Moral Compass Conference: The search for moral common ground
Can we still have meaningful conversations about matters of morality? Is there a shared moral language between representatives of opposing positions? And what are the prospects of finding shared values? Join our conference.
Conference in brief
March 2022
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keynote speakers
of international renoun
inspiring locations
in the heart of the Netherlands

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Is there a shared ‘moral compass’ that could guide conversations about morality? Does moral common ground exist in a world with so many different religions and ideologies? If we do find each other in shared ideas about matters of morality, is this only on an abstract level, such as an abstract idea of human rights? Is it mostly on a practical level, such as the consensus about the need for accessible health care or freedom of speech? Or on all of these levels? How do we balance our search for a shared moral framework while taking into consideration the particularity of people’s moral frameworks? What are the role, the importance and the limitations of religion and theological reflection in these matters?


The Moral Compass Project of the Protestant Theological University invites academics in the fields of theology, religious studies, and philosophy, as well as sociology and anthropology, to join us in exploring such (meta-)ethical questions in the conference The search for moral common ground. In particular, we are interested in contributions on the following three subthemes.

  • Subtheme 1: Empirical research with regard to the topic of moral common ground

    Keynote speakers and paper presenters will explore what empirical research may contribute to addressing moral diversity and exploring moral common ground. This will shed light on the relevance of the results of such research for further issues pertaining to the topic of moral common ground - viz. the attainability and desirability of moral common ground, how to increase convergence on pertinent moral issues, how to further such convergence while remaining sensitive to deep (cultural) differences, and so forth. Among the questions that will be explored, are:

    • Which moral values are shared by people living in different (specific) cultures?
    • How deep is moral diversity, both intraculturally and interculturally?
    • What are important causes of polarization with regard to morality?
    • Moreover, what is the de facto role of religion both in fostering as well as in bridging moral diversity?
    • How relativistic are we with regard to morality? Is moral relativism declining or on the rise, both in our own culture, and worldwide?   
  • Subtheme 2: A shared moral compass?

    We will discuss the concept of a moral compass and the question of to what extent it can be thought of as shared. Questions to be explored are:

    • What capacities are involved in coming to know good and evil, right and wrong? Can such capacities be conceived in terms of a moral compass?
    • How do notions such as conscience, natural law, intuition, virtue, and so on, relate to the idea of a moral compass?
    • Are such capacities in some sense ‘natural’? Should they be thought of as evolved and/or cultivated? Or do we have to conceive them as divinely infused?
    • Which conditions impair the proper functioning of such capacities? To what degree does sin, or the human fault, bear upon them?
    • Should we be sceptical about the idea of a (shared) moral compass, and if so, why?
  • Subtheme 3: Fundamental reflections on moral common ground

    We will discuss fundamental philosophical and/or theological reflections on  the idea of moral common ground. Questions to be explored could be, but are not limited to, the following:

    • How should we understand the very idea of ‘moral common ground’?
    • Should we conceive of moral common ground in terms of an ‘overlapping consensus’?
    • Does the search for moral common ground require giving up (or bracketing) the particularity of one’s worldview or culture?
    • What kinds of theological narratives enable Christians to search for moral common ground?
    • How is (belief in) the existence of God related to moral common ground?
    • What is the relation between moral common ground and human rights?
    • How important is it to reach moral common ground? Is it something human beings should aspire to?
    • Does the search for moral common ground exclude moral relativism?

Keynote speakers

  • Gabriël van den Brink, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

    Gabriël van den Brink is Professor of Philosophy at Centrum Ethos at Vrije Universiteit. He has published more than 45 books related to different aspects of Dutch social life. In 2006 he was appointed as a full professor in Social Administration at the University of Tilburg. In 2009 he started as the president of the Tilburg School for Politics and Public Administration. After his retirement in Tilburg he switched to Centrum Ethos in order to teach philosophy. 

    Keynote: 'Searching for common sense. Sociological, historical and evolutionary perspectives on moral values'

    This lecture is based on the research I have done over the past 20 years into moral values. For the sake of convenience these efforts may be divided into four parts. In the years 2000-2006 my question was about values shared by Dutch citizens, leading to the conclusion that a major role was played by differences in educational level. Highly educated people turned out to be strongly attached to freedom and individual autonomy, while people with less education attached more to authority and  national community. In the years 2008-2012 we investigated what the Dutch consider to be their most important ideals. We found that a big majority adhered to a variety of sacred, social and vital values. This conclusion seemed to underline the well-known idea that modern societies demonstrate a high degree of diversity in moral issues. But is it true? Perhaps this diversity is superficial in nature. Can we really exclude the idea that human beings are sharing more than they like to admit? Hoping to answer this question I dived into the history of axial civilizations. This project started in 2012 and made me understand that traditions such as Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity or Humanism may speak different languages, but they also have an interesting overlap on a practical level. In order to elaborate on this I started to acquaint myself in 2016 with the human evolution preceding our moral behavior. I was surprised to discover hundreds of biologists, psychologists, archeologists and primatologists all being deeply concerned to prove that human beings are sharing a moral basis indeed. So my conclusion is both hopeful and clear: moving our attention from words to deeds ad well as from the present to the past we may understand better the importance of common sense.

