The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples




I knew a man, scientifically educated, widely, if not deeply, read in world religions, a Unitarian Universalist for years, who suddenly, surprisingly, became born again, underwent a second baptism and joined an evangelical church. I knew him well enough to ask him what had motivated him to do that, and he said that actually, it was my fault. He had been re-reading a sermon I had preached on how to decide right from wrong in our more and more complicated world, had decided it was just too much work and that he’d just do what the Bible said, went out and joined his new church.

He was right, of course; freedom is never easy, and questions of moral discernment are sometimes extremely difficult to answer. Nevertheless, even recognizing that opening this can of worms may drive some of you to orthodox religion, I think freedom is worth the hard work it requires and how we go about doing that work needs revisiting from time to time. Besides, despite those who say that all we need are the Ten Commandments, Biblical morality can be flawed on occasion. There is a lovely passage about drinking from wells you didn’t dig, eating from vines you did not grow, living in houses you did not build — good words for gratitude — but stay away from the context. It’s an exhortation to the Israelites to be grateful for the ability to steal all those things from the Canaanites.

Since the world has grown smaller and cultures have bumped up against one an­other, we have learned that ideas of right and wrong are not the same from culture to culture.  Even within our own country, which is an amalgam of all sorts of peo­ple from all sorts of places, we do not have a single value system, although it was more coherent before the concept of relative values became widespread.  People of­ten used to think they knew right from wrong, it was codified in the laws or by soci­etal pressure, and that was that.

No longer.  Now we know that people’s moral choices are molded by the cultures in which they live, the traditions of their families, and various other pressures, as well as personal conviction.  What seems good to one person will seem bad to the next. The question always comes down to this: If everyone has a different idea of the good, is it possible to make moral judg­ments on any but an individual basis?  Can we legitimately say that anything is right or wrong?  How can we say that the Ku Klux Klan is bad, or even Hitler, or mid-eastern tyrants?  After all if such people as the KKK members think of themselves as highly moral — and they do — who are we to say that they are not? And how can we be sure even of our own moral choices?

There are people whose whole careers are concentrated on this effort.  Although I don’t necessarily agree with all their conclusions, some scholars have come up with frameworks that at least make thinking about the questions cogently a little easier. There was a professor in the School of Education at Harvard, Lawrence Kohlberg, who was studying stages of moral de­velopment. I learned some­thing of his work while it was in progress.  Most psychological stage theories avoid saying that one stage is better than another, although it is hard to avoid that inference, but that is not true of Kohlberg’s (appropriately enough, I sup­pose, in a study of moral stages).  He said that the later stages are better than the ear­lier ones, and that people should be encouraged to progress through them.  He had six stages, but the sixth, which few besides, perhaps, Jesus and the Buddha have achieved, is somewhat sketchily defined.  We can’t really recognize, other than dimly, the style of moral discourse beyond that which we have ourselves achieved, although Kohlberg suggests that talking about them is one of the best ways to hurry people through previous stages.  Never­theless, it’s easier to concentrate on the first five.

The first stage is the one that all babies are in: If it feels good, do it!  Correlatively, if it doesn’t, don’t.  Then, the natural outgrowth of that one is one of reward and pun­ishment.  Animals can be trained at this stage, and so can children.  Then comes the stage of caring what other people think, basing your choices on outside opinion — the Mrs. Grundy stage.  The fourth stage is the legalistic stage: If the law says it’s okay, it’s okay; if it doesn’t, it isn’t.  In the fifth stage people make their moral deci­sions based on sweeping principles, such as love or justice that they have come to believe in, and test their ac­tions against those princi­ples.  In the sixth stage, I believe, it can be said that even those principles are relative to an overarching world-view which perceives the contingency even of love and justice and truth.

My problem with any stage theory is that none of it is as clear-cut as theorists like to imagine.  We don’t pass neatly from stage to stage, but bring each one along with us as we go.  Kohlberg says that most people in the United States are in Stage 4 — that is, they make their moral choices on the basis of rules: the ten commandments, the law as laid out by Congress or the state legislatures, or whatever lawmaking body it may be — but I’m quite sure that all of us have quite a bit of stages 1, 2 and 3 in us still.  During the 70’s, if you recall, when Kohlberg was doing his seminal work, the common cry was, “If it feels good, do it!” the first stage response, and references to the feelings of others, the law, or even the question of right and wrong were decried as irrelevant, though all of those issues affected many of our decisions.  We still want to do what feels good, but we don’t do things that are against the law, partly be­cause we’d sooner not get put in jail, and because we even have a bit of concern for what others may think.  Many of us would even agree that there are rules of behav­ior that are worth follow­ing for their own sake.  I think that if Kohlberg is correct in his theory — and I do believe there’s a lot of truth to it — then each stage is merely laid on top of the previous one, and when we reach stage 5, which is the one that I assume most of us have reached, we still make reference to the first four stages, even though our final moral decisions may be based on reverence for the abstract ideals of truth, justice, or love. Maturing development merely increases the number of ways in which we can think about an issue.

