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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Doing the Right Thing: the Motive is the Message

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert, with Claire Boston and Marilyn Pearl, Worship Associates; Erica Shadowsong, Director of Religious Exploration, and the Chalice Dancers

Doing the Right Thing:  The Motive is the Message

A sermon by the Reverend Diane Teichert

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

October 16, 2011

This is the 2010 Auction Sermon, won by Kenneth M. Jenkins. Before I tell you what he asked me to preach about, let me offer a bit of shameless (but not self) promotion:  this year's auction is just a few weeks away, on Saturday evening November 12th.  I’ll be able to attend it myself for the first time this year. I hear it's always a fun time and I know it raises an important piece of our annual budget, so I hope you will donate a service you can provide, just as I will be donating another sermon; attend with check book in hand; and bring a few friends with you, for good food, good music, good company, a real good time. Today in the foyer you will find information and auction leaders who will accept your offers of volunteer time in the foyer.

Here is my assignment for today:  “Summarize and critique Immanuel Kant’s Moral Philosophy with about 15 minutes for congregational discussion.”

Well, I didn’t have such a positive first reaction to that! For one thing, the invitation to the winning bidder is to request a topic for a sermon, not to dictate exactly how it will be approached or how long it will take. With a typical sermon only lasting twenty minutes, he had left me only five minutes to “summarize and critique” – of all people – Kant!

But also, I’m no philosopher. As a college freshman, I thought I might be - because my father majored in philosophy at the University of Kentucky where he attended on the GI Bill, and I thought myself similar to him. So, I elected to take Introduction to Philosophy fall quarter of my first year in college, 1970. Dr. Aubrey Castell was the professor. He was an expert on Kant. He wrote our text-book, Introduction to Modern Philosophy. It was way too abstract for me! The class was boring, nothing like the pedagogy that Marilyn Pearl experienced at the same age and described in her Chalice Reflection.

A great sermon topic? Not!

So, wasn’t I lucky that somehow Immanuel Kant came up at a hurricane party on our block in August! And wasn’t I lucky that a neighbor dropped off at my house a book that contains a chapter on Immanuel Kant’s Moral Philosophy? And wasn’t I lucky that the book is readable?!

So, much of what I gleaned for the sermon came from that book, Justice:  What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel, from which I took the quote at the top of your Order of Service.

The full quotation, from his introductory chapter, is “If moral reflection consists in seeking a fit between the judgments we make and the principles we affirm, how can such reflection lead us to justice, or moral truth? Even if we succeed, over a lifetime, in bringing our moral intuitions and principled commitments into alignment, what confidence can we have that the result is anything more than a self-consistent skein of prejudice? The answer is that moral reflection is not a solitary pursuit but a public endeavor. It requires an interlocutor – a friend, a neighbor, a comrade, a fellow citizen [or, I would add, a fellow congregant]. Sometimes the interlocutor can be imagined rather than real, as when we argue with ourselves. But we cannot discover the meaning of justice or the best way to live through introspection alone.”

When I read that, I decided that today you will be each other’s interlocutors, for here we are engaging in the public endeavor of moral reflection. I will try to summarize Kant’s Moral Philosophy and then get you talking about yours, via your stories.

It may not be the exact kind of congregational discussion Ken Jenkins envisioned, but neither will he have to listen to me for the full twenty minutes!

And it fits with a theme for the year that I announced in my sermon on August 14th, and carried forward into my sermon on the power of the Unitarian Universalist story three weeks ago. In August, I said, “The stories we tell about ourselves shape our identities and help us each become who we are called to be. They have great power. Our individual stories, told here, become collective stories that shape the identity of our congregation and help us become who we as a congregation are called to be.”

Here are four major points Sandel makes about the Moral Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who lived from 1724-1804 in Prussia.

1) The moral worth of an action consists not in its results but in the motive for doing it. Morality is not about consequences; it’s about principle. If we do the right thing out of self-interest, or to satisfy our own wants, desires, preferences, appetites, or because it feels good to do it… then our action lacks moral worth. (pp. 111-1160.

2) But what makes a reason the right reason? Kant says it is right if we freely choose the action by reasoning our way to it, rather than acting according to a rule or law given to, or imposed upon, us.

How does our reason manage to discern the right reason? On certain principles.

3) For Kant, a very high principle – he calls it a categorical imperative – is the respect of human life, which means that persons (ourselves included) are not things to be used merely as a means, as an instrument. So, reason asks:  does the action I am about to take put my interests and special circumstances ahead of everyone else’s? Or, am I using someone or myself as an instrument to something I want?

