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Introduction, Workshop 7: Relational Ethics

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

Much of the insensibility and hardness of the world is due to the lack of imagination which prevents a realization of the experiences of other people.Jane Addams, from Democracy and Social Ethics (1907)

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind. Kurt Vonnegut, 20th-century writer and Unitarian Universalist,from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

If we believe our ethical/moral code, and by extension our behavioral choices, derives solely from a conceptual framework that helps us determine right and wrong, we overlook a fundamental influence in our ethical decision making: our relationships with others. As we live our day-to-day lives, we don't always ground our decisions in neatly framed logic, but instead respond from the heart—with compassion, empathy, or a sense of shared humanity. This reality provides the foundation for relational ethics, a framework that speaks to our relationships with one another and how those relationships influence our decisions.

In our culture, an ethic based on relationship and compassion has, at times, been denigrated as a primarily female perspective. Most Unitarian Universalists reject such a notion and understand compassion as a moral guidepost of use to people of all genders. Our second Unitarian Universalist Principle speaks of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations, while our seventh Principle speaks of our interconnectedness one with another.

This workshop explores how relational ethics does or can inform our personal moral decisions. How do relational ethics guide us to social justice work? How do, or might, relational ethics guide the way we do that work? Participants discover the relational ethics frameworks in the work of Jane Addams in the turn-of-the-20th-century Settlement movement; the work of Carol Gilligan, a late 20th-century feminist ethicist; and the recently launched Community Capacity Building initiative of the Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council. Participants reflect on the role of compassion and relationship in ethical decision making.

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

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Last updated on Tuesday, January 24, 2012.

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