As Unitarian Universalists, one of the things we most frequently say we want from our congregational life for ourselves and our children is guidelines to and examples of ethical behavior. Certainly, we’re frequently surrounded by examples of flagrantly unethical behavior. In fact, if we look at our elected leadership in this country recently, it may sometimes seem as if ethics is an outmoded concept. Just last weekend, for example, Rebecca Baine of Nashville Public Radio reported on a survey by Who’s Who in American High Schools which found that, among high achieving students, fully two-thirds of both the students and their parents believe that it is acceptable to cheat.
I also recall a survey conducted by “Psychology Today” about ten years ago to which the magazine’s well-educated, upper middle class readers (many of them UUs) were asked to report anonymously on a variety of behaviors. The survey included a broad range of questions. Some were societal, including questions on obeying speed limits and honesty in filing income taxes. Others were relational, regarding honest dealings with employers, co-workers, friends and family. Many questions offered a range of situational answers from which to choose, so that motivation could be determined.
Response to this survey was unprecedented. And it revealed that this segment of our society - the segment which would be expected to provide the nation’s leadership - was not ethical by traditional standards, and not concerned with their lack of ethics, furthermore. In both societal and relational situations traditional honesty was no longer the norm - ethical behavior of itself had no value. The only deterrent appeared to be getting caught in an unethical act, when the disclosure carried a significant penalty. While some respondents drew the line against unethical dealings with close friends and family, even this was not a strong overall trend. The editors of “Psychology Today” seemed genuinely concerned about this new standard which set the needs and desires of the individual above all else. Yet the publication had, for twenty years, been a major advocate for the individualistic emphasis of the “me generation.” We do reap what we sow.
How pervasive is this ethic was revealed a few years ago by a scandal relating to scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests required of all high school students hoping to go on to college. Placement and academic scholarships depend on the competitive scores. Schools and teachers who are able to increase average scores over previous years are rewarded with cash bonuses. The tests are supposed to be secret, sealed until administered. Yet it was well known that questions had not been changed in many years.
For a long period of time the test scores in South Carolina schools had been below the national average. This is a relatively poor state with a heavily rural economy, and both teachers’ salaries and per student funding are also below national norms. Yet, amazingly, the average SAT scores in South Carolina schools began to rise. Investigation revealed wide-spread cheating. Not on the part of students as much as by teachers. A teacher who had been named teacher-of-the-year was seriously and shockingly implicated. Yet her motive was not one of personal greed. She had become aware of the flagrant cheating among many of the state’s teachers - furnishing test answers in advance to students. Many of her own students were blacks from poor homes and already academically disadvantaged. Encouraged by her principal, she reasoned that those who aspired to higher education deserved her help. She believed that their only chance within that environment required her to cheat. The implications of this tragedy are immense.
But it’s not the first time that academic integrity in the US has been compromised. There has long been fierce competition among colleges and universities to attract top- level faculty and students in the areas of science, engineering and medicine. To finance these programs, universities have sought grants from both government and industry - and ultimately, they have become beholden to both. Outside control has been evidenced in a variety of ways. Cornell University had long been renown as a liberal institution of academic freedom. Yet federal grants influenced its firm position against student protesters during the Vietnam war, Even at Harvard, researchers subsidized by grants from private industry have been found to have falsified their data in order to promote their sponsors’ viewpoints and enhance their own professional prestige. And an ultra-conservative think tank in Washington regularly furnishes free material to high schools throughout the country on matters of domestic policy - materials which distort data and encourage hostility towards welfare recipients, for example.
Industry’s greed is virtually unbridled. Immediately after World War II, for example, General Motors and Firestone combined to buy up and dismantle the street car systems in all major US cities, thus increasing the demand for automobiles over public transport - and dangerously elevating levels of urban air pollution, as well. This period also marked the beginning of “planned obsolescence” - major appliances designed with components that were too expensive to replace or repair. Until very recently, the military-industrial complex has been a grand-master in influencing US policy, legislation and appropriations, resulting in the longest war-time economy on record. The petrochemical industry successfully squelched government grants for research on alternative energy sources. If we had all day I could give you dozens of examples of unethical behavior just within firms in which I’ve been employed - times when I was bluntly told I wasn’t paid to have a conscience. The bottom line is usually profit: what’s good for the stockholders of General Motors is good for the country. And more and more the small investor - the owner of mutual funds - is the stockholder. So that makes most of us complicit. Even socially screened investments cannot completely avoid this dilemma.
My dictionary defines ethics as the standard of character set up by any race or nation. A second definition terms ethics as the philosophy of morals. I imagine that there are some who are satisfied with both definitions. And there are some who are uncomfortable with the terms ethics and morals being used as synonymous: while ethics may be an acceptable term, the word “morals” (or its current counterpart “values”) smacks of the religious right’s repressive standards. However you define it, I think it is safe to say that this is a congregation of ethical people - people who really work at living their ethics. And I think that, for the most part, we could agree on a fairly uniform set of ethics - one which reflects our own traditions.
