Foundations for Action


Once a renowned philosopher and moralist was traveling through Nasruddin's village when he asked him where there was a good place to eat. He suggested a place and the scholar, hungry for conversation, invited Mullah Nasruddin to join him. Much obliged, Mullah Nasruddin accompanied the scholar to a nearby restaurant, where they asked the waiter about the special of the day.
- Fish! Fresh Fish! replied the waiter.
- Bring us two, they answered.
A few minutes later, the waiter brought out a large platter with two cooked fish on it, one of which was quite a bit smaller than the other. Without hesitating, Mullah Nasruddin cooked the larger of the fish and put in on his plate. The scholar, giving Mullah Nasruddin a look of intense disbelief, proceed to tell him that what he did was not only blatantly selfish, but that it violated the principles of almost every known moral, religious, and ethical system. Mullah Nasruddin calmly listened to the philosopher's extempore lecture patiently, and when he had finally exhausted his resources, Mullah Nasruddin said,
- Well, Sir, what would you have done?
- I, being a conscientious human, would have taken the smaller fish for myself.
- And here you are, Mullah Nasruddin said, and placed the smaller fish on the gentleman's plate. 


My guess is that most of us – unlike Mullah Nasdruddin - would have offered the larger fish to our dinner companion. Now, we may have done so with less than complete sincerity – you know… hoping that the esteemed scholar is even more polite and says “oh, no. I couldn’t possibly…”, at which point we would be justified in snagging the choice morsel for ourselves! 

And then it would be OK, right? Ethics is about actions, after all, not about being perfectly pure in our intentions… 

But we would act in such a generous way probably because somewhere along the way somebody taught us it was the right thing to do – “this is the way we behave.” In fact, why? Why should we refuse the bigger piece of fish? Why should we not take the last biscuit? Why should we offer the guest tea before we take our own? Why should we not take what doesn’t belong to us? 

Heck… for that matter, why not kill, make graven images, covet, lie, and all those other biblical rules? 

Traditionally, people have turn to religion as a source of ethical teaching. The Hebrew Scriptures have the 10 commandments, of course. In fact, that’s just one list to be found in that book. Jews count 613 ethical rules in their holy book. They cover all manner of life events – from not lying to the requirement that you help your neighbor to unload his pack animal. From giving charity to making sure your scales are always accurate… 

As Unitarians, we have committed to thinking for ourselves in matters of belief. We are unwilling to accept religious statements just because someone says so and we’re just as reluctant to accept ethical commandments. 

So what do we do then about determining right and wrong for ourselves as individuals and in community? Can we bring more free thought into the way we conduct our lives? Can we find ways to be more deliberate and discerning about the decisions we make every day so that they are more firmly rooted in our deeply held beliefs and values? 

Most of the time, when faced with a moral dilemma, we go with our gut feelings. We think “well, it’s just not right to take the bigger fish.” I suspect that the guidance of the gut serves us pretty well much of the time. 

We can debate about where those gut feelings come from. Some certainly are built-in to our genetic make-up which grew out of millions of years in which the ones who cared for each other were more likely to survive and reproduce than the ones who treated others with disdain. 

Most of our automatic rules though – like the “don’t take the big piece rule” – come from norms that society has handed down. We can tell this because we can easily find cultures with very different ethical standards than the ones held here – some of you may have lived in cultures that come to different conclusions in daily life and you may find some ways of British society odd. 

And cultural norms and values change over time. Remember that there was a time when enslaving dark-skinned people was considered perfectly OK – a time when gay and lesbian people were considered to be in no way deserving of equal rights – a time when the poor were considered unworthy of assistance – a time when hiding away or even killing the disabled was generally considered acceptable. Societal norms become second-nature and we follow them unconsciously. Our actions as individuals and as a society change only when people are willing to reconsider some of those generally-accepted standards. 

Now, if we are not prepared simply to accept the ethical teachings of religions or society, then we each need to consider the principles – the foundational elements - upon which our ethical decisions should be based. 

There are many ethical dilemmas we can consider as test cases. The fish dinner seems a little bit thin, so let’s try something else. 

A trolley is running down a track out of control. It can’t be stopped. In its direct path are five people who have been tied to the track by a madman. Fortunately, you could flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is one person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch or do nothing?

There is no right answer, of course. You are going to feel horrible either way. 

This case is a pretty good one for dividing between two major ways of looking at ethics – whether you make ethical decisions by measuring the consequences or on the basis of certain absolutes. If your guiding principle depends on consequences and is something like “always minimize suffering”, then you’re going to pull the switch. 

If your guiding principles are more absolute and one of them is “never take an action that leads to loss of human life”, then you don’t. 

Let’s hope that none of us is every faced with the kind of dilemma portrayed in this example. The truth is, though, that we are faced with decisions all the time – both as individuals and as a society. Compare the US and the UK, for example. The US lives by a more absolute “every man for himself” kind of standard than the UK, which seems to lean more toward “we take care of one-another” – or at least, we used to… 

What might underlie your personal ethical principles? Is there a single precept from which everything else can derive? 

