Misinformation from Rev. Dr. Betancourt

Our First Principle Has an Evil Source

At a recent event held by the UU Women’s Federation, the Rev. Dr. Sofia Bentancourt, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, responding to a question about the role of the UUA in the current controversies over abortion, used the occasion to condemn our first principle with misinformation about its source. With the minor exception of asserting that the first principle, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person”, has little to do with personhood and embryos, she did not, as one might expect of a theologian, address how the first principle applies to the issue of abortion. Instead, she disparaged the first principle by misinterpreting and attacking Immanuel Kant.

“Um, I will say. Oh, I struggle with our first principle, I do. Um, you know, if you will forgive me briefly, [the the] language of the inherent worth and dignity of every person comes from Immanuel Kant, the literal father of modern racism.”

Neither of these remarks are true. First, while there is overlap in some of the language in Kant’s moral philosophy and the UU first principle, there is no direct evidence that the first principle came from Kant. The idea that undergirds the first principle, the eternal value of the human soul, originated in Platonic/Christian thought centuries before Kant. Secondly, and more importantly, Immanuel Kant is not the father of modern racism. There is no scholarly support for this accusation. Racism has deep historical roots that extend far before and beyond Kant. It has been perpetuated by various cultural, social, and economic factors throughout history. And while it is true that Kants views on race largely reflected the unfortunate attitudes of his time, something critical to understand, it is also according to some scholars true that his racist premises are more likely those of his interlocutors, to whom he addresses his counterarguments. Kant, in contrast, argues in favor of the unity of humanity. This fact runs completely counter to Betancourt’s insistence that Kant’s moral universalism was intended only for “landed, educated, wealthy German cis men.”  As the philosopher Susan Neiman wrote in her recent article in the NYTimes on Kant, “Some of his remarks are undeniably offensive to 21st-century ears. But it’s fatal to forget that his work gave us the tools to fight racism and sexism, by providing the metaphysical basis of every claim to human rights.” One would think that someone with Betancourt’s academic background should know this.

Misinterpretation

Her evidence for disparaging our first principle through attacking Kant consists in her misinterpretation of two of his works, both written in the same year. One is “On the Beautiful and Sublime,” which is primarily concerned with aesthetics and the nature of our subjective experiences of beauty and awe. Betancourt believes that this book is “literally” the source of our first principle. It is not. The other work is his “Anthropology,” which delves into the study of human nature, behavior, and the diversity of cultures. She hyperbolically insists that this book contains “the defining point of some of the worst racist stereotypes in modern Western history.”  What it contains, according to most scholars, are racial views common to the period. Kant’s racial classifications in “Anthropology” reflect the racial attitudes prevalent in 18th-century Europe. These attitudes were characterized by hierarchical classifications of races and the belief in the superiority of certain races over others.

Our First Principle is Racist

What Rev. Betancourt does is to judge the value and verity of “Sublime” by the worst of “Anthropology”. This is in order to judge the value and verity of our first principle in the same manner. “But I think that actually our, our first principle came originally from a source that could not be more flawed”. Briefly put, according to Rev. Betancourt, our first principle is racist. She further insists that since both of these works were written in the same year, then two things follow. One, no argument can be made that Kant evolved in his views and two, the value the world has put on his moral philosophy is a mistake.

“And he wrote them in the same year. So you can’t even argue that he, like, I don’t know, you know, evolved and had a new value set like they’re, they’re it’s evil. Um, and so the, the, the positive expression over time, the way people have read him is different from what he meant.”

But again, her notions here are questionable, to put it charitably. As argued by some scholars, Kant’s thought on these matters did evolve  (See for example “Kant’s Second Thoughts on Race,” by Prof. Pauline Kleingeld).  Moreover, scholars have both severely criticized Kant’s views on race while being perfectly capable of appreciating the contribution he made to moral thought and ethical practice in the West.

