Social Ethics

By Elsbernd, Mary | Theological Studies, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Social Ethics


Elsbernd, Mary, Theological Studies


IN MY SEGMENT of this year's "Notes on Moral Theology," I examine writings over the past four years in areas related to social ethics. Besides the five areas just cited, other themes could legitimately be treated in a contribution on social ethics. However, several related areas have recently been reviewed during the past several years in "Notes on Moral Theology" such as bioethics, (1) marriage and sexuality, (2) Latin American liberation theology including its distinctive ethics, (3) and African moral theology. (4)

FOUNDATIONAL RESOURCES AND APPROACHES

The most crucial of foundational resources and approaches in social ethics is voice: Whose voice is heard? Which perspective is published? Which values are promoted? The racial, gender, and class hegemony behind these and similar questions is specifically raised in three significant contributions: Mary Hobgood. Dismantling Privilege. (5) Benezet Bujo. Foundations of an African Ethic, (6) and Larry Rasmussen, "Environmental Racism and Environmental Justice." (7) Hobgood challenges people in over-advantaged groups to recognize unearned privilege and to build coalitions of resistance and solidarity across racial-ethnic lines. Rasmussen extends this challenge to ethicists, namely the inclusion of all creation and all human participants in the development and articulation of moral theory, principles and power analysis. Bujo shifts the context again as he disputes the universal claims of Western natural law ethics and discusses the foundations and anthropology of an African ethic that "demand the acknowledgment of their own identity in the ethical sphere." These challenges must cast their shadows through all areas and approaches in social ethics. Holding this awareness in mind, my following section looks at case study approaches, interdisciplinary resources, and vision in recent social ethical literature.

Case Study Approaches

Social ethics literature exemplifies multiple relationships between context and ethics. Authors use a concrete context as a jumping off point for development of a related idea or resolution. (8) Articles share the results of theological reflection on a concrete social process or event. (9) Still others apply church teaching or social ethical principles to concrete social issues. (10) An increasing number of publications (11) use case study approaches, built around a number of recurring components: (1) history or background; (2) focus or question; (3) organizing framework which situates the concrete situation in relationship to the thought of others; (4) theo-ethical and scriptural resources; (5) identification of principles; (6) strategies and specific norms. Two fine examples of the approach are Stephen Pope's study of forgiveness, amnesty, and justice in postwar El Salvador, and Jean Zaru's address of the Palestinian situation and the silence of institutional churches. (12)

The case study approach is not without difficulties. One difficulty is allowing the case study situation to influence the general principles that emerge from conversations with contemporary thought and the resources of the tradition. The easy temptation to rely on principles from the tradition tends toward an application model instead of a case study approach. (13) Another difficulty is moving directly from a thorough analysis to strategies and specific norms, i.e., bypassing conversation partners and an articulation of guiding principles. (14) Finally this specific group of surveyed publications repeatedly challenged churches as institutions to take leadership at the level of strategies. Since the social sciences have demonstrated both the potential of churches as intermediary institutions to develop social capital (15) and the limited direct impact of religious beliefs and teachings on the lives of social activists, (16) this challenge needs to be taken seriously, although not overshadowing the practices of the people of God.

Interdisciplinary Resources

Social ethics increasingly incorporates resources from economic, environment, political, and social sciences as well as other theological sciences, most notably Scripture and spirituality. …

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