Universals and Particulars

Friends: You can view our November 29th, 2020 virtual service on the UUS:E YouTube channel:

Universals and Particulars
Rev. Josh Pawelek
Unitarian Universalist Society: East
Manchester, CT
November 29, 2020

At our UUS:E 2019 Goods and Services Auction, Michael York purchased a sermon. After cancelling twice due to extenuating circumstances, this, finally, is Michael’s sermon. Full disclosure: I’ve known Michael since I was a child. He and his wife, Janet, were members of the Unitarian Society of New Haven in Hamden where I was raised. Their daughter Kathy and I were in the same grade at Hamden High School. And, here’s the kicker: I was the York’s paperboy, and used to see them every week when I stopped by to collect their payment for the New Haven Register.

Michael asked “Is there a universal morality?” Thanks Michael, for the invitation to reflect on a topic that has inspired and perplexed human beings for millennia; a topic on which more has been spoken and written than any other. Indeed, questions of right and wrong live at the heart of so many great stories, myths, fables, sacred scriptures, classic novels, constitutions, bodies of law… Sunday sermons. One can even discern moral models in the natural world: parents caring for their young, the community of wolves, ants, bees or elephants, the intricacies of the atom, the harmony of the spheres, the cosmic order.

Luckily I have fifteen minutes.

I misinterpreted Michael’s question at first. I heard him asking if there is a moral code inherent in human beings, a basic, deeply ingrained concept of right and wrong found in each person regardless of culture, country or continent. I’m not aware of any definitive evidence for the existence of an inherent, universal morality. Scientific studies confirm that altruism—treating people well—provides evolutionary benefits, helps us survive. But that doesn’t prove an inherent, universal morality. And while that isn’t the point of Michael’s question, I’m starting here because I have said many times over the course of my ministry, in different ways, that human beings are inherently good; which sounds like I believe there is an inherent, universal morality.

If there’s no definitive evidence, why do I say this? Well, I learned it as a child growing up in a Unitarian Universalist congregation with a very positive view of human nature.

I learned it growing up in a democracy—the United States—that ignored its own history of genocide and slavery, and reminded us often that “all men are created equal… [and] endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights… [including] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I learned it working in liberal theological circles that contend all people are created in the image of God. If God is good, caring, just and loving, then we—God’s image—must likewise be good, caring, just and loving.

But there’s so much human-generated suffering in the world. So much oppression and injustice. An inherent universal morality? The evidence isn’t there. When I say people are inherently good, what I really mean is I long for that to be true. As a pastor I yearn to be good, and I want to inspire and encourage the people I serve to be good, to live lives of integrity, to have a positive, transformative impact on the world. Even if there is no inherent moral code, we can still strive to be good, live by our principles, build the beloved community. That’s one of the things I love about all of you. You long to be good. In response to the pandemic, you want not only to protect yourselves, but to protect the larger community. In response to the racial justice uprising, you want to be antiracist. In response to threats to our democracy, you work to protect voting. We don’t always do the right thing, or even know the right thing to do. But the longing to be good, the will to act and the willingness to try again when we fail—that matters!

Which leads me to Michael’s question. If we long to be good, how do we determine what goodness is? When Michael asks “is there a universal morality?” he’s wondering if we can define goodness in a way that is meaningful for all humanity and has the power to override the worst, most destructive impulses in human nature.

I sat down with Michael last October. He offered a wealth of ideas and covered thousands of years of human history. For him, morality emerges in a particular context. It evolves in response to a particular group’s needs; or its leaders’ needs. Hunter-gatherer societies lived (and still live) by moral codes that center group survival, respect for the forces of nature and reciprocity with local environment.

Agricultural societies developed moral codes linked to sustaining and sharing land, storing and distributing food and, likewise, community survival.

Ancient city states and empires with bureaucratic structures, royal families, trade, accounting, religious hierarchies and complicated divine pantheons yielded more complicated moral systems, often focused on sustaining the ruling hierarchy. Ancient kings and emperors often associated themselves with whichever God ruled the pantheon, giving their moral pronouncements the stamp of divine approval.

In many ancient cultures, morality became associated with duty, honor and sacrifice. The moral person is the one who follows the society’s rules and keeps to their place in the social hierarchy. The moral person is the one who accepts the fate the gods bestow on them. The Hindu Bhagavad Gita, the Analects of Confucius, and Vergil’s Aenied all express versions of this ancient, duty-oriented morality.  It lives on today in phrases like “my country, right or wrong”or “God said it, I believe it.” It is essential in ‘chain-of-command’ structures like militaries, where obeying orders can be a matter of life and death.

