What We Choose: Ethics for Unitarian Universalists
A Tapestry of Faith Program for Adults
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.
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.
The Developmental Editor for this program is Gail Forsyth-Vail.
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)
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.
- 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.
A team of two or more adults, either lay leaders or religious professionals, should facilitate these workshops. While consistent leadership offers many advantages, the same facilitators need not lead every workshop.
Knowledge of ethics frameworks is helpful, but not required to effectively lead this program. Seek leaders who are:
- Knowledgeable about Unitarian Universalism
- Committed to the Unitarian Universalist Principles, the congregation, and the faith development components of this program
- Willing and able to thoroughly prepare for each workshop
- Effective at speaking, teaching, and facilitating group process
- Flexible, and willing to modify workshop plans to support the full inclusion of all participants
- Able to listen deeply and to encourage participation of all individuals
- Able to demonstrate respect for individuals, regardless of age, race/ethnicity, social class, gender identity, and sexual orientation
- Able to honor the life experiences each participant will bring to the program.
This program is intended for adults. The workshops are equally suitable for first-time visitors and long-time Unitarian Universalists.
Workshops can accommodate any number of participants. Workshops of fewer than six can do small group activities in the full group, or skip some small group activities. If the group has more than 25, you will need at least three facilitators.
Integrating All Participants
People with obvious and not-so-obvious disabilities may need accommodation in order to participate fully. In addition to accommodating the accessibility needs of participants who request them, you are urged to follow these basic Accessibility Guidelines for Adult Workshop Presenters.
The Unitarian Universalist Association website and staff can offer guidance for including people with specific disabilities; consult the Disability & Accessibility page on the UUA website.
Participants bring a wide range of learning styles and preferences. With this in mind, the workshops offer a variety of activities. Review each workshop's Alternate Activities. Plan each workshop to best suit the group.