Right vs. Wrong, Good vs. Evil

How did you learn right from wrong?  What lessons did your parents offer on lying vs telling the truth?  Is the distinction between good and evil always clear?  At this service with Rev. Sue Browning we’ll consider the ways we each set a moral compass.


Rev. Sue Browning, Service June 17, 2018

 Right vs. Wrong, Good vs. Evil

Let’s start with a decision to be made. This example was described in the book, “Good People Make Tough Choices” by Rushworth Kidder.

“Pam, a college student, works part-time in an apartment building for elderly persons. Last winter many of the building’s tenants, who had become Pam’s friends, complained to her that their apartments were cold. When she relayed these comments to her boss, Pam was told to tell the senior citizens that the furnace was out of order. But Pam knew that her boss had simply turned down the central thermostat to save money on heating bills. Pam hated lying to the tenants, but is certain she will lose her much needed job if she refuses.” (44)

What would you do if you were Pam? What would you advise your child to do, or your grandchild to do?

Some here may be about out of your skin! This isn’t a hard choice. You never should lie to someone. Ever. Period. Pam needs to tell the truth to these tenants, consequences come as they may. Lying is never ok. The truth only. Or she needs to have a face-off with her boss and be ready to quit.

Maybe jobs where Pam lives are virtually impossible to come by, and she’s paying her way through school and there is no financial safety net. Maybe Pam has been taught to value self-sufficiency and to respect and trust her boss’s authority. And this boss, maybe she really is a ‘my way or the highway’ manager. Pam knows others would be willing to step into the job. Could she get a future reference?

Is there a clear right and wrong for Pam? I wonder what skills Pam has been taught in her first 20 years or so to walk through her choices? How do you walk through ethical decision making?

‘Doing wrong’ can be a violation of law, a departure from truth, and/or departure from what is moral. Assessing what is, and what is not, ethical can only be clearly defined to a point. In the end, right and wrong often comes down to a gut feeling.

In the story about Pam, something feels wrong. We’d hope both Pam and her boss are losing sleep, but a sense of ‘wrong’ processes through different filters for each of us. Our ‘ethics radar’ varies.

I hope that continually developing and exercising your ‘ethics radar’ is one of the reasons you are here. Not just today, but why you choose to be a part of a religious community. One of the functions of religion is to help us deal in community – to set some norms so that each situation coming at us is not a blank page. Religious traditions ask us to look at what is right – what is ethical – what is moral.

At their best, religious traditions help point members to act in the direction of a higher good – an ideal world – for self, for community, and, for many, in connection with the divine (the divine defined in many ways). While some issues have different ethical conclusions, there for many situations a shared society-wide sense of right and wrong. We know that many religious traditions parse and decide with different rules and standards, which is a challenge (and not to be minimized) and ethics helps point to a higher good.

Take lying. In Kidder’s assessment of the situation with Pam, a world in which tenants are lied to is far from an ideal world, and lying breaks trust. This is a big principle. We do at times lie, sometimes out of fear or self-interest. For example, studies show well over half of students in college and high school say that have cheated in some way – maybe on a test, or copying homework. I’m not sure that has changed dramatically over the years. Lying may feel the ‘more right’ choice to these students where culture has an amplified focus on achievement, and where we teach (or imply) that Error = Failure = Not Redeemable. Is it safe to be truthful? What are the consequences? Check in with a child in your life. What have they been told about the value of good grades? If there is a shared belief that lying is wrong, how do we help our children make ethical choices?

When faced with a tough ethical dilemma, can there be more than one morally right outcome?

Another situation from Kidder’s book.

“A librarian …. is working the reference desk at the public library…. The phone rang. The questioner, a male, wanted some information on state laws concerning rape. The librarian asked several questions to clarify the nature of his inquiry. The librarian, in keeping with the long-established library policy designed to keep the phone line from being tied up, explained that she would call him back in a few minutes after researching the questions and took down his first name and number and hung up. She was getting up to do the research when a man who had been sitting in the reading area within earshot of the reference desk approached her. Flashing his police badge, he asked for the name and number of the called. The reason: The conversation he had overheard led him to suspect that the caller was the perpetrator of a rape that had happened the night before in the community.”

How does the librarian’s moral compass help her sort through the decision? What are her values? What rules and policies does she live by? She cares about the community and safety. She respects law enforcement. She cares deeply about confidentiality. She values her personal and professional commitment to the open access to information.

A moral compass is hard to develop and to keep in shape. There are gray areas to steer through time and again, often with time pressure.

