The ETHICAL MOVEMENT, also referred to as the ETHICAL CULTURE
MOVEMENT, ETHICAL HUMANISM or simply ETHICAL CULTURE, is an ethical ,
educational , and religious movement that is usually traced back to
Felix Adler (1851–1933). Individual chapter organizations are
generically referred to as "
Ethical Societies", though their names may
Ethical Society", "
Ethical Culture Society", "Society for
Ethical Culture", "
Ethical Humanist Society", or other variations on
the theme of "Ethical".
Ethical movement is an outgrowth of secular moral traditions in
the 19th century, principally in Europe and the United States. While
some in this movement went on to organise for a non-congregational
secular humanist movement , others attempted to build a secular moral
movement that was emphatically "religious" in its approach to
developing humanist ethical codes, in the sense of encouraging
congregational structures and religious rites and practices. While in
the United States, these movements formed as separate education
American Humanist Association and the American
Ethical Union), the American
Ethical Union's British equivalents, the
Ethical Society and the British
Ethical Union consciously
moved away from a congregational model to become
Conway Hall and the
British Humanist Association respectively. Subsequent "godless"
congregational movements include the
Sunday Assembly . At the
Ethical Culture and secular humanist groups have
always organised jointly; the American
Ethical Union was a founding
organisation of the International Humanist and
Ethical Union .
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.
* 1 History
* 1.1 Background
* 1.3 In Britain
* 3 Religious aspect
* 4 Key ideas
* 5 Locations
* 6 Structure and events
* 7 Legal challenges
* 8 Advocates
* 9 See also
* 10 References
* 11 Further reading
* 12 External links
Ethical movement was an outgrowth of the general loss of faith
among the intellectuals of the
Victorian era . A precursor to the
doctrines of the ethical movement can be found in the South Place
Ethical Society , founded in 1793 as the
South Place Chapel on
Finsbury Square , on the edge of the
City of London
City of London . The Fabian
Society was an outgrowth from the
Fellowship of the New Life .
In the early nineteenth century, the chapel became known as "a
radical gathering-place". At that point it was a Unitarian chapel,
and that movement, like Quakers, supported female equality. Under the
leadership of Reverend
William Johnson Fox , it lent its pulpit to
activists such as Anna Wheeler , one of the first women to campaign
for feminism at public meetings in England, who spoke in 1829 on
"Rights of Women." In later decades, the chapel moved away from
Unitarianism, changing its name first to the South Place Religious
Society, then the South Place
Ethical Society (a name it held
formally, though it was better known as
Conway Hall from 1929) and is
Ethical Society .
Fellowship of the New Life was established in 1883 by the
Scottish intellectual Thomas Davidson . Fellowship members included
Edward Carpenter and John Davidson , animal rights activist
Henry Stephens Salt , sexologist
Havelock Ellis , feminist Edith Lees
(who later married Ellis), novelist
Olive Schreiner and Edward R.
Its objective was "The cultivation of a perfect character in each and
all." They wanted to transform society by setting an example of clean
simplified living for others to follow. Davidson was a major proponent
of a structured philosophy about religion , ethics , and social reform
At a meeting on 16 November 1883, a summary of the society’s goals
was drawn up by Maurice Adams:
We, recognizing the evils and wrongs that must beset men so long as
our social life is based upon selfishness, rivalry, and ignorance, and
desiring above all things to supplant it by a life based upon
unselfishness, love, and wisdom, unite, for the purpose of realizing
the higher life among ourselves, and of inducing and enabling others
to do the same.
And we now form ourselves into a Society, to be called the Guild of
the New Life, to carry out this purpose.
Although the Fellowship was a short-lived organization, it spawned
Fabian Society , which split in 1884 from the Fellowship of the
Felix Adler , founder of the ethical movement.
In his youth, Felix Adler was being trained to be a rabbi like his
father, Samuel Adler , the rabbi of the Reform Jewish Temple Emanu-El
in New York. As part of his education, he enrolled at the 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 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,
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
* The duty to engage in philanthropy in the advancement of morality;
* The belief that self-reform should go in lock step with social
* The establishment of republican rather than monarchical governance
* 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
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 nor theism , agnosticism nor deism .
Ethical Culture School (red) and
Ethical Culture Society (white)
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
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
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
New Jersey and Washington D.C., along with the inauguration
Encampment for Citizenship . 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
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.
