By Curt Collier
I remain a dedicated fan of the ideals of Felix Adler, the founder of the Society for Ethical Culture. However, Adler is difficult to read (he was inspired by the opaque Kant) and even more difficult to understand, and some of what he wrote is downright problematic. His cringe-worthy Victorian notions of gender roles are a prime example of what Adler got so wrong. Yet, while his dated opinions as to which ethical behaviors to inject into daily life no longer work today, what he was attempting to achieve, his grand vision for a lived ethical life, was groundbreaking and revolutionary. Adler was truly a visionary, and lacking any role models, he stumbled forward the best he could. I give him credit for that, and I have dedicated my career to advancing his way of life.
Adler had three principal projects. The first was to create a system of belief that placed the affirmation of the worth and dignity of human life not only as a commendable goal, but as the central practice of a new ethical paradigm. During Adler’s day, life was pretty brutal. Deprivations and exploitation were rampant. Americans still enslaved other human beings, exploiting their labor for personal gain. Even our most vulnerable population, children, were often forced to endure cruel work conditions at a young age. Yet, Adler couldn’t understand why the very institutions so constituted to uplift humanity, the churches and synagogues, more often than not failed in that mission. If you went to a Catholic Mass, the service was delivered in Latin with the priest’s back facing the audience. Jewish services were in Hebrew with women separated from men. Presbyterians still believed in predestination, Baptists supported slavery, Methodists robbed Native Americans of their land, and so on. Humans were often described as fallen, sinful, depraved, and worthy of being judged by an angry god. Yet, despite plenty of evidence to support this assessment, Adler felt the religions of his day got it wrong. What if humans were also THE source of goodness, the font of ethics, and the sole vessels of the sacred? What if humans were not to be judged by some external standards, but were the source from which greater goodness could be revealed?
Discerning how to live
Adler turned religion on its head. He knew humans could be cruel and stupid. Yet, humanity’s own striving was also the new “sacred text” for discerning how to live, and our actions the new “sacrament” by which goodness was further revealed and came alive. “Deeds before creeds” is a shorthand expression of this. Adler was not attempting to idolize humans, nor to make humans the “measure of all things.” Rather he believed that certain actions–an ethical praxis (practice)–could give rise to a greater understanding of what it meant to be Good.
This brings us to Adler’s second big project: What should this praxis look like? Adler believed each of us, by our own unique experiences, background, training, relationships, and even our vocations, each individual’s unique path afforded us firsthand knowledge of what added to life, and what tore away at it. Each of us has summited mountains of difficulty and yet have also experienced joy and fulfillment, if but briefly. Adler’s ethical praxis was for each of us to elicit those unique insights from each other. Not just ideas, however, but the actions and our abilities to uplift the life of others. This central praxis, to elicit the “best,” especially the oh-so-human ability to help other life flourish, is the heart of our endeavor. Through this give and take, sharing and listening, wrestling and supporting, new ethical insights emerge that have the capacity to be transformative for all of us.
Impacting our world
This leads us to Adler’s third major project: how to inculcate that praxis in the very processes of human life. That is, how to make this ethical system central to human endeavors? Adler thought that every human activity—education of the young, marriage, our vocations and avocations, the art and humanities, our work to improve the conditions of others, how we communicated with one another, everything we did— could be an extension of the central ethical praxis of eliciting an ever-expanding capacity for right actions by affirming the worth and dignity of the other. As greater understanding of how life flourishes emerge, we Ethical Culturists work to spread those practices and instill them further in our culture, believing this ongoing process will continue to impact our world.
As a biocentrist, this is where I take Adler one step further. How can we accomplish the above by including the rest of being in this process, as well? First off, why is this important? The greatest mistake ethical practices have made to date is not including the rest of life. This has resulted in processes that favor the human to the detriment of other parts of nature, and this has had a devastating impact on our planet. An ethics that no longer engages the rest of being is not only unsustainable, but is creating the conditions such as climate change and pollution that will hamper our ability to find the processes that allow life to flourish.
This is an exciting time for a biocentric Ethical Culture. Let’s collectively see how far we can take it!
Curt Collier is interim leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.