Justice Samuel Alito has been approved, and Coretta Scott King has died. And yet it is another beautiful day, and daffodils are swelling along my street. Will they make it through the surprise frosts yet to come, or will they succumb, to try again another year?
Sunday I spoke about the fact that life is getting better for many people, despite the anxiety and fear many feel about the future. Today with Alitoâ€™s confirmation, some are jubilant and some are terrified, and most likely neither feeling will turn out to be entirely justified. And that belief of mine keeps me calm, although sometimes I wonder if it wouldnâ€™t be better if the Supreme Court did go crazy for a while and start stripping away the rights we take for granted. Perhaps that would make us learn what it’s like to be citizens first and consumers second. Maybe we would even like it.
There is a new house going up on my blockâ€”one of those â€œmonsterâ€ houses that are replacing torn-down older homes in older neighborhoods, the new ones twice as big, blocking out the light, paving over lawn for extra-wide driveways, replacing front porches with anonymous huge garage doors. Will these homes become the norm in these areas, or will they be a wake-up call that maybe there are other things to aspire to than looming over your neighbors?
Is the glass half-empty or half-full? The lawns and the light are disappearing beneath ever-larger houses in our neighborhoods, but forest destruction in general is slowing or reversing. Civil rights continue to be fought for and some are under attack, but the terms of the debate could not even have been imagined a generation ago.
The glass metaphor doesnâ€™t work for me, because the only thing I am sure about life is that it is never still. A better question would be, Is the tide coming in or going out? Or maybe I’ve just been reading too much Patrick O’Brien.
I now understand the â€œjokeâ€ about St. Louis weather, â€œIf you donâ€™t like it, just wait a minute.â€ Perhaps it wasnâ€™t told right to me, but it didnâ€™t seem all that funny. I mean, weather changes everywhere; thatâ€™s the nature of weather. But the 20-30 degree difference between one day and the next here does seem unusual, and it takes some getting used to. Iâ€™m not complaining, mind you, that weâ€™ve had several over-60-degree days in January. Particularly as they tend to fall on the weekendâ€”a nice trick.
It was just beautiful last Monday, when Bill and I joined a dozen other â€œEthicalsâ€ at the MLK rally and march downtown. (There are some general pictures of the march at www.stlimc.org). â€œMarchâ€ might not be the right word. It was almost a jogâ€”St. Louisians move fast! Although given some of the neighborhoods we went through, shockingly neglected compared to countless booming county neighborhoods, I can see why people are in a hurry for change in the city. For most of our route, there was no one on the sidewalks to see our marchâ€”we joked that we should be holding our Ethical Society banner behind our backs, as the marchers behind us were the only â€œaudienceâ€ available. It would be great if there were no audience because everyone was in the street with us, but the reality is that no one was watching because there are so few people left there. And yet for all the deserted streets and empty or fallen buildings, there are signs of lifeâ€”new residences going up, community centers blaring the â€œI have a dreamâ€ speech out the window to us from their PA systems. Hoping we’ll do more than jog by once a year.
But it was a gorgeous day, so sunny and hot that I had to take off my jacket for the long, inconvenient walk back to the Metrolink. Good thing public transportation isn’t necessary to revitalize an area. . . . (Anyone know how much the latest highway expansion is going to cost?)
” â€˜At no point are we not going to value the sanctity of life,â€™ said [a prison spokesman]. â€˜We would resuscitate him,â€™ then execute him.â€
–From an AP article about Clarence Ray Allen, killed by lethal injection this morning in California. He was 76, legally blind, and had a heart attack in September. The quote refers to the fact that Allen had asked not to be resuscitated if he had another heart attack.
Although the quote highlights the moral absurdity of the death penalty, this is not a simple case. This old and sick man was on death row for killing three people while he was in prison, by ordering a â€œhitâ€ on them. I donâ€™t know more than the AP article about Allenâ€™s case, but clearly, â€œlife without paroleâ€ would not have protected society this time. Solitary confinement for life might have, but that is usually understood as being as â€œcruel and unusualâ€ as a death sentenceâ€”and unnecessary, most of the time.
There are so many practical reasons to oppose the death penalty: it falls much more often on poor minorities; it costs more money to kill a prisoner than to feed and house him or her for life; mistakes are made and innocent people condemned. But as a humanist religious leader, I hope we will not lean too heavily on the practical. The goal should not be to â€œfixâ€ the system so that we kill the â€œcorrectâ€ people. The goal should be to fix ourselves so that we do not need to become killers to find justice and peace.
I donâ€™t know whether I believe that people who have committed truly evil acts â€œdeserve to die.â€ I do believe that we do not deserve to become killers ourselves. And although we hire others to do the actual killing, deep down the knowledge infects us all, and it infects our society.
So far I have spared you all my poetry, but I would like to share this. It was inspired by two things: a photo of â€œexecution groupies,â€ who party outside a prison where an execution is taking place; and my learning why a bee dies after stinging someone (itâ€™s eviscerated), which seemed to me the perfect metaphor for why a state cannot kill without its citizens becoming, on some level, killers.
Warning: itâ€™s not a pleasant poem.
Close-up of the Execution Crowd
They have the whitened eyes, stretched necks,
bared teeth of stampeding horses, screaming,
screaming their guts out with the true fanâ€™s
I feel their glee
coiled and venomous in my stomach.
I want to smash
their lawn chairs and coolers, bloody
their open mouths.
My clenched fist throbs
where I was stung yesterday.
I enjoyed watching the beeâ€™s tiny death, payment
for my pain.
I suppose she didnâ€™t know
her own nature: that her stinger
was no casual weapon but anchored
her to me.
Did she learn at last,
as she tried to leave the lodged thorn
that instead pulled her guts from her body until
the husk fell,
what had killed her?
Or did she merely feel her life unraveling,
And it gets easier every day. Several people had follow-up questions about veganism after my address on Sunday. If you’d like more info on vegetarianism and veganism, there’s a great site at goveg.com. It’s run by the folks at PETA, whom I don’t always agree with–their radical fringe has hurt their own cause at times. But this site is very friendly and there’s a link at the top to a free vegetarian starter kit that you can order or download instantly, and it’s got health info, animal treatment info, recipes, tips for dining out, for families, etc.
