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Introduction, Workshop 2: Unchanging Truths

In "What We Choose: Ethics for Unitarian Universalists," a Tapestry of Faith program

Two things awe me most, the starry sky above me and the moral law within me. — Immanuel Kant

For centuries a debate has raged among philosophers and religious thinkers on the nature of morality. Is there such a thing as absolute and unchanging moral truth? Many philosophers and theologians have asserted that such truth does exist, although they make differing claims about its source. Some assert that absolute and unchanging moral truth is established by God and can be found in particular religious texts or in rituals and practices of their faith tradition. Some affirm the existence of absolute, unchanging moral truth that can be identified without appeal to religious traditions or texts.

Western philosophers postulated the existence of moral laws which are similar to the physical laws that govern the natural world. Because scientific discoveries at the time supported the notion that the natural world was an ordered place, governed by laws and rules, philosophers imagined there must also be moral laws guiding how humans are supposed to conduct their lives. Many of these philosophers reasoned that just as we discover new scientific laws over time, so also will humans discover new moral laws. They believed that as human understanding of truth evolves and new insights are gained, the moral laws by which we live evolve and become clearer, moving humans ever closer toward an understanding of ultimate moral truth.

The school of thought espousing the idea that there is absolute, eternal, unchanging moral truth is known as deontological ethics. The most prominent advocate of this approach is the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant further developed deontological ethics, asserting the existence of a moral rule he termed the "categorical imperative," the idea that the only morally acceptable actions are those that can be universalized. In other words, if it is morally acceptable for one person to do a particular action, it has to be morally acceptable for anyone to do the same. According to Kant, moral truth exists and it applies equally to everyone.

This workshop invites Unitarian Universalists to examine questions about the existence and nature of truth, and to explore whether and how moral thinking is shaped—either reactively or proactively—by notions that there is ultimate unchanging moral truth to guide actions. Is there absolute moral truth that Unitarian Universalists affirm is valid for all people at all times and under all circumstances? What presumptions are implied in asserting such moral truth(s)? Are the ethical statements represented in our Unitarian Universalist Principles grounded in our notion of absolute moral truth(s)? From what authority do assertions of absolute moral truth(s) derive?

Before leading this workshop, review Accessibility Guidelines for Workshop Presenters found in the program Introduction.

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Last updated on Thursday, January 19, 2012.

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