06 November 2006

Moral Values for a Pluralistic Society

Draft Statement of Conscience As Revised by Don Berg

(The Unitarian Universalist Association Commission on Social Witness is given a topic by the member congregations at the annual General Assembly which goes through a two year process of study and reflection. Through the input of all UU's who choose to participate in the process a Statement of Conscience is presented to the General Assembly at the end of those two years which they vote to adopt or not, as a statement that reflects the concerns of the Association as a whole. In 2005 this is the topic that was chosen and on October 1st the commission published this draft for more input since this statement is due to be voted on in the June 2007 GA in Portland, Oregon.)

(original draft)


Our Westward journey is interrupted abruptly in the desert,

Progress halts when a solo wheel suddenly goes South.

Hot debates of current events are stoked into fires with the parchment sheaves of yesterday’s prophets.

We heat our rusting deformed ideals and then strike them with new discoveries and insights to forge a renewed sacred hoop carefully tempered for the strength to handle a rough road ahead.

We endure the heat and in the end admire the beauty of creation but also put it to the good work when it is ready.

The forged metal tire is married to the natural wood that fulfills the wheel’s useful function.

Back in place and properly balanced these vital parts restore the wholeness of the system that provides us with the freedom to make our journey.

We are thankful and hear the Call to continue, not because we are anxious to arrive, but because traveling into the West is about learning to flourish and thrive throughout the adventure of living this earthly human life.


Unitarian Universalists have strong convictions about how best to realize our moral ideals and have a long tradition of advocacy to alleviate the systemic causes of suffering and strengthen the systemic support for more global realization of joy and fulfillment. Our history honors many heroes who have taken public positions and acted vigorously on issues of great consequence including religious freedom, abolition, women's suffrage, civil rights, and, in the present day, the freedom to marry. As Unitarian Universalists, we must affirm and reclaim the moral influence of liberal religion in global society.

Our moral values are grounded in the universal human experiences of well being and how humans come together in organizations, associations, businesses, religious institutions, and governments to mutually nurture the health and wellness of all beings. We are a blended family who come from varied backgrounds. We are drawn to a welcoming and inclusive religious community in which we might nurture our spirits and make a positive difference in our world.

What is the moral and ethical grounding of our shared faith? How might the moral and ethical grounding of Unitarian Universalism be given greater voice in civil discourse? We are called to respond to these questions, not only with a statement of conscience, but through acts of conscience that honor our individual and communal experience.

We understand "values" to be principles, standards, or qualities considered worthwhile or desirable by the person or group holding them. We understand "morals" and "ethics" to overlap with the primary emphasis in morals being the customs and habits of behavior through which we try to ensure human flourishing and the primary emphasis in ethics being the social, economic, and political contexts in which our behaviors play out.

The separation of church and state that is enumerated in the United States Constitution is designed to prevent the power, influence, and use of public resources under the control of the government from being wielded in favor of one religion. Those with conservative religious beliefs often speak clearly and passionately of their values related to controversial issues such as abortion, stem cell research, the death penalty, and the teaching of evolution. Unfortunately the tactics of some are not only proving effective at broadly influencing the government, but are also violating the principle of the separation of church and state.


Empathy is the source of our morality. From the findings of cognitive science we know that all human moral understandings draw primarily from the experiences of our own well-being and how we imaginatively extend our understanding of it. While this provides a universal experiential basis for the formulation of similar values, such as love, respect, responsibility, along with all the personal and social virtues taught in all religions, it also means that there is a vast diversity of ways and means to express those values and meet human needs. We base the logic of our moral thinking primarily on having empathy with others and taking responsibility for ourselves and the impacts that we have on the life around us.

A common expression of ethics and morality is found in faith traditions that include Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Taoism, and Zoroastrianism. Known as the Golden Rule, it is commonly stated as "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This expression coincides with important philosophical statements such as Immanuel Kant's Ends Principle, which tells us to treat all persons as "ends in themselves" and not as "mere means to our own ends." These basic expressions of responsibility informed by empathy form a strong foundation for Unitarian Universalist morality and ethics.

An alternative way of stating the Ends Principle and Golden Rule appears in the Declaration of Independence, which says that "All men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights," among which are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." It asserts that people have the right to choose their own beliefs and chart their own paths as long as they do no harm. Abraham Lincoln called this statement "the father of all moral principles."