Our First Principle is a Mistake

Of course, if Rev. Betancourt’s views here are accepted, then our first principle is also a mistake, and should be discarded, which is the point she is driving at, all on the basis of some exceedingly dubious notions about the source and real intent of our first principle. These views are a reflection of the UUA’s willingness to consider suspect anything of merit uttered by a white person, particularly white males, which is the basis of their wholesale rejection of Enlightenment thought in the re-write of A2. We can in response paraphrase a question asked by Prof. Neiman in her NYTimes article. Should we discard our Enlightenment legacy because it has never been fully realized? Or would we rather celebrate the fact that we can and have made moral progress, an idea which Kant and all the Enlightenment figures would wholeheartedly applaud.

Our Heritage is a Mistake

With this it is worthy to touch upon a disturbing assumption or consequence of Betancourt’s views,  and by implication that of the UUA. If embracing Kant, and by association the entire Enlightenment, was a mistake, then the entire rights based political culture we have developed from it is also a mistake. If we listen to Bentacourt and the UUA then our rights based political culture is really nothing more than a method to maintain the privileged position of white people. In short, we’ve been living in a collective delusion. We can consider this to be among the fundamental realizations the UUA seeks to ignite in all UU’s through the “spiritual discipline of love,” as they call it.

Martin Luther King was very fond of saying that the moral arch of the Universe is long, but it bends toward Justice. He was quoting or paraphrasing the transcendentalist Theodore Parker, among the most famous of UU theologians who was himself, by some accounts, every bit a racist, despite his commitment to Abolitionism. But did MLK suggest that Parker’s quote was itself racist because he was white? No. I think MLK is far and away a better guide here than Rev. Betancourt will ever be.

 

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Robert M Wallace
Robert M Wallace
15 days ago

Thank you for clarifying the situation. Rev Betancourt seems not to have appreciated the simple point that Susan Neiman makes. Should we throw overboard Jefferson’s statement in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, because Jefferson himself acted in ways that are inconsistent with what he wrote? Surely not. Thank you also for pointing out the Platonic/Christian tradition that lies behind Kant’s admirable moral doctrines (“treat no one merely as a means, but always as an end in themself”). I’m afraid that a lot of our UU leaders have a poor understanding of our intellectual and spiritual… Read more »

Bek Wheeler
Bek Wheeler
15 days ago

Even if the core of the first principle originated with Kant, to assert that the principle is racist or bankrupt because of Kant’s moral character suffers the Ad Hominem fallacy—simple textbook Ad Hominem logical fallacy of condemning an idea because of failings in character of the person proposing the idea.

Of course the catch 22 here is that reason and logic are dismissed in some UU circles as White Supremacist. So observing that the Betancourt’s reasoning suffers logical fallacy may not be seen as persuasive.

Robert Murphy
Robert Murphy
15 days ago

What happens when concern for individual rights and dignity vanishes from organized religion? There’s often a move towards some kind of paternalism. Most of the big religious organizations that you can name are paternalistic. They may be very generous, in some moments, and they may talk about the power of love. Still, most of the big religious organizations are paternalistic. Pastors and patriarchs preside in many places and there are also some nuns to keep the kids in line. The modern human rights movement developed, in large part, because of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I encourage Unitarian Universalists… Read more »

Robert Murphy
Robert Murphy
15 days ago
Reply to  Robert Murphy

After writing my defense of human rights, I received a request to endorse the Equality Act proposal that’s now in Congress. The proposal extends civil rights laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Once again, there’s mention of individual rights. Sixty years ago, some religious leaders claimed that “the power of love” was enough to protect LGBTQ plus people. “All you need is love,” sang the Beatles. Lots of folks agreed. Why bother with legislation? You can still hear that argument in some religious circles. If Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King had honored that argument, the civil rights… Read more »

Jay Kiskel
Jay Kiskel
15 days ago

This post reveals the inability of UU senior leadership to engage in honest intellectual dialogue. It is noteworthy that the Fifth Principle Project issued a correction to Betancourt’s comments. While our UUA Moderators and Board Trustees remained silent. 