Our own UU principles can pull us in several directions. Kidder suggests there are several areas of murkiness. First, justice vs. mercy. Does fairness, equity and even-handed application of the law often conflict with compassion, empathy and love? What does a professor do if a student is caught cheating? What does a university do if a professor plagiarizes? Where is accountability? Second chances?

Part of the development of children is to move from a sense of ‘right’ for self – to be held, and fed, and cared for, to a sense of ‘right’ for the other – a sense of fairness, and in time empathy. A moral compass needs clear awareness of the good of the whole. We need to ask, Right for whom? In each scenario, there is complexity when values are in tension.

How does the tension of truth vs. loyalty impact ethical decisions? Both truth and loyalty deal with aspects of trust. When dealing with two possible ‘rights’ how does my loyalty to a group, or institution color my judgment? Kidder talks of balancing honesty or integrity (truth) vs. commitment, responsibility, or promise-keeping (loyalty).

I’m a fan of the show ‘Blue Bloods,’ with Tom Selleck as Frank Reagan, the commissioner of police in NYC. Frank’s father had been the commissioner of police before him. His sons are on the force. His daughter is an Assistant District Attorney. On more than one occasion as Commission Reagan and his father offer the wisdom on difficult ethical issues, and in their discernment loyalty to family is a tightly held value. Most often they find a path that is both right, and loyal…and at times the trade-off needs to be made.

Where is loyalty for you? Why? Are there times loyalty to family or institution is used as rationale to avoid raising truth? To avoid rocking the boat? Where are we creative in these moments?

And not all ‘right and wrong’ choices are good and evil trade-offs. A14 year-old sneaking one beer, or saying ‘yes’ to two friends for conflicting commitments and not being honest are both examples of wrong, not instances of evil.

When is violence involved – physical or verbal? When is the harm great? Foundations of equity broken? Last summer I drafted a letter for colleagues in Talbot County to sign after the white supremacy march through Charlottesville. We included this sentence in the letter, “The bold actions of neo-Nazi, KKK, and other white supremacist groups were evil as measured by any standards in our diverse religious traditions.”

Evil to me is at the extreme opposite of good. It’s vocabulary I want our children to have in their moral compass foundation. ‘Evil’ is a term to use with careful thought. Of late I’m looking for language to capture the ‘wrong’ of separating children and youth from parents at the border. Blatantly wrong. And extreme. Evil fits.

In Unitarian Universalist Religious Education, in age appropriate ways, we tell our children two things over and over: ‘Values matter’ and ‘Life’s journey is not going to be clear cut.’

Liz may start the kids off with ‘kindness’ as the overarching value, and week after week the kids are building the skills of assessment and action on ethics and morality. You can think of this as building discernment muscle. One UU curriculums for 2nd and 3rd grade is called Moral Tales. The objective: build tools for “discerning truth and justice in a complex world.”

We help children, and partnership with their families, to establish their moral compass. Not separate from schools – who have character education and other tools, but with depth and examples, and an openness to learning about a UU outlook, and approach.

The goal of UU Religious Education is not compliance, but to raise a child who can stand up for their beliefs. It’s not easy. We help children develop their own sense of right and wrong in part to deal with peers.

Work on a moral compass doesn’t stop with kids. How steady is your moral compass? Do you make room for complexity in ethics? Competing values? Are you ready to hold a posture when moral and ethical matters are at stake? As adults, what do you do when the legal requirement is in conflict with your ethical assessment? Are there laws you are willingly break? What about policies of your employer?

The sum up. On right versus wrong: Be careful of absolutes; be careful of feeling high and mighty and certain; do your own homework; take time; and clarify what is in your true ‘how I live’ moral compass.

Religious community is where we (learners of all ages) practice with one another the art of finding a path to good. It is in religious community where we confess, and ask for forgiveness when there are breaks in living into our own moral aspirations – called sin for some, trespasses, or debts. There will be these times. And in religious community we then dust off to start down a path toward good again (and again).

And if you aren’t running into the ethical dilemmas, it’s good to ask, Why not? Are you living close enough to an edge? Are you positioned for growth and change? We can be too cautious, too protective of self.

We pass our template for a moral compass through the generations. Standards change some, but not much. If it feels wrong, it probably is. And as you figure your next step, or teach the next step, remember,

We are our grandmothers’ prayers,

We are our grandfathers’ dreamings,

We are the breath of our ancestors,

We are the spirit of God.*

May It Be So

*The source of these lyrics is the hymn ‘We Are…” which was sung earlier in the service. This is Hymn No. 1051 in Singing the Journey, composer Ysaye M. Barnwell.

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