Thanks to Reggie for sharing her experiences around food choices. Her thoughts prompt me to remind folks of one of my favorite phrases: The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good (Voltaire). Meaning, it is better to do what we can than to abandon the effort because we can’t do everything, and we should feel good about whatever we do rather than guilty about what we don’t. (Some people think pride leads to complacency and guilt is motivating, but I believe that good feelings motivate more action, while guilt makes us want to stop thinking about the painful topic–Opinions, psychological scientists?) In fact, perhaps we shouldn’t use labels such as “vegetarian” and “vegan,” as they suggest that a person either perfectly follows these diets or doesn’t at all. There are many people these days making incremental changes to a more ethical diet and lifestyle, and every small change does make a difference. In fact, it’s the millions of people making small changes, rather than the few making radical changes, that convince corporations such as McDonald’s to offer veggie burgers, or Starbucks to offer Fair Trade coffee.
I thought some of you might want to add your thoughts regarding a conversation we had at the end of our Board meeting last night.
You may know that we currently have a Long Range Planning committee working on organizing our programs, establishing evaluation procedures, raising revenue for our ongoing expenses, and looking forward to creating a climate of energy and enthusiasm here over the next five years.
What does that last line “creating a climate of energy and enthusiasm” mean?
To me, to others on the committee, it means helping and encouraging our members and others toward action based on our ideals.
It means promoting the projects we already do (such as through the work of our Ethical Action committee members and others) like the Women’s Self-Help Center, Room At The Inn, and Lydia House, as well as starting new outreach in partnership with other organizations that we can all share in, young, old and in-between, to promote good work in the community. It may also mean re-establishing some projects in the Society that have previously been started but, through no fault of the program, simply run out of gas in terms of volunteer effort. (I am thinking specifically of Forum for The Open Mind.) It may also mean joining with new groups that have been suggested by members but as yet have not been acted on such as the AMACHE program and Mentor-St.-Louis.
Of course, all of this is reliant on the interest of members in making it happen. We hope, through our Long Range Plan, to establish ways to make it easier. To promote a “can-do” mentality among our members. To fuel the enthusiasm by promoting from within, by communicating better, by listening more. But we need to hear from you. Sometimes to get attention, you need to raise your voice. And give the time it takes to get it started. We CAN help, we hope to create better mechanisms for assisting, but you be the guide.
It also means–to me and to some others–looking down the road in a larger way to how our Society can reach out in the community on our own–be our own agents for change and good. How can we utilize our endowment money, which was meant to promote Ethical outreach and Ethical Culture beyond our walls, toward helping others in this community? Toward better living for more people—both practical and ideal? Toward greater cooperation? Toward understanding? Toward peace?
What kinds of program or effort (think REALLY big here) would our members be interested in? What kinds of needs are there in the St. Louis community that are not currently being served by some other organization that we can uniquely provide? Who can benefit from our interest? From the talent and willingness among members in our community? From our money? From our desire?
Our discussion went back and forth between ongoing projects that currently exist that we can bring more to light in the Society and through which we can partner with other organizations, to this kind of down–the-road visionary type of thing that will really create something new and useful.
Ideas? Thoughts? Hopes? Dreams? What excites you? What are your passions? What needs do you see in the community that are not being addressed? For today–and tomorrow?
I thought I’d contribute a few personal reflections on food after hearing Kate’s platform address this past Sunday (January 8.) In case you missed it, in her platform she describes how becoming a vegan helped her recognize the need to encompass a variety of viewpoints to understand a larger picture. (I greatly simplify here, but I think that was the gist.) In particular, she relates the story of the blind men and the elephant as a larger example.
My own experience is a little different, but I think it also helped me discover some things about myself and the whole issue of food and living consciously. Lest I mislead, I most certainly did not arrive at any answers. Kate’s platform made me wonder how my little experience fit into the larger view. Hmmmm.
My husband, Randy and I were vegans for a brief time when we had our first child. We left veganism behind and became vegetarians shortly after our daughter was born for two reasons: It was difficult for him to eat vegan with his corporate fellows and while traveling on a regular basis, and we couldn’t find convincing literature on the nutritional value of raising a young child as a strict vegan.
From vegetarianism, we morphed to our current mode of eating; that is, sort-of vegetarians. That means, for us, vegetarian at home, eating as others do when we are out. And we are out often.
This evolution/devolution to sort-of vegetarian may seem like a backward march in regard to consciousness about living healthfully, environmentally, and caringly for other people and creatures in our world, except in some ways, for me personally, it wasn’t.
What happened to me, when we became vegans and then began raising our family as vegetarians, was that I became consumed (yes, consumed) with food issues. Organic foods. Budgetary concerns for buying organic foods. Food coops; (getting the organic and local foods quickly, if not easily.) Selecting grocery stores. (Not necessarily within an environmentally effective distance.) Reading labels. Learning to cook vegetarian. Learning to cook quick vegetarian. Nutrition. Health. Discussions with friends. Disagreements with family.
Exhausting? Sometimes, yes. But also invigorating. I was learning new stuff. Feeling like I was doing good things. Contributing in a small way. Yes, it was coupled with a little of the feeling of superiority Kate mentioned in her platform address. Many of my new friends also happened to be vegetarians. With them we could talk about this stuff for hours, and sometimes did. When you start eating green, and combine that with raising kids who are eating green, it becomes…..(dare I say it) like…a…religion.
Many of our discussions revolved around the usual stuff I mentioned above, along with getting kids to eat food that isn’t always their first choice. (An issue in any family. Seems to multiply with grains, beans, cheese and vegetable-only options.) It’s particularly challenging as they age and the lovely children you raised to be independent thinkers start thinking independently. But I won’t bore you with those details, that’s a whole ‘nother discussion.
I had grown up in a family with a gourmet-loves-to-eat-out-at-the-best-restaurants father, and a mother who hated to cook and whose overriding mantra whenever us kids would complain about what there was to eat (or not) was, “We eat to live, we don’t live to eat.”
Contradictory messages, indeed. Couple those messages with my twenty-year background as a professional ballet dancer and choreographer where not-eating is seen as a badge of honor, throw in a dash of new information about factory farms, free-range beef, pesticides, growth hormones, illegal immigrant labor, GMO’s, obesity, political control of food distribution in third world countries and….well…
It all became overwhelming.
These conflicting and sometimes contradictory early messages then, served as the backdrop for my later, adult/parent role as food provider. On one hand, providing good, healthy, quality food for my family was important. On the other hand, I felt guilty about thinking and spending so much time preparing and acting on food. Yes, guilty.
