Persuading people to Principles or Inspiring them to Virtue

An excerpt from the sermon today -- delivered at the Greater Lansing UU Church.

I think that there are two different ways, probably many more, to approach morality.  I think of one path as being principle based.  The other virtue based. 

A principle based moralist starts from basic principles and then applies to the world and its problems.  

We understand this because, after all, Unitarian Universalism has for the last 20-30 years organized itself around seven principles, which are principles for action -- moral guideposts. 

They make the first "whereas" statement in our moral resolution making process.  

Take our first principle :  we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of each person. 

So we start with that 

"Whereas, every person has inherent worth and dignity, 
"Whereas dignity for a person includes a decent burial after they died
Whereas Tamerlan Tsarnaev is a dead person
Tamerlan Tsarnaev should be accorded a decent burial."

Ifyou are "principle-based", you logically work from the principle through the actual conditions we are in to come to what we think is the right thing to do.

Virtue-based moral thinking works differently.  

A virtue is a habit of the heart -- a character trait.  Kindness is a virtue, and we speak of such and such a person as being a kind person.   We would say that about a person who acts in a kind manner in most situations.  

You develop your virtues over your lifetime as your character develops.

Liberality is a particular set of virtues, it is a kind of character. And I  think liberal religion in general and Unitarian Universalism in particular inspire us to practice the liberal virtues, to make them an essential part of our character. 

What are the virtues I am talking about? 

The first is reverence:  reverence is character trait, not a belief. No matter what their religious beliefs are, anyone can feel awe and wonder.  Really, it doesn't matter why someone would want to bow before the wonders of this world, but that we do.  Reverence sees the amber waves of grain in a loaf of bread, and marvels at all happened on the way to your toaster this morning. On Sunday morning we gather to reawaken reverence within us.  There hardly a page in our hymnals which is not a reminder to stop and see again the wonder in the ordinary around you. Why? Because we believe that those who practice the virtue of reverence are happier, healthier and make the world a better place. 

The genius of Unitarian Universalism is that we figured that you don’t have to have a particular belief system to be inspired to awe, wonder and reverence. So, we offer these services to anyone and everyone who needs a little inspiration to reverence this week. 

We want other virtues to be part of our characters:  honesty, living the real world, and humility, knowing that we think and know is partial and that it's not about me, all the time.   And we are trying to develop the twin virtues of gratitude and generosity, that we give and receive whole-heartedly and joyfully.  

The virtue of openness, open-mindedness, open-heartedness, being eager to see things in a new way, or to encounter the diversity with the world with curiosity and eagerness.  This is a key component of liberality, a virtue that is very important to us as religious liberals.  in some ways, it is the one by which we want to be known, and the one where we monitor ourselves most closely.  We want to be welcoming, and check ourselves often to make sure that we really are welcoming.  We hold ourselves to high standards on that.   We know that we cannot predict every situation where we will have to be open-minded and open-hearted, so we know that there is no code of behavior that will always result in being open.  But if we have developed the virtue of openness, we hope that we will respond with openness in any situation we find ourselves. 

Another virtue that is very important to liberal religion is self-possession:  we think that it is important to think for ourselves, and especially that we are able to think for ourselves when we are in stressful situations, or times when the crowd is headed in the wrong direction.  You have to be you, everybody else has been taken already.

And finally, I think that we are trying to develop the virtues of empathy, solidarity, compassion, kindness, or mercy.  That we never become indifferent to other people, to how they feel, to what they need, to how they are suffering.  That we never harden our hearts.  That we hold off on our judgements, and that no matter how we have judged them, we show mercy to them.  

We come together on Sunday morning, I believe, to make a space and time for each one of us to recommit to the virtues of liberal religion.  We may believe different things, and we may tell different stories, but we are each inspired.  

There are so many people looking to be inspired. It is not complicated or hard:  if you want to be more reverent, more open-minded, more generous and more grateful, if you want to be more compassionate and merciful, and more self-possessed, come here and help us inspire each other to live a better way -- why? because it makes us happier, and healthier and the world a better place. 


  1. This is a great list of virtues.

    I suspect it could be added to. I would think of adding virtues that are talents to your list of virtues, that stress intentions. Intentions are a good start, but as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    How about virtues such the ability to reason in respectful dialogue with others?

    How about the virtue of the ability to not only have compassion and solidarity with others, but the virtue of being able to see how organizations and social structures work, and to promote their creative use and vitality?

    And a virtue in the sense of a character trait is the faith that although the arc of the universe is long, indeed usually far longer than a human lifetime, it leads towards justice.


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