The Utilitarian – not Unitarian! - philosophy is to maximize happiness. That is, in ethical decisions, choose the course of action that yields the greatest amount of overall happiness. 

The Unitarian Universalist statement of seven principles is anchored by two such principles: inherent worth and dignity of every person and care for the interdependent web of existence. These suggests acting always in ways that honour human potential and also that protect the earth and all its creatures. 

One of my favourite theologians – Henry Nelson Wieman – said that the ethical choice in any human situation is to engage in what he calls Creative Interchange. 

Creative Interchange occurs, Wieman tells us "when the individual finds one or more persons with whom he can engage in that kind of interchange which creates in each an awareness of the original experience of the other person." 

Wieman is telling us that the only course of action we can count on as being truly the right ethical choice is the one that enables us to understand one another at a deep and authentic level. 

There are many possibilities. And whether or not we’ve thought about this directly before, we may already have some notion of our own ethical foundations. I want to suggest that a way to get some insight is to ask about the ways in which we are peculiar. Yes – you are peculiar. Peculiar: out of the ordinary, unusual, eccentric – and also – much to my chagrin - a teasing name for someone named Pakula. 

I know you’re peculiar because you are here and only 5% of the total population participate in a religious or spiritual community. You are out of the ordinary. 

And you are probably peculiar in some of your ethical stances as well. As members of the only congregation in the country that refuses to do legal marriages for straight people, you’ve signed up to something pretty darned peculiar. You might think about some of your other ethical peculiarities. If you are going against the cultural flow, there is likely something authentically yours that is pulling you out of that stream – one that is not easy to resist. 

I’m going to turn this service around for a few minutes now and look to you for some thoughts. I’ll ask you to write on your index card one or two ethical principles that you think might ground you and guide your actions and decisions. I’ll also invite you to read them aloud later once everyone has had a chance to write. 

But first, I’d like to give you a chance to do some thinking. Some of you will like to think by yourselves. Some of you find you can only really grapple with a question when you’re in conversation. So, depending what kind of person you are, either stay by yourself and reflect or find another person to talk with. You’ll have 5 minutes. 

[At this point, participants talked, reflected, and wrote their thoughts. Some then spoke. A complete list is below.] 

This is a beginning. This is a basis for a life of continued discernment – replacing automatic reaction with consideration and deliberation. It is the basis for a life of action based on our deepest convictions – convictions that are rethought and re-forged in the fire of experience and with the gentle guidance of community. 

Let this journey toward thoughtful living continue. 

It is the basis by which we build the land we seek.


Ethical principle responses:

  • Think of the children
  • Even fascists are people
  • One human is not superior to another human
  • Assume the best of people/ Other people have internal lives too/ Respect and get other people to respect each other too
  • Care of the earth (pick up litter, nurture wildlife, recycle)/ Being kind to everyone/ Smile at the stranger
  • UU principles: Inherent worth and dignity of every human being/ Interdependent web of existence
  • Justice (Is it fair?)
  • The camping motto: Leave no trace or leave it better than you found it
  • The greater good for the greater number (J. Bentham)
  • Inherent worth and dignity of every person - no apparent worth and dignity
  • Every individual has a divine spark, no matter how hard it is to see
  • Be the change you want to see in the world (Gandhi)
  • What's right is right and what's wrong is no man's right
  • Just try to be considerate and compassionate
  • Equality of opportunity does not equal equality of outcomes 
  • First, do no harm (Hypocrites)
  • The golden rule or cause as little pain as possible to others
  • Learn to give and let go
  • Every person has inherent worth - neither increased nor decreased by their behaviour
  • What is right for the Earth and its diverse creatures is right for humanity
  • Listen, then speak
  • Change is good - the only constant is change. If it works changes (get ahead of the curve)
  • Ultimately, park the rationale of the head when the heart sings with most clarity! It will eventually make a song
  • To see every other person as a facet of the divine
  • It is every child's birthright to reach their potential if they so desire. It is parents and community's role to aid this
  • Act for the greater good of all beings/ Stand up for the underdog
  • Listen to the other
  • To truly listen to people you speak to. Truly listen!
  • All people have an innate essence of divinity - a good
  • Smiling is infections. If in doubt, share a smile. Following your instinct is key
  • Find out! Don't make assumptions
  • Helping each other recognise that we are all in it together. We are all one
  • Everyone has a different perspective and a story and acts accordingly
  • Avoid lying/ Avoid judging
  • Act in a loving way/ Avoid causing pain to others
  • There is a tension between utilitarian vs. commit to the true community and its decisions
  • Do your best to understand the other person/ Let it begin with me...
  • Staying connected to "source" and shining your light means you are in the best space to show others their own light and to be able to assist them
  • Stand up for the underdog, but try to listen to both sides/ be generous and engage - don't be an oyster/ park the rationale of the head when the heart is singing
  • Equality to the point of "one" - we are inter-connected and can act accordingly!
  • I try always to put myself in the shoes of the 'other' when I don't understand their views