I imagine that you can take my story, substitute anyone else’s background, regional upbringing, life experiences and interests many times over to find a new story for each person regarding how they have come to think (or not) about the food they eat and the choices they make. And those choices, for many people, will be based on different assumptions and lead to different actions.
Food is fuel. End of discussion. Food is love. Good food, good. Food is power. Bad food, bad. Food means we are “good” people. Food means we are “bad” people. This food is “good,” that food is “bad.” Food means…..you substitute the good/bad cultural label. With the exception of some cultures, where food has no good/bad connotation, but means literally, life.
The bottom line for me is that I just got tired, bored with myself, frustrated, and anxiety-ridden, with being so preoccupied with food and food related issues all the time. And yes, I felt guilty. It seemed to me that only in Western cultures do we have the luxury to choose to NOT eat. To choose organic over mass-produced. To choose to buy local or from South America. I felt that my consciousness had become a self-consciousness, a tag that made ME feel good (or bad) and that had lost the original purpose of food—sustenance.
Of course, realizing this about myself, didn’t fully make all those things I had learned go away. It ain’t all about me. Some of that information made sense. And you can’t go back.
I remain both value-conflicted and food-conflicted. I admire those who don’t put ANY thought into what they eat; they just eat, thank you. They save their energy for protesting war, for providing jobs for others, for providing shelter to battered women, for organizing clubs and activities and even food pantries, and many other things. I admire those who put a LOT of thought into what they eat, recognizing that we must do our little part at the top of the food chain to promote healthful, responsible food consumption, to protect animals, our planet, our children, and still have time for other concerns. I admire people who have become excellent cooks, combining balanced nutrition in amazingly creative and delicious ways for the purpose of bringing people together. I admire people who just eat—and move on.
Most of all, I just just wanted to quit thinking about food. But unfortunately, one must eat.
I appreciated Kate’s use of the allegory of the blind men and the elephant to help us recognize that we are just part of the greater conversation on so many issues . But as regards food, in my case, it made me realize all the more clearly how my little step toward gaining a larger understanding has in some ways caused me to straddle the fence. (Is being sort-of vegetarian like being sort-of pregnant? If so…will time cure my ignorance?)
I gather at this point I have two hands on the elephant.
On a different topic….
I’ve posted my commentary above in the “Uncategorized” space on our new blogsite, rather than in the “President’s” section, as these are obviously personal reflections and have nothing to do with board business for the society. As this blogsite is new and there are (as yet) no guidelines, I thought I’d try a little bit of everything in posting, but put personal thoughts in the uncategorized area and business-related items in the President’s area. That is, while I have my half year left as your President. Then it will be someone else’s turn.
That means (probably) a little bit of the above, a little bit of business as comes up that I think people may be interested in commenting on, and anything else anybody suggests.
For now, board meeting tonight, so business later.
I was raised in New York City, the walking capital of America (sez us). As the national news showed in December during the transit strike, New Yorkers can walk for miles to get where they need to goâ€”across bridges in freezing weather, dodging cabs all the way. So when we found a place to rent in St. Louis within two miles of work, shops, library, gym, I smiled and put on my walking shoes.
And the first day I walked to work. Side roads, sidewalks, a calm bridge over the interstate, a nice walk. It felt a little like one of those post-apocalyptic movies, as I was the only person not encased in metal that I saw, but otherwise it was fine. I looked forward to my walk home. After work, however, I discovered that things had changedâ€”specifically, to pitch black. This useful through-street with the sidewalk has no street lights.
The next day, we decided to walk to the gym, as driving two miles to walk on a treadmill is too ridiculous, aside from an environmental nightmare. So we set off, with a map that showed broad streets and even short-cuts through a couple malls. What we found was a combination of no sidewalks, sidewalks that ended abruptly, often at trees (apparently they are meant for commuting squirrels), or sidewalks with nice smooth ramps into intersections with no crosswalks or pedestrian signals (apparently meant for suicidal wheelchair users). The shopping centers have nice new sidewalks around their perimeters and between the stores, but only cars are welcome in or out of them.
Because I am â€œbloody-minded,â€ in the British sense, I will continue to walk to work, using a flashlight on my way home, and to the gym, hoping on and off discontinuous sidewalks and dashing through traffic like a lost animal. But I feel a little like a lost animal, in this new habitat of pseudo-urbanism. And I expect that I will continue to be lonely on my walks, and I no longer wonder why.
Now that I have my two front teeth, all I want for the holidays is a news source with a research department–or even just a freelance fact-checker. This morning on the radio I heard a typical 30-second “story” about the economy, with a quote by a lawmaker to the effect that cutting taxes increases government revenue. No follow-up, just the quote, then on to the next “story.” I realize economic theory is complicated, but how about 15 more seconds to say that “Four out of five leading economic journals found this not to be the case in the 1980s,” or, “This seems to be true in Brazil but not in Mexico at present”–or whatever somewhat reliable facts exist? (I made those two statements up.) I don’t find this sort of simple follow-up anywhere except sometimes on The Daily Show on the Comedy Central cable network (or click on the link for free video clips if your house is also cable-free). How sad is it when comedy shows are doing the most fact-checking?
To torture or not to torture. What most bothers me about this debate is the â€œWhat-if-someone-is-about-to-blow-up-a-building-and-we-only-have-5-minutes-and-we-have-an-informant-who-wonâ€™t-talk?â€ argument. Aside from the fact that torture is ineffective, aside from the fact that condoning torture by Americans makes it much harder to protest torture of Americans, the problem with extremist hypothetical arguments is that they can be used to â€œjustifyâ€ anything. Anything. Basing our human and civil rights on our worst nightmares will leave us with no rights at all.
* * *
Well, it looks like ANWAR has been spared again. But maybe it shouldn’t be. I never thought Iâ€™d say that, but I was very impressed by Peter Maassâ€™ arguments (“The Price of Oil,” in Dec 18th’s NY Times*) that until Americans use less energy and more alternative fuels, our insistence on keeping Alaska pristine is a “Not In My Back Yard” stance. –Because the oil will have to come from somewhere, and most likely from somewhere that will take much less care when they extract it than we would in ANWAR. Maass: â€œWe demand clean beaches and untouched wildernesses at home but live in an energy-intensive fashion that leads other countries to sacrifice their waters and forests.â€ Ouch.
