Posted by Mary Wimberley on 2012-03-08

A Christian ethics specialist urged a Samford University audience on Thursday, March 8, to undertake the journey of the moral life together, rather than alone.

"One of my great worries about our society is that we are losing the ability to take this journey together," said Dr. Ellen Ott Marshall, a professor at Emory University's Candler School of Theology. "Rather than thinking together about moral crises, we adopt oppositional stances and belittle and demonize those who think differently."

Speaking as this year's Marie NeSmith Fowler lecturer, Marshall drew from the work of female scholars to underscore her "take-away" message:  that the journey of the moral life, which unfolds every day in questions about everything from personal behavior and friendships to foreign policy and war, should lead more fully into relationship rather than away from it.

Emotion, moral ambiguity, and risk are among factors that come into play in relationship.

Scholars such as Martha Nussbaum, Allison Jaggar and Margaret Farley point out that emotion, an unavoidable and ever-present element in human experience, is tied to belief and value.

The element of moral ambiguity in emotion, a focus of Marshall's own work, is a residue that clings to even the best decisions, she said. While ambiguity may seem to signal a poor decision or incomplete deliberative process, Marshall sees it as an unavoidable companion to ethically complex issues.

"Moral ambiguity reminds us that moral reflection is an ongoing activity and that our positions may need to be revised and need further development. Our knowledge is always incomplete," she said. "In a culture like ours that is fraught with division, animosity and vitriol, we need every mechanism we can find to engage difference respectfully."

While western moral thought encourages a deliberation process free from attachment to another person, so as to be impartial, many women scholars have questioned whether extraction form relationship is possible or desirable.

In an alternative model for ethical deliberation and action, "ethics of care," the primary moral commitment is not to a principle of fairness, but to the needs of concrete persons. And those needs can only be known by remaining in relationship and in dialogue, points out Marshall, who teaches Christian ethics and conflict transformation at Candler.

To avoid unfairness to an individual or  lack of justice across the board, a suggested blended approach zooms in on particular needs of an individual and then zooms out to consider the good of the whole. "The movement back and forth ensures that individual needs and boarder concerns about justice are addressed."

Besides serving as a landscape for moral reflection, relationships are a source of moral insight and wisdom, said Marshall, citing Christian ethicist Katie Cannon's writings that family, the wisdom of previous generations and community tradition all serve as moral resources.

"We know what to do because we know who we are and to whom we belong. Moral action is made possible by relationship, not impeded by it."

Throughout history there have been people who had limited choices and freedom to alter a bad situation, but yet refused to fully succumb to it, said Marshall, and this inability to control outcomes or discern what can and cannot be changed may complicate moral understanding and invite an ethic of risk and persistence.

But the key element in all of the scholarship and the activism that surrounds it is that we do not undertake the work alone, she said. 

"We exist in relationship, we are shaped and informed by relationship, we remain accountable to relationship. We journey through the moral life with others, and with God," said Marshall, who recently re-considered the often-used line, "There, but for the grace of God go I."

"The difference between my experience and that of another person is not grace," said Marshall. "Grace is not a variable that determines different outcomes.  God's grace is the constant that enables us to endure the outcomes."

She suggests a better and more theologically appropriate alternative would be: "Here, together in the grace of God, go we."

The lecture series is sponsored by Samford's Christian Women's Leadership Center. It honors the late Mrs. Fowler, a Samford graduate and longtime Hartselle, Ala., resident who was one of the first female pharmacists and pharmacy owners in the state.

Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Samford enrolls 5,791 students from 49 states, Puerto Rico and 16 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.