Ethical Culture Leaders’ Retreat – Day 1

Tuesday evening was the first day of the Ethical Culture Leaders’ Retreat I’m attending. Here’s some stuff I learnt about Ethical Culture Leader Felix Adler during our discussion:

Adler’s Intellectual and Social Context

Adler was influenced by New England Transcendentalism (particularly Emerson), by Kant (his primary philosophical influence and the source of his ethical idealism), and by his Reform Jewish background. All these major influences on Adler’s thought are also influences on modern Humanism – and it’s good to remember that 21st Century Humanism has influences, history, a past. Today’s Humanists sometimes write as if Humanism doesn’t have an intellectual history and a tradition.

Adler picked up Kant’s Categorical Imperative, but made something radically social out of it. His maxim was a sort of supercharged, positive version of the Golden Rule: act so as to elicit the best in the other, and thereby in yourself. He grounded this maxim in true Idealist style, appealing to the existence of an “ethical manifold” which transcends this reality, and in which we all participate. However, the rule itself can be given a solid naturalistic footing, and this is what most of today’s Ethical Culturists do. This is one of the great things about Ethical Culture: just because Felix Adler was the fonder of the movement, we are very clear that it doesn’t mean that he was right. Aspects of his thought which don’t work, we chuck out – and rightly too.

Adler was also influenced by Emerson and other Transcendentalists. He, too, believed in the literal existence of a Transcendent reality, and that moral truths reside there. While this seems odd to naturalists today, in Adler’s time Idealism and Transcendentalism were respected schools of thought and were seen by some as ways to “save” human dignity – the human soul – from being reduced to pure mechanism.

Adler could see all around him the baleful effects of the industrial revolution, and was living at a time of great social unrest. Big waves of immigration, the rise of the labor movement, increasing income inequality, the prevalence of child labor and exploitation, the lack of mandatory education, and the crime and health consequences of all of these pressed hard upon him. At the same time, Adler felt that the churches – which for many served as important bulwarks against the worst ravages of industrialization – could not sustain their belief in God in the age of Darwin and scientific progress.

Simply put, science had killed God, but technology and social change threatened to degrade humankind. Adler was looking for a way to maintain human dignity in the face of what he saw as an increasingly callous and unequal society, and he founded Ethical Culture in response. The result is a wholly unique social project: societies dedicated to the creation of moral communities which are non-theistic, and which focus exclusively and fervently on social progress and melioration in this world and this life.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Baal

    I keep reading Culturists as Cultists.

  • Steve Ahluist

    I think rescuing human dignity is still an important part of what Humanism is about. Today, in America, we have escaped some of the worst depravities of the industrial revolution but we are still dealing with the ways in which the economic system degrades and dehumanizes. Today we don’t have child labor per se, but we do have a situation in which teenagers work some of the lowest paying and most dangerous jobs in fast food restaurants and as clerks in stores. Due to robberies and accidents one is far more likely to be injured or killed doing this kind of work than a police officer. Also, middle class Americans are particularly prone to being squeezed by lowered pay and benefits and higher taxes, resulting in greater stress. Educational policy in the country is a bit of a mess, with confidence in public schools at an all time low, despite the fact that around 90% of Americans avail themselves of it. Humanism, in my opinion, needs to offer solutions to these kind of problems, and that starts with a realistic, values based and human centered economic policy.