Actually, ANWAR might not be the best example for Maassâ€™ argument, because it likely doesnâ€™t have enough oil to justify drilling there in any event, but the argument in general is important– especially if itâ€™s true, as Maass reports, that being an oil exporter doesnâ€™t even help lift a poor country out of poverty.
Itâ€™s generally the liberal middle class that wants the strongest protections for the American environment, but even if we (I put myself in this class) follow green-buying ways, we still tend to use a lot of energyâ€”probably more than many poorer conservative folks who use words like â€œeco-terrorist.â€ Think youâ€™re a good energy steward? Test yourself at www.myfootprint.org. Youâ€™ll probably be unpleasantly surprised. I was, and Iâ€™m a vegan who walks to work. That means I’m twice as “green” as the average American, but humanity would still need 2.4 Earths if everyone lived like me.
This is the holiday season, with lots of love and goodwill and cheer and wishes for peace. Why do these good feelings and ideals require so much stuff? And create so much trash? What would a low-impact holiday look like? I admit I’m afraid to try one myself–Would it be depressing at first? Would my family be disappointed? But we’ll all need to re-imagine a lot of our lives, and what we “need,” and even how we celebrate. That is, if we want to save everyone’s backyard, not just our own.
Happy Holidays, and an Imaginative New Year.
(*Thanks to Jim R for forwarding Maassâ€™ article.)
I just received an appeal from the Ten Commandments Commission (www.tencommandmentsday.com), a group dedicated to promoting â€œReverence for Godâ€™s unchanging standard.â€ They are also selling a gold-plated commemorative pin.
Interestingly, the commandments arenâ€™t listed in the brochure or on the website, that I could find. Perhaps this is because â€œlack of agreement among various divisions within Christianity and Judaism makes it very difficult to reach a consensus about how the Ten should be printed for display in public locations. Usually, the preferences of Jews, Roman Catholics and some Lutherans is overruled, and the Protestant format is chosen,â€ as I learned on (www.religioustolerance.org), a site about the history and different views of the commandments. Itâ€™s nice that the commission chose not to take sides in the different versions debate, but it does call into question the â€œunchanging standardâ€ claim.
Having finally found a couple lists of the biblical commandments, I might consider joining a Six Commandments Commission. Ethically, Iâ€™m against being cruel to oneâ€™s parents, adultery, killing, stealing, perjury, and coveting. However, ten commandmentsâ€™ advocates are usually seeking to incorporate the Bible into American law, and Iâ€™m not sure Iâ€™m ready to throw adulterers and sassers in jailâ€”perhaps a fine, to go toward free marital and family counseling clinics. The destruction of the American economy that would accompany the prohibition of coveting might also be a problem, but I do look forward to banning war.
What about the other four commandments? (These are from the most commonly used version)
I. â€œI am the Lord Thy God. . . . Thou shalt have no other gods before me.â€ Since this is from the Hebrew Bible, it would seemingly outlaw not only atheism, agnosticism, paganism, Hinduism, Buddhism, humanism, etc., but also call the Christian trinity into question. I donâ€™t see the point of offending that many billion people at once.
II. â€œThou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.â€ This would outlaw not only all art, religious or secular, but all photographs, textbook illustrations, etc. We would have to teach medicine without pictures, program our digital clocks without diagrams. (It also of course strictly prohibits gold-plated commemorative pins of the Ten Commandments.) As much as I would like to outlaw TV, this seems extreme.
III. â€œThou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain.â€ This outlaws, depending on your belief system, swearing, praying, and/or using â€œGodâ€ on money. I could get behind this one, but again, why make that many enemies?
IV. â€œRemember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. . . . Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work.â€ This would make Saturday the Sabbath in America, since the ten commandments are a Jewish document. It would also make the 5-day work week illegal. I like the idea of a day of rest and no shopping, but Iâ€™d fight for a shorter workweek before a longer one.
Obviously, Iâ€™m being flip, but I don’t intend to offend. I’m sure the folks who want the U.S. to â€œfollowâ€ the Ten Commandments don’t intend to offend, either. They just want to feel safe, to feel they understand their kids and their neighbors and the world better, and to feel they belong in an evolving culture. But by forcing a discussion that should go on in churches and religious history classes into politics, Ten Commandments proponents force us all either to offend each other or to violate our deepest convictions by keeping silent.
So how â€™bout it: â€œThe Six Commandments Commissionâ€”Canâ€™t We All Just Get Along?â€
We’ve been watching the miniseries “Angels in America.” It begins in 1985, in New York City. In 1985, in New York City, my summer job was in retail. One afternoon one of my work friends asked me to do him a favor: run across the street and pick up his prescriptions from the drugstore. I said sure, and then he handed me a paper bag stuffed with money. The prescriptions cost over $300, and it didn’t look like a lot of pills: maybe a week’s worth. His asking me to run that errand was the closest he ever came to saying “I have AIDS,” and I never asked him anything more than “How are you?”–And we all know the answer to that must be “Fine,” even when you’re dying. I went off to college and my friend went to the hospital and never came out. I never visited him. I think I was too young to believe that young, handsome, wonderful people die. And I was afraid. Not of catching his disease (I knew better than that), but of seeing him sick, of remembering him as sick, afterward.
There was a time I was afraid of dying people, the way you’re afraid to crawl out on a weak tree branch–because it’ll take you down with it when it falls. But it doesnâ€™t work like that. If anything, youâ€™re left hovering in midair.
I miss my friend. I miss all the moments I missed with him, beautiful or ugly.
My partner, Bill, and I have been together as a couple for almost ten years. We have known each other for almost fourteen. We have lived together for seven. Yet the local YMCA does not consider us a family–as we discovered when we went to sign up for membership. So we joined another local gym, one that does not insist on the magic word “married” to define a family. And it has a nicer pool.
Bill and I decided several years ago that we will enjoy our wedding more when all the couples we know who want to can marry. So we have decided not to legally marry until gay and lesbian couples can marry across the U.S. As a straight unmarried couple, we aren’t targets of homophobia, obviously, but we are getting educated about some of the many legal and social problems faced by gay couples in America.
Gym membership is annoying, but health insurance can be a matter of life and death. We are lucky in that I work for an organization that supports both LGBTQ rights and Bill and my standing as a family, but it’s difficult to find an insurance company with similar values. Apparently, sometimes you cannot even pay companies to be ethical. A good overview of the rights automatically granted married couples can be found at http://www.marriageequality.org. A couple can approximate some of these rights by compiling a stack of separate legal documents such as health proxies. But it’s rather inconvenient to carry around a stack of documents–a ring is much more portable. Because Bill and I are an opposite-sex couple, we could always lie and claim to be married–if one of us were in the hospital, for instance. Same-sex couples don’t have that loophole.
