What Is Growing Ethically?


How do we grow ethically? “With a bit of muddle and some hard testing,” as Louise said.

Our mission here in this church is not a “mission accomplished” kind of mission. The job is never completed. For the second and third ones – serving justly and loving radically – it’s conceivable that we might reach a plateau. I rather suspect that we haven’t, but it’s conceivable that we could. And then our job would be just to keep on serving justly and loving radically. When it comes to growing, though, there’s no plateau. If your growth plateaus, you’re not growing anymore.

Our mission directs us to, no matter what level of ethical or spiritual development we might have reached, keep on growing still further. Forever. When it comes to ethical and spiritual development, our mission does not allow any status to stay quo.

I’ll talk about spiritual growth on other Sundays. Today, let’s reflect on ethical growth. Philosopher Iris Murdoch has written: “Nothing in life is of any value except the attempt to be virtuous.” It just so happens that before going into ministry, I was a philosophy professor and taught our department’s ethics course every year. So you might think I’d have something to say on the subject of ethics. And you’d be right.

First, I want to congratulate you for recognizing the importance of the ethical and enshrining it in your mission. Too often we have seen religious bodies imagine that spiritual growth was all they needed. As vital as it is to develop the resources for making meaning of this life and this world, and to experience regularly awe and wonder and the oneness of all things, this is not sufficient.

People who show up at a Zen practice group – even more than your average Unitarian Universalist – are likely to be looking for a particular wow spiritual experience. A newcomer is likely to show up wanting to become “enlightened.” If they stick around and keep coming back, they will sooner or later hear me tell them, “You are already enlightened.” And, “whatever conception of enlightenment you may have, it’s not like that....Nor is it otherwise.” And, “The practice IS the enlightenment.” From time to time I’ll even say, “enlightenment is delusion.”

Sometimes in my talks to Zen groups the topic of the ethical transgressions of certain famous Zen masters comes up. Certain Zen masters have been abusive. Some committed sexual misconduct or other abuses of power, or skimmed from the financial resources of the temple or zen center they served, or were alcoholics. How could enlightened masters act that way? One answer might be to say, “they just weren’t very enlightened after all.” I don’t think that’s it.

Look, spiritual enlightenment doesn’t guarantee ethical awareness. Satori isn’t going to make you able to play the oboe if you don’t already have that skill. If you are a skilled musician, you might be able to more readily slip into “the zone” when performing, but, no, spiritual development won’t impart the basic skills if you don’t have them. Nirvana doesn’t improve your math skills. And: awakening to the vast oneness and emptiness of all things isn’t by itself going to clue you in to just how much devastation your peccadilloes can wreak upon a community that trusted you.

If you want to master the oboe, you have to learn and train at the oboe. Meditating is good for a number of things – that’s not one of them. To learn calculus, you need a calculus teacher – or appropriate book or series of internet videos. Spiritual teachers or books or internet videos will not improve your ability to solve calculus problems.

Ethical growth requires cognitive learning that is distinct from spiritual maturity. It’s not just a matter of being good, or kindhearted -- or even enlightened. It takes study to find out what the effects of actions and words are likely to be.

Some of you may remember the 1960s – though the saying goes that if you remember the 60s you weren’t really a part of them. In the 60s, a number of Unitarian Universalists – including some of our ministers, were what was then thought of as “freewheeling” when it came to sexual conduct. Our movement learned some hard empirical lessons about just how harmful that can be. All we knew then was that the sexual ethic of the puritans didn’t work for us, so we were experimenting with alternatives – and some of those experiments were disastrous. Looking back at that time we are now in the position to say that behavior was unethical even though the perpetrators might not have had any way to know any better.

We know better now: we have evolved some standards of what is inappropriate, when back in the 1960s even to invoke the word “appropriate” -- or its cognates, “propriety” and “proper” – was commonly scorned as unliberated. Of course, inappropriate conduct still happens sometimes – but we have better tools for at least naming it when it does.

When I think about what I knew when I was 25 – and what American culture understood in the 1960s – if I’d been a young minister at that time, oh, man, I hate to think what I might have done – what neither I nor our churches at that time had the brakes to put on to prevent what we hadn’t even learned yet to call abuse. I am so glad that by the time I started seminary in the last year of the 20th century they were teaching us about power dynamics, and what constitutes abuse of that power.

