Distinguished Scholar Toddie Peters: "Moral intuition" a building block to social justice

Rebecca Todd Peters, the 2012-13 Elon Distinguished Scholar, this week shared more about the ideas that underlie her work on solidarity ethics.

“Moral intuition” is the instinct that compels many people to help victims of tragedy or social woes, but reactions typically stem from one of three motivations: their sense of sympathy, their feeling of responsibility, or their belief in mutuality.

Sympathy drives action for a majority of people who respond to situations of social crisis or injustice, argues Rebecca Todd Peters, recipient of Elon University’s 2012 Distinguished Scholar Award. Others act out of a motivation of responsibility to help those less fortunate than themselves.

But it’s mutuality, the sense of “we’re all in this together,” that is necessary to move beyond simple charity and into a mindset of social justice. And what, exactly, is social justice? For Peters, it is the transformation of structures within society – whether they be economic, political or social – that help humans advance toward social wellbeing.

Peters on April 16 outlined the underlying principles of her forthcoming book, Solidarity Ethics: Transformation in a Globalized World, in an annual lecture that provides distinguished scholars an opportunity to share the fruits of their research. Peters titled her LaRose Digital Theatre presentation “On Heresy and Justice: Social Christianity and Prophetic Traditions” and built an ethical case for Christians to rethink their approach to charity.

“People who respond from a moral intuition of sympathy are motivated either by feelings of pity or sorrow for the misfortunes of others, or by the guilt they feel at judging their lives are better than the individuals who they reach out to help,” Peters said. “For people who act out of the sympathy stage of moral intuition, there’s a fundamental divide that exists between themselves and the other who they seek to help.”

That’s a problem, she said. Many Christians in this category also share a theological understanding of their success as a blessing from God. They thank God for health, good jobs, families and more in a country where they have freedom to succeed. If they’re privileged, there must be a reason, and the  theological implication is that people whose intuitions rely on sympathy believe they are somehow morally superior to those who live elsewhere.

Those who feel a sense of responsibility to help others recognize society is plagued by social problems and that they hold a certain amount of privilege, Peters continued. They tend to believe democratic societies have progressed to where all people have the capacity to change situations in life if they work hard enough and make good life choices.

People who exercise their purchasing power, from buying low-energy light bulbs to fair trade food to boycotting big box retailers with reputations of exploiting workers, fall into this group. Peters said this way of acting is often paternalistic, and that it can create economic and social inequality with perceived moral superiority yet again.

That leaves mutuality.

“Too often, when people work from a position of responsibility, they think they know how to solve other people’s problems,” she said. “People who work from a position of mutuality realize they can work with others to help solve problems … but they can’t solve those problems for them.”

Humans who act out of a moral intuition of mutuality recognize the capricious nature of human existence, Peters said. They are cognizant of the social factors of power, politics, wealth and greed that contribute to structures of society that disportionately benefit the educated and wealthy classes.

“As long as people primarily define their actions as ‘helping others,’ out of guilt or responsibility, they fail to recognize the ways in which their own humanity is tied up in the health and wellbeing of others,” she said in her conclusion. “An ethic of solidarity offers the possibility for broad based conversations across multiple lines of difference as people seek ways of working together to build a world that is both sustainable and just.”

Peters began her career at Elon in 2001 as the Distinguished Emerging Scholar of Religious Studies. Two years later, she won the Trinity Prize for her book, In Search of the Good Life: The Ethics of Globalization, which was lauded by renowned philosopher and critic Cornel West as “the best treatment of the complex debate on globalization by a religious ethicist now available.”

She has edited books on Christianity and social justice from a feminist perspective and published articles on sexuality and post-colonial issues. Peters also has served as chair of the Southeast Commission on the Study of Religion and just finished her term as president of the American Academy of Religion, Southeast Region. She currently serves on the Standing Commission of the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission.

Solidarity Ethics: Transformation in a Globalized World is due out in January 2014.

“She is able to comfortably step between the worlds of academia and the church,” Professor Jeffrey C. Pugh said Tuesday when introducing his colleague from the religious studies department. “Professor Peters is a clear and powerful voice for a more just world.”