The Perils of Principles

Unitarian Universalism appears to do principle-based moral reasoning.  After all, we have these seven principles and we often cite them as reasons for moral stands that we take.  Especially the first one which asserts that all persons have inherent worth and dignity.  It's a Universalist statement: an all, each and every statement.

That kind of generalization hangs out that like curve ball over the plate waiting for someone to disprove it finding an exception.  So how many discussions have you been in on whether Hitler has worth and dignity, or Osama Bin Ladin, or Tamarlan Tsarnaev?  If we can be forced to admit that there is a single person beyond humanity, dignity and worth, then our principle falls.  We are then in a new arguments: how do we tell who is evil, what is evil, and who gets to judge?  

So our moral reasoning becomes a project of finding potentially redeeming qualities in the most reprehensible persons.

It's unnecessary.  It's artificial.  It's extremely idealistic.  It actually removes us from most moral discussions. 

Remember why we proclaimed the principle was to provide a moral guide for own actions.  

But, all that really needs to be said is that we are each trying to develop the virtues of justice and compassion.  We aspire to respond with mercy and empathy in the real situations we are in.  Not at a perfect level, but at the best level we are actually able to act.  

Is there any point in arguing about Hitler's moral nature.  One, he is dead.  Two, he is an extraordinarily extreme example. And three, even if he were still alive, for most people he was beyond the sphere of influence.

"Principles" tend to be totalizing statements, full of "all" and "every" and "always" and "never".
"Virtues" are relative statements, full of "better" and "more" and "try" and "less". 

I do not know if every person always has "worth and dignity".  I do hope to treat people with more compassion and empathy than I have so far in life. 

We would do well to junk our principles and reframe our moral and ethical talk around the virtues we want to develop in ourselves, our children, and our communities.  Virtues like reverence, self-possession, openness, solidarity, gratitude, honesty, humility, generosity, compassion.  

Stop talking about what lofty principles we believe and what we think others should affirm.  Talk instead about the kinds of people we are trying to be.


  1. krohde12:08 AM

    Have you read Johnathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind? He has found six values that people identify as virtues and claims they have some evolutionary basis. He sees a lot of our political disagreements as coming from the degree to we emphasize one of those values over the other. I would be interested to hear your take if you read it. I think it explains some of the strong disagreements in UUism.

  2. "Stop philosophizing about what a good man is and be one." Marcus Aurelius, "Meditations"

  3. Clyde Grubbs2:47 PM

    These are words in bylaws preamble. We adopted these principles to substitute for our consolidation liberal Christian affirmation, and we made them C bylaws.

    Now we need a supermajority for two years to edit the bylaws and they have been vested with so much affection that we failed to do some intelligent edits. Just couldn't get the votes.

    We the member congregations covenant to affirm and promote ......... the development of virtues??

    That is a great idea, it would mature our faith. But let us keep our bylaws as bylaws and keep the theology and mission simple and to the point.

    What we have are sacred cow Tee shirt bylaws.

  4. Salvation by character? What a novel concept!

  5. Clyde, the proposed revision to the Principles and Purposes failed not over misplaced loyalty to the Principles but over disappointment in the way the Sources of Unitarian Universalism were recast. I covered that debate for UU World back in 2010:


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