Because we have been lucky so far, what rankles are the small things: the phone company charges extra for two names in the phone book; the Peace Corps “cannot guarantee placement in the same country of couples who are not legally married” (that would be a very big thing if we were considering the Corps). Every time I have to choose between “married” and “single” on a check-off form I have to choose between two forms of fraud: legal or emotional. So now whenever I can I add a box for “partner” and check it.
Many municipalities, such as the City of St Louis, allow couples of any sex to register as domestic partners, and possibly get some rights from that, although such “rights” are by whim of the employer/company/school/etc. and can be taken away at any time–very reassuring when you are trying to plan as a family. There are usually strict criteria to determine if two people are a couple. Usually, you have to have been together for a certain amount of time, declare your commitment as a couple, use words such as “spouse” for each other, and show financial interdependence. At the very least. You can view the City of St. Louis form at
What I find curious about this is, if I were to wake up some morning in Vegas, with a wicked hangover, married to a Chippendales dancer whose name I didn’t know, we would instantly have over a thousand rights as a couple, and no one would dare question how long we had been together, if we had a true and deep commitment, if we owned a home, or whether we called each other “husband” and “wife” or “whatsyername.”
Making a lifetime commitment to another person is nothing to laugh about–it’s the most serious, difficult, and ethical thing we do in our lives. But it’s the feeling when the two of you are together that should be magical; not the word “married.” When I marry couples, I am not waving a magic wand over them–I’m helping them share with their community the reality of their relationship. How others can deny the reality of millions of gay and lesbian couples in America is beyond me.
These blogs are from the Society Leader – Kate Lovelady – and others in the lay leadership of our Society.
America shall introduce a pure religion. There will be a new church, founded on moral science; at first cold and naked, a babe in a manger again, the algebra and mathematics of ethical law, the church of those to come, without shawls or psaltery or sackbut; but it will have heaven and earth for its beams and rafters, science for symbol and illustration; it will fast enough gather beauty, music, picture, poetry.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1838
The crying need was for a religious organization that should be above all else active in social, political, educational and moral reform. Thus the ethical movement had its genesis. Yet, mark you, it did not represent an attempt to find a substitute for religion in philanthropic activities and moral education. On the contrary, it started with the hope of finding a satisfying religion.
— Alfred W. Martin, Ethical Leader, 1913
Mysticism, but let us have no words,
Angels, but let us have no fantasies,
Churches, but let us have no creeds,
And yet let us believe.
— Conrad Aiken, from Time in the Rock
The religious life is the one in which there is a constant effort to link oneself, in joy and contribution, to the life-giving movements of one’s world.
— Harry Overstreet, The Mature Mind
There is a story about a renowned speaker who is asked to speak to a learned society. When they gathered for this speech, people were very eager and enthusiastic, waiting to hear what would be said. The speaker got up and began by saying, “I would like to see the hands of those who know what I am going to say.” Nobody raised their hand. He said, “Well, if there is not some sense in which the essence of what I am going to talk about is already inside you, there is no need for me to try to tell you about it.” And he sat down.
They decided to ask him back. I don’t know whether they were liking the brevity of the talk that he gave — but anyway they decided to ask him back. When he came back they were ready this time. He got up and said, “Before I begin I would like to know how many of you here know what I am going to say.” Everybody raised their hand. He responded, “Well, if you already know, there’s no need for me to say anything,” and sat down.
Persistent group that they were, they invited him back for a third time. This time they had talked with each other and they were prepared. So he got up again and started with that same question. “I would like to have you raise your hand if you know what I’m going to say and don’t raise your hand if you don’t know.” Well, they had arranged that half of them would raise their hand. They thought, “Now we’ve got him.” He looked around and he said, “Well, it looks like about half the group knows and about half do not. So those of you who know tell those of you who don’t.” And he sat back down. They did not invite him again.
It is my assumption that in choosing to talk about the distinctiveness of Ethical Culture, I am talking about something that many of you know something about the essence of — that it exists deep already within you. And at the same time it is my hope that this talk will clarity our identity.
I want to begin by going back to the opening reading from Alfred Martin saying that Ethical Culture is not a substitute for religion, but rather it is intended to be a means to a satisfying religion. I want to make it clear that by talking about the distinctiveness of Ethical Culture, I am not suggesting a superiority of Ethical Culture. People choose what is right for them. Nor is this a polemic against anybody else. Nor is it a talk of self-satisfaction about how great we are. I chose this topic because I think it is helpful for us to clarify who we are and to justify for ourselves why this Ethical Culture approach makes sense to us.
There are seven things I want to say that are for me the essence of Ethical Culture and its distinctiveness.
First of all Ethical Culture puts character above creed. It reverses the historic role of most religions, which have a creed and then put a deed to it. Our individual creeds, and even our joint common creeds, come out of moral experience. They have to do with how one best shapes character. They have to do with the essence first of all, with what we do, who we are, and then out of what seems to be for us the most reasonable, rational experienced approach. It’s true that it comes in some sense out of Judaism. And that’s not just an accident, because in Hebrew you have a great emphasis on verbs, on action. There are very few adjectives but lots of verbs in Hebrew. And in Judaism, one of the great words is the word davar, which is “word”. But “word” in Hebrew (davar) means: “It is spoken but it is as good as done.” There is no separation between a creed and a deed — between a word spoken and what that person is and does. So in that sense, there is a way in which Ethical Culture is indebted to Judaism, I think more than any other traditional religion. So first of all, character comes above creed.
Secondly, Ethical Culture says that ethics is primary. It gives supremacy to the issue of moral ends and behavior. It is not subordinated to any other end. There is nothing else of the same importance as ethics in the life, the talk, the community, and the work of Ethical Culture.
I’m going to give an example that occurred in the paper Friday. I do it not to be negative about another group, but to show a distinction. Here I’m specifically referring to Catholicism, which I have a great deal of respect for in three particular ways.
One, it has never claimed too little territory — and I mean that in a positive sense. It has never said, “Oh in those four areas, do whatever you want.” I may not always agree with the stance that’s pushed, but there is an understanding that there is no area of human life that Catholicism doesn’t think relates to who it is, what it is, and what it has to say.
