Ethical Culture was founded on freedom of conscience, and we are proud to say that we espouse no dogma, doctrine or creed. Yet, clearly Ethical Culture endorses a set of principles, which emerge as “second order” beliefs from our guiding commitments to the primacy of ethical ideals and the dignity of the person.
In short, Ethical Culture cannot be based on whatever anyone chooses to believe and there are boundaries as to what beliefs fall within Ethical Culture and those which do not. But how are those boundaries established? Is it what the founder, Felix Adler, espoused? The collective beliefs of Ethical Culture’s professional leaders? The funded history of the Ethical Movement? Or, some other criterion?
Personally, I believe there is an underlying creed in Ethical Culture that is the foundation of our commitment to freedom of conscience and the primacy of ethical living. I also believe we neglect our open-ended creed by depending too casually on the adage “Deed before Creed.” While that saying expresses our belief that how a person acts is morally more essential than any supposed belief, it neglects the importance of Ethical Culture/Ethical Humanism’s unique perspective that is the foundation not only of that saying but also our belief in intrinsic worth and the centrality of ethics in daily living. Deed before Creed is part of our creed and only makes sense as we flesh-out our creed.
First, let me make a point about a second order belief system. Except for those religious philosophies that escape into the transcendent as the foundation of their religious system, many if not most “religions” these days hold some form of “second order” belief system that accepts humankind’s inability to offer an absolute answer to the purpose or meaning of life. So, in my opinion we should not run way from the fact that our second order beliefs actually function as a first order or as close as we can come to a facsimile of a first-order worldview.
And I believe that facsimile of a first-order view starts with Adler. Although Adler offered a supersensible good as a god substitute, that quasi-divine reality was augmented with a number of ideas that together point to our future ethical humanist philosophy.
I propose a rear-view journey back to Adler’s philosophy to find a precursor of what would become our present Ethical Humanist perspective. Adler’s ideas—the ethical manifold, the reality producing function of the mind, intrinsic worth, ends not means, and act so as to bring out the best in others—create a foundational worldview that is a first-order understanding of reality.
I start with Adler’s idea of “the reality producing function of the mind” which to us believers in naturalism seems a bit crazy but the substance of the idea is our minds create an understanding of reality. The reality in which we live is a mental construct, a product of our brains. I believe that is Adler’s version of a pre-humanism. Rather than searching for a universal ultimate meaning in life, humanism accepts that humans live in a human-made reality. Through the millennia humans have been creating a world of opinions, values, laws, attitudes and understandings of what it means to be human. The human mind pieces together an understanding of reality from our experiences including what earlier minds created. All that stuff becomes what we call culture and each person is engaged in a struggle with the culture’s versions of reality as we actively recreate an evolving reality with our own minds. It is human minds that come up with the issue of meaning and all of the answers to the question of meaning and purpose are second-order candidates for ultimate meaning. Ethical Culture knows all versions of reality are personal understandings. So, we not only believe in freedom of conscience as a moral principle, it is a creedal principle as an expression of our understanding of human reality.
The other idea of Adler that I believe fits here is the idea of the ethical manifold. That also sounds a bit strange but the idea is such that our reality or versions of reality do not exist as whole units that are self contained. They are manifolds, something of many parts. Where we actually live, true reality, is a free-or-all of competing experiences and expressions found not in a unified whole but in the feelings and thoughts of all the individuals minds. And the whole is incomplete without each and every person’s input—each plays his/her/their part, each with his/her/their unique understanding of reality.
So, the first-order foundation of Ethical Culture is the reality of human experience. That is real and the foundation of our creed, not some preordained, static concept but the surging, pulsating, fluctuating, evolving reality of humans living together, creating the real world. And in the process we bring the idea of meaning into life. Freedom of conscience is an expression of our commitment to respect for everyone as a fellow creator of human living. We may disagree with everything a person believes but that is beside the fact of our higher, sacred value of respect for all our companions in life’s trip.
I don’t know if I would call our creedal principles such as intrinsic worth, equality, etc. second-order principles; they are so enmeshed in our Ethical Culture understanding of living that they are actually essential to our worldview. So when it comes to boundaries, freedom of conscience is our foundational approach. Respect for the personhood of every human being is our primary value that applies to all, even those we might consider evil, but on the daily living level freedom of conscience is part of a belief system that we cannot deny or in the minimizing of our beliefs lose our reason for existing. When it comes to membership we should have more limited standards. Striving to understand the ramifications of our beliefs requires fellow travelers who must start with at least a basic acceptance of our worldview.
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