The Basis of the Ethical Movement
William MacIntyre Salter(From Mr. Salter's opening lecture to the Chicago Ethical Society in 1883. Reprinted in The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Ethical Movement 1876-1926.)
William MacIntyre Salter (1853-1931), the son of a Congregational minister, prepared for the Unitarian ministry at the Harvard Divinity School. He began working with Dr. Adler in 1881, and in 1883 became leader of the Chicago Ethical Society where he demonstrated extraordinary moral courage in his support of the strikers at the time of the famous Haymarket Riot. He was Leader of the Philadelphia Society (1892-6) and returned to the Chicago Society from which he retired in 1907. Among many contributions to the literature of the Ethical Culture Movement was his book, Ethical Religion (1899).
. . . I know the Churches speak sometimes of "mere morality," and ask if that can save a man. I answer readily that a surface, mechanical morality, no matter by whom practiced, does not and cannot save a man. But if so, the call, in my judgment, is not for something to take the place of morality, but for a larger, a more perfect morality, one covering the whole of life, and allowing no nook or corner of it to lie outside of the sacred sway of the just and the good. It is a higher standard of righteousness which the world needs, one which shall convict even the religions of the day of the lowness of their own standards; which shall awaken the slumbering consciences of men, and regenerate life, private and social. If the Churches had the idea of morality as a principle, would they dare to speak of it in this slighting way? No. By morality they mean custom or tradition, or at best a set of commands given by Moses or Jesus, and written down in a book. That it is an independent idea and law of man's own mind, prior to all custom and tradition and books and persons, and so capable of superseding them all and making them antiquated, is hardly imagined. But it is nothing else than this that I mean by proposing the pure dictates of conscience as the basis of our movement. We assert the independence of morality. We do not rest on dogma, because there is something in man closer and more constitutional to him than dogma: we do not rest on history, because we believe that within man lie the springs of history, and that history's grandest movements started from no inspiration that we cannot draw on equally well today. The modern world talks of progress; we believe in moral progress, that the ideas of righteousness are not stationary, but capable of endless expansion; that there can be no final statement of ethics; that men may get scruples in the future that they have no thought of now; that, for example, a sense of justice may develop that will make our present manner of conducting business and industry a reproach and a shame.
It is a word of this sort which I should like to throw out among men and women of today. It is a new center of interest, a new basis of union, that we have to propose. The old religions, and Liberalism in its present forms, rest on other issues. Judaism is a race religion--a pure, a lofty religion, but still a race religion. Christianity is more universal, but it is founded on and limited by Jesus of Nazareth; and, though I will not be surpassed in genuine reverence for that unique figure, that image of blended majesty and gentleness which has cast a light down the centuries, and has rarely been without influence, even when Christians were maddest and most bigoted, truth equally compels the admission that Jesus does not furnish a basis broad enough and large enough for the present and coming time. Yes, Jesus himself rests upon a deeper foundation in the reason and conscience of man; and on that bottom rock we may stand today as truly as he stood, and may build upon it as serenely, with as undaunted a faith and as firm a hope as ever he or his followers did eighteen hundred years ago. No more satisfactory is ordinary Liberalism. It is still largely critical; it is often but a wild and bitter attack on the old religions; it is at best a calm and clear perception that the old religions are no longer possible to us; it is not seldom coupled with indifference to moral questions, and, where it is zealous, its zeal must often be confessed to be on the wrong side. I believe the future is for those who have cut loose from the old-time forms and creeds, and who have no patience with them. But their impatience must go further; they must become impatient with themselves and with the moral state of the community; they must turn a deaf and relentless ear to all the siren calls that would confound liberty with license; they must rather own the call of stricter rules, of higher ideals of duty, and feel that, with the old citadels of faith in ruins at their feet, their work has but begun. It is to earnest and brave-hearted men and women who will turn their faces in this direction that the Ethical Movement addresses itself.
For let me make clear that the basis of our movement is not a theory of morality, but morality itself. The moral teacher is not primarily to give a metaphysical philosophy of ethics; to propagate transcendentalism or utilitarianism--though he may have views of his own, and on occasion need not refrain from expressing them. He desires rather, if he can, to bold up the idea of the good itself; to make men love it for its own sake, and own its beauty in the conduct, in the beautiful order and beneficence, of their lives. There is but one theory of morals against which I have any feeling, and this not because it is a theory, but because it is subversive of morality itself. I mean the view which we now and then hear advocated, that morality is but a refined selfishness, a long-sighted prudence; that the end of life is and can be nowhere else than in the accumulation of individual pleasures, and the avoidance of individual pains. That man cannot go out of himself; that he cannot love another equally with himself; that he cannot find an end of his being in his family, in the community, in the State; that for all these he cannot live, and cannot die rather than see them dishonored--that is what I call the real infidelity, and, whether uttered by priest or philosopher, has, and always shall have, my dissent and my rebuke. Morality is this going out of one's self and living in, living for, something larger. Prudence, selfishness--these are and may well be the servants, the attendants on morality; they never dare take the place of masters. Aside from this, which is not a theory but a statement of morality, a moral teacher need have little to say, at least at the start, of the philosophy of ethics. It is something far more primary and simple than philosophy, even the truest, that must be our immediate concern. It is the practically proving to the world that morality is an adequate foundation for our lives; it is the demonstrating that unselfishness can be by showing it; yes, it is, I sincerely hope and trust, proving that a higher morality is possible than the world now allows--proving it by the stricter purity of our private lives, by higher notions of honor in our business or professional relations, by juster conduct to our employees; yes, by a new wave of sympathy and humanity that shall take us out of ourselves and out of our business, and make us bear the burdens of the sick and the poor and the forlorn in our community as they have never been borne before.
This document is part of a larger document, "Understanding Ethical Religion," edited by Howard B. Radest.
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