Where we may sometimes disagree is in the area of situational ethics - the difficult arena in which we may have to make choices between several ethical outcomes which are good for one group, but not for others. Or even be forced to pick the lesser of a range of evils. One such area is the field of medical ethics, where exotic and costly new technology literally forces the choice of who shall live. For example, given the shortage of donor kidneys or livers, how do we limit the choice of transplant recipients? To those whose disease is not caused by poor lifestyle choices? To those with the longest to live or whose lives are determined to have the best chance to enhance society? To those who can personally afford the costly procedure? Or is some sort of lottery the only fair way? These are valid questions. It is only through serious examination of a clash of values that a new ethic for society will emerge.
The quandary of situational ethics is that there seem to be no guidelines - no hierarchy of values to help in our decisions. In generations past we could look to our religious beliefs to give us our answers. Now, we must decide for ourselves in any given situation where our primary responsibility resides. Is it to society as a whole? To our nation? Our families? Ourselves? If we are in business, is our primary responsibility to our stockholders, or our customers, or our employees? What is the line between ethics and expediency? Are motives important in making our ethical decisions? And how far can we justify the use of questionable means to achieve noble or desirable ends? Obviously, there are ethical limits. But how do we set those limits?
It’s interesting to note that the theory of situational ethics was developed in response to existentialism - that mindset so prevalent in Europe between world wars which claimed that there is no meaning to anything - that nothing is connected. To the contrary, declared the situationalists: everything is connected; everything is related. Much as is stated in our UU Principle respecting the inter- connected web of all existence. And it is in light of that relationship model that ethical choices must be made. And made for reasons other than expediency.
For example, I know one woman who says she was compelled to cheat on a high school math test so that she could graduate and get out of an abusive home situation. And another who justified her affair with a married man by asserting that their relationship served to enhance his marriage, since it made him less demanding on his wife. Those are obvious misuses of situational ethics. But some decisions are not nearly so clear-cut. I’m sure most of you are familiar with the classic ethical dilemma: that of the overloaded lifeboat where it must be decided who should be asked to sacrifice themselves in order to save the rest. I’ve seen it lead to hours of emotional debate. Yet I read recently of a similar real-life situation. When the French Huguenots fled to England, they too had an overloaded boat which threatened to capsize in the Channel. They solved the problem by having those who could swim leave the boat in relays, and all were ultimately saved. That’s a creative use of win-win ethics.
We frequently use the terms killing and murder synonymously. But is killing always murder? While self defense may brook little argument, where does each of us come down on abortion? On euthanasia? On capital punishment? On just wars? The use of nuclear weapons? The noted German theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer was sentenced to death by the Nazis because he was involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler. In his book on ethics, Bonhoffer made a clear and conservative distinction between allowing a terminally ill person to die naturally and deliberate medical intervention: he was opposed to all forms of arbitrary killing. He only sanctioned killing when there were no other options. Bonhoffer was one of the very few Christian clergy in Germany who risked open and outright opposition to Hitler. So it was only when all other options had failed that assassination could become a moral act. An act in which he felt morally obligated to participate.
Unlike today’s religious right, Bonhoffer struggled with his ethical decisions. The right, on the other hand, purports to find all answers for all times in the Bible. They loudly endorse, for example, the antiquated sodomy laws that are still on the books in many states. That mindset is typical of legalistic ethics - the sort that typifies most of our western religious traditions. The sort that has been codified into civil law. It presupposes that there are absolutes in right and wrong - good and evil. That such terms are always real and measurable. It goes with the sort of language which stipulates should and should not; always and never. That’s not language with which most UUs are comfortable. It goes hand-in-hand with dogma. Yet, if we are at once opposed to the rigidity of religious moralists, while accepting that ours is not an ethical society, are we somehow exempt from the practice of ethics? Most emphatically, no. But in many cases we will have to struggle for the right - the best - answers.
I have no easy, one model fits all situational recipe for you. The best guidance I can offer is that ethics is relational. And so, in many circumstances, the Golden Rule is still a pretty good guide. Some argue that justice, not love, should be the ethical criterion. But situationalists counter that love and justice are not two separate values. Nor is one a component of the other. Rather, justice is love acted out. They are inseparable. Ethics is not a theoretical exercise. Not something we can just talk about while acting contrary to our stated values. Ethics is something we model for our children. Ethics presumes a great deal of personal responsibility insofar as we have the obligation to seek facts on which to base our ethical, loving decisions. Ethics is not subjective. Though grounded in love, ethics is not sentimental. Ethics considers the good of the other in light of the circumstances. And names it.
We UUs hold to the possibility of a social order which can serve the common good for the right reasons. But it can’t happen at the political or institutional level unless it is first lived at the personal level. If the ethic - the standard for character in this nation - if it is to be one which respects and promotes the rights and welfare of the many over the greed of a few, it will require the vigilance and dedication of all. It will require just means and just ends, even in situations which appear relatively insignificant, as well as those times when to act is risky. It will require a commitment to social and relational ethics, rather than to expediency. So what’s in it for me? Probably not a whole lot in one sense. Yet my acting in an ethical fashion may sometimes influence others. And my being an ethical person means I can look at myself - and inside myself - and like what I see. That’s not a bad pay-off. Amen