the difference between "principles' and "virtues"

 Unitarian Universalism backed into a type of moral reasoning based on principles when we adopted the Seven Principles.

A "principle" is a formalized abstraction. "The inherent worth and dignity of every person." The moral reasoning that follows the promotion of a principle is discerning what they principle means and how to apply it to real life situations.  Because we have seven principles, we have to also reason through how this principle relates to others. (Should the first principle be first, or should the last be first.?) And finally, because principles are generalizations, they can be tested by trying to find the boundaries and the exceptions, which leads to a lot of discussions about Hitler. Did Hitler still have worth and dignity?

"Virtues", in contrast, are character traits, habitual behaviors, and a mixtures of emotions and rational thought. A virtue is a way of being human. I have my list of the virtues of liberal religion: self-possession, honesty, humility, generosity, reverence, openness and solidarity. They are not impersonal beliefs but inclinations. You may have your own list; the words are not that important.

The moral reasoning that follows when I commit to these virtues is how do I best exercise these aspects of my character in the situations I find myself.

I think that our 7 principles are useful ways to summarize #uupublictheology.

But our ministry with persons made impersonal and stunted by our focus on principles. It reduces our challenge into invitation to join us in a conversation about what our principles mean and how should they be worded and then applied.

Better that our invitation and challenge to persons should be to grow in the virtues that we seek to embody in the world.

We have the fear that Unitarian Universalism suffers from being too abstract and impersonal. That it lacks a profound personal dimension and does not inspire, but only educates, stimulates and convinces.

I would really like it if we stopped trying to explain ourselves and struggling the words that will cover all that we believe. I would like it if we stopped saying that our communities are somehow super special, and that our way to being a religious institution is so much better than every other kind.

What I would like for us to say: we are trying to grow into the virtues we need for the lives we now live in. We are trying to be better people, because it will bring us more health and happiness and it will make a better world.


  1. Tom, I think of our principles as what scientists and engineers call a first-order approximation, not our first guess at a particular value, but our further educated guess. My point in referring to orders of approximation is that we are expected to keep articulating who we are and who we wish to become. Our principles are just the "hello" -- hopefully followed by a much deeper, values-filled conversation.

    So, how can we leaders help this values-filled conversation to happen?

  2. Steve Cook12:36 PM

    A very helpful way to expand the way we think about what we do; also a corrective to the idolatry which has reified around the "sacred seven."

  3. Fortunately, Scott, the reasons why we leaders are leaders is that we have the authority to take our conversations to a deeper level. I think a lot of teachers and preachers in our congregations do talk a lot about virtues and personal development. I think that if we were more explicit, it would be easier to internalize and be more vivid. Good question, I don't know.
    I have been thinking this afternoon about this parallels the way that the Boy Scouts describe their goals -- those 12 character traits. Who can remember 12?

  4. Steve, the analysis that I make, now, is that the 7 principles are a perfectly good statement of our #uupublictheology and a vision of how our congregations as public institutions should operate. But they are not especially good statements of our pastoral (broadly defined) ministry. Because we have not done well at explainlng that dimension of ministry, we lean too heavily of the seven principles as being our core.

  5. Steve Cook5:47 PM

    I don't really think I am disagreeing with you. I'd like to see this expanded as you suggest.

  6. Fred Wooden5:59 PM

    One reason we have not been more explicit about personal virtues is that is threatens the core assertion of personal autonomy. As I have described our movement and the non UU church I serve, we are actually "the church of "you're not the boss of me." That sentiment is deeply inside modern UU DNA.

    Also, Tom, you are opening up the classic deontology question, which is valid I think. Are there virtues of behavior that should call us to account - honesty for example - or are moral decisions tp be measured by actual outcomes not just initial actions? Peter Singer has been relentless in this, and his conviction that the consequentialism position is better.

    It is good to talk about moral matters, though. We do not often do this, thinking that refining abstract values somehow magically changes our social behavior - meaning mostly that it will prove we are right. It is worth remembering that "moral philosophy" was the final and most difficult course taught at Harvard in the old days.

  7. Fred, you are clearly more learned than I about these schools of moral philosophy. Educate us all.

    And I wonder if that "you're not the boss of me" school of philosophy is fading or growing.

  8. I (as UUA field staff) am finding that the "you are not the boss of me" attitude is not showing up in congregations that have rediscovered and recommitted to being in covenant within and between congregations. I think that being in covenant can open the door to the deeper values conversations.

  9. Fred Wooden, Tom is clearly speaking the language of virtue ethics (also known as Aristotelian ethics). This is different both from deontological ethics and (though it is a form of consequentialism) from rule-based varieties of consequentialism such as utilitarianism.

    Virtue ethics seems like an approach ideally suited to the UU movement. Its rejection of the whole idea of a rule-based moral code that can be completely formulated in black and white resonates with our rejection of a specified set of beliefs as the supposedly necessary basis of a religious community. Its emphasis on the development of character articulates what most of us already hope UU is doing for us- helping us to become better, more helpful people.

  10. I can't agree more with your comment: "I would like it if we stopped saying that our communities are somehow super special, and that our way to being a religious institution is so much better than every other kind".

    To me, that attitude is epitomized by the lyric we sing from the hymn "As tranquil streams" -- "Free from the bonds that bind the mind to narrow thought and lifeless creed". That particular line has always struck me as both smug, and potentially off-putting to congregants or visitor who might suspect that their own creed is deemed "lifeless" or thoughts "narrow."

    That piece was written in a different time, but Unitarian Universalism as a refuge for those escaping traditional religions seems like an increasingly lifeless role. My sense is that the greater need is to serve people with no theological framework who are looking for something in a spiritual home, not to escape a rigid tradition. And I think that what some of them are looking for would include, in addition to our more abstract 7 principles, the more personal, moral virtues that Tom descibed.

  11. The old notion of "salvation by character" was not a bad one. I see virtue and character as having been left behind long ago in what we aspire to as UU's. Yet I think you have hit on something in terms of what many people are really looking for in a church community --- a place that will bolster them and their children in living as decent people of good character. I also think it would be a good first principle in what we look for in religious leaders both lay and professional.

  12. Yes! I have also been mulling over the role of virtues and values for UUs, including how such virtues and values can guide the way in which we do our public ministries.

    Have also been looking at statements of organizational culture to notice the way secular groups approach this. As UUs, what qualities do we want to cultivate in ourselves and our congregations/organizations?

    So GLAD to see you writing about this! Thank you for furthering this conversation!

  13. Yes! I have also been mulling over the role of virtues and values for UUs. How can we grow our capacity to embody such values in the manner in which we conduct our personal lives, congregations and public ministries?

    Have also been looking at statements of organizational culture in secular justice groups to see how they are approaching the question of the kind of people/organization they seek to be as they work toward their mission.

    As UUs, what what qualities of character do we want to cultivate in ourselves, our families, our congregations, seminaries and justice organizations?

    So GLAD to see you writing about this! Thank you for furthering this conversation!


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