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Virtue Ethics: An Ethical Development Program for High School Youth

We make hundreds of decisions every day. Some are small. Some are life changing, although we may not know their significance when we make them. This program’s premise—in the words of the Buddha, recited in every workshop Opening—is that “our thoughts and actions become habits and our habits shape our character.” We have some control over our character. We can shape the person we want to be by making intentional, thoughtful decisions.

About the Author

Rev. Amber Beland was ordained by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Milford (New Hampshire). A lifelong Unitarian Universalist, she has served the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis (Maryland) as assistant minister for lifespan faith development and the Church of the Younger Fellowship as minister.

Rev. Manish Mishra-Marzetti serves the Unitarian Universalist Church in Cherry Hill (New Jersey) as senior minister. A co-author of Engaging Our Theological Diversity (UUA), he came to ministry by way of a career in the U.S. Department of State. He has served as president of Diverse and Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM), on the boards of Starr King School for the Ministry and Skinner House Books, and on the UUA Commission on Appraisal.

Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank Judith A. Frediani and Gail Forsyth-Vail for their untiring support, guidance, and creative ideas. This curriculum would not have been possible without them.

Special thanks to the Unitarian Universalists who lent their expertise by reviewing workshops:

Alex Kapitan, Congregational Justice Administrator for LGBT Ministries in the Multicultural Growth and Witness staff group of the Unitarian Universalist Association (Workshop 3)

Cathy Cordes, Executive Director, Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council (Workshop 7)

Rev. Sofia Betancourt, graduate student in religious ethics at Yale University (Workshop 8)

Dr. Sharon D. Welch, Provost, Meadville Lombard Theological School (Workshop 9)

Preface

We are regularly faced with moral choices, big and small. How should we respond to a tricky family or relationship situation? What is the right thing to do when faced with a dilemma at work? What is the most ethical course for a community, state, or nation to follow, and how much am I prepared to invest in advocating for that course? How does morality or ethics enter my food and eating choices? How should morality or ethics enter my consumer decisions? How do we treat others? What must I do to follow the values of my Unitarian Universalist faith tradition?

Unitarian Universalism is a faith of deeds, not creeds. We believe our choices and actions matter. We believe the measure of our religion is the way we live our faith in our day-to-day lives. But how do we decide what course of action to follow when a situation is complex and the moral course is unclear? Where do we turn for guidance that will help us fulfill our own wish to live a moral life? This program invites participants to focus attention on the moral and ethical questions that arise or have arisen in their lives, including challenges not yet perceived or acknowledged, and explore the ethical frameworks that can help in sorting through a dilemma.

This program, like all Tapestry of Faith programs, is based on stories, including stories from participants' personal lives, stories of people, congregations, and organizations at moments of decision, and complex real life scenarios. It offers discussion, reflection, experiential learning, community building, and suggestions for justice-making activities that bring Unitarian Universalist religious ethics to bear in the community and the wider world. May it be a useful tool for Unitarian Universalists who wish to live their values and their faith more fully.

Gail Forsyth-Vail, Developmental Editor

The Program

A people and their religion must be judged by social standards based on social ethics. No other standard would have any meaning if religion is held to be a necessary good for the well-being of the people. — B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), Indian jurist, philosopher, writer, orator, and civil rights activist who fought against the Hindu caste system

Unitarian Universalism is grounded in the understanding that our actions speak louder than our words or beliefs. Faithful living for us includes discerning the course of action that best reflects our beliefs and values and then acting or choosing accordingly. As inheritors of a faith tradition that honors a wide variety of sources of religious understanding and authority, our big questions are: How do we discern the moral course of action in a particular circumstance? To what source(s) of authority do we turn for help—personal experience, community wisdom, conscience, religious texts, the words and deeds of prophetic people, reason, science, God? If we are intentional in developing a personal ethical framework to live by, then the behavioral choices we make and the actions we do or do not take can reflect our most deeply held values.

Development, clarification, refinement, and expansion of our ethical thinking often occur in the midst of crisis or in response to an event or relationship that calls our world view into question. However, this program offers an intentional process of engagement with others in examining ethical concepts, dilemmas, and questions to help participants clarify and expand their ethical understanding independent of a personal crisis. Participants examine how they have arrived at ethical positions that they hold dear. They explore new perspectives, identify areas for further questions and exploration, and perhaps more fully embrace ethical positions they reach through careful discernment. This program will deepen and expand participants' knowledge and skills for a process of ethical reflection that is central to living our Unitarian Universalist faith.