This silence only allows misinformation to seep into UU DNA. It is hoped that General Assembly delegates will vote NO on Article II to give pause to UU leadership’s misguided dismantling of Unitarian Universalism.

Bek Wheeler. in Virginia
Bek Wheeler. in Virginia
15 days ago
Reply to  Jay Kiskel

Jay,
Was the Fifth Principle Project correction public? I would be very interested to see. Might you share a link?

In community,

Bek

Jay Kiskel
Jay Kiskel
14 days ago

Bek, our correction is this Discussion post.

Bek Wheeler. in Virginia
Bek Wheeler. in Virginia
14 days ago
Reply to  Jay Kiskel

Aha. Ok. I see and understand. Thank you.

Bek Wheeler
Bek Wheeler
15 days ago

Here is a ‘gift link’ to the NYT piece—“Why the World Still Needs Emanuel Kant”— by Susan Neiman referenced above: https://www.nytimes.com/2024/04/17/arts/immanuel-kant-300-anniversary.html?unlocked_article_code=1.pk0.xJVT.cpg-k3NMohSg&smid=nytcore-ios-share&referringSource=articleShare&sgrp=c-cb

Last edited 15 days ago by Bek Wheeler
Frank Casper
Frank Casper
15 days ago

Barbara Jean Walsh found the link to the video at the heart of this post but posted it to the wrong thread. Thanks Barbara.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22gb5V0YYdo

Bek Wheeler
Bek Wheeler
15 days ago
Reply to  Frank Casper

Starting at 55:45

Judy
Judy
15 days ago
Reply to  Frank Casper
John Gubbings
John Gubbings
15 days ago

I had no knowledge that Sofia subscribed to the idea that the source of an idea determines or at least taints its value. It is also evident in some trainings that insists that if you are white you are racist and if black cannot be racist. This kind of thinking actually supports the worst kind of racism. If you start out indoctrinated in a racist idea, then everything associated with that race is evil and must be stamped out. It is anti-intellectual and a terribly flawed way of getting people to focus on racism, as you can tell by the… Read more »

David
David
14 days ago
Reply to  John Gubbings

The Nazis refused to use “Jewish science,” i.e. scientific ideas and research that came from Jewish scientists. Beyond the bigotry, the folly of such a stance is demonstrated by that Jewish scientists included the likes of Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Feynman.

Tim Bartik
15 days ago

Having watched the video, the context of the quotation from Rev. Betancourt does not excuse the quotation. She is out of nowhere attacking the First Principle because it supposedly came only from Kant (not true — the notion of the moral equality of all human beings has a lot of sources, for example in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, and in the Judeo-Christian tradition), and that Kant was the “father of modern racism” (really? I think it has a lot of “fathers”, and in any event, the moral blind spots of Kant are hardly arguments against his philosophy). I think… Read more »

Terri
Terri
14 days ago

Great article! Sofia does not embarrass easy, obviously. It’s backwards to say that the contention that every person has “inherent worth and dignity” is a racist idea, as she no doubt knows. She and her cohorts continue to say this type of absurd thing, then stand back and see who will be gullible enough to, as Jay says, let it “seep into [their] DNA.” Luckily, fewer and fewer UUs are falling for this type of nonsense, thanks to websites like the Fifth Principle Project, UUtheConversation, etc, and comments like those you see here. Sofia is not trying to be accurate, she’s actively trying… Read more »

David
David
14 days ago
Reply to  Terri

It’s a collectivist ideology that suppresses individual liberties, freedoms and dignity to serve the whole.

Paul
Paul
3 days ago
Reply to  Terri

From your narrative it sounds like our leaders are engaging in abuser behavior. They deliberately violate the boundaries of their intended victims to see how much the victims will take. They are finding out that most UUs are rather sheeplike and will take lots of abuse.