My point is that that was something I had to learn – cognitively learn. There were teachers and I was taught – rather like grammar. Ethics and grammar are alike in that we pick up the basics -- usually -- in the process of being socialized and learning how to talk, but the finer points have to be more formally and intentionally taught. Interestingly, the way both grammar and ethics are taught is by identifying mistakes. Grammar mistakes generally don’t hurt anyone, so, outside of classroom contexts, it’s rude to point them out – but with ethical mistakes the stakes are higher.

We’ve done a lot of learning about boundaries in the last few decades – how to respect autonomy while also making space for joyful connection. Just to learn this vocabulary – to be able to converse and think with concepts like boundary, and autonomy represents ethical growth.

We’ve done a lot of learning about privilege – and about the way White Supremacy culture infects so many ways of thinking. That’s ethical growth – and we certainly have further to go. Our words and actions have effects on other people that can be entirely independent of what we thought they meant, what we wanted them to mean, what we intended them to mean. Finding out what our words and actions might be conveying to others – what impact we might be having – takes some study -- some reading, some conversations, some listening. It’s a matter of learning. Finding out what environmental damage our consumer choices might be doing is a matter of learning.


Understanding all the effects of our actions can be a daunting task. This was illustrated in the TV sitcom “The Good Place” – a comedy about moral philosophy. The premise is that throughout life, people get points for doing good things, and lose points for doing bad things. Celestial beings in another dimension are keeping track of every human being’s point total. When you die, if you have enough points you go to the Good Place. If you don’t, you go to the bad place.

One of those celestial beings – Michael, played by Ted Danson -- has taken a particular interest in the four main character humans of the show, and is trying to get them into the Good Place – but no matter how many times he manages to get them sent back to Earth to try to be better, they can’t seem to get enough points.

In season 3, episode 10, which first aired in fall 2018, Michael makes the discovery that, in fact, no one has gotten into the good place for 521 years. For more than five centuries every single person has, upon dying, been sent to the bad place. At first, Michael thinks the demons who run the bad place have been tampering with the system, denying people their points to keep them from getting into the Good Place. But then he realizes that the ethical challenges people face in the modern world have gotten more complicated.

In a key scene, he’s looking through past records of human actions and the points that were garnered. He reads out two examples for comparison:
“In 1534, Douglas Wynegarr of Hawkhurst, England gave his grandmother roses for her birthday. He picked them himself, walked them over to her. She was happy. Boom. 145 points. Now . . . yeah, here we go. In 2009, Doug Ewing of Scaggsville, Maryland, also gave his grandmother a dozen roses, but he lost four points. Why? Because he ordered roses using a cell phone that was made in a sweatshop. The flowers were grown with toxic pesticides, picked by exploited migrant workers, delivered from thousands of miles away, which created a massive carbon footprint, and his money went to a billionaire racist CEO, who sends his female employees pictures of his genitals. Whoo!
Another character, Tahani, observes, “That Is a very odd thing to cheer.” But Michael explains:
“Don’t you understand? The Bad Place isn’t tampering with points. They don’t have to. Because every day the world gets a little more complicated, and being a good person gets a little harder. Gather the others. We have a lot to do.”
And off they go.

So. Yes, we today need to think about the ethics of buying products manufactured in sweatshops. We need to think about whether our consumer choices are facilitating toxic pesticide use, migrant worker exploitation – and more: resource depletion, habitat destruction, species extinction, pollutants of air, of water, of soil. We need to think about our carbon footprint – and whether we’re tacitly condoning billionaire, racist, sexual-harassing CEOs.

Douglas Wynnegarr of Hawkhurst, England in 1534 didn’t have to think about any of those things. But is it really any harder to be a good 21st-century person than it was to be a good 16th-century person? Look, forget about the points – the whole concept of getting points is a silly TV conceit, and it’s funny, but it has nothing to do with trying to live a life being the best person you can. On the one hand, sure, we do have a lot to pay attention to that people in the Medieval and Renaissance periods didn’t. But they didn’t have any way to think about those things. The facts of life were different, and the knowledge about those facts was different. Yet then, as now, ethical behavior demands taking into account the effects of our actions – which entails the due diligence to find out what we can about what those effects may be.

