Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The UU-FAQ VII: Right and Wrong

Do UU’s have a common code, like the Ten Commandments?

Not if you mean a specific written document. In general, though, we revere the same ethical principles as other religions. The world’s various religions may disagree fiercely about cultural rules (what to eat, what to wear, how to have sex and with whom) and theological practices (how to pray, how to worship, what name to call God) but there is broad consensus about certain basic virtues: compassion, honesty, justice, courage, and a willingness to stand up for the powerless. A similar consensus exists within UU congregations, though individuals are free to decide the details for themselves.

Several of the UU Principles deal with how we treat other people. The second principle (“Justice, equity, and compassion in human relationships.”) and the sixth (“The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”) have the most explicit implications for ethics.

What about sex?

The same ethical principles that govern other human relationships apply to sex. And so you could not expect many UU’s to approve of sexual relationships that are unjust, inequitable, or lacking in compassion. Honesty and respect for others are also UU values that apply to sexual relationships, just as they apply to all relationships.

Many religions, however, have special rules that apply uniquely to sex: rules against homosexuality for example, or against masturbation or against sex for pleasure as opposed to procreation. Individuals may adopt such restrictions for themselves, but UUism takes no official position on them.

Without special rules about sex, don’t things get out of hand?

Not usually. The most destructive sexual relationships are already ruled out by more general principles. Take adultery, for example. If an adulterous relationship violates the vows you have made to your spouse, then it’s dishonest. Pederastry is inequitable and shows a lack of compassion for children. Sexual relationships between clergy and parishioners can also be inequitable and exploitive.

What about gays and lesbians?

We welcome them. UU’s allow gays and lesbians to enter the ministry and hold any official position for which they are otherwise qualified. UU churches were among the first to offer “services of union” to recognize gay and lesbian relationships. The lead plaintiffs in the Massachusetts gay marriage case were married at UUA headquarters by UUA President William Sinkford.

If many UU’s don’t believe in an afterlife, why do they care about ethics and morality at all?

Even religions that do postulate rewards or punishments after death also teach that an ethical life is more satisfying than an unethical one. The promise of Heaven and fear of Hell can obscure this simple fact, which has been observed in many cultures around the world.

Because UU’s are responsible for their own moral codes and can’t just adopt the one approved by some official hierarchy, they tend to be more concerned about morality rather than less. Anyone who comes to a UU congregation seeking a den of licentiousness and criminality will probably be disappointed.

Do UU’s believe in the existence of evil?

The word evil refers to a number of quite distinct obstacles to human happiness and well-being: impersonal forces like hurricanes or diseases; circumstances, such as why one person rather than another is in the wrong place at the wrong time; malice; neglect, through which people harm others without explicitly intending to; and social injustice, in which the structure of human institutions can create problems like poverty or discrimination or war. All these things are real, but the usefulness of lumping them together into a unified concept like evil is questionable. Personifying this amalgamation with a character like Satan is even more questionable. Few UU’s describe evil in this way.

Most often, UU’s who use the word evil are refering to behaviors rather than characters. Acts that are malicious, that not only cause suffering but celebrate it, can be called evil. Some UU’s will also use evil to refer to individuals who habitually practice evil, but this is controversial. Some religions will call a person evil because he or she believes the wrong things; you will probably never hear this usage in UU circles.

What does it mean to be good?

As we discussed above, the same basic virtues are recognized by all the world’s major religions, and UU’s share this consensus. In general, UU’s interpret these virtues humanistically rather than theistically or abstractly. In other words, actions are good not because they please God or satisfy some abstract code, but because they help someone. In some religions, a “good” action might actually increase the suffering of everyone it affects. UU’s would regard such a claim as at best paradoxical, if not just wrong.


smijer said...

Great post. I love this. Maybe we should talk about having a sort of mnemonic like the 10C's that sum up what we generally believe to be the most important actions to generally engage in or generally avoid might be. Just so long as we realize that the underlying ethic is what is more important than any particular admonishment or restriction, should a situation put the two in conflict. What about that?

yvonne michelle said...

Doug gives uses the 10C's as a historical starting point. One ought to remember that the ancient Jews had something like 623 laws and regulations - Moses simplified it to ten! When Jesus arrived he simplified it further "Love God and love your neighbor as yourself". This last statement encompasses all the 623 and the 10 and leaves simply a principle and the notion that "we ought to figure out" what to do in each case. We don't need any more rules - just look at the courts in the country clogged with people agruing about this wording or that. With less words and just the few principles we can Become the people the word needs.