  • Jennifer Herdt, Yale University Divinity School, USA

    Jennifer Herdt is Gilbert L. Stark Professor of Christian Ethics at the Yale University Divinity School. She has published widely on the history of modern moral thought, notably on virtue, natural law, moral agency, and ethical formation. One of her recent publications is Forming Humanity: Redeeming the German Bildung Tradition (Chicago, 2019). She is a senior member of the research team for Collaborative Inquiries in Theological Anthropology, a multi-year project funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

    Keynote: 'Inside the Ethical: Non-Reductive Ethical Naturalism and the Revelation of the Good'

    In the search for common ground capable of supporting cooperation amidst cultural, religious, and ethical diversity and conflict, we have good reason to canvass resources from multiple traditions.  This paper focuses on Neo-Aristotelian ethical naturalism, which seeks to show the objectivity of the ethical by reflecting on what it is to flourish or be perfected as an instance of a life-form.  While there are important objections that must be addressed, Aristotelian naturalism is a promising approach for a number of reasons.  It is a non-reductive naturalism intelligible from a secular philosophical perspective, while also being open to being grasped theologically (and, indeed, related to the Thomistic-Aristotelian natural law tradition so influential in Christian ethical reflection and in the West more generally).  It situates the distinctive character of human practical reasoning as a feature of one particular finite embodied life-form among many others, thus addressing mounting concerns about human exceptionalism.  And while it does not settle substantive ethical disputes, it provides a robust framework within which to work towards resolution of such disputes in ways that are not paternalistic and that respect all concerned parties.

  • Sabine Roeser, Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands

    Sabine Roeser is Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Professor of Ethics at TU Delft. Her research covers theoretical, foundational topics concerning the nature of moral knowledge, intuitions, emotions, art and evaluative aspects of risk, but also urgent and hotly debated public issues on which her theoretical research can shed new light, such as nuclear energy, climate change and public health issues.

    Keynote: 'Moral emotions, intuitions and a shared moral compass in challenging times'

    Public discourse seems to be more divided than ever. Is there any hope for a shared moral compass? And what is the nature of such a shared moral compass? Rationalist approaches in metaethics see rationality as the most promising source of objective ethical insights, whereas sentimentalists hold that moral insights are grounded in supposedly subjective emotions. In this presentation I will discuss a ‘third way’ that sees moral emotions and intuitions as possible source of objective and shareable moral insights. This approach, ‘affectual intuitionism’, is grounded in ethical intuitionism, combined with a theory of cognitive moral emotions. Through what I call ‘emotional deliberation’ we can reflect with and on our moral emotions. I will argue that this approach can help shed light on how to overcome stalemates in current public debates on controversial issues, by focusing on what unites us instead of what divides us. By focusing on our shared humanity and solidarity, via compassion and imagination, our moral emotions and intuitions can help to foster understanding and moral insight.

  • Rebekka A. Klein, Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany

    Rebekka A. Klein is Professor of Systematic Theology at the Faculty of Protestant Theology at the Ruhr University in Bochum. For her research, she was awarded the Hanns Lilje Science Prize for Freedom and Responsibility in 2019 and the Karl Heim Prize in 2009. In 2011, she was the only Protestant theologian to be awarded one of the Volkswagen Foundation's Dilthey Fellowships. Her main areas of work include political theology and the theory of democracy, theories of God's weak power, love of neighbor and altruism, and vulnerability and bodily subjectivity as paradigms of a new interdisciplinary anthropology. She is co-editor of In Need of A Master. Politics, Theology and Radical Democracy (DeGruyter, 2021) and author of Sociality as the Human Condition: Anthropology in Economic, Philosophical and Theological Perspective (Leiden, 2011).