Stanton Coit led the ethical movement in 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 by Chicago
ethical society leader William Salter to a group of British
philosophers, including Bernard Bosanquet ,
John Henry Muirhead , and
John Stuart MacKenzie.
One of Felix Adler's colleagues,
Stanton Coit , visited them in
London to discuss the "aims and principles" of their American
counterparts. In 1886 the first British ethical society was founded.
Coit took over the leadership of South Place for a few years. Ethical
societies flourished in Britain. By 1896 the four
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 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
London and formed the West
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
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
building was sold to the
Roman Catholic Church
Roman Catholic Church .
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
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 . The BHA is thus the legal successor body to the
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
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 , 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 , exploration, and learning.
While the founder of
Ethical Culture, Felix Adler, was a
Ethical Culturists may have a variety of
understandings as to the theoretical origins of ethics. Key to the
Ethical Culture was the observation that too often
disputes over religious or philosophical doctrines have distracted
people from actually living ethically and doing good. Consequently,
"Deed before creed " has long been a motto of the movement.
Pews and stained glass
Ethical Societies are similar to churches or synagogues
and are headed by "leaders" as clergy .
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 weddings ,
commitment ceremonies , baby namings, and memorial services .
Ethical Society members may or may not believe in a deity
Ethical Culture as their religion. 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
Religion is that set of beliefs and/or institutions, behaviors and
emotions which bind human beings to something beyond their individual
selves and foster in its adherents a sense of humility and gratitude
that, in turn, sets the tone of one’s world-view and requires
certain behavioral dispositions relative to that which transcends
Ethical Culture 2003 ethical identity statement states:
It is a chief belief of
Ethical religion that if we relate to others
in a way that brings out their best, we will at the same time elicit
the best in ourselves. By the "best" in each person, we refer to his
or her unique talents and abilities that affirm and nurture life. We
use the term "spirit" to refer to a person’s unique personality and
to the love, hope, and empathy that exists in human beings. When we
act to elicit the best in others, we encourage the growing edge of
their ethical development, their perhaps as-yet untapped but
Since around 1950 the
Ethical Culture movement has been increasingly
identified as part of the modern Humanist movement. Specifically, in
1952, the American
Ethical Union , the national umbrella organization
Ethical Culture societies in the
United States , became one of the
founding member organizations of the International Humanist and
Ethical Union .
Ethical Culture does not regard its founder's views as
necessarily the final word, Adler identified focal ideas that remain
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 .
* 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
Ethical Societies prominently display a sign that says "The
Place Where People Meet to Seek the Highest is Holy Ground".
The largest concentration of
Ethical Societies is in the New York
metropolitan area, including Societies in New York,
Manhattan , the
Brooklyn , Queens, Westchester and Nassau County; and New
Jersey , such as Bergen and Essex Counties, New Jersey.
Ethical Societies exist in several U.S. cities and counties,
Austin, Texas ;
Boston ; Chapel Hill ;
Asheville, North Carolina ;
San Jose, California ;
Philadelphia ; St. Louis ;
St. Peters, Missouri ;
Washington, D.C. ;
Lewisburg, Pennsylvania , and
Vienna, Virginia .
Ethical Societies also exist outside the U.S.
Conway Hall in London
is home to the South Place
Ethical Society , which was founded in
STRUCTURE AND EVENTS
Ethical societies are typically led by "Leaders" elected from the
body of society members by the same members. A board of executives
handles day-to-day affairs, and committees of members focus on
specific activities and involvements of the society.
Ethical societies usually hold weekly meetings on Sundays, with the
main event of each meeting being the "Platform", which involves a
half-hour speech by the Leader of the
Ethical Society, a member of the
society or by guests.
Sunday school for minors is also held at most
ethical societies concurrent with the Platform.
Ethical Union holds an annual AEU Assembly bringing
Ethical societies from across the US.
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
Carole Keeton Strayhorn , "the Comptroller's
test fails to include the whole range of belief systems that may, in
our diverse and pluralistic society, merit the First Amendment 's
Albert Einstein was a supporter of
Ethical Culture. On the
seventy-fifth anniversary of the New York Society for
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
Arthur E. Briggs , Los Angeles City Council member, 1939–41,
Ethical Society leader
British Humanist Association , which inherited many British
Ethical Society v. District of Columbia
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