First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany

Emotions and Morality

Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore, February 15, 2004

Call to Celebration

Six year old Bobby’s mother heard a commotion and rushed downstairs to see what was going on.Bobby’s little brother was crying so his mother asked why he was upset.

“Bobby got mad at me and punched me,” he sobbed.

Not only was Bobby’s little brother crying, so was his little sister.The mother asked her why she was upset.

“Bobby wanted one of my favorite Legos and stole it from me,” she complained.

Bobby was usually a much nicer, more cooperative child and his mother wondered what had come over him.She found him sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor eating cookies out of the cookie jar.

“Bobby,” she exclaimed, “what has gotten in to you?Why did you punch your brother and steal from your sister and why are your now raiding the cookie jar?”

Bobby looked up at her and smiled, “I heard you tell daddy to trust his feelings, so I’m taking your advice too!”

Can our emotions be good moral guides for us?That will be our question this morning as we join together in the celebration of life.


In some Middle Eastern cultures, a father or brother may kill a daughter or sister if she is believed to have dishonored the family by engaging in prohibited sexual behavior.Even the suggestion of impropriety can be grounds for her execution to prevent shame being brought on the family.In this cultural context, the honor of the family is far more valuable than the individual.In Western society, of course, this is an extreme violation of human rights to kill a woman for this reason.We stopped the practice of honor dueling long ago as incompatible with our sense of morality. We have evolved from a shame and honor based morality centered on the tribe to a pride and guilt-based morality centered on the individual. (ref. Member Bill Batt’s thinking)

Control of sexual behavior is still a desired norm in Western society, but it is approached quite differently.We teach our children to have pride in their self-control.When they deviate from socially accepted norms, they are ostracized in a way that is designed to stimulate guilt.A female child might be teased for her behavior and respected if she is follows the norms.What is at stake is her reputation not her life.

The difference between these two approaches has to do with the internalization of morality.In the Middle Eastern example, what is external is what matters, how one’s family is viewed.Everyone is expected to follow the same rules.There is no space for one family to have a different moral code that permits a sexually active daughter.Family honor is determined from the outside not the inside.

In our pluralistic society, we value individual autonomy allowing a greater range of moral activity.To separate religion from the state, we recognize that different religions have variations in their moral code.Thus, the society releases some of its moral authority to the individual.The individual is expected to internalize a moral code aligned with beliefs or their religious affiliation.The beneficial trade-off here, an insight of our founding fathers, is preventing religious civil war by expecting citizens to internalize their own moral code.

Still, having people living together in the same nation operating out of different moral principles creates conflict.Think about our fight for women’s reproductive rights and the current controversy over stem cell research.Saul Rigberg shared with me an instructive illustration of the differences between the internal and external approach to moral action.His family was attending a dinner hosted by an Orthodox Jewish relative at which some Hasidic families were present who followed a Kosher diet.One of those families was allowing their children to have potato chips and soft drinks for dinner.Saul and his wife Chris, like many parents, are constantly struggling to encourage their children to eat nutritious foods.When their children saw these other children being permitted to have potato chips for dinner, conflict ensued.

Saul objected to this families’ interpretation of the Kosher dietary laws.Yes, they were eating Kosher potato chips and drinking Kosher sodas, but that wasn’t the spirit in which the dietary laws were given.Saul believes that these laws were laid down to guide the Jews toward a healthy diet.If they were to be written today, he thinks they probably would demand people be vegetarian and eat organic food.Saul’s disagreement with the other family was centered on their adherence to the letter of the law, not the principle behind the law.

Principles are central to Unitarian Universalism.We recognize that in a complex, changing society, we can’t lay down a rule for every situation.Thus we need to develop an internal guidance system driven by principles to help us adapt our rules to fit each situation.This is a big responsibility that requires continuing education throughout our lives that often thrusts us into the forefront of social change.

Take gay marriage, for example.Fifty years ago, I’d say most of us probably would have been against it.We didn’t know that much about human sexuality and would have followed existing cultural prejudices.Over the last forty years, partially through the results of scientific research, and partly through an expanding openness of sexual expression, most of us have examined our feelings and values and have gradually moved to a view of acceptance, in a remarkably short time.Now we are a Welcoming Congregation, accepting gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender individuals into our midst with conscious recognition.It is still a growing edge for some of us-–and that is okay.Our congregation is an appropriate place to continue that exploration.

We are far ahead of the rest of the culture as we see the backlash against opening marriage to same sex couples.I heard our Representative, Mike McNulty, discussing gay marriage on WAMC this past week.He agreed that gays and lesbians should have the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexual couples.But then he backed up a little and said he just didn’t like using the term marriage to describe the relationship.From what sounded like primarily an emotional motivation, he felt the word marriage should be reserved for a man and woman.

McNulty’s comments are a useful illustration of the difficulties of shaping our individual morality out of principles.Intellectually, McNulty supports gay rights because he values the principle of equal rights.Emotionally however, he still holds on to the traditional wedding cake view of marriage with a bride and groom on top.

This split between emotion and principle is the challenge of taking personal responsibility for one’s morality.In a rule-based society, it doesn’t matter what you feel.The rules are the rules.You follow them or you die.If I take responsibility for translating my principles into actions, I need to recognize how powerfully my emotions can color my judgment.If I don’t recognize what I’m feeling as I make a judgment, my moral principles can be compromised.

Parents early on discover this struggle while raising their children.I’m always amused seeing soon-to-be-parents pore over the baby books learning all the right techniques.They are instant experts who know all the right principles to follow to raise a healthy, happy child.Then the baby arrives and the principles turn out to be harder to apply than was expected.Emotions can get in the way.

