Ethical Culture

Ethical Culture

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The Ethical movement, also referred to as the Ethical Culture movement or simply Ethical Culture, is an ethical, educational, and religious
Religion
Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to...

 movement that is usually traced back to Felix Adler. Individual chapter organizations are generically referred to as "Ethical Societies", though their names may include "Ethical Society," "Ethical Culture Society," "Society for Ethical Culture," "Ethical Humanist Society", or other variations on the theme of "Ethical."

Ethical Culture is premised on the idea that honoring and living in accordance with ethical principles is central to what it takes to live meaningful and fulfilling lives, and to creating a world that is good for all. Practitioners of Ethical Culture focus on supporting one another in becoming better people, and on doing good in the world.

The American Ethical Union is a federation of about 25 Ethical Societies in the United States, representing the Ethical Culture movement. It is one of the founding member organizations of the International Humanist and Ethical Union
International Humanist and Ethical Union
The International Humanist and Ethical Union is an umbrella organisation embracing humanist, atheist, rationalist, secular, skeptic, freethought and Ethical Culture organisations worldwide. Founded in Amsterdam in 1952, the IHEU is a democratic union of more than 100 member organizations in 40...

.


United States


In his youth Felix Adler was being groomed to be a rabbi like his father, Samuel Adler
Samuel Adler (rabbi)
Samuel Adler was a leading German-American Reform rabbi, Talmudist, and author...

, the rabbi of the Reform Jewish
Reform Judaism
Reform Judaism refers to various beliefs, practices and organizations associated with the Reform Jewish movement in North America, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. In general, it maintains that Judaism and Jewish traditions should be modernized and should be compatible with participation in the...

 Temple Emanu-El in New York. As part of his education he enrolled at University of Heidelberg where he was influenced by Neo-Kantian philosophy. He was especially drawn to the Kantian ideas that one could not prove the existence or non-existence of deities or immortality and that morality could be established independently of theology. During this time he was also exposed to the moral problems caused by the exploitation of women and labor. These experiences laid the intellectual groundwork for the ethical movement. Upon his return from Germany, in 1873, he shared his ethical vision with his father's congregation in the form of a sermon. Due to the negative reaction he elicited it became his first and last sermon as a rabbi in training. Instead he took up a professorship at Cornell University
Cornell University
Cornell University is an Ivy League university located in Ithaca, New York, United States. It is a private land-grant university, receiving annual funding from the State of New York for certain educational missions...

 and in 1876 gave a follow up sermon that led to the 1877 founding of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, which was the first of its kind. By 1886, similar societies had sprouted up in Philadelphia, Chicago and St. Louis.

These societies all adopted the same statement of principles:
  • The belief that morality is independent of theology;
  • The affirmation that new moral problems have arisen in modern industrial society which have not been adequately dealt with by the world's religions;
  • The duty to engage in philanthropy in the advancement of morality;
  • The belief that self-reform should go in lock step with social reform;
  • The establishment of republican rather than monarchical governance of Ethical societies
  • The agreement that educating the young is the most important aim.

In effect, the movement responded to the religious crisis of the time by replacing theology with unadulterated morality. It aimed to "disentangle moral ideas from religious doctrines, metaphysical
Metaphysics
Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world, although the term is not easily defined. Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms:...

 systems, and ethical theories, and to make them an independent force in personal life and social relations." Adler was also particularly critical of the religious emphasis on creed, believing it to be the source of sectarian bigotry. He therefore attempted to provide a universal fellowship devoid of ritual and ceremony, for those who would otherwise be divided by creeds. For the same reasons the movement also adopted a neutral position on religious beliefs, advocating neither atheism
Atheism
Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities...

 nor theism
Theism
Theism, in the broadest sense, is the belief that at least one deity exists.In a more specific sense, theism refers to a doctrine concerning the nature of a monotheistic God and God's relationship to the universe....

, agnosticism
Agnosticism
Agnosticism is the view that the truth value of certain claims—especially claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, but also other religious and metaphysical claims—is unknown or unknowable....

 nor deism
Deism
Deism in religious philosophy is the belief that reason and observation of the natural world, without the need for organized religion, can determine that the universe is the product of an all-powerful creator. According to deists, the creator does not intervene in human affairs or suspend the...

.