Over time, many ancient cultures added a moral code grounded in concern for the poor and oppressed. The Hebrew prophets challenged ancient Israel to become more just. The Buddha inaugurated a way of compassion in ancient India. The emergence of democracy in ancient Greece linked morality not to a supreme leader but to the will of the people. Later, Jesus announced the arrival of God’s kingdom which had at its core the mandate to love neighbor as self. Still later Islam offered a vision of a just and compassionate society.[1]

Today in the United States we live with competing versions of a hybrid Jewish-Christian / Greco-Roman moral code, mixed with various appeals to duty and sacrifice. The liberal version of the American code centers social justice, economic fairness, anti-racism, GLBTQ rights and inclusion, environmental stewardship. The conservative version centers traditional family values, gender roles and sexual mores. It favors individual liberties and free markets. We’re familiar with these two moral codes, but in my experience, most Americans aren’t as deeply grounded in either of them as the ferocity of the culture war implies. Most Americans aren’t making regular, daily decisions based on them, aren’t necessarily even aware of how they shape our society. I’m not suggesting that most Americans lack a moral code. Virtually everyone has a sense of right and wrong, but it emerges from a multitude of sources: family, religion, culture, schooling, upbringing, geography. We live with and navigate through a multitude of particular moral codes. Consider how you ultimately made your decision about how to celebrate Thanksgiving. That was a moral decision. How did you make it? What factors did you weigh? Those of you who struggled with questions around how to secure your children’s education during the pandemic: you ultimately made a moral decision. How did you make it? I suspect most people on the planet live with multiple moral codes, picking and choosing as particular situations arise. Not a universal morality, but many, particular moralities.

This is why Michael’s question matters. In his estimation—and I agree—humanity faces a series of doomsday scenarios:

  • Climate change
  • Food insecurity
  • Water insecurity
  • Overpopulation
  • The rise of antidemocratic populists, fascists, white supremacists and religious extremists.

There are others. 

These global challenges require a united, global response. A universal morality could help human beings work together across cultures, countries and continents. Yet, if most people live their moral lives in the particularities, can there be a united, global response? Given the urgent need to address the doomsday scenarios, Michael asks, is there a universal morality we can identify and promote? Minimally, is there a starting place for conversation?

When Michael talked about his understanding of morality in early human societies, he identified survival as the main driver for moral decision-making. When life is precarious, moral behavior is any action that results in group survival. Given Michael’s doomsday scenarios, life is becoming more precarious for more and more people. We know this. Survival is not a given. So Michael starts the conversation about universal morality with this assertion: “Any action that increases the chances that the species will survive is a moral action.”

That’s where our conversation ended. “Any action that increases the chances that the species will survive is a moral action.” I suspect Michael has a lot more to say about this. You may too.

Here’s my initial response. Morality has to be grounded somewhere: God’s commandments, a modern vision of freedom and fairness, an assessment of the group’s needs, a notion of honor. But none of these necessarily unite people on a global scale. If we’re searching for grounding for a universal morality, it makes sense to start with universal human experiences. This idea comes from the ethicist, Arthur Dyke, with whom I studied in seminary. He argued for a morality grounded not in abstract concepts like justice, equality or honor, but in real, lived common experiences. What kind of experiences? He said nobody creates themselves. People “cannot begin themselves,” he wrote, “without the existence of some caring community, however small; nor can they mature and sustain themselves in the absence of mutual aid, restraint, and protection…. The real world is like that.”[2] The most common human experience is being born, and then as infants being utterly dependent on our caregivers. Whether we remember our earliest years or not, we all share the experience of being born and being dependent on others for survival. That is true across cultures, countries and continents. We need others to survive. As much as we may forget this in adulthood, it remains a fact. A universal morality can begin there.

Here’s an invitation for your contemplation:

First, reflect on your childhood. What are all the ways you were dependent on your primary caregivers?

Second, reflect on the present: in what ways are you dependent on others for survival now? Has the pandemic heightened your experience of dependency?

Finally, how does recognizing the fact of your dependence shape your understanding of right and wrong?

If there is to be a universal morality that supports the survival of the human species, I say it begins with this recognition that we have always been utterly dependent on one another.

Thank you for beginning this conversation Michael. I pray it continues.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation is a very helpful guide for understanding the evolution of moral systems in the ancient world.

[2] Dyke, Arthur J., Rights and Responsibilities: The Moral Bonds of Community (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1994) p. 132.