    Keynote: 'Embodiment, Religion, and the Social Bond'

    What social bonds does the Christian religion produce and how do they relate to the search for a moral common ground of society? Social bonds emerge in different societal spheres, they follow different temporalities, but above all they depend on media of their embodiment. In addition to language and discourse, the body - as a corporeal and as a symbolic body - has recently been recognized as the medium of the social bond. The significance of the corporeality of the social has come to the fore anew, especially since the onset of the worldwide pandemic, as a structure of the vulnerability of a society. On the one hand, the open society is dependent on a bodily incarnation of social bonds, and, on the other hand, it cannot (any longer) guarantee the public space of participation for everyone in which they are to take place without danger. Against this background, what significance can be attributed to the religious practice of a social bond? To what extent is the body, and more specifically the vulnerable body, a central medium of the social in it, and what effect does this have for the search for the common good or the moral common ground of society?

  • Nicholas Adams, University of Birmingham, UK

    Nicholas Adams holds the Chair of Philosophical Theology at the University of Birmingham. His two principal areas of research are the impact of German Idealism on Christian theology together with the investigation of philosophical problems in inter-religious engagement.Among his publications is Eclipse of Grace: Divine and Human Action in Hegel (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).

    Keynote: 'Alternatives to Moral Common Ground: Lessons from Antigone and King Lear'

    The study of ethics presents a familiar paradox. The things that bind us most strongly are things that we take for granted, unspoken. They become available for articulation at the point they are no longer taken for granted, and even sometimes at the point they break down. The condition for articulation is the loss of their power over us. Worse, our articulation of what is closest to us often produces falsification: what we say misrepresents what we hold dear (as when we try to articulate our deepest loves). The search for moral common ground risks being caught on the horns of this dilemma: either articulate such ground, and lose its power (and even falsify it), or live a life of ‘immediate’ moral grounds but have nothing to talk about to each other. Learning from Antigone and King Lear I suggest that we should seek practices that sit oddly between articulation and inarticulation. I offer the practice of scriptural reasoning as such a practice – inadequate and problematic in various ways, but intellectually generative as an alternative to the search for moral common ground.

  • Theo Boer and Stef Groenewoud, Protestant Theological University, the Netherlands

    Theo Boer (Rotterdam 1960) studied theology and ethics in Utrecht and Uppsala. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the theocentric ethics of James M. Gustafson. From 1987-2001 he worked at the Centre for Bioethics and Health Law of Utrecht University. Since 2001 he has been teaching ethics at the Protestant Theological University, first in Utrecht, since 2012 in Groningen. He is also a visiting professor of the history of ethics. His main areas of interest are health care ethics (especially end of life decisions) and theological ethics.

    A. Stef Groenewoud (Netherlands, 1977) holds a PhD in health sciences (Erasmus University Rotterdam) and a Master of Philosophy (Applied Ethics - University of Utrecht). In his research he focuses on End of Life Care and Health System Ethics. Stef is board member of the European Association for Centers of Medical Ethics (EACME) and Chief Editor of the Health Services Research and Regions journal. Stef participates in the Moral Compass Project at the Protestant Theological University, location Groningen, the Netherlands.  

    Keynote: 'Ethics and Empirical Knowledge: Experiences with Euthanasia in Loved Ones as a Case Study'

    In our recently published book 'Living with euthanasia', we have collected 44 stories with experiences of family members of patients who received euthanasia. We also interviewed 15 of these relatives. Besides many positive experiences, next of kin also describe the downsides of the euthanasia given to their loved one. In our lecture, we address the question: "To what extent can this kind of empirical data function as 'markers of moral value'?" We describe the emergence of the empirical ethics movement, and discuss well-known pitfalls as well as currently accepted approaches when using empirical data in bioethics. We also discuss the possibilities and impossibilities of moral detachment, which some argue is required for the justification of morality. We show how this relates to the views of ethicists James Gustafson and Gerrit de Kruijf, and finally hold a plea for a 'partially detached critical applied ethics approach'. We continually illustrate our considerations with empirical material from our research into the lived experiences of relatives of patients who have been granted euthanasia. 


Behind two small picturesque houses at the Mariahoek in Utrecht lies the convent of Saint Gertrudis, hardly visible from the street. Today, this hidden church is called Gertrudis Chapel and can be reached from the Willemsplantsoen with the entrance next to the cathedral 'Gertrudis church'. The hidden church was created around 1640 and offered refuge to Catholics who had been driven out of the Geertekerk by the Protestants after the Reformation.

An extensive restoration was carried out in the 1990s. Since 1992, the Gertrudis chapel has been the historical showpiece of the conference and meeting centre In de Driehoek. In 2016, In de Driehoek was completely rebuilt while retaining all its monumental features. This has created a modern conference and meeting centre with allure in the centre of Utrecht. Easily accessible by car and within walking distance of Utrecht Central Station.


Registration is now open.


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