Secondly, it is a much more diverse body than most religious groups with a great many people who are poor and middle class as a part of it. It is not a church in which its membership is among the rich only, or even the comfortable.
And third, in the forty some years that I’ve been involved in social actions, I have always found when I have gathered on some barricade, there are Catholic priests, nuns, and members, who will be on that barricade line for social justice as often or more so than any other group.
So I’m not by using this example in any way trying to reflect negatively. I’m trying to show by this example how the emphasis on moral ends should be primary.
There is an article in the paper on Friday about a young girl by the name of Haley Waldman. She’s an eight-year old girl from New Jersey, who suffers from the rare digestive disorder, in which she cannot eat wheat or anything that contains gluten. When she had her first holy communion, the wafer contained no wheat, and this communion was ruled invalid. She really, they said, didn’t have communion because she didn’t have wheat in the wafer. Now there’s something wrong when it gets to the point where the ingredients in something are more important than the motivation of or sensitivity toward a human being. In Ethical Culture we can also fail in these ways by how we function. But it is at least the assumption that in ethics, sensitivity and compassion are the way one should function and this behavior is primary.
Third, Ethical Culture is non-theistic. Not anti-theistic, not pro-theistic, it is non-theistic. It takes a neutral stance. It specializes in morality apart from theology, and leaves the theology to the individual person, and therefore is neutral on metaphysical ideas. Moral obligation has precedence — not any theology, not any doctrine — and the independence of morality comes from a rich belief in human possibilities and progress.
Fourth, Ethical Culture is based on a community of freedom and responsibility, free of all non-essential requirements and committed only to that morality that all accept. Now, conflicts in ideals exist among our members — and should — because we are unique human beings and in fact diversity should be encouraged. Alfred Martin, when he gave a talk in 1913, referred to this diversity of opinion as “a chaos of ethical convictions.” And if you’re in a discussion in the Ethical Society very long, where people aren’t intimidated in some way, you will soon find there are all kinds of varieties of opinions. If there are twelve in a room, there are probably at least thirteen ideas. So there is this diversity of thought and respect for differences, and there is a searching for common ground in spite of it.
I asked people who had gone to the summer school to share with me what they saw of the distinctiveness of Ethical Culture. Several of them responded. Ed Carty made a point of especially talking about this diversity of thought, this respect for differences, and the search for common ground. But he did so also with a recognition and a regret that sometimes there isn’t enough of that here — that sometimes there’s a kind of attitude that you ought to be a part of one political party, or one philosophy, and that sometimes we make an assumption that ethics has to do with a particular political viewpoint. It doesn’t.
Now I have my own opinions and I think there are issues about justice that I speak about and that others should as well, but a person can disagree with me politically with integrity and be a person of integrity. I expect them to do so honestly. I have to say sometimes I see that certainly wanting in the political realm, but I do believe that we need to honor the integrity of people who have a varying view from what the majority of our members might hold.
Fifth, Ethical Culture lays exceptional stress on moral education. This includes a recognition that we never finish the learning process, that learning is an imperative. It is the nature of who we ought to be as human beings, to be in the process of learning. We recognize we are always incomplete in our ideas. They need to be challenged. We can through dialogue actually change what we may think. This aids in ever expanding our knowledge. None of us has “arrived”.
Moral education includes the principle of “shared inquiry”. We’re all in the process of learning. We all have something to teach each other. Because of this respect for human beings, this affirming of human worth, everybody has something to add to that discussion, when it is done with respect and dignity. Moral education is a task ongoing for life.
Sixth, we are a living tradition. We emphasize ongoing experience, and where we differ from most religions, is that they will talk about tradition, reason, experience, and revelation as the four tenants or underlying basis for the beliefs they have. Ethical Culture puts the emphasis on reason, on tradition, on experience, on intuition. There is no assumption of a final or external revelation.
Julian Huxley put it this way:
The essential of all this is that religion is an activity which suffers change like all other human activities; that it may change for the better or the worse; that if it stands still and refuses to change, when other human activities are changing, then the standing still is itself a change for the worse; that as it grows, it cannot avoid coming into contact both with intellectual and with moral or ethical problems and that with the development of human experience and tradition religion becomes inevitably preoccupied with the intellectual comprehension of our relation to the universe, and with the attainment of coherent and unified moral life, as well as with its more original quest for emotional satisfaction in the sphere of the holy.
Alfred Martin wrote:
When Brunelleschi, the famous Florentine architect, successfully competed for the construction of the dome of the cathedral in Florence, he closed his series of specifications for the structure with the following significant suggestion, “When the dome shall have reached the height of fifty-seven feet, that is just before the dome was to be closed in, let the master builders then in charge of the work determine what the next step is to be.” For Brunelleschi said, “Practice teaches us what the next step to be taken shall be.”
So in constructing the dome for the cathedral of the moral life, Martin writes, experience is our teacher, practice in moral architecture our basis of decision as to how we shall implement and supplement the moral principles transmitted from the past. Thus there is this very real sense, he writes, in which practice precedes theory. To know the spiritual meaning of love, one must live the life of love. Only by doing the will does one know the doctrine. We of the Ethical movement take our stand with Brunelleschi. We believe that by striving to get into right relations with our fellow human beings, we will find just what these relations ought to be. By working toward an ideal of justice in social and in business life, we shall learn what the true ideal really is. By experiencing in the deeper contents of the moral life we shall approximate adequate statements of the moral ideal.
The seventh statement or idea of Ethical Culture that I think makes it distinctive is that while we are deeply concerned in participating in social causes, while we are devoted to betterment of the world in which we live, we understand we cannot simply be involved in betterment. We must seek the best, in our motivation as well as our actions. Internal improvement is necessary. There has to be some way in which the spirit behind all true morality continually is affecting us. There is a need for humility and for self-monitoring.
One of the things I’ve always felt like we should have in Ethical Culture, which almost every religion, traditional or otherwise has, is some role for recognizing and stating our failures, frailties and shortcomings. Now, I’m not suggesting we should have a prayer of confession each Sunday, but it seems to me it would behoove us to have some form to recognize the ways we fail, individually and as a community. Felix Adler talked about how we have not yet developed a group ethic. I still don’t think we have such an ethic to the level that we should.
