Hugh Taft-Morales

Ethical Culture can be readily critiqued as being humano-centric. However our relationship to the natural environment has become urgent in our times in a way in which it was not when our Movement was founded. In short, Ethical Culture needs to expand its philosophical foundation to include an environmental ethic. How can we construct a philosophy to encompass an appreciation for, and protection of, the natural world?

The image on the right is Ethical Culture’s logo, a simple stick figure within a circle that brings to mind Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man. While our logo’s origin is somewhat arbitrary, supposedly the choice of a publisher of David Muzzy’s 1951 book, Ethics as Religion, we have used it over 60 years to represent our humanist alternative to traditional religion. It makes an easy target for anyone who wants to critique Ethical Culture for being humano-centric.

Few symbols better represent the glorification of human beings than does the Vitruvian Man. A male representation of our species perfectly proportioned and set in the center, drawn by a preeminent renaissance humanist, Leonardo da Vinci. Supposedly Leonardo created this work as a study of the “cosmography of the microcosm.” He believed that the structure of the human body mirrored the structure of the universe. How more elevated could we be than to offer a map of all existence? It reveals a hubristic aspect of humanism that places human beings as fundamentally different from all other life forms. Ethical Humanism inherited this distorted relationship between human beings and nature.

It can be argued that for da Vinci, the Vitruvian Man was part of his ongoing effort to connect man to our environment. Perhaps most of those who used geometry and mathematics to reduce the universe to human terms did so out of a desire for unity with the physical world. Nevertheless, from Pythagoras to Euclid to Bacon to Hawking, numbers and reason replaced more visceral means of communing with nature. Our own intellect creates such an alluring map that we drift further from the reality the map was supposed to represent.

During the Renaissance and Enlightenment our ability to map and manipulate drove us further from the garden. Astronomers charted the heavens. Cartographers mapped the earth. Biologists dissected animals. Chemists manipulated cells. Physicists split atoms. There was virtually nothing in the physical world that seemed beyond human comprehension, human control, and human ownership, furthering our hubris.

Most modern civilizations developed a type of speciesism, a belief that our particular DNA pattern elevates us to privileged status over the rest of life. Being able to work, kill, eat, wear, and own animals became proof that we should work, kill, eat, wear, and own animals. We derived our “ought” from our “is,” as Hume might say. Life forms became property. Currently, on a planet with approximately 100 million tons of large wild animals, from porcupines to whales, exist over 700 million tons of animals waiting slaughter after being incarcerated their entire lives.

The irony is clear: our intellect convinced us to claim dominion over nature, but has brought about the means of our own extinction, a humbling affirmation of our being very much like the rest of life—fragile, mortal, made up of dust which goes to dust. It seems that the Vitruvian Man has much knowledge, but little wisdom.

Fortunately, Ethical Culture, and humanism more broadly, can draw from the wisdom of scientists like Carl Sagan and E. O. Wilson. They, amongst others, understood that we are more like “children of the universe” than “masters of the universe.” Sagan stares awe-struck at the star-filled night sky. Wilson speaks in reverential tones of a fragile biosphere. Wilson tried to connect scientific and religious worlds, ending one letter to Southern Baptists saying, “You and I are both humanists in the broadest sense: human welfare is at the center of our thought. Surely we also share a love of Creation—and an understanding that no matter what the differences, there remains the earthborn yet transcendental obligation we are both morally bound to share.” (p. 294)

Such language must replace traditional humanism’s more utilitarian and ultimately self-destructive approach to the environment. Modern science and technology, which helped distance ourselves from the environment, can also help unite us with earth. Almost four decades ago I met Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweikart, having watched a short film highlighting a deeply moving experience that changed his relationship to our planet. He said, “When you go around the earth in an hour and a half you begin to recognize that your identity is with that whole thing. And that makes a change. You look down and you can’t imagine how many borders and boundaries you cross again and again and again. From where you see it, the earth is a whole…and it is so beautiful. There are no frames. There are no boundaries….”

My personal connection with our planet was greatly affected by the existential truth in Schweikart’s words: “You realize that on that small spot, that little blue and white thing that you can cover with your thumb, is everything that means anything to you. All of history and music and poetry and art and birth and love, tears, joy, games…all of it.” Other astronauts wrote of similar emotional experiences of beauty and fragility. Astronaut James Irwin recalled, “The earth reminded us of a Christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a person….” Just imagining it changed me.

Ethical Culture, and humanism in general, must help our species change our relationship to nature. If we are to flourish, our interactions have to be less about producing products and waste, and more about experiencing awe and transcendence. This does not mean we have to sacrifice reason to romance. It is reason that, after all, allows us to experience our planet from the void of space. It gave us a perspective that can engender greater respect for our delicate biosphere.

As the marketing minds of the American Ethical Union reexamine our branding, maybe it’s time to update our logo. Might we consider appreciating the human form not as the center of it all, but in the context of a physical universe that commands our respect? Might a dose of existential perspective help us reconnect with nature? In the words of someone who epitomized scientific and natural religious humility, Carl Sagan: “We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star, lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.” In that context whatever intellectual barriers between nature and me dissolve, and I am left with a powerful sense of connection with, and duty towards, the natural environment.”

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  1. Joy McConnell Reply

    Hugh, as you were, I was deeply affected by the photos of Earth from space and from the moon as well as the words of Rusty Schweikart. Among other things I thought it might help us create a world in which we were all One, a world beyond war.

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