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Metaphysics and Philosophy

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Ethical Culture

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The term “ethical culture” is commonly applied to a movement started by Felix Adler (1851-1933) in New York City in 1876. It has since come to be applied also to the societies which owe their origin to the principles of ethical culture, even when affiliated with other religious bodies or institutions.

Felix Adler came to the United States from Germany as a child. He studied at Columbia University and after graduation became a teacher of Oriental literature at Cornell University. His religious background was Jewish; in fact, he was to have succeeded his father as rabbi of Temple Emanuel in New York City.

Formative Factors. Adler’s struggle with traditional Judaism finally resulted in his revolt against the synagogue. At first only a few friends joined him in this revolt, but soon a coterie of followers pledged themselves “to assert the supreme importance of the ethical factor in all relations of life, personal, social, national and international, apart from any theological or metaphysical considerations.” See JUDAISM; SYNAGOGUE.

Among the formative factors to which Adler attributed his development of ethical culture, the moral teachings of Jesus were of paramount importance. Christian ethics, he said, had promoted the moral development of mankind in a thousand ways. However, “like every product of the mind and aspirations of man, it exhibits the limitations of the time and of the social conditions under which it arose. The conditions have since changed.” It was Adler’s contention that a philosophy of life could be developed which would dispense with the theology of the Gospels and bring up to date the ethical ideals of Jesus of Nazareth. Adler believed that he could even improve on these ideals, and ethical culture still claims to be an improvement on the New Testament.

Basic Principles. Ethical culture emphasizes the fact that individual opinions on such questions as the existence of God or the immortality of the soul are of secondary importance. Membership in Ethical Societies, therefore, does not depend on acceptance of a creed. Theists, deists, and atheists are equally welcome. Since Adler himself and many ethical culture leaders came from Reform Judaism, the movement has sometimes been mistakenly identified with extreme liberal Judaism.

Ethical culture denies the priority of mind over will and asserts, with Immanuel Kant, that the only good thing in the world is a well-disciplined will. Although it is difficult to isolate its essential features, certain aspects of the voluntarism of ethical culture may be analyzed in traditional Christian terms. It vaguely identifies human nature with the divine and often speaks of the “potentially divine nature in men,” which needs actuation to be brought into fullness of being.

According to the Culturists, the character of every person contains contrary elements. The two kinds of qualities may be called the fair and the foul, or more simply the plus and minus traits. Plus qualities exist in the worst characters and minus traits can be found even in people who are most respected.

A working hypothesis of ethical culture postulates that certain definite minus traits always go along with certain plus qualities. In other words, the best of men have a corresponding evil nature, and the worst characters have correlative virtues that lie hidden. The problem of human existence is to know which virtues go with which vices. It is assumed that ostensibly good people hide their latent defects and seldom even discover their own wickedness. In the same way, apparently evil persons must learn that beneath the vicious crust lies a substance of deep goodness.

The method which Adler and his followers propose for the cultivation of virtue is twofold. First, a man is to study himself to discover his good and bad potential; otherwise he may become presumptuous over his good qualities or despondent over his bad ones. Second, since merely having good tendencies does not make a man virtuous, he must also cultivate these tendencies and exercise them at the cost of self-sacrifice; otherwise he remains only a potentially good person but is not actually virtuous.

Essential Teachings. The means that ethical culture uses to explain true virtue is to give an example of its opposite: the person who works for others in order to exalt his idea of himself. Instead of using others as sacred personalities, worthwhile on their own account, he cleverly exploits them by benefiting them. He uses people as things by which to achieve a higher estimate of himself. He may go to the greatest lengths of devotion for his friends, assisting them financially or performing the most repulsive tasks for them. He may be willing to forego their gratitude because the lofty image of self which he is trying to create would be marred by such crude selfishness. Yet in all this he may be egocentric in the extreme. Unless self-sacrifice has no alloy of self-seeking, and excludes every trace of self-complacency, it is vice masquerading as virtue and arrogance appearing to be love. See VIRTUE.

His high idealism in ethical culture is an implicit reaction to the moral life of those Christians who verbally follow the teachings of Christ, but deny it in their daily lives. Ethical culture can best be understood, therefore, as a negative rejection of Christianity. Because theological principles seem to have so little effect in producing the goodness which should be there as their natural fruit, the Culturists have rejected them. They are ruthless in their insistence that all belief is irrelevant, even belief in God.

One aspect of ethical culture that runs as a theme through its literature is its philosophy of suffering. Suffering and evil, it is said, cannot be explained, and Christian “explanation” is only the human rationalization of a mystery. But if they cannot be explained, they can be utilized for a definite spiritual end: to achieve the consciousness of the reality of the spiritual universe and of our membership in it. This statement summarizes the nearest thing to the essential teachings of Ethical Culture. See SUFFERING.

Membership in Ethical Societies includes men and women from Christian churches and the synagogue, but most Culturists are from the great mass of the unchurched. Reflective meditation and study are the mainstay of ethical culture services. Songs and inspirational readings are also encouraged, but always with a reluctance to imitate the ritual of traditional Jewish or Christian bodies. There is no oral prayer in the sense of addressing God and asking for His help. Where meditation is practiced, it is closer to Buddhist reflection about the deity than the addressing of oneself to a divine power.

When Adler died in 1933, the senior leadership of the mother society in New York passed to his friend and collaborator, John L. Elliott. After Elliott’s death in 1943, the administration was taken over by a board of surviving leaders.

Catholic Encyclopedia For School and Home
Vol. 4, 1965, pp.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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