The Adlerian emphasis on "deed not creed" translated into several public service projects. The year after it was founded, the New York society started a kindergarten, a district nursing service and a tenement-house building company. Later they opened the Ethical Culture School, then called the "Workingman's School", a Sunday school and a summer home for children, and other Ethical societies soon followed suit with similar projects. Unlike the philanthropic efforts of the established religious institutions of the time, the Ethical societies did not attempt to proselytize those they helped. In fact, they rarely attempted to convert anyone. New members had to be sponsored by existing members, and women were not allowed to join at all until 1893. They also resisted formalization, though nevertheless slowly adopted certain traditional practices, like Sunday meetings and life cycle ceremonies, yet did so in a modern humanistic context. In 1893, the four existing societies unified under the umbrella organization, the American Ethical Union.

After some initial success the movement stagnated until after World War II. In 1946 efforts were made to revitalize and societies were created in New Jersey and Washington D.C., along with the inauguration of the Encampment for Citizenship
Encampment for Citizenship
The Encampment for Citizenship was a summer camp founded by Algernon D. Black in 1946 through the New York Society for Ethical Culture. The camp program's aim was, according to the society, for "young adults of many religious, racial, social and national backgrounds" to learn "the principles and...

. By 1968 there were thirty societies with a total national membership of over 5,500. However, the resuscitated movement differed from its predecessor in a few ways. The newer groups were being created in suburban locales and often to provide alternative Sunday schools for children, with adult activities as an afterthought. There was also a greater focus on organization and bureaucracy, along with an inward turn emphasizing the needs of the group members over the more general social issues that had originally concerned Adler. The result was a transformation of American ethical societies into something much more akin to small Christian congregations in which the minister's most pressing concern is to tend to his or her flock.

Great Britain


In 1885 the ten year old American Ethical Culture movement helped to stimulate similar social activity in Great Britain, when American sociologist John Graham Brooks distributed pamphlets authored by Chicago Ethical society leader William Salter
William Mackintire Salter
William Mackintire Salter was the author of several books on philosophy and a critical and enduring major classic on Nietzsche, and was also an Individualist anarchist. He was also a special lecturer for the Department of Philosophy in the University of Chicago. He served as lecturer for the...

 to a group of British philosophers including Bernard Bosanquet
Bernard Bosanquet (philosopher)
Bernard Bosanquet was an English philosopher and political theorist, and an influential figure on matters of political and social policy in late 19th and early 20th century Britain...

, John Henry Muirhead
John Henry Muirhead
John Henry Muirhead was a British philosopher best known for having initiated the Muirhead Library of Philosophy in 1890...

, and John Stuart MacKenzie. Then, just prior to the formation of the first British Ethical society in 1886 one of Felix Adler's colleagues, Stanton Coit
Stanton Coit
Stanton George Coit was an American-born leader of the Ethical movement in England. He became a British citizen in 1903....

, also visited them in London to discuss the "aims and principles" of their American counterparts. Coit later became a figure in the British movement when, as its leader, he helped the South Place Religious Society transition to the South Place Ethical Society
South Place Ethical Society
The South Place Ethical Society, based in London at Conway Hall, is thought to be the oldest surviving freethought organisation in the world, and is the only remaining Ethical society in the United Kingdom...

. The South Place society had been around since 1793, and was a indigenous precursor of Ethical Culture in Britain, but it was not alone. The short lived Fellowship of the New Life, established in 1883, also furnished the London Ethical Society with much of its membership when it disbanded. Those who did not join the Ethical Society made their way to the much more politically active Fabian Society
Fabian Society
The Fabian Society is a British socialist movement, whose purpose is to advance the principles of democratic socialism via gradualist and reformist, rather than revolutionary, means. It is best known for its initial ground-breaking work beginning late in the 19th century and continuing up to World...

, which was itself a direct offshoot of the Fellowship.

Ethical societies flourished in Great Britain. By 1896 the four London based societies formed the Union of Ethical Societies, and between 1905 and 1910 there were over fifty societies in Great Britain, seventeen of which were affiliated with the Union. Part of this rapid growth was due to Stanton Coit, who left his role as leader of South Place in 1892 after being denied the power and authority he was vying for. Because he was firmly entrenched in British ethicism, Coit remained in London and formed the West London Ethical Society, which was almost completely under his control. Coit worked quickly to shape the West London society not only around Ethical Culture but also the trappings of religious practice, renaming the society in 1914 to the Ethical Church. He transformed his meetings into services, and their space into something akin to a church. In a series of books Coit also began to argue for the transformation of the Anglican Church into an Ethical Church, while holding up the virtue of ethical ritual. He felt that the Anglican Church was in the unique position to harness the natural moral impulse that stemmed from society itself, as long as the Church replaced theology with science, abandoned supernatural beliefs, expanded its bible to include a cross-cultural selection of ethical literature and reinterpreted its creeds and liturgy in light of modern ethics and psychology. His attempt to reform the Anglican church failed, and ten years after his death in 1944, the Ethical Church building was sold to the Roman Catholic Church
Roman Catholic Church
The Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, is the world's largest Christian church, with over a billion members. Led by the Pope, it defines its mission as spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, administering the sacraments and exercising charity...