If we, today, are called upon to consider our effects on the environment and on systems of oppression, we also have the resources to do so – sources of knowledge and understanding unavailable in previous centuries. The challenge Maya Angelou articulated was the same then as it is now: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Ted Danson’s character Michael humorously recapped some of the new ethical challenges in our age – but every age has had the task to work as best they could on how to be a good person. We have chronicles of how past ages did that work, going back to Greeks of ancient Athens and the Israelites of ancient Jerusalem.

Importantly, we need each other to do that. We have to cultivate the institutions that teach us to think about and reasonably pursue a good life – "good" both in the sense of virtuous and in the sense of truly fulfilling and joyous.

In this regard, there has been a shift. The relevant shift is not in the last 500 years, but in the last 20 – and that’s what I want to talk about in the last part.


David Brooks recently pondered:
“Why have Americans become so mean? I was recently talking with a restaurant owner who said that he has to eject a customer from his restaurant for rude or cruel behavior once a week—something that never used to happen. A head nurse at a hospital told me that many on her staff are leaving the profession because patients have become so abusive. At the far extreme of meanness, hate crimes rose in 2020 to their highest level in 12 years.” ("How America Got Mean," Atlantic, 2023 Sep)
Gun sales are up. Social trust is way down.
“In 2000, two-thirds of American households gave to charity; in 2018, fewer than half did. The words that define our age reek of menace: conspiracy, polarization, mass shootings, trauma, safe spaces.
The factors that are making us mean are, of course, also making us sad. Deaths of despair – that is, deaths from suicide or substance addiction – are rising. In 1990, according to the General Social Survey, 8 percent of Americans rated their happiness at the lowest level. Thirty-two years later, in 2022, Americans rating their happiness at the lowest level was up from 8 percent to 20 percent.

What are these factors making us mean and sad? There are a number of inter-relating factors. Social media is making us crazy. We’re more isolated -- participate less in community organizations -- and that makes us crazy. We’re becoming a more racially diverse country, and the challenge to come to grips with that has millions of white Americans in a panic. Ever since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, economic inequality has been growing and growing, leaving people increasingly afraid, alienated, and pessimistic. There are a lot of inter-relating factors.

To address them, we need each other, and to cultivate the institutions that teach us to think about and reasonably pursue a good life – how to be moral. Brooks writes:
“In a healthy society, a web of institutions—families, schools, religious groups, community organizations, and workplaces—helps form people into kind and responsible citizens, the sort of people who show up for one another. We live in a society that’s terrible at moral formation. . . . A culture that leaves people morally naked and alone leaves them without the skills to be decent to one another. . . . If you put people in a moral vacuum, they will seek to fill it with the closest thing at hand. Over the past several years, people have sought to fill the moral vacuum with politics and tribalism. American society has become hyper-politicized.”
It’s not that we don’t yearn for moral purpose and meaning. It’s just that too many of us don’t know how.

The yearning is reflected in the popularity of some TV shows. “The Good Place” was about what we owe to each other, and how we can learn to be good. And when it finished its run, there was "Ted Lasso" – the most watched show on Apple TV+. Jason Sudeikis’ character, Ted Lasso, an American coaching soccer in England, articulated a two-sentence description of moral formation. He said:
“For me, success is not about the wins and losses. It’s about helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves on and off the field.”
Ted Lasso is
“an earnest, cheerful, and transparently kind man who enters a world that has grown cynical, amoral, and manipulative, and, episode after episode, even through his own troubles, he offers the people around him opportunities to grow more gracious, to confront their vulnerabilities and fears, and to treat one another more gently and wisely.” (Brooks)
So, that’s great – and it is the lesson that we long for – but a couple TV shows are not enough. We need our schools and our leaders to put questions of how to be a good person, how to live a good life – not just a materialistic, consumerist life – at the center. And there are areas of ethical growth aside from TV shows: the growth I was mentioning earlier, growth in our understanding of how power dynamics can be abused, how to recognize where white supremacy culture is manifesting, where patriarchy is manifesting, why carbon footprints matter. All that represents real ethical growth.

To pull through this period – to more widely share the ethical growth now available -- there will need to be more places like this one: congregations that, week in and week out, affirm that we – individually and collectively – are called to grow ethically, to become better than we were: more kind, less arrogant; more respectful, less entitled; more curious, less judgmental. That’s what ethical growth is, and may it be our path.


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