Craig A Moro
Craig A Moro
14 days ago

Ritual is primary in religion, predating belief, or theology, or explanatory theories. Ritual is “performed” like music is performed and we respond to it in similar ways. It’s not the same as discourse or argument. Our principles have a crucial ritual function. They are intended to serve as an introduction— to us, and above all to the experience that we aspire to share when we are together. They set the tone, like music also does. The first principle is like a ritual bow of greeting: “We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” It is a reverent bow… Read more »

Jay Kiskel
Jay Kiskel
13 days ago
Reply to  Craig A Moro

Craig, well spoken. Your observations are a gift to us all.

Jay Kiskel
Jay Kiskel
13 days ago

Frank and I, as the co-founders of the Fifth Principle Project, have written to Rev. Betancourt. The open sentence…

“We are requesting clarification, or a retraction of your recent comment disparaging our First Principle.”

We will update all if a response is received.

Bek Wheeler
Bek Wheeler
13 days ago
Reply to  Jay Kiskel

Wow! Good on you. Yes, disparagement of our First Principle should not stand. Thank you for sending that.

(personally, I would not be so interested in clarification as i am in retraction)

Bek

Jay Kiskel
Jay Kiskel
10 days ago
Reply to  Bek Wheeler

Bek, we are still waiting for a response from Betancourt. Apparently, being held accountable for one’s words is a one way street.

George R
George R
13 days ago

My pithy, disingenuous, contrary, rhetorical question may be: Is one to abandon reasonable gun control measures/advocacy because of the racist roots of gun control and how it was enforced against freed slaves, black people, Hispanic people, and Native Americans and others outside of the hegemony?

Jim
Jim
11 days ago
Reply to  George R

There is a saying “sawing off the branch you built your nest on.” Are we to abandon everything originated, developed and implemented by white men? It would, maybe, solve the terrible environmental conditions our modern extractive technologies have brought about. But a lot of people would die in the process and a lot of human advances and creative masterpieces would be lost as well. (Say good-bye to this here Internet, for example… and good bye to democracy and the Constitution). If you’re going to blame white men for the bad stuff you better start praising them for the good stuff… Read more »

Frank Casper
Frank Casper
10 days ago

We received a reply from Rev. Betancourt today, which is posted below in full. I post this alone for now for your consumption. My response will be forthcoming shortly. Dear Frank and Jay,   As a public leader and theologian who regularly invites us to proudly claim our inherited liberal and liberating tradition, I appreciate you pointing me to the mischaracterization of my words on your website. Our first principle (like all of our teachings) is important, and we must grapple with the philosophical ideals behind it and the history from which it comes.    As I am sure you… Read more »

TomC
TomC
10 days ago
Reply to  Frank Casper

What happened to impact > intention? Maybe you can ask Rev Betancourt if there is a formula for that.

Bek Wheeler
Bek Wheeler
10 days ago
Reply to  Frank Casper

The Rev. Dr. Betancourt seems to be instructing you to understand that Kant WAS indeed associated with racism. Well, yes, of course he was. Look when he lived. But the PROBLEM with her position, it seems to me, is her ad hominem argument against the first principle—decrying the first principle because of its likely source. That is an elementary ad hominem fallacy. These were the relevant lines transcribed from her recent interview: “I will say, ohh, I struggle with our first principle.  I do, you know, if you will forgive me, briefly the language of the inherent worth and dignity of… Read more »

David Cycleback
David Cycleback
10 days ago
Reply to  Bek Wheeler

I want someone to explain to me what is the problem with “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and why it should not be “at the center of our justice making.” Removal or rejection of it tells the world and church members “UU no longer believes in the worth and dignity of everyone.” Unitarian and Universalism were rejections of the Catholic and Calvinist belief in Original Sin, or humans being born guilty. The first principle is a statement of this, and I think it is the key principle of UU and the literal and proverbial first principle all… Read more »

