An unanswered question

In liberal religion, which is more important: social ethics or individual morality?

And why?

16 thoughts on “An unanswered question”

  1. Individual morality- without it, you don’t get more than lip service to social ethics. I simply do not believe that one can compartmentalize that well.

  2. Individual morality. It’s hard to form social ethics without a group of moral individuals able to agree on a code of ethics. History unfortunately has many examples of social un-ethics spawned by groups of individuals without moral restraint.

  3. Dan, do you consider Niebuhr a religous liberal? If so, what to make of “Moral Man and Immoral Society”?

    Also, individual morality I can grasp. I make decisions (at least it feels that way!), and I like to think I take morality into consideration when I do.

    But what’s “Social Ethics”? Choices made by a collective?

    You need to flesh this one out for me before I weigh in more.

  4. PS I will ad this though. We had a lay sermon a few weeks ago. The speaker quoted Matthew 25:31–46 on the judgement day and the sheep and the goats.

    It was pretty clear the sheep were democrats and favored cooperation and collective action. The goats were tea partiers and stubborn individualists. Of course the tea party goats went to hell.

    My thought as a tea partier sitting through this sermon was wow, UUs/Political Liberals sure quick to make themselves Christ and divvy up the goats and the sheep.

    Second thought was we tea partiers really do favor collective organization better than many liberals. We just don’t want a Shepard dictating the collective behavior, and instead prefer the free association of sheep and goats alike all pursuing their own happiness. That free associations sans shepherds yields the best collective.

  5. I would agree that I don’t quite know what you mean by individual morality vs. social ethics. In my view, part of being an ethical person is seeking to act justly in all aspects of one’s life: how one deals with oneself, how one acts with others in your “personal life”, and how one interacts with others in the broader community, which includes politics. Perhaps you could define the last category, or maybe the last two categories, as “social ethics”. If so, then in my view social ethics is one aspect or expression of individual morality. However, if defined in this way, one difficulty with social ethics is that it is more difficult and complicated to accurately assess the justice and consequence of political actions than of one’s actions within situations that involve smaller numbers of people. Hence the difficulty of religion pronouncing what political actions are deemed to be just, as frequently such judgments depend upon what model you believe to be true about how the economy and the society is operating.

    To give one example, it is one thing to say that discrimination against some group is morally wrong as part of one’s view of social ethics. It is another thing to say that policy X (a school millage, a wage or price regulation, etc.) is socially just or unjust, as the latter claim, to be fully established, rests upon empirical facts about the actual consequences of the policy proposal. Ministers might claim some special expertise or insight about discrimination and morality, but will in general find it more difficult to claim expertise about complicated public policy proposals. Ministers might claim to have some special claim to have insight into whether the GOALS of some public policy are just, but it is harder to make authoritative religious pronouncements about the proper means to those goals.

  6. Bill and Tim — Being good religious liberals, you want to argue in the gray areas. But in the wider religious context, many people make a clear division between individual morality and social ethics (sometimes called social justice). Is it more important to clean up your own life, or to clean up the world? The Social Gospel (which continues to have a strong influence on liberal religion) wanted us to balance (a) dealing with our individual sinfulness and (b) dealing with the sinfulness of social systems. But religious liberals have tended to tip the balance in favor of social ethics.

    Today, liberal religions like Unitarian Universalism tend to privilege social ethics. But for some of us, individual morality is more important. The two are not mutually exclusive, but the question is — which do you spend more time on?

  7. “Today, liberal religions like Unitarian Universalism tend to privilege social ethics. But for some of us, individual morality is more important. The two are not mutually exclusive, but the question is — which do you spend more time on?”

    Personally, I spend time on BOTH. Most of my professional career as an economist is concerned with issues of public policy and social justice.

    But what should the CHURCH spend more time on? I think the church needs to focus on its comparative advantage. It provides a place for us to develop as individuals who are better and more complete people, with a better focus and greater capacities for understanding and compassion. Social justice work may flow out of that focus on individual and community development, but we have to be careful not to overstep the church’s comparative advantage. A church will never be as good a political party or movement as an actual political movement. But a church for some people can play a uniquely powerful role as a place and time to refocus one’s attention to what truly matters in life.

    That being said, social justice work done in some ways can be a part of individual development and church development. My own church has gained as a religious and spiritual institution by our involvement in our local faith-based community organizing group. This involves working with a wide variety of other religious and social organizations in the community on issues of common community concern, such as issues involving homelessness and early childhood development and public transit. But if that work gets out of balance with what the church does to enrich our daily lives, there would be a problem. So far, at least in my church, I think we have things appropriately balanced.

  8. Ok, that helps… a bit.

    I think within a Church what we call Social Justice is really Service. Service is what we pretty much called it pre 1968. In large part because Father Coughlin had dibs on Social Justice and the distaste for that lasted a long time. I argue often in my Church’s SJ committee that our mission statement (which we seem to rewrite annually) ought to include some reference to our own spiritual growth and renewel as one of our goals. I think that growth contributes to our growth as moral and ethical beings.

    More in a bit on the larger “Social Justice” issue. In a nutshell though, perfectly amoral or immoral people can still cause great progress, and good heated, intensely moral people, can do great harm.

  9. Since Bill brought up Neibuhr, I think that brings up the answer depends on the social location of the individual.

    Remember the old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”?

    I think you’re right…liberal religion is really focused on the village at the moment. And in many ways it is so focused on the village that it has pushed aside the fact that the village is made up of people who need attention. People make the village and the village makes people.

    I think a balance could be achieved if liberal religion paid attention to the words of MLK Jr. on what he saw as its problems.

  10. Kim and Bill — Though I find him sooo boring, you two have convinced me that I really need to go read Niebuhr.

    Kim — I like the village analogy. That’s a good concrete image. And yes to MLK.

  11. They ought to be interwoven. Moral decisions are always made by individuals. They always (some would say “almost always”; I won’t quibble) affect others, so to that extent they are social. To use the Social Gospel formulation as you give it above, by being less sinful as individuals, we reduce the evils that beset society. How else could one possibly do it?

    Social programs and policies are real expressions of ethics and not to be dismissed, but whether we engage with them usefully depends on our inner moral compass. There are many amoral and immoral reasons to take action in the realm of social ethics–for example, working at a settlement house out of guilt rather than as a moral choice.

    I may be in the mood for sweeping statements on just this point because I’m in the midst of developing a sermon series on the virtues, of which the first is this Sunday, in fact. The essence of virtue ethics is the idea that if we wish to make more moral decisions, we should cultivate virtue in ourselves. And yet the cultivation of virtue is very much a social matter, since we learn (or fail to learn) virtue from our teachers, parents, companions. And we don’t cultivate virtue in ourselves simply for the satisfaction of being a good person, but for the sake of others who have to share society with us. I have probably just contradicted half the virtue ethicists out there, but that’s the heart of it for me.

  12. They are two sides of the same coin, neither of which has much to do with religion, liberal or conservative. It’s the collapse of religion into morality (personal or societal) that has weakened religion on the left and the right.

  13. OK, so now we all have to check out Amy’s sermon. Problem is, it will probably take a couple of months to get it up on the church Web site (Amy preaches from notes, not from a text, so her sermons have to be transcribed.) So Amy, I think you should fast-track transcribing this sermon, put it on your blog, and then link to your blog from a comment here.

    Victor, you may be onto something there. Sure, morality should be a part of religion, but there’s so much more to religion than simple morality. And yes, that helps explain why religion has been weakened. Hmmm. You’ve really got me thinking now.

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