.

During Stanton Coit's lifetime, the Ethical Church never officially affiliated with the Union of Ethical Societies, nor did South Place. In 1920 the Union of Ethical Societies changed its name to the Ethical Union. Harold Blackham, who had taken over leadership of the London Ethical Church, then promoted its merger with the Rationalist Press Association and the South Place Ethical Society, and, in 1957, a Humanist Council was set up to explore amalgamation. Although issues over charitable status prevented a full amalgamation, the Ethical Union under Blackham changed its name in 1967 to become the British Humanist Association
British Humanist Association
The British Humanist Association is an organisation of the United Kingdom which promotes Humanism and represents "people who seek to live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs." The BHA is committed to secularism, human rights, democracy, egalitarianism and mutual respect...

. The BHA is thus the legal successor body to the Union of Ethical Societies.

Between 1886 and 1927 seventy four ethical societies were started in Great Britain although this rapid growth did not last long. The numbers declined steadily throughout the 1920s and early 30s, until there were only ten societies left in 1934. By 1954 there were only four. The situation became such that in 1971, sociologist Colin Campbell even suggested that one could say, "that when the South Place Ethical Society discussed changing its name to the South Place Humanist society in 1969, the English ethical movement ceased to exist."

Ethical perspective


While Ethical Culturists generally share common beliefs about what constitutes ethical behavior and the good, individuals are encouraged to develop their own personal understanding of these ideas. This does not mean that Ethical Culturists condone moral relativism
Moral relativism
Moral relativism may be any of several descriptive, meta-ethical, or normative positions. Each of them is concerned with the differences in moral judgments across different people and cultures:...

, which would relegate ethics to mere preferences or social conventions. Ethical principles are viewed as being related to deep truths about the way the world works, and hence not arbitrary. However, it is recognized that complexities render the understanding of ethical nuances subject to continued dialogue
Dialogue
Dialogue is a literary and theatrical form consisting of a written or spoken conversational exchange between two or more people....

, exploration, and learning.

While the founder of Ethical Culture, Felix Adler, was a transcendentalist, Ethical Culturists may have a variety of understandings as to the theoretical origins of ethics. Key to the founding of Ethical Culture was the observation that too often disputes over religious or philosophical doctrine
Doctrine
Doctrine is a codification of beliefs or a body of teachings or instructions, taught principles or positions, as the body of teachings in a branch of knowledge or belief system...

s have distracted people from actually living ethically and doing good. Consequently, "Deed before creed
Creed
A creed is a statement of belief—usually a statement of faith that describes the beliefs shared by a religious community—and is often recited as part of a religious service. When the statement of faith is longer and polemical, as well as didactic, it is not called a creed but a Confession of faith...

"
has long been a motto
Motto
A motto is a phrase meant to formally summarize the general motivation or intention of a social group or organization. A motto may be in any language, but Latin is the most used. The local language is usual in the mottoes of governments...

 of the movement.

Religious aspect


Functionally, Ethical Societies are similar to churches or synagogue
Synagogue
A synagogue is a Jewish house of prayer. This use of the Greek term synagogue originates in the Septuagint where it sometimes translates the Hebrew word for assembly, kahal...

s and are headed by "leaders" as clergy
Clergy
Clergy is the generic term used to describe the formal religious leadership within a given religion. A clergyman, churchman or cleric is a member of the clergy, especially one who is a priest, preacher, pastor, or other religious professional....

. Ethical Societies typically have Sunday morning meetings, offer moral instruction for children and teens, and do charitable work and social action. They may offer a variety of educational and other programs. They conduct wedding
Wedding
A wedding is the ceremony in which two people are united in marriage or a similar institution. Wedding traditions and customs vary greatly between cultures, ethnic groups, religions, countries, and social classes...

s, commitment ceremonies
Domestic partnership
A domestic partnership is a legal or personal relationship between two individuals who live together and share a common domestic life but are neither joined by marriage nor a civil union...

, baby namings, and memorial service
Funeral
A funeral is a ceremony for celebrating, sanctifying, or remembering the life of a person who has died. Funerary customs comprise the complex of beliefs and practices used by a culture to remember the dead, from interment itself, to various monuments, prayers, and rituals undertaken in their honor...

s.

