Arthur Dobrin

When Ethical Culture was founded in the nineteenth century, it introduced something new, perhaps radical, to the world of religion. Ethical Culture was also then on the cutting edge of progressive social change. We are now in a different time politically and religiously. What is there that is distinctive about Ethical Culture in the current era? With many diverse expressions of both liberal religion and humanism, what distinguishes Ethical Culture in matters of belief? How does Ethical Culture differ from generic liberalism?

In academic circles, ethics is often defined as moral philosophy. Ethical Culture, literally the cultivation of ethics, is, in part, that, a philosophy about moral living. We espouse not any morality, of course, but a particular way of looking at the world. But Ethical Culture has always gone beyond philosophy. Its history is mostly written in terms of the action it has taken in the world, from its inception to the present, from settlement houses to settling refugees.

What made Ethical Culture distinctive in 1876 was bringing together activists for social justice that cut across sectarian lines to create new institutions that met the challenges to the integrity of humanity by the Industrial Revolution and laissez-faire capitalism. Ethical Culture, therefore, played a vital role in making the world more humane and just through new institutions and organizations.

Ethical Culture, as it most often defines itself, is a victim of its own success. Social action and liberal values no longer are ours exclusively. So what is left when we can’t mount large and sustained social justice institutions, when others can and often do better at addressing social inequities than we can, when our efforts are one amongst many other worthy endeavors? What’s left of us that is unique?

I don’t think much. If our primary emphasis remains social justice, the half-century decline of Ethical Culture won’t be reversed. It’s time to reclaim our stake in the entire person, where taking responsibility for the larger world is but one part.

On the philosophical level, this means challenging the prevailing notion of individualism. Human beings are first and foremost social creatures. Our goal is human flourishing, not individual success. As Benjamin Franklin said, we either all hang together or we hang separately. Felix Adler worked out such a relational philosophy. While his metaphysics leaves much to be desired, his basic point that we are embedded in society and that individuals and societies need to flourish together is the lodestar of our approach.

Ethical Humanism has few adages, but one is, ‘bring out the best in others and thereby in oneself.’ This needs to be placed front and center, not ‘deed before creed.’ The focus needs to be on how one goes about living this life. How do I relate to my family, my neighbors, and my nation? Where do I get the strength to go on in the face of tragedy? What does it mean to live a life of integrity? These are personal questions, intimate ones. If addressed adequately, people will find their lives enhanced and enriched. Handled badly, it is reduced to self-enhancement.

What distinguishes us is what many early Ethical Culture Leaders sought: to live this life in such a way that each encounter leaves all better people. Compare early Ethical Culture addresses with most today and the shift from the whole person to the public person is evident. A piece has been cut away. It’s time to retrieve it.

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