An international manifestation of these common principles is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations. The very first sentence of the Preamble states: "Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…."

Our Unitarian Universalist principles express the extent to which our well-being is not only dependent on our family, friends and neighbors, but to the whole human community as well as the entire web of life. These principles represent the use of empathy and responsibility to take the Golden Rule and the Ends Principle beyond simply our personal sphere of moral understanding to include how our systems of organization and social institutions also determine the effects of our choices. History shows us the dire consequences that follow when this common morality is either rejected or logically excludes the complex social influences on human behavior.

We are not divinely duty bound to obey, nor individually obligated to defer to, the moral dictates of our religious heritage, but we as a religious community choose to honor and respect all the sources of human wisdom. Our long history has shown that our highest and best ideals are optimally realized when they must periodically survive the gauntlet of being questioned, revised and resubmitted for acceptance as worthy of our devotion.


The moral values of Unitarian Universalism correspond profoundly with those moral values embodied in the founding documents of the United States and the United Nations. The Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the U.N. Charter embody freedom of religion, the right of conscience, and the worth and dignity of every person.

Yet the United States came into being on a land already inhabited. The subsequent violation of Native Americans, the horrors of slavery, and the oppression of countless others fly in the face of the idealism of these founding documents. Our history until the recent consolidation of radical conservative ideologues in a variety of positions of power in the U.S. has involved the gradual realization of these ideals which continue to challenge us. Ours is still far from "a perfect union."

We aspire to a democratic pluralism, where each voice is heard and each person respected. Like the religious liberals who went before us, it is time for us to work together with those of other faith traditions to defend a basic principle of freedom: we are responsible for ensuring that no harm is done as we exercise the fundamental right, inherent in being human, to follow a life of our own choosing. Where we must understand that harm can be caused by not only our individual action but also our systemic organizational and social actions.


How might we be proactive rather than reactive in the public dialogue on moral values? How might we bridle our own temptation to arrogance and recognize and affirm the common ground of our Unitarian Universalist faith and the freedom of faith espoused in the founding documents of national and international governance? How might we discern, affirm, and live our moral values in our pluralistic global society?

As individuals, let us:

• Take every opportunity to draw attention to the agreement between the moral values embodied in the founding documents of our governments and the moral values of Unitarian Universalism;

• Reflect upon how our moral values inform our political views and behavior;

• Consider the formative influences of our individual conscience and how to evaluate what our conscience calls us to do measured by a criterion of the common good;

• Educate ourselves on interfaith matters;

• Study how complex systemic causes of suffering and injustice can be more easily communicated to those who are not familiar with complex systemic causation;

• Listen to people with whom we find ourselves in conflict, recognizing them as our neighbors, our kin;

• Offer our fellow citizens a model of religion that embraces empathy and responsibility over strict obedience; and

• Amplify our conviction that the application of our Principles and moral values guided by empathy and responsibility can improve our society

As congregations, let us:

• Respectfully affirm and celebrate the unity that underlies the diversity of our congregations;

• Utilize small group ministry as a tool for congregants to discern and apply our moral values;

• Explore and articulate the grounding of our social justice agenda in empathy and responsibility informed by concepts of systemic causation;

• Craft and implement a process by which congregational positions on moral issues can be established and articulated in the local community and beyond;

• Give our children and youth the language to describe themselves as Unitarian Universalists and the confidence to express their convictions and moral values;

• Encourage our religious professionals to proclaim our moral values in the public square; and

• Work with like-minded organizations such as the Interfaith Alliance and the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) to more profoundly recognize the pluralism of Unitarian Universalism and the religious pluralism of our world.

As an association of interdependent congregations, let us:

• Realize media opportunities to articulate Unitarian Universalist values and their application to living with respect and compassion;

• Do all possible to support civil liberties and the separation of church and state; and

• Work across faith, cultural, and national boundaries to cultivate a Beloved Global Community.

Through the exploration, discernment, and articulation of how our moral values are grounded in the basic experience of empathy and responsibility in concert with affirmation and celebration of the pluralism of our society, we will rediscover our faith as a living tradition whose grounding and practice will then be visible, audible, and valued in the public square.

No comments: