Virtues for UUs

J. Hughes


J. Hughes

J. Hughes

The Protestants gave up the saints, those exemplars of virtue that the Catholics had made into idols. But they kept the virtues.

We UUs went one step further and gave up the idea of virtue.

By virtue here I mean those qualities of mind and moral character that were thought to be the highest goal in life, the most excellent fulfillment of a life well lived, and which also lead to the happiness of ourselves and others.

A model of virtues and moral perfectibility is central to ancient philosophy and to most religions. In Aristotle’s philosophy there were about two dozen virtues, including things like generosity, honesty and intelligence, which he believed led to a wise form of contentment. The Catholics adopted Aristotle and crafted their virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope and charity. Hinduism and Buddhism have lists of virtues which were embodied by their saints, qualities such as energy, resolution, equanimity and penetrating insight.  And cultivating moral character – ren, humanity or goodness is the central idea of Confucian philosophy, with filial piety and attention to ritual as close seconds.

UUs gave up virtue, however, because we are a religious movement thoroughly filtered through the sieve of Enlightenment thought, a movement that upholds freedom, individualism, reason and equality. Our Enlightenment roots make us especially skeptical of some of the central virtues upheld by the Catholics such as faith and chastity.

As to chastity, Enlightenment thinkers, and religious and political liberals, challenged us to stop having narrow notions of sexual purity and righteous living, and to celebrate the diversity of ways that people can have pleasure and find meaning. Upholding chastity as a virtue now seems puritanical and outdated supplanted by new sexual mores founded on other virtues like caring and respect for other people’s freedom.

As to faith, Enlightenment thinkers, and religious and political liberals, value reason, informed debate, dialogue and persuasion over feeling, dogma and coercion. So we are skeptical that faith is a virtue. Instead we celebrate “the right of conscience,” and “the guidance of reason and the results of science.” Faith for us is actually a vice if it means giving up the “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

But our skepticism about virtue runs deeper than rejecting specific ancient virtues. We are rightly skeptical that there are moral exemplars. Our Enlightenment convictions about the equality of all people in our flawed humanness challenges the idea of putting some on moral pedestals while condemning others as immoral.

We have also grown rightly skeptical of the idea that any one person can embody all the virtues, from humility and charity, to courage and wisdom. The idea of saints and bodhisattvas who embodied all the virtues seems like a superstitious idea in our modern, rational religious tradition, something that we could at best appreciate as Jungian archetype but not a template for personal transformation. Perhaps it is just human nature that the fairest people cannot be the most compassionate, and the most compassionate cannot be the wisest. Just as liberalism cherishes novelty and difference it rejects any uniformity of models of the good life. Perhaps the most we can aspire to is to be extraordinary in just one way, and that’s good enough.

The Enlightenment also changed our ways of thinking about morality from judging acts simply on the basis of whether they broke a rule or whether the person acted from good motivations, virtuously from good moral character, to judging acts by their outcomes.  Of course we uphold moral exemplars like Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Aung San Suu Kyi, but not because we believe that they were enlightened beings who embodied a perfection of virtues – we know they had and have personal pecadilloes – but because their courageous convictions to change society had such momentous consequences.  That is quite different from the tradition of valorizing cave-dwelling ascetics or steadfast martyrs because of the unusually perfect people they were supposed to be rather than the effects they had on the world.

We’ve also grown skeptical that moral character really makes anyone independent of an immoral society. In the horrors of the twentieth century we saw how ordinary people with ordinary morality can so easily be manipulated by circumstances to do monstrous things. We began to suspect that moral character is a mirage, which disappears when people are put under sufficient social pressure.

We might also suspect that there were some specific sociological reasons for our tradition’s turn from virtue, since the joke is that the Universalists believed God was too good to condemn people to eternal damnation, while the upper crust Unitarians believed they were too good to be condemned by God.

At any rate, the result is that, at least compared to most other faiths, in the UU tradition it’s just not very liberal to expect other people to have certain moral virtues. Instead we have enshrined the “acceptance of one another” in our diversity.

But of course there are certain virtues implicit in the UU tradition, virtues that survived the Enlightenment sieve, and that are consistent with Enlightenment values, and those are the virtues of compassion, fairness, tolerance and critical intelligence. In this we UUs are very much a part of modernity. In a study done last year social scientists analyzed the frequency of words associated with virtue in books that had been scanned by Google. They found that there had been a decline in the use of three quarters of the terms in the last century, terms like virtue, character, honesty, patience, honor, truthfulness, kindness, sincerity, courage, generosity, mercy, wisdom and humility. Only a handful of terms saw an increase, terms such as compassion, fairness and tolerance, the virtues we UUs still implicitly embrace.

Jon Haidt’s work on liberal and conservative moral intuitions illuminates why some ancient virtues became vices for liberal religion while we kept others. In Haidt’s model there are six moral intuitions that we inherited from our primate ancestors, three of which we have embraced – compassion, fairness and freedom – and three of which we used our powerful neo-cortices, full of Enlightenment values and higher education, to tell our primate amygdalas to shut up about – loyalty to the tribe, respect for authority, and the need to defend sancitity or moral purity.  When conservatives make what they think are self-evident moral arguments based on those three values they sound like arguments for immorality to Enlightenment liberal ears.

Liberals value universalism over tribal and national loyalty, individual autonomy over respect for authority, and are more likely to be open to finding the sacred in the “direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder,” in a wide variety of things and experiences, instead of in the idolatry of specific objects and rituals.

I believe it is important for us to reclaim the idea of moral character and virtue as part of the UU tradition, and not just these few virtues we implicitly kept – compassion, fairness, tolerance and critical intelligence – but a more complete notion of an ideal human character and a more complete catalog of the virtues that that character needs to have cultivated. It is important because our tradition needs to re-discover and re-invent a language for the forms of deep contentment and flourishing that cultivating the virtues can bring. UUs don’t have transcendental bliss, grace, or Enlightenment. But we can have a language for the virtues that actually lead to spiritual growth, transcending mystery and harmony with the interdependent web of existence. If we take the ancients seriously, and a growing body of psychological research, the practice of the virtues are the basis for finding wisdom and grace in life, even if we don’t buy into the mystical and supernatural accounts of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Reclaiming the language of virtue and character is also important for liberal religion because the kinds of free and equal society that we want to build requires the encouragement of many virtues, old and new. Citizenship in a liberal society requires the encouragement and cultivation of a certain kind of character, beyond just the duty to vote.  Liberal citizens have to be willing to pay taxes and bear other obligations of citizenship. The liberal citizen needs a self-critical humility about her own beliefs, a moderate self-restraint in the pursuit of her own values, a commitment to informed debate, a willingness to respect the rule of law and the democratic process, and the wisdom to know when conscience requires civil disobedience, direct action and rebellion.  Without the cultivation of these virtues in its citizens the institutions of liberal democracy don’t work.

To be sure, there are challenges for liberal religion to reclaim the ideas of virtue and character. We have to reject older virtues like chastity and faith that are inconsistent with our values. We have to have a more pluralistic understanding of the perfectibility of human character that respects diversity. We see how quickly the promotion of virtue can become authoritarian in the hands of narrow religious traditions like the Islam of Iran and the Taliban.

We need a model of human perfectibility that avoids putting people on pedestals that they so easily fall off of. That is certainly one of the lessons that my fellow American Buddhists have been learning the hard way for the last two decades.

We have to have a more sophisticated notion of ethics that understands that both motivations and outcomes matter, that it is a virtue to be as intelligent as possible about the effects of our actions on the world. We see in the gridlock of our politics today the result when lawmakers believe that the path of virtue should be followed regardless of the facts or the consequences.

We also have to grapple with our growing understanding that moral character is shaped both by the biology of our brains and by our societies, and that our personal commitment to improve our character may have to include changing both our biology and our societies.

Moral character implies the ability to resist both our own violent and self-centered impulses, and the social pressures to act immorally. Religious traditions have certainly always embraced the importance of moral community, that surrounding oneself with a community that censures unethical behavior and praises ethical behavior is a powerful moral choice in itself.  But as I discussed in the neurotheology RE seminar in the Spring, we are increasingly aware of the ways our capacities for self-control, empathy, fairness and transcendence are partly genetically set, and may be adjusted by drugs and devices.  Among religious traditions UUs are probably uniquely prepared to incorporate these biological constraints and future possibilities into an understanding of human perfectibility.   The psychopath’s broken brain can’t be fixed by moral exhortation or God’s grace, and the right drugs may be more important for their redemption than the call to prayer.

We also need to reclaim virtues like courage and resolution to balance some of the natural weaknesses of the liberal tradition. In our liberal intellectual humility we can find ourselves too reticient to condemn the ignorance and behavior of others, too cautious to call out nonsense in our effort to respect others’ beliefs.

Because of our individualism we find it much more difficult than conservative faiths to organize and sacrifice for collective efforts. With full awareness of the irony, since I’ve been playing hooky from church and organized politics for quite a while, we do need to reclaim the virtues of sacrifice, responsibility and engagement.

Last Spring, just as I finished the Neurotheology RE seminar and suggested that we could do a seminar reflecting on the virtues this coming Spring, a UU curriculum on the virtues for teens was published by the UUA.  I found that a very encouraging sign, even though there is very little overlap between the twelve specific virtues they chose, and the six I want to cover this Spring, which kind of illustrates the complexity of our freely re-engaging with this huge body of thought. Like the teen curriculum though I’m hoping to focus our seminar this Spring on reflections on what the virtues are and how we can practice them in our lives. I may add a little neuroscience and futurism, but just a little.

In closing I offer this reflection from the Roman Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius:

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.