What surprised me about becoming a parent was how much anger I could feel at times in response to my son Andy’s behavior.I’m a pretty calm and levelheaded fellow.I just don’t get angry very often.I knew taking my anger out on Andy was wrong.What I didn’t know was how sneaky anger can be in influencing my behavior towards him.Toddlers can drive you up the wall.I found myself acting out my anger without realizing what I was doing and rationalizing that it is “good for him.”I remember one day about seven years ago, when I flew into a rage at Andy’s unwillingness to stop some inappropriate behavior.The intensity of the rage shook me.It helped me recognize how far I had strayed from my principles, by not paying close attention to how my feelings were influencing my behavior.I recognized then and there, my need to increase my emotional intelligence.

You see, I was denying my anger was influencing my judgment.Sometimes my choice of punishment when Andy misbehaved was coming from my feelings and not my principles.As long as I didn’t make the connection between my feelings and my actions, I couldn’t open up my emotional reactivity and begin to explore how it distorted my actions.I couldn’t recognize that my feelings of helplessness motivated my anger.I couldn’t see how much fear, shame, guilt, and inadequacy were creeping into my decision making process.

An unwillingness to recognize and name what one is feeling can cripple one’s morality.An unwillingness to explore the sources and connections of those feelings can also hobble one’s moral action.This is particularly evident in the life of someone suffering the scourge of addiction.Rather than feel and deal with painful emotions, the addict turns to a substance or a behavior that numbs the pain.Addicts, again and again, cut themselves off from their unpleasant emotions and refuse to incorporate any learning those emotions might offer.

This denial has a corrosive effect on relationships.Relationships require regular negotiation of unpleasant emotions that naturally arise from personal differences. The denial and suppression of that pain doesn’t make it go away.That pain gradually builds and can destroy the relationship, leaving in its wake a wreckage of compromised principles.

I encourage us to take a hard look at this because, to a greater or lesser extent, many of us engage in addictive behavior to deal with difficult emotions.Our materialistic culture teaches addictive behavior to deal with suffering.Feeling down?Have some chocolate.Having a mid-life crisis?Buy a new car.Stressed at work?Take a vacation.Bad news?Have a drink.

Avoidance of suffering, unfortunately, can block our emotional growth.By avoiding feelings, we inhibit our ability to increase our emotional intelligence.It is only when we are actually feeling emotions that we can begin to understand their origins, their patterns and their connections to our intentions, beliefs and values.These intentions, beliefs and values are often hidden in our emotional conditioning rather than freely available to our rational minds.

For example, my father spanked me.When I was at my wit's end with Andy, my emotional conditioning just took over.I spanked him.My principle of non-violence went out the window before I even realized what is happening.By exploring that emotional territory while I was angry, I began to recognize the patterns, beliefs and values connected to my feelings.Once I educated my emotions, I now had a choice.I was able to recognize that disturbed feeling state of wanting to spank Andy before it took me over.I allowed my principle of non-violence to intervene and redirect my action.

Educating our emotions is not only a way to prevent harm.Educating our emotions can also open our hearts.

Last week I described the love story of Rachel and Christine from the movie, “A Family Affair.”The two had fallen in love and decided to marry.Rachel was finding herself unable to commit fully to the relationship and found herself being seduced by her ex-girlfriend Reggie.In a tender scene between Rachel and her father, we discover what is holding Rachel back from committing herself to Christine.

Rachel goes to her father to have a heart-to-heart talk with him about her doubts.Her father sees through her confusion about being still attracted to Reggie, which he dispels quickly.He recognizes a deeper issue.We had learned earlier in the movie that Rachel had an older sister who died in an accident when Rachel was thirteen, a very impressionable age.The pain of that terrible loss had distorted her emotional life.Her fear of experiencing that kind of loss again had unconsciously been shaping her decisions most of her life.When she recognized this pattern, the tears flowed as she felt her fear of abandonment, a fear Reggie stimulated to control her.Rachel’s problem wasn’t committing to Christine.She really was.Her problem was opening to that old pain and not letting it control her life or limit her love.

We, like Rachel, put our relationships and moral agency at risk by ignoring our difficult emotions.The fruit of struggling to educate our emotions reaches beyond preventing immoral action.Thankfully, the seven deadly sins of pride, greed, envy, anger, lust, gluttony and sloth are not the only feelings at work in our emotional life to shape our moral agency.

Virtuous feelings of kindness, generosity, moderation, enthusiasm, humility, patience and love radiating emotions of joy, happiness, contentment and peace can also shine through our actions.Those feelings can also be intentionally developed.Singing, meditation, dance and movement, devotional prayer, reading inspirational books, hiking, bike riding, skiing, running, among other activities support these emotions in us, which can then strengthen and direct our actions toward the good.

Except for some fully enlightened person, none of us will be free of unpleasant and harmful emotions lurking in our minds waiting to subvert our moral behavior.The wisest path to morality is through increasing our inner awareness of our difficult emotions so we can head them off at the pass.We can increase our capacity for good by intentionally cultivating beneficial emotions.Good mental health supports good morality.

Our emotions are not some troublesome prehensile tail we can evolve beyond.They are vital to our moral character.May we honor their place in our moral development and educate them by turning toward them, feeling them, and discovering their nature.


Morality cannot be frozen in a set of laws,

It must become part of our nature.
No trite maxims and sayings will suffice
To guide us toward right action.
We must tune our hearts
By educating our feelings
To save us from self-deceptions
hidden in our unconscious reactivity
And guide us toward a common love
that can move us toward the good.

Copyright © 2004 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore.All rights reserved.


Nussbaum, Martha C., Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, 2001, Cambridge University Press.

Goleman, Daniel, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Cam Matter More Than IQ, 1995, Bantam Books

Damasio, Antonio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotions in the Making of Consciousness, 1999, Harcourt Press.