How do you know if you are doing the right thing? Sometimes it’s not too hard to figure out. The 10 commandments from the Judeo Christian tradition give some common sense advice. No killing, no stealing, that sort of thing. The Buddhists have a similar list of 5 precepts. The Golden Rule, to do unto others what you would have them do unto you, is also a very straightforward measure for the rightness of our actions, and some version of that teaching is found in most of the worlds religious traditions. But even these clear ethical statements don’t help in all of the many and various ethical dilemmas we face each day.
Our Mission statement as a congregation (printed on the front of your order of service) is to “provide a forum for liberal religious expression in an atmosphere which encourages spiritual growth and ethical living.” And for a community of people who have already set the intention to live ethical compassionate lives, we are not beginners to ethics. And holding ourselves to a higher standard than “what can I get away with” we know that there exists plenty of ethical ambiguity as we live in the world. So how do we know if we are doing the right thing?
I have noticed that one of the most dominant paradigms in our culture has to do with score keeping. Fortune 500 companies are literally the biggest- the ones with the most money. The score is kept regarding revenue. From the time we are we are quite young our success in school is rendered in grades, and once you are out of elementary school the “e for effort” goes by the wayside. How do you decide who won a football game? Who has the most points. If you grab a player’s face mask, or horse-collar someone, there will probably be a penalty called, but as long as you can make up those yards you can still win the game.
Living life as if there your whole grade depended on your final exam, it turns out, is called “Teleological Ethics.” However you get your “A” is okay as long as the final grade is a good grade. The word Teleological comes from the Greek telos, “end” It is a theory of ethics that derives duty or moral obligation from what is good or desirable as an end to be achieved. It is opposed to deontological ethics (from the Greek deon, “duty”), which holds that the basic standards for the rightness of an action are independent of the good or evil generated by the ethics . For the example, a student acting within deontological ethics would say that it is never right to cheat, even if that means you get a C instead of an A, and so don’t get into med school. But from the standpoint of Teleological ethics, there might arise a situation when cheating in school would serve a particular end, say getting into med school so that you could devote your life to curing disease in impoverished neighborhoods, or cheating on an entrance exam for a job you needed to feed your family.
This debate between teleological ethics and deontological ethics is a really big part of the debate we are hearing right now about presidential politics. Is it okay to tell lies if it achieves the righteous end of winning a presidential election? Is it okay to hit below the belt, to take the gloves off if it achieves that end?
The problem with teleological ethics is the fact that someone has to define what the “end” is. If the written exam counts for 100% of the grade, then whether or not you ever came to class or did any of the assigned reading does not matter as long as you do well on the exam. Someone whose goal for the class is to have a competency in the subject may pursue a different path from someone whose goal for the class is to have an A on their transcript.
Whether you run a clean race or a dirty race for the white house doesn’t matter as long as you get elected. But if your goal is to restore the good name and integrity of your country, do you have to start that during the race for the presidency? Or can you put that off until after you are elected? I think this is a crucial debate for people of conscience right now. If you take the path with integrity and it keeps you out of power, has your virtue rendered you irrelevant? If you take a dirty path to power, have you already corrupted the process whose integrity you had promised to restore?
In some ways this is a false duality. Let’s go back to the final exam; by calling the “grade on the report card” the end, we are excluding many other actual ends. I think we can no longer limit our vision like this. As people who covenant to affirm and promote the web of life of which we are all a part, we know that my final exam does not exist in a vacuum. Here is a more full understanding of what the “ends” really are for a hypothetical final exam:
Body- undernourished, sleep deprived, immune system depleted
Knowledge of material- forgotten most of it already
Home life- roommates grumpy about mess, everyone quick to anger and overly sensitive due to lack of sleep and stress.
Environmental- Pizza boxes not recyclable, but I walked to my exam.
So until recently in my thinking I would have put “Grade” in a column under “ends” and all those other things in a column under “means” and have wanted to see that they balance out. But now I realize they are ALL ends. The victorious “A” does not wipe out the damage I may have done to my relationships or to my body, and it doesn’t guarantee that I will be able to call to mind crucial information when I need it for my career.