Carl Romano wrote me a note filled with wonderful comments. He talked about Ethical Culture being a place with no rules, no sacraments, no guiding text. We are a place where our practice evolves. And then he makes a little parenthetical statement: “Ethical Culture may be as difficult to move in a new direction as a herd of cats, but change is part of the plan.” Carl talked about our similarity to other religions. We promote loving, certainly as Christ did, and compassion, certainly as Buddha did. We form and we cherish community. We promote values that transcend the material world. We promote values that transcend selfishness. We seek to promote the wellbeing of others.
Kathy Kammien mentioned one of the things she heard at summer school about our distinctiveness. “We don’t offer meaning, we provide a path to meaningfulness.” We each individually have to find a meaning, but we offer a process, a way towards meaning.
David Worden of the Dorset, England, Humanist Association had a very illuminating article on humanism in the Ethical Record, which is the monthly newsletter of the London South Ethical Society. It’s not actually a part of Ethical Culture at this point, but it’s been around longer than any of the societies, before Felix Adler in fact founded Ethical Culture, and continues ethical emphasis in its programming. But he listed some ideas that are central to humanism which I think are also central to us: personal autonomy for every person, the necessity of critical reasoning, morality seen as a human construction, the potential of growth to full potential for each person, a humanist spirituality that responds to and satisfies primal needs, and seeing life as having no purpose or meaning already set but rather we make it for ourselves. And to his, I added, the necessity of community life for becoming our best selves, which he did not include.
There are some propositions he made about humanism, four of them that I also want to make about Ethical Culture:
Ethics is bigger than Ethical Culture. We call this place “The Ethical Society.” It’s easy for people to misunderstand what we are saying by that. It can be read as “the people who gather here are the ethical people.” But that’s not what’s meant. It’s “The Society for Ethical Culture,” not “The Society of Ethical Culture.” We are a group seeking to be ethical and using ethics as a means to be our best selves. We have not arrived and ethics is bigger than Ethical Culture. There are lots of people who have been offended, and rightly so, if they’ve thought that we see ourselves as more ethical than the rest of them in some other religious tradition. That’s not what Ethical Culture is about.
Organized Ethical Culture is just the tip of the iceberg. The yearning for the good, the practice of the ethical is present in the world in many ways, and though we continue to remain a very, very small group, many of the things that Ethical Culture stood for, in its 125 years plus, have become reality. And in some sense, we’ve had influence way beyond our numbers, as people who have been part of the Society and the movement know.
Third, organized Ethical Societies are not doing very well. We are continuing as a movement to lose members, have fewer funds, and need to find ways of making ourselves better known.
And finally, organized Ethical Societies often are not doing very well because they are fragmented, although much less so in this Society. I’ve sensed none of the cliquish political groups at each other’s throats here as I have in some other places in the Ethical movement, and I think it speaks very highly of the St. Louis Society and of the community spirit that exists here.
One of the reasons we are not doing very well is because we lack clarity about who we are. We have seen ourselves as the “ethical people” over against realizing we are part of an ethical process that other people are too, and this particular community is the one that supports us and helps us in our ethical search and struggle.
It’s easy to get into jargon, no matter what religious group you are a part of. You can get into sayings or ideas that are uniquely your own, yet strange sounding to others. I’ll give you an example from the days when I was a Southern Baptist. There is a little boy who had been out playing in the garage and he had found a rat. Unknown to him the minister had come to call at their house and the mother was sitting in the living room talking to the minister. The little boy came running in, throwing open the door, not noticing the minister, and saying, “Mommy, there was a rat in the garage and I’ve got him in the corner and I took my baseball bat and I hit him and I hit him and I hit him.” Then he turned and saw the minister. He stopped abruptly and then, with his eyes lifted toward the heavens he piously spoke these words: “And then God called him home.” We all have our jargon and we have it in Ethical Culture too and wherever it exists it always gets in the way of our being our best selves.
I close with words of Felix Adler, the founder of Ethical Culture in his book, Our Part in this World.
What Ethical religion can particularly hope to give, is a firm sense of direction in all human effort toward fuller realization of the spiritual nature. It can help people to better estimate themselves and thereby help counteract the pain that derives from the sense of human insignificance in this wide universe, and from the confusion of standards in the relation to society. It can point to the supreme experience of seeing the divine light in the face of another person, and having the light reflected upon our own faces. For to touch the spiritual quick in the life of others and to have the experience of its effect upon our own life, this then, is the supreme experience. The conviction of spiritual community that can grow out of this experience is sufficient to bring people serene peace amid their battles and torments.
Ethical Culture is indeed not a substitute for religion. It offers a satisfying religion for those of us who adhere to it and seek to live by it.
I began thinking about rules when the House of Representatives in North Carolina, where I live, passed legislation allowing the posting of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms. In addition to my concerns about the threat to American liberty posed by public schools advocating a particular religion, I began to think about what rules are important to me. This morning I will speak about rules for living, where they come from and how to get them.
I first spoke from this Platform in 1970. I was a member of the Sunday School graduating class. The words that I spoke are lost to posterity. However, I remember their substance. At that time I decried the lack of opportunities to engage in Ethical Social Action through the Society — but that is not my topic today. They say that you can’t go back. Heraclitus wrote:
No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.
Indeed I am not the same man that I was then. Like the river, I continue to flow and change, as we all do. In my middle years I have looked to my Ethical Culture religious roots and found an abundance of nourishment. Nourishment from reflection and exploring ideas. Nourishment from sharing with others. And nourishment from belonging to a caring community, openly exploring and striving to understand and help, in a modest way, to improve the human condition. My re-immersion in Ethical Culture has allowed me the luxury of exploring the great thoughts of others. I have found that this process changes me. Immanuel Kant said that two things filled his mind with awe and wonder: the starry heavens above and the moral law within. For many years I was inspired by “the starry heavens above”, looking toward Science and Reason for self-knowledge. I still do. More recently I have started to include Moral Philosophy in my search for wisdom and meaning.
What do I mean by Moral Philosophy? The word Moral sounds almost puritanical or prudish. It conjures up images of noble suffering and self-denial. It seems outdated. But it isn’t. Moral Philosophy is about ethics. It is about how we go about determining what is right. Well, how do we determine what is right? John Shelby Spong, who retired as the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, told us where not to look for ethical guidance in his book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die:
One cannot speak cogently to the ethical concerns of this generation by quoting two-thousand-to-four-thousand-year old authorities who claim to represent God’s final word on these subjects.
Since I happen to agree with Bishop Spong, I must ask: Where do my morals and ethics come from if I do not accept scripture as divine revelation?
