Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: What We Choose: An Adult Program on Ethics for Unitarian Universalists

Activity 4: Democracy, Authority, and Utilitarian Ethics

Part of What We Choose

Activity time: 25 minutes

Materials for Activity

Preparation for Activity

  • Print the story "Susan Stanton's Story," and prepare to read it aloud (or ask a volunteer to read it, and provide a copy of the story in advance).
  • Write on newsprint, but do not post:
    • Were utilitarian ethics, as explained by John Stuart Mill, at play in this situation? Why or why not?
    • The Commission argued that their decision was based on what they perceived as the greatest good for the greatest number of people? How did they decide what was "good"? What values or points of view did they uphold?
    • Would Mill have agreed with the Commission's decision? What actions would he consider "good" based on his understanding that liberty and justice are good?
    • Is "the greatest comfort for the greatest number of people" the same as "the greatest good for the greatest number of people?" What is the difference?

Description of Activity

Read aloud the story, "Susan Stanton's Story". Post newsprint questions and invite the group to discuss them.

After 15 minutes, turn the conversation to your own faith community. Remind participants that the fifth Unitarian Universalist Principle states that we hold as a value "the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large." Ask:

  • What intersections or similarities are there between utilitarian ethics and our fifth Unitarian Universalist Principle? Are there ways in which the two are in conflict?
  • When is what a group or individual wants the same as what is in its best interest? Is there ever a difference between what a group wants and what is in its best interest? Who decides what is in a person's or group's best interest? Where is the locus of moral authority for making those distinctions and decisions? The self, the community, God, or some other source?
  • Is "being comfortable" a "good?" When is comfort less good than other values? What values might represent a greater good than comfort?
  • Can you envision situations where what the majority believes to be "the greater good" is ethically wrong? How do we confront that dilemma, individually and in our congregation? Is it possible to do so while still respecting democratic process?

Including All Participants

Create a large-print handout that includes the discussion questions to assist those who are visually impaired.