Individual Ethical Society members may or may not believe in a deity
Deity
A deity is a recognized preternatural or supernatural immortal being, who may be thought of as holy, divine, or sacred, held in high regard, and respected by believers....

 or regard Ethical Culture as their religion. In this regard, Ethical Culture is similar to traditional religions such as Buddhism
Buddhism
Buddhism is a religion and philosophy encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices, largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha . The Buddha lived and taught in the northeastern Indian subcontinent some time between the 6th and 4th...

 and Taoism
Taoism
Taoism refers to a philosophical or religious tradition in which the basic concept is to establish harmony with the Tao , which is the mechanism of everything that exists...

, about whose practitioners similar statements could be made. Felix Adler said "Ethical Culture is religious to those who are religiously minded, and merely ethical to those who are not so minded." The movement does consider itself a religion in the sense that
The Ethical Culture 2003 ethical identity statement states:
Since around 1950 the Ethical Culture movement has been increasingly identified as part of the modern Humanist
Humanism
Humanism is an approach in study, philosophy, world view or practice that focuses on human values and concerns. In philosophy and social science, humanism is a perspective which affirms some notion of human nature, and is contrasted with anti-humanism....

 movement. Specifically, in 1952, the American Ethical Union, the national umbrella organization for Ethical Culture societies in the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

, became one of the founding member organizations of the International Humanist and Ethical Union
International Humanist and Ethical Union
The International Humanist and Ethical Union is an umbrella organisation embracing humanist, atheist, rationalist, secular, skeptic, freethought and Ethical Culture organisations worldwide. Founded in Amsterdam in 1952, the IHEU is a democratic union of more than 100 member organizations in 40...

.

Key ideas


While Ethical Culture does not regard its founder's views as necessarily the final word, Adler identified focal ideas that remain important within Ethical Culture. These ideas include:
  • Human Worth and Uniqueness – All people are taken to have inherent worth, not dependent on the value of what they do. They are deserving of respect and dignity, and their unique gifts are to be encouraged and celebrated.
  • Eliciting the Best – "Always act so as to Elicit the best in others, and thereby yourself" is as close as Ethical Culture comes to having a Golden Rule
    Ethic of reciprocity
    The Golden Rule or ethic of reciprocity is a maxim, ethical code, or moralitythat essentially states either of the following:* : One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself....

    .
  • Interrelatedness – Adler used the term The Ethical Manifold to refer to his conception of the universe as made up of myriad unique and indispensable moral agents (individual human beings), each of whom has an inestimable influence on all the others. In other words, we are all interrelated, with each person playing a role in the whole and the whole affecting each person. Our interrelatedness is at the heart of ethics.


Many Ethical Societies prominently display a sign that says "The Place Where People Meet to Seek the Highest is Holy Ground".

Locations


The largest concentration of Ethical Societies is in the New York
New York City
New York is the most populous city in the United States and the center of the New York Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. New York exerts a significant impact upon global commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and...

 metropolitan area, including Societies in New York, Manhattan
Manhattan
Manhattan is the oldest and the most densely populated of the five boroughs of New York City. Located primarily on the island of Manhattan at the mouth of the Hudson River, the boundaries of the borough are identical to those of New York County, an original county of the state of New York...

, the Bronx Brooklyn
Brooklyn
Brooklyn is the most populous of New York City's five boroughs, with nearly 2.6 million residents, and the second-largest in area. Since 1896, Brooklyn has had the same boundaries as Kings County, which is now the most populous county in New York State and the second-most densely populated...

, Queens, Westchester and Nassau County; and New Jersey
New Jersey
New Jersey is a state in the Northeastern and Middle Atlantic regions of the United States. , its population was 8,791,894. It is bordered on the north and east by the state of New York, on the southeast and south by the Atlantic Ocean, on the west by Pennsylvania and on the southwest by Delaware...

, such as Bergen
Bergen County, New Jersey
Bergen County is the most populous county of the state of New Jersey, United States. As of the 2010 United States Census, its population was 905,116. The county is part of the New York City Metropolitan Area. Its county seat is Hackensack...

 and Essex Counties, New Jersey.

Ethical Societies exist in a score or so U.S. cities and counties, including Austin, Texas
Austin, Texas
Austin is the capital city of the U.S. state of :Texas and the seat of Travis County. Located in Central Texas on the eastern edge of the American Southwest, it is the fourth-largest city in Texas and the 14th most populous city in the United States. It was the third-fastest-growing large city in...

; Baltimore
Baltimore
Baltimore is the largest independent city in the United States and the largest city and cultural center of the US state of Maryland. The city is located in central Maryland along the tidal portion of the Patapsco River, an arm of the Chesapeake Bay. Baltimore is sometimes referred to as Baltimore...