Actually, until you get to the fourth stage, there really aren’t any moral issues at all.  Until that point what one chooses to do is based pretty much on the pleasure/pain principle, though with an increas­ingly longer view of each — a more comprehen­sive understanding of the pain that may ensue from the immediate gratification of desire.  At the fourth stage we can begin to talk about what Ralph Potter, one of my professors and a widely respected ethi­cist, called moral discourse.  That is, how we make moral decisions.  His framework includes four modes of moral discourse (I love that phrase!): revelational, regular, situa­tional and teleological.  Revela­tional and regular are stage 4 modes.  Revela­tional discourse says that God’s law is — what­ever it is — and that is what one should follow.  The Ten Commandments are an ex­ample of that.  The only problem is deciding which reve­lation to accept, but for those who use this mode, that is usually not a problem, since they always seem to know exactly when and how it was re­vealed — probably in Jacobean English.  The regular mode also is based on rules, but they are secular ones, agreed upon by tradi­tion or even rules that you, yourself have de­cided are right.  Even if they are self-de­cided, they can never be broken.  Situations do not al­ter cases.  If you have decided that truth-telling is a moral law, then you can never morally tell a lie.

Then there are the stage 5 modes, the sit­uational and the teleological.  (I should ex­plain that this is my interpretation.  Professor Potter far preferred the ones that I have character­ized as stage 4, which may be why I have more than once disagreed with his ethical stances.)  In the situational mode — situa­tion ethics is the term we usually use — you do what seems right in a given situation without reference to a list of rules.  You might, for instance, though you place a high value on truth-telling, lie to protect someone from a life-threatening situation.  In the teleological mode, you do what you think will bring about a desired moral result.  This one im­plies that the end justifies the means, that whatever you do is all right, if it brings about the good ends that you have in view.  I do not believe that evil means can ever be justified by however valuable an end, but clearly some people, such as those who support torture, have no problem with it.

That leaves the situational mode for stage 5ers.  It is theoretically ruleless, but it does have at least one tacit rule, and that is that we should choose the action that results in the greatest good for the greatest number.  Good is defined as whatever makes people happy, healthy and wise.  That sounds great and even sufficient, but there is that story by Ursula K. LeGuin that I’ve told you before, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”  It’s about a city where everyone was perfectly happy.  They had all their physi­cal, emotional, mental and spiritual needs com­pletely satisfied.  They were so happy that they weren’t even bored.  Through some magic this perfec­tion could only be maintained through the utter misery and degradation of one hu­man being.  That one person, the suffering ser­vant, suffered unimagin­ably and not willingly, so that the many — the very many — could be perfectly happy.  In the story, the only puberty rite the natives underwent was to go once to see this suffer­er’s hideous pain so that they might understand the source of their happiness and be grateful.  Just a few of the young peo­ple who went to visit the sufferer left the coun­try, leaving behind them their happiness.

If the only rule is the greatest good for the greatest number, then those who left were wrong.  I think, though, that it must be accepted that they were of higher moral character.  There must be an­other law even greater than that one, that happiness may not be achieved on the ba­sis of another’s suffering.  People may suffer for various reasons without moral damage to those who do not, but in a moral life that suffering may not be the di­rect source of another’s happiness.  It is not quite as simple as to say, as I have heard many do, that their single moral rule is to try not to hurt other people.  But it’s close.

Not hurting other people is not as easy as it sounds.  Non-hurtfulness is one of those won­derful goals that are impossible to achieve.  There is no way to exist with­out hurting some­thing; there is no way to have a totally painless relationship either to other people or to the world at large.  There is a Hindu term, ahimsa, which means non-hurtfulness, and it is their highest moral value.  The religion of the Jains, an offshoot of Hinduism, takes it most seriously.  Really pious Jains won’t even wear clothes dur­ing the rainy season when life is teeming, for fear that they will harm even so small a thing as a flea or tick, but even they can do nothing about the microbes in the air that they breathe.  I greatly ad­mire their effort, but it cannot be perfect.  What we must do is admit and accept our harmfulness to other lives — human and non-human — and keep a constant awareness of it so that we can miti­gate it whenever possible.  Non-harmfulness too is not quite sufficient to define a righteous life.  Not only must one be as non-hurtful as one can, but one must ac­tively seek the good, not only for oneself and those one loves, but for the wider community.

However, not only can we not live without harm to others, but neither can we al­ways be sure, no matter how hard we try, that our ac­tions tend to others’ good.    Whenever we think about ethical choices, we must accept that all our decisions have areas of gray in this imperfect world.  There is no ut­terly good or utterly evil action, no clear-cut choice between black and white.  Even when the choice seems clearly moral or immoral, the consequences are never so pure as we had hoped.  There is no good action without its consequent evil, no matter how small, and no bad action that cannot produce some miti­gating good.

How do we make moral judgments?  Our religious movement accepts the contin­gency of truth and rejects authoritarian revelation, and it fol­lows, I think that we also must accept the contingency of moral values.  However, just as in matters of belief there are standards of evidence, of reason and testing that can show us what roads are more likely to lead toward what is true, and we know, therefore, that we cannot believe what we wish but only what we must, so in moral ac­tion, we cannot do what we wish to do, but what we have come to think is right in the situa­tion that confronts us, using the standards of love, justice and compassion.  We cannot accept any au­thority un­questioned, but we can recognize compassion as better than cruelty, justice as better than un­fairness, freedom as better than tyranny.