Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Morality and Politics (November 7, 2010)

Morality has become kind of a dirty word these days. It smacks of nosy neighbors trying to see past the hedge into your bedroom window. But I think it is a word we should not give up on. Morality means relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior -- thinking about what is good and bad. But maybe that still feels uncomfortable for us as a culture; maybe we think of ourselves as a post-moral culture, and “right and wrong” as outdated. I know we often like to use the word “ethics” instead, as somehow more humanist or scientific, but actually ethics are just a system or set of moral values and issues. For example, in the Buddhist tradition “non-harming” is a moral value, and falls within a whole set of Buddhist Ethics. When it comes to Ethics in our own life we have a choice- we can observe a an ethical code grounded in a tradition we trust, or we can use community standards and laws. As Unitarian Universalists, we have our common principles, and a tradition of ethical action to guide us. We don’t have a clear set of rules for every situation, but a set of principles to help us find our way. For example, our principles don't tell us we can't kill, but if we truly “affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” then some kinds of behavior are “right out.”

Laws also help us stick to our shared ethics as a society. They clarify what behaviors are clearly crossing a line that our society has agreed upon, and back them up with our legal system. We have started to notice that the law doesn't really help us in all areas, so when we encounter murkier ethical areas, our religious community helps us clarify our highest ideas. It's right there in our mission which is “to provide a forum for liberal religious expression in an atmosphere which encourages spiritual growth and ethical living.” For example: we as a congregation and as a movement have spent a lot of time this past year thinking about the ethics of eating, so that we can live out our principles. We have noticed that there is a huge gap between what the law allows us to eat, and law around how food is produced, and what we believe shows respect to the interdependent web of existence. As a community which encourages ethical living, it's not enough for us to say “do what you want as long as you don't break any laws.” We call ourselves to something higher, knowing that sometimes our own integrity and principles can call us to be leaders in creating a just and compassionate world, when the law is slow to respond, or is downright unjust. IN the same way that we cannot assume that whatever is legal is moral, we must not assume that social norms describe what is moral. Sometimes our community standards do help us keep track of what is ethical. If you park in a handicapped parking spot without a permit, even if you don’t get a ticket, you are going to get a lot of dirty looks. But segregation was socially acceptable in the southeast even after it was not longer legal. “Everyone else is doing it!” didn't even fly with your mom when you were in high school.

Morality is about doing what is right, not what you can get away with. I have a bumper sticker on my car that exemplifies this point: it says “A Living Wage is a Moral Value.” The law says that employers have to pay their employees $7.25 per hour. Now it happens that the Tompkins County Worker's Center where I got this sticker learns with surprising frequency of folks who aren't making that $7.25 for some reason – this is called wage theft, it is illegal and a fine can be levied by the Department of Labor. You might get voted “Goat of the year” by the worker's center if you are guilty of wage theft- you are violating not only the law but societal norms. But if you do the math, you will find that people living in Tompkins County cannot actually live on $7.25 an hour. The Credit Union has calculated that in order for workers to be able to provide for their basic needs, a living wage is $11.11 per hour. And there is a group of employers in Tompkins County who are committed to being moral leaders around this issue- even though they could probably get away with paying folks minimum wage. They have decided the moral thing to do is to commit to paying this higher wage.

Now in American Ethics, there is another “guiding hand” at work - the “free market.” If you hear folks talk about the free market long enough, you will realize the faith folks have in the market is like that which generations past had in the divine. “If we just have faith in the market, and trust in the market, and let it do its work our lives, everything will turn out for the best” we are told. We have a similar faith in technology- that it will lead us onward and upward forever. In his analysis of agribusiness and the academic fields which supports it Wendell Berry writes: “They have no apparent moral allegiances or bearings or limits. Their work thus inevitably serves whatever power is greatest… Lacking any moral force or vision of its own.” [Berry p. 156]. The market is just a tool, like money is just a tool. It is only as good or bad as the moral vision which guides it. It does not reflect the whole of life. It does not reflect the love and care we give to one another. It does not reflect the health of the earth. It does not reflect the strength of our communities, or the sustainability of our futures. It does not reflect awe and wonder, or beauty or justice or even truth. I submit to you that the market is not an appropriate moral center- profit, money is not the best thing to put at the core of who we are as persons or as a society. And when we ask our government to put this at the center of value, there will be no morality in government.

Because what we put at the center of our own life, at the center of the ethical system we use to guide our life must have a broad glance. Compassion, that’s a pretty safe choice. A Buddhist Monk once explained that compassion is something all persons must hold on to until the moment of enlightenment, even when they have relinquished everything else. If you put compassion at your center you are bound to make sure that not only your life but those around you will be respected in the living of your life. There are other values that are worthy too- beauty, justice, truth but you can see how easily they can go awry if compassion, if respect for the inherent worth and dignity of each life, and of the interdependent web are not there to guide their unfolding. Even Justice as a guiding principle could be wielded like a weapon if not paired with compassion.

In all the ancient religions of the world, I have yet to encounter one that put money at its center, at it’s heart. I believe the reason we see such a fuzzy moral center in our political life is because we have for too long abdicated our own moral responsibilities to market, as if had a heart and a soul and was looking out for all of us. As if the choices we make don’t matter. As if we are all just tumbleweed blown about by its winds. I say, it’s time for us to put a stake in the ground, no better- a tree. Let us sink our moral roots deep into things that really do matter, really do endure. Like this religious tradition- it has turned out plenty of heroes worth emulating- Susan B Anthony, Clara Barton, The Waitsil-Sharps who personally helped evacuate hundreds of persons during the Nazi occupation before WW2, and so founded our UU service committee. Beacon press, which has been a voice of truth even when it had to choose between that and profitability. Linus Pauling who was not only a Nobel prize winning scientist, but also an activist. And when it comes right down to it, there are a lot of ethical, principled people in this room whom I admire deeply for the integrity with which they live their lives.

Our roots must not only go deep in to the wisdom of the past, but out into the neighborhood, into the community. There is more and more research to suggest that trees connect and even share resources through their roots and through the mycorrhizal fungi that links networks of trees below ground to share nutrients and water among them. This connection enhances their chances of survival, and of regeneration . Now imagine the strength of a trunk that has grown straight and true, that won’t fall in the first storm. That straight trunk is like our own integrity, how we grow ourselves according to our moral center. From there we can grow all kinds of leaves and branches, changing season by season, taking in the nourishment of the sun and shaping the winds that pass through the canopy, but by growing straight and true and sinking our roots deep and wide, we become people of character.

It’s easy to say “everyone does it” or “it’s legal” but it is often hard to ask ourselves “is it moral?” and “Is this compassionate to my community and to future generations?” Brian and I share a disappointment that so many of our political leaders today do not seem to be moral leaders. I think it is time for us as people of integrity, as people of character, to change the conversation -- from one of mud slinging to one of integrity. Let us provide the moral leadership that seems so absent in our world today. Let us raise our children to be leaders with integrity, and let us continue to support one another in this small community as we which encourage one another to spiritual growth and ethical living.

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