But deontological ethics also leave gaps in helping me live an ethical life. If you have ever tried to make the “right choice” environmentally, you know that there are always trade offs. We use mugs in the coffee hour in stead of styofoam cups, and I think that’s a great choice. I’m proud we do that. But we can’t hold up “re-usable mugs” as an ethical absolute, a pure means regardless of the ends. Because we also use water to clean the cups, and chemicals to clean the cups, and energy to heat the water to clean them. And frankly I don’t know too much about how ceramic mugs are made. Were the workers treated fairly? Are there toxic chemicals involved? How much energy does it take to heat a ceramic cup? When you tug on one part of the web the whole thing moves.
So how do we even begin to live an ethical life if we don’t always have ethical absolutes to measure it against?
First, we need a more complete scorecard. Part of the reason that we have been able to ignore the impact of our commerce on the eco-system for so long is that the way we define our ends renders the eco-system invisible. For example, the prime responsibility of a corporation is to maximize profits for their shareholders. Whether that company clear cuts a forest or dumps waste into a river does not appear on the balance sheet, only the quarterly profit. Even if the company has clear-cut their only forest, or pumped their only oil well dry, that still doesn’t appear on the balance sheet until it impacts quarterly profits. Whether your employees have health insurance or earn a living wage or work in unsafe conditions, you are not accountable for this except in the way that it effects your bottom line. This is why the idea of the “triple bottom line” emerged. What if along with the fiscal bottom line, we were also responsible to the people we impact (human capitol), and to the eco-system. (Natural capitol) Folks who advocate thinking in terms of a triple bottom line talk about "Social, Economic and Environmental" or "People, Planet, Profit".
That is to say no action can be given a final grade by looking at whether it accomplished a single end. Martin Luther King was a great man not only because he changed the dynamics of race relations in America, but because he used non-violent means to achieve that end. His ends were not only legislative, but a model used by many others since of how to achieve change without violence. The ends are not only justice, but integrity.
But in the long term, we need to move away from our current paradigm. Because if we are grounding in ourselves in religious and social paradigms that “winning” is the ultimate end of life, there will always be losers. I’m not saying the rules of football or presidential politics are going to change, but you and I, as ethical agents, as human beings, can bring a different lens to those hard decisions we have to make.
I think one reflection of this current paradigm comes in the prevalent western ideas about the afterlife, of “seeking your reward in heaven.” Of course there have been many people who have lived caring, ethical lives within that paradigm. But what is coming to consciousness for Unitarian Universalists and our spiritual neighbors is an awareness that our current ethical paradigms have not lead to justice for all, nor to the preservation of life in our biosphere.
God says to Moses and the Israelites in the Hebrew Scriptures “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live,.” And the God of Jewish and Christian tradition, the tradition in which our culture was born, does not say “Choose human life” God says “choose life.” As UUs, who take as one of our sources the teachings of these traditions, we can claim the wisdom of this teaching, but it also speaks to us because life itself has always been the ends for us, more than a heavenly reward. We have already affirmed together that life is more like a web than a race to the finish line. We affirm that there is something precious and even holy about our own lives which are not separable from the web of life, And from that vantage, we cannot separate ends and means.
One part of being a minister is to sit with a family who has just experienced the death of one of their own, and try to find a way to hold the whole of that life. It’s not like a report card. It’s not like the numbers that appear under the quarterback’s picture during a football game. We want to try to see a whole life. Certainly high points of your career will be mentioned, but when your grandchildren get up to speak at your memorial service, it will be about the time you took them fishing. Neighbors mention the warm greetings as you went on your morning walk. Friends remember that you made the best potatoes for potluck, or how you could fix anything. The earth will show your footprint, whether anyone remembers that you composted, or biked to work.
It’s not as efficient to see your ends as “the wholeness of life in a living community”. You may not get as far or as fast. But imagine how different our country would be if your ethical standard was not a bottom line on a spreadsheet or a grade on a report card, but a piece of whole cloth woven day in day out by each action, and our connections to all those we touch. Sometimes goals and numbers help give shape and form to your life’s weaving, but let your eyes take in the whole of it. If the whole of the cloth shimmers with life, if it shows the connections to the whole web existence of which we are a part, anyone who sees its beauty will know that it is good.