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Introduction, Workshop 8: Understanding Ethics from the Margins

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

No matter how personal we wish to make ethics, it always has a collective dimension. Ignoring or minimizing this dimension is the root of all injustices. — Miguel De La Torre, 21st-century ethicist

Ethical systems and frameworks are about behavioral choices. What action do we choose to take in a particular situation and what is the basis for that action? While religious ethics find a basis in our theological understanding of humanity and of humanity's relationship with the divine (if we understand such a relationship to exist), the ethical precepts that guide us come also from our personal experiences and points of view. This workshop introduces an ethical framework that comes from collective, rather than individual, experiences—ethics viewed from the perspectives of those on the margins, those who, while their options and choices are narrowed by oppression, may choose to respond to situations and circumstances with actions that are vibrant, life-filled, and affirming of individual and collective agency and humanity. This ethical system draws on Christian liberation theology and the idea that all ethics are grounded in the lived experience of the poor, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised.

This workshop introduces three scholars of the late 20th and early 21st century who challenge the moral thinking of the dominant U.S. culture, a culture that ignores the collective social dimension of oppression and influences moral norms in ways that ignore (or even foment) oppression. These scholars are Latino ethicist Miguel De La Torre, African American womanist ethicist Katie Cannon, and African American humanist theologian Anthony Pinn. Each of the three begin the formulation of their ethical understanding in a recounting of history, the story of their people's survival in the face of oppression at the hands of the dominant culture. Each lifts up stories of their people's triumphs, strengths, and survival. They each directly challenge some of the moral "universals" and principles of character ("virtues") espoused by the dominant culture, exposing that moral universals or principles can be as easily used in the service of oppression as in the service of liberation. For those on the margins, De La Torre tells us, "the primary source for doing ethics is their lived, everyday experience." The ethical framework of marginalized people validates that which is life-affirming, maintains dignity and identity in the midst of overwhelming assaults on both, and supports both individual and collective resistance to systems and powers that oppress. Secondarily, this ethical system challenges those who are privileged by the dominant culture to educate themselves and others about the view from the margins, and to work to dismantle not only oppression but the system of privilege that supports oppression. Participants explore the collective dimension of ethics and the place of power, privilege, and social position in determining our behavioral choices.

Consider expanding this workshop to two sessions, particularly if you wish to include Alternate Activity 1, An Ethic of Affirmation and Resistance — Racial/Ethnic Identity-based Caucusing and/or Alternate Activity 2, Ethic of Affirmation and Resistance in Folk Tales.

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

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, January 19, 2012.

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