This program uses the words ethics and morality. While often used interchangeably, the two words point to different ways of describing the choices we make. Morality has to do with adherence to behavioral codes that come from religion or philosophy. Ethics describes the obligations we have to one another and to the natural world and the behaviors dictated by those obligations. Morality refers to rules of right conduct while ethics refers to a system of moral principles.

Goals

  • Introduce different philosophical frameworks for ethics
  • Engage participants to work with ethical dilemmas as presented in scenarios and stories
  • Guide participants to examine their own ethical and moral frameworks and clarify and expand them after reflecting on different perspectives
  • Deeply ground participants in their faith through exploration of Unitarian Universalist values and ethical ideas
  • Build participants' capacity to live more fully as Unitarian Universalists by enhancing their understanding and skills for applying ethical frameworks to their lives.

Leaders

No particular background is needed to lead Virtue Ethics. Leaders should bring an open mind and an open heart. They should be ready to support youth to decide for themselves if and how they wish to practice virtues in their lives.

Look for leaders who are flexible and can stay calm and non-judgmental when youth share from personal experience. Leaders should understand their role as mandated reporters (see Before You Start). If the youth have had previous, positive experiences with a leader, that is a plus.

Youth Leadership

Because these workshops follow a standard template, it would be possible for youth to co-lead this program with adults. You could begin the program without a youth co-leader, and after presenting a few workshops ask if anyone would like to volunteer to assist in leading activities. Adult leaders often have more time and resources for preparation, so consider keeping those responsibilities yourself. If you decide to explore additional virtues not included in these workshops, seek topic suggestions from youth. Invite anyone who suggests a topic to help you plan and lead the workshop.

Participants

No particular background is needed to lead Virtue Ethics. Leaders should bring an open mind and an open heart. They should be ready to support youth to decide for themselves if and how they wish to practice virtues in their lives.

Look for leaders who are flexible and can stay calm and non-judgmental when youth share from personal experience. Leaders should understand their role as mandated reporters (see Before You Start). If the youth have had previous, positive experiences with a leader, that is a plus.

Youth Leadership

Because these workshops follow a standard template, it would be possible for youth to co-lead this program with adults. You could begin the program without a youth co-leader, and after presenting a few workshops ask if anyone would like to volunteer to assist in leading activities. Adult leaders often have more time and resources for preparation, so consider keeping those responsibilities yourself. If you decide to explore additional virtues not included in these workshops, seek topic suggestions from youth. Invite anyone who suggests a topic to help you plan and lead the workshop.

Integrating All Participants

No one should be excluded from this program or its activities by real or perceived physical or other limitations. Inclusiveness sometimes requires adaptation; you may need to modify an activity or use an alternate activity to fully include youth with a range of physical and cognitive abilities and learning styles.

Take note of activities that might pose difficulties for youth who are differently abled. All spaces, indoor and outdoor, need to be accessible to anyone who might be in the group. Check the width of doorways and aisles, the height of tables, and the terrain of outdoor landscapes. When you will invite youth to write on posted newsprint, meet in small groups, gather around a centering table, or otherwise move about the space, make sure everyone can move as you are requesting, or adapt the activity. Strategize how you will include youth with sight or hearing limitations when an activity relies on these senses.

When possible, arrange volunteers to read aloud before a workshop and give them the written material in advance. Allow youth the opportunity to pass on any roles that require reading. Be prepared to support young people who wish to read, but need assistance.

Find out about participants' medical conditions and allergies, particularly to food. Make sure all your youth can eat the food you plan to use for an activity, or change the food.

Always be ready to do what is needed to keep the workshops safe for any participant who needs assistance or accommodation to ask for and receive it.

A helpful resource book is Sally Patton's Welcoming Children with Special Needs. The congregation's religious educator is another resource for making workshops as accessible and inclusive as possible.

Families

An adolescent’s notion of family expands to include their close friends, while the home family remains a touchstone. This curriculum is designed to include the family and friends of participants as well as your wider faith community. Two features engage these important people in the program’s themes and ideas:

  1. Each workshop provides a Taking It Home handout with ideas for youth to lead conversations and activities with their friends and family. Collect the email addresses of participants’ parents/caregivers so you can send them the Taking It Home section after each workshop.
  2. Each workshop offers a Faith in Action activity. Most of these engage congregational leaders and/or parents/caregivers to interact with the youth about the topics the youth are exploring.

Downloading the Document

You can download this program, save it on your computer, edit it, and print it. Or, you can download individual sessions or workshops.

Share, Print, or Explore

For more information contact religiouseducation@uua.org.

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