Last edited 10 days ago by David Cycleback
Jim
Jim
9 days ago

Let’s not discount Bugs. I commend you to a more thorough and critical analysis of Bugs Bunny’s philosophy. Among his aphorisms are: Don’t take life too seriously, you’ll never get out alive Or who could forget: I don’t ask questions, I just have fun And his famous: Ehhhh, What’s up doc? And who could forget his rhetorical brilliance when he turned the tables on Daffy with Elmer Fudd: Bugs Bunny: Say, doc, are you trying to get yourself in trouble with the law? This ain’t rabbit hunting season.Elmer Fudd: It’s not?Bugs Bunny: No, it’s duck hunting season.Daffy Duck: That, sir,… Read more »

Craig Moro
Craig Moro
6 days ago
Reply to  Jim

I can’t resist adding a few words about how well (the very Jewish!) Bugs Bunny fits in here.   Did you ever wonder why Bugs always calls people “Doc”? Some people think it’s because one of the chief Looney Tunes animators, Tex Avery, came from…guess where? Texas, where Doc was almost as common a nickname as Tex. (Bugs was a common nickname in New York.) When he calls people to the question as he calls them “Doc”, isn’t Bugs suggesting that they have within themselves the power to make things better; the power to bring whatever is “up” down to a… Read more »

Jay Kiskel
Jay Kiskel
6 days ago
Reply to  Craig Moro

Craig, you are so right to observe that for seven years there has been “no lift, no life, no joy” in the denomination. Hopefully, delegates will vote down A2 and give us new hope.

Steve Myles
Steve Myles
10 days ago

If Rev. Dr. Betancourt knew that a cure for cancer was developed by a racist, would she prescribe it to a cancer patient?

Peter Aitken
Peter Aitken
10 days ago

Whether Rev Betancourt is right or wrong about Kant’s connection to modern racism is mostly irrelevant. What’s important is the fact that she rejects these ideas simply because they came from a white man. If that’s not racism, what is? That she does not see this blatant contradiction is unfortunately a reflection of her thinking processes and the new culture at the UUA.

Kent Klostreich
Kent Klostreich
9 days ago

How on earth could there be a single father of modern racism? Does that make any sense? Does she know that it makes no sense? Is she just looking for a way to express anti-white contempt?

Barbara
Barbara
8 days ago

Another disappointment from the UUA. I have lost count …

Gretchen Meyer
Gretchen Meyer
8 days ago

I’m enjoying all your discussions from overruling Kant to Bugs Bunny. And I’m especially grateful for Craig Moro’s clarification that We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” as a reverent bow from us to every human being. Those first three paragraphs, really all the his work, explain what I’ve never heard so clearly. Thank you all.

Barbara Kidney
Barbara Kidney
7 days ago

Anytime I have heard Dr. Sofia Betancourt speak, or have read her words, I come to the same conclusion: Her remarks are sloppy and fallacious.

Lincoln Christensen
7 days ago

CAN the unitarian universalists survive a 30% decline in congregational membership over this? I think not, not and maintain a national effective identity. The management of the UUA should be one of enlightenment and exploration rather than the last word on what is racist and what not.
OOPS! Let me get out the briars and the crown of thorns to suffer for our redemption. not.

Peter Anderson
Peter Anderson
5 days ago

Might I pull back the curtain for a moment to examine the broader canvass on which her counting-the-number-of-racists-on-the-head-of-a-pin is cast for the meaningless rubbish that it is. I wouldn’t pretend to know what is inside Ms. Betancourt’s mind, but I can draw very firm conclusions about the character of her actions. Even with malice aforethought, one could not envision her ostentatious mental masturbation, deployed to justify doing absolutely nothing in the real world to actually lessen injustice, unless that was preciously her intent. Her words are those of someone totally consumed with vacuously parading her moral superiority, only to reveal… Read more »

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