; Boston
Boston
Boston is the capital of and largest city in Massachusetts, and is one of the oldest cities in the United States. The largest city in New England, Boston is regarded as the unofficial "Capital of New England" for its economic and cultural impact on the entire New England region. The city proper had...

; Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Chapel Hill is a town in Orange County, North Carolina, United States and the home of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and UNC Health Care...

 and Asheville, North Carolina
Asheville, North Carolina
Asheville is a city in and the county seat of Buncombe County, North Carolina, United States. It is the largest city in Western North Carolina, and the 11th largest city in North Carolina. The City is home to the United States National Climatic Data Center , which is the world's largest active...

; Chicago
Chicago
Chicago is the largest city in the US state of Illinois. With nearly 2.7 million residents, it is the most populous city in the Midwestern United States and the third most populous in the US, after New York City and Los Angeles...

; Silicon Valley, California; Rittenhouse Square
Rittenhouse Square
Rittenhouse Square is one of the five original open-space parks planned by William Penn and his surveyor Thomas Holme during the late 17th century in central Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The park cuts off 19th Street at Walnut Street and also at a half block above Manning Street. Its boundaries are...

, Philadelphia
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Philadelphia is the largest city in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the county seat of Philadelphia County, with which it is coterminous. The city is located in the Northeastern United States along the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. It is the fifth-most-populous city in the United States,...

; St. Louis
St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis is an independent city on the eastern border of Missouri, United States. With a population of 319,294, it was the 58th-largest U.S. city at the 2010 U.S. Census. The Greater St...

 and St. Peters, Missouri; Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C., formally the District of Columbia and commonly referred to as Washington, "the District", or simply D.C., is the capital of the United States. On July 16, 1790, the United States Congress approved the creation of a permanent national capital as permitted by the U.S. Constitution....

, and Vienna, Virginia
Vienna, Virginia
Vienna is a town in Fairfax County, Virginia, United States. As of the 2010 United States Census, it had a population of 15,687. Significantly more people live in zip codes with the Vienna postal addresses bordered approximately by Interstate 66 on the south, Interstate 495 on the east, Route 7 to...

.

Ethical Societies also exist outside the U.S. Conway Hall in London
London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

 is home to the South Place Ethical Society
South Place Ethical Society
The South Place Ethical Society, based in London at Conway Hall, is thought to be the oldest surviving freethought organisation in the world, and is the only remaining Ethical society in the United Kingdom...

, which was founded in 1787.

There is also an Ethical Society located in cyberspace, the Ethical Society Without Walls. ESWoW is a virtual society, utilizing the internet to create a community beyond the usual physical limitations of region. Likewise, there is no "brick and mortar
Brick and mortar
Brick and mortar in its most simplest usage is used to describe the physical presence of a building or other structure...

" meeting house, hence the "without walls" in the name.

Legal challenges


The tax status of Ethical Societies as religious organizations has been upheld in court cases in Washington, D.C. (1957), and in Austin, Texas (2003). The Texas State Appeals Court said of the challenge by the state comptroller, "the Comptroller's test [requiring a group to demonstrate its belief in a Supreme Being
Supreme Being
The term Supreme Being is often defined simply as "God", and it is used with this meaning by theologians of many religious faiths, including, but not limited to, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Deism. However, the term can also refer to more complex or philosophical interpretations of the...

 fails to include the whole range of belief systems that may, in our diverse and pluralistic society, merit the First Amendment
First Amendment to the United States Constitution
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights. The amendment prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering...

's protection."

Advocates


Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein was a German-born theoretical physicist who developed the theory of general relativity, effecting a revolution in physics. For this achievement, Einstein is often regarded as the father of modern physics and one of the most prolific intellects in human history...

 was a supporter of Ethical Culture. On the seventy-fifth anniversary of the New York Society for Ethical Culture he noted that the idea of Ethical Culture embodied his personal conception of what is most valuable and enduring in religious idealism. Humanity requires such a belief to survive, Einstein argued. He observed, "Without 'ethical culture' there is no salvation for humanity."

See also

  • Washington Ethical Society v. District of Columbia
    Washington Ethical Society v. District of Columbia
    Washington Ethical Society v. District of Columbia was a 1957 case of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The Washington Ethical Society functions much like a church, but regards itself as a non-theistic religious institution, honoring the importance of ethical...

  • Arthur E. Briggs
    Arthur E. Briggs
    Dr. Arthur Elbert Briggs was a teacher and law school dean who was a Los Angeles, California, City Council member from 1939 to 1941 and the leader of the Ethical Society of Los Angeles in 1953.-Biography:...

    , Los Angeles City Council member, 1939–41, Ethical Society leader

Further reading



External links