This book explores the possibilities for dialogue and cross-fertilization between Christian ethics and the new fields of moral psychology and moral development. Its point of departure is Hardwired to Connect, a scholarly study of the well-being of children and youth, which concludes that what is needed to overcome the alienation of youth today is the restoration of authoritative communities which meet children’s needs for attachment and connection. The weakness of this study, according to Browning, is that it underestimates the role of a community of interpretation in maintaining and recreating authoritative communities; this is what Browning tries to develop in this book by exploring the ideas of critical hermeneutics, the thickness of moral experience, teleology, the premoral values of kin altruism and attachment, distantiation and diagnosis in science, the deontological test, and the role of narrativity in traditions.
Browning argues that the field of moral psychology is dependent on pre-empirical and philosophical assumptions about the nature of ethics and morality. When moral psychologies neglect or ignore these assumptions, Christian ethics must critique them and help to develop more adequate pre-empirical and philosophically sound models of morality. Browning takes an anti-foundationalist perspective on the relation of moral psychology and Christian ethics, arguing that moral psychology as a science must begin with our received moral traditions and moral history. Although there is a very important critical role for the “distantiating” attitudes and procedures of science in clarifying goods and threats to them, it can and should never achieve total objectivity and detachment from culture and tradition. Browning argues that Christian theological ethics needs to develop a more adequate approach to the premoral dimension of theological anthropology; moral psychologies can help in that task. But many of these moral psychologies differ in their understandings of what these premoral goods are and in their implicit principles of moral obligation and overall worldviews. Browning surveys various schools of moral psychology to identify and critique these hidden assumptions. He discusses, among others, Freud, Kohlberg, Erikson, Rogers, and Maslow.
The pre-empirical model of ethics and morality assumed by Browning is critically hermeneutical. Choosing among the conflicting goods of life requires moving beyond ethics to morality; morality requires acts of critical interpretation. He describes moral reflection as a “circle that (1) starts with our present ethical dilemmas, (2) goes backward to study and interpret the classics and traditions that have shaped us morally, (3) critiques these sources, and (4) then moves back once again to the original situation.” With this model he is trying to locate both psychology and theological ethics within a broader theory of experience. Critical hermeneutics is a possible bridge between scientific moral psychology and Christian ethics.
In dialogue with evolutionary biology and psychology Browning develops a caritas view of Christian love as equal-regard, built on the natural affections of kin and reciprocal altruism. Self sacrificial love, in this view, functions as a transitional moment aimed at restoring love as equal-regard, rather than as an end in itself. This view is in contrast to some “strong agape” positions which stress love as self-denial. He then discusses how the family has functioned to mediate between kin altruism and care for the distant stranger and questions how the decline of the family in Western societies might affect our capacity for empathy.
Browning does not equate Christian love with kin altruism because Christian love is grounded in the belief in the infinite value of the other because she is created and redeemed by God and “on the sense that some acts of self-sacrifice are both willed and empowered by the grace of God.” (p. 123) He argues rather that God works in two directions, from the ground up through the natural processes of attachment and kin altruism, and from above through revelation and grace. He says, “If one takes evolutionary psychology seriously, loving the remote other depends on the analogical extension of kin relations to this other, enabled by reason, grace, and the theological belief that all humans are created in the image of God and are children of God.” (p. 145)
This is an outstanding book. It is clearly written and cogently argued. Browning’s range and depth of knowledge of both Christian tradition and the social sciences is very impressive. The explanations of the methods and assumptions of the various schools of moral psychology are particularly helpful. The critical exploration of the concept of Christian love is excellent. This work is an important contribution to the discussion of the relation between religion and science.