And 4), To be truthful is also a sacred and unconditionally commanding law of reason, for Kant. The duty to tell the truth holds regardless of the consequences. He takes a hard line against lying. He gives as an example the question I posed in the Together Time today: suppose a friend was hiding in your house and a murderer came to the door looking for him. Would it be right to lie to the murderer to save your friend’s life? Kant says no. It’s better to make a misleading, but truthful statement, like “Last I saw her she was at the grocery store.”

Can you think of a time when you did the right thing, but for a wrong reason? Kant gives an example: a shopkeeper could have over-charged a child who came in for a loaf of bread, but didn’t. He restrained himself because he didn’t want anyone to see him cheating a child. He acted honestly but only for the sake of self-interest, to protect his reputation; his action lacked moral worth.

I’ll give an example:  most of us pay our taxes. That’s obviously the right thing to do in a democracy. But what’s our motive, Kant would ask? Do we do it because it’s the law, or because we, or our family members, will benefit from government expenditures? Then our action lacks moral worth. Or do we pay our taxes because we reason that the common good requires common financing to which each of us must contribute? Kant would like that!

Please think of an example from your life, either 1) a story of a time when you did the right thing, for what Kant would say, or you would say, was a wrong reason. Or, 2) a story of a time when you made a misleading but truthful statement rather than tell a lie or the truth. Take a few minutes to reflect and choose a story, because we are going to share them with each other.

In a minute, but not quite yet, I will invite you to share that story. So look for one or two people near you, in the same row as, in front of or behind you, someone with whom you do not share a household. Try to stay in your seats, so that we don’t spend a lot of time moving around, but if you see someone who is alone, invite them over. Also be sure to lean in close if someone has trouble hearing. After the two or three of you introduce yourselves to each other, each take a turn to tell a story. When the two or three of you have each told a story, raise your hands, so I’ll know when we can move on, but I’ll allow about five or six minutes total– that’s only two minutes per person. I’ll sound the gong when I’d like you to stop talking. If you have to move to a different chair to do this, please remain there at the end.

So, Kant is controversial because he says the reason for our actions is more important than the outcome and that lying is at all times wrong.

Another controversial position Kant takes is in regard to casual sex. Now keep in mind he lived in the 18th century, in Prussia. He was a Christian. And he was opposed, according to Sandel, to “every conceivable sexual practice except consensual sexual intercourse between husband and wife.” (p. 129) Before I go on, let me say that, for the purpose of our discussion today, let’s include gay couples who are as-though married, since it is not yet legal for them to be married. We know there are many who are as committed as marriage implies.

Kant objects to sex outside marital-commitment, however consensual, on the grounds that it is degrading and objectifying to both partners, because it is all about the satisfaction of sexual desire, not about respect for the humanity, in all its fullness – emotional, intellectual, spiritual – of one’s partner and of one’s self. Even when casual sex involves the mutual satisfaction of the partners, (and here I quote from Kant himself) “each of them dishonours the human nature of the other. They make of humanity an instrument for the satisfaction of their lusts and inclinations.”  

We may not agree that consensual casual sex is degrading, and we might feel that we have a right to do with our own bodies as we wish.

But Kant would argue on two counts. First, Kant’s conception of autonomy imposes certain limits on the way we may treat ourselves: namely, we must treat ourselves with respect, and not objectify ourselves. He says, “Man cannot dispose over himself because he is not a thing; he is not his own property.” (This is, by the way, the basis for his stance against suicide also). Second, sex within marital-commitment offers so much more than casual sex, taking it beyond physical gratification and connecting it with human dignity, that it makes casual sex, by comparison, objectionable.

Kant says, only when two persons share their “person, body and soul, for good an ill and in every respect,” can their sexuality lead to a “union of human beings.” I would add that it only happens over time- that’s the benefit of “til death do us part.”

As Sandel points out, “Kant does not say that every marriage actually brings about a union of this kind. And he may be wrong to think that… sexual relations outside of marriage involve nothing more than sexual gratification.” (p. 133). But his views about sex highlight a tension in moral philosophy between individual freedom and respect for the dignity of persons.

Well, moral philosophy, and Immanuel Kant specifically, have perhaps proved to be more interesting than one would have expected! We have examined the nature of truth and human dignity. And now we are going to sing of it, “The star of truth but dimly shines…but every searching eye divines some partial glimmer of its light.” True, but together the glimmers we separately divine brighten our lives and light up the way ahead.

Together, over a lifetime, we may bring our moral intuitions and principled commitments into alignment, and discover the meaning of justice and the best way to live.



Justice:  What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael J. Sandel. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009).

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