? To make actual judgments about right and wrong in the real world, we do need some sort of ethical hermeneutic. So, what should it be?
Obviously, I’m revealing my bias on this one. So, you can judge for yourself as to whether or not it makes sense. But, here’s the thing: I’m a follower of Jesus. Before I believe in the integrity of the Bible, before I study Paul, before I hold to the teachings of the church, before all other tests of religious identity, I consider myself a follower of Jesus. So, when I ask myself, what is the bottom line for me when it comes to judging whether or not something is right or wrong, I can’t help but look to the life of Jesus.
So, let’s look to the Gospel narratives and ask a simple question: “what kind of moral foundation did Jesus have?” Well, just like us, it appears to be all over the place. He encouraged us to love our neighbors, approved of reparations, privileged the Jew over the gentile, submitted to God’s authority, and retreated by himself to pray. But, in the end, the question we’re really interested in is: “what kind of moral foundation did Jesus place above all the others?” What was Jesus’s bottom line? When different moral dispositions came into conflict, which one took precedence for Jesus?
Interestingly, we have this scenario take place on multiple occasions in the Gospels–and it always has to do with the same thing: Jesus healing on the Sabbath. Jesus encounters someone on the Sabbath who is in need of healing, and the question is raised regarding whether or not he will do it–since it would mean violating the moral norm of his religious contemporaries. To provide some context regarding the moral framework in which people were operating, it’s important to read the following passage from Numbers 15:32-36:
32 Now while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. 33 And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron, and to all the congregation. 34 They put him under guard, because it had not been explained what should be done to him.
35 Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” 36 So, as the Lord commanded Moses, all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones, and he died.
We can see a number of the moral foundations present in this text. Most obvious is the “authority/subversion” foundation–picking up sticks on the Sabbath is a crime punishable by death because God says it is. But, given the fundamental conviction that the Sabbath is holy, picking up sticks on the Sabbath is also in violation of the “sanctity/degradation” foundation. Weaker arguments can be made for the loyalty/betrayal foundation (the Sabbath is a community-specific ritual) and the fairness/cheating foundation (getting ahead of others by working on the Sabbath), but it’s really difficult to make an argument that the “care/harm” foundation is being violated here. Clearly, the people weren’t harmed by this man, because they express confusion about what should be done with him.
So, back to Jesus. Judging by the text from Numbers, the Pharisees are completely justified in expecting Jesus to cease his ministry on the Sabbath. When confronted with the dilemma of honoring the Sabbath but leaving people in their suffering or breaking the Sabbath but making people well, what did Jesus do? Let’s read–first from the story in Luke 13:10-13:
10 On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, 11 and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” 13 Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.
14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”
15 The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”
Jesus clearly places the well-being of the woman he heals over the constraints of the Sabbath law. He even calls out the hypocrisy of those who question him. They wouldn’t have an issue getting their oxen and donkeys something to drink on the Sabbath, but they’re going to complain about one of their own women being healed from decades of suffering? “Doesn’t she deserve to be made well?” Asks Jesus, “Doesn’t she deserve to be set free?”
A similar story occurs in Mark 3:1-6 (with parallel passages in Matthew 12:1-14 and Luke 6:1-11, as well as two additional stories in John 5 and John 9):
Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. 2 Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. 3 Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”
4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.
5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.”He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. 6 Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.
I want to call out just two things about this passage. First, Jesus makes a very explicit statement about, when it comes down to it, what is really right and wrong:
Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?
To do good, Jesus says, is to save life. To do evil is to kill. In this proclamation, Jesus is very overtly arguing for the “care/harm” foundation above all others.
Secondly, it’s important to know the consequences that ensue from Jesus making this statement. The passage ends by saying, “Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” In other words, this act of defiantly placing the importance of caring for people over the importance of anything else sets into motion a chain of events that will eventually land him on the cross. Let this sink in for a moment:
Jesus was executed because he placed the law of love above the love of law.
Can you grasp the gravity of this statement? Arguing for the preferential treatment of the “care/harm” foundation was worth Jesus giving up his own life. In a very concrete sense, Jesus died for the sake of love.
So, at the end of the day, I side with Jesus in in my preference for the “care/harm” foundation of morality. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in people being treated fairly, being loyal to those close to me, obeying authority when appropriate, and showing respect for the sacred. But, if ever any of these should come into conflict with upholding the dignity of my fellow human beings, I have a moral imperative to err on the side of love.
My hermeneutic of ethics is found in Galatians 5:14, which bears repeating:
For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
You may come to a different conclusion on where to draw the line on moral issues but, for me, this is it. Everything is funneled through this.
If it’s not love, then it’s not right.