Since I do not draw on external authority, instead, I look inside of myself, down into the depths of my humanity. I look deep inside and I ask myself: What do I truly value? What inspires me? What brings me happiness? What connects me to others, to nature, to the environment? What enhances my life and spirit? What is beautiful and good? What makes me who I am? This inward exercise produces an ethics based on the experience of humanness, on connections with others and experience with the world.
This ethics developed from within is pure — freely chosen, based on my own search for happiness, caring for others and promoting the common good. However, such an ethical system cannot be developed in isolation. I recognize that I am not an isolated individual. I am engaged in relationships that sustain me: relationships with my family, with communities, and the global community — relationships with nature and the earth. These relationships are critical to developing ethics. An internal ethics is without meaning unless it is acted upon in connection with others. It is in this interaction with others that ethics are tested, challenged, and improved. It is through this process of social interchange that moral progress is possible.
So what do I find when I look inside myself for my ethical foundations? Because I am looking within myself, is my ethics, at its core, based on “self-interest”? This is what Ayn Rand found when she looked for an ethical foundation. Her Objectivist Ethics starts and ends with self-interest. Self-interest determines what is right, moral and good. Competing self-interests determine what is right for society. Right, therefore, is determined by the ability to exercise power. It’s like the old joke about the Golden Rule — Whoever has the gold makes the rules. I cannot accept a philosophy that rejects altruism.
The ethics based on power and “might makes right” is a horror that I strive to oppose. History has demonstrated time and time again that power seduces and corrupts. It is one of our human failings to willingly exploit others. For me, an ethics based on self-interest is woefully inadequate. I must look to other foundations for my Moral Philosophy.
Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, uses the goal of happiness as the starting point for his ethical thought. When the Dalai Lama looked inward, he found an ethic based on happiness and compassion. He wrote in The Art of Happiness:
In generating compassion, you start by recognizing that you do not want suffering and that you have a right to have happiness. This can be verified or validated by your own experience. You then recognize that other people, just like yourself, also do not want to suffer and that they have the right to have happiness. So this becomes the basis of your beginning to generate compassion. We begin, then, with the basic premise that the purpose of our life is to seek happiness. It is a vision of happiness as a real objective, one that we can take positive steps toward achieving. And as we begin to identify factors that lead to a happier life, we will learn how the search for happiness offers benefits not only for the individual but for the individual’s family and for society at large as well.
The Dalai Lama touches on how an internal ethical search grows outward and extends to relations with others. In this way happiness naturally extends to encompass others, to develop an ethics based on compassion and empathy for others.
Felix Adler’s internal search found that human worth was of primary importance to developing ethics. Human worth and dignity formed his ethical foundation. He wrote in The Religion of Duty in 1908:
Every person has inherent worth and is unique. We affirm the dignity and worth of all human beings, however different their abilities and backgrounds. Worth is independent of the idea of value. Value is dependent on the contribution a person makes to society while worth exists independent of one’s contribution. From the idea of universal human worth flows the right of every person to food, shelter, clothing, health, safety, education, work, play, respect, and affection. Every person is unique and different, and the development of each person is related to nurturing their distinct qualities and talents.
This is how ethical values are developed from within and combined with the ethics of others into something greater. John Shelby Spong wrote on how a type of ethical objectivity could emerge from this process. He suggested that there is an objective wrongness in seeking to cause or increase pain in another life. This wrongness serves to place limits on the exercise of individual freedom. Other objective ethical values identified by Spong are the value of increasing knowledge and the wrongness of continuing to defend or continue to act on the basis of one’s ignorance. The essence of what he is saying is that we must look at the consequences of our actions to determine if they are right. The results of actions on all those affected are what is used to determine if an action is right or not. Such an approach is called utilitarianism or consequentialism. This approach makes sense to me.
Looking at the consequences requires me to find, as the Dalai Lama does, that I must consider the interests of others as well as myself. I must replace self-interest with universal interests. In accepting that ethical judgments must be made from a universal point of view, I am accepting that my own interests cannot, simply because they are my interests, count more than the interests of anyone else. I believe that to think ethically, I cannot refuse to take this step. To think ethically, I must put the interests of others in my ethical equation. Yet ethics is more than just an equation. It is not hard to consider situations where the balancing of interests can cause unacceptable violations of a particular person’s interests. For example, extreme violations of one individual to provide a small benefit to many may not be such a good idea.
I favor a modified version of consequentialism. The addition of foundational values can provide a framework in which to evaluate consequences and make ethical decisions. I choose to add Felix Adler’s concept of intrinsic human worth as the framework for my consequentionalist ethical model. This limits my willingness to violate one person’s worth to benefit others.
Consideration of the effects decisions and actions have on others is not always easy. Often, imperfect knowledge makes it impossible. So why do I bother to try and determine what is the right thing to do? Why make the effort to look beyond my own self-interest? For me, looking at questions of what is right is part of my religious practice. It is part of how I practice Ethical Culture. It is a necessary part of trying to live a life consistent with my values. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. This approach rings true with me. Inspired by Socrates, I struggle to examine my life and the rightness of my actions.
So what are the rules? Before proceeding further, I want to share two cautionary statements. Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier, said that rules are made for people who aren’t willing to make their own. I encourage you all to make your own rules. Of course, you are free to adopt mine. Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, wrote:
There is a theory that states that if anyone discovers exactly what the universe is for and why it’s here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
Therefore, I will try not to be too comprehensive. Before I share my rules, I want to acquaint you with the Mars Colony Rules.
The North Carolina Society for Ethical Culture meets in a Community Arts Center which we rent on Sunday mornings. We hold our Platforms in a large atrium with beautiful art exhibits on the walls. Sometimes the art is truly beautiful and enhances the experience of our meetings. Other times the art is more bizarre and aesthetically challenging. Always, the art shines as an expression of the human creative spirit. One summer Sunday I came in to find that the exhibit on the walls was from a Mars Millennium Project Summer Camp for children. Included in the art and other displays on the walls were these proposed rules for the camp’s Martian Colony, developed by some of the children attending the camp:
RULES FOR OUR MARS COLONY
- Be nice to each other.
- Help people.
- Be nice to people.
Thou shalt not injure nor harm thy neighbors. — Jake
- Be honest to other people.
- Respect yourself and others.
- Be responsible for all your stuff.
- Care for others.
- No weapons.
- No hitting, punching or kicking.
- Be nice to other people.
- No smoking.
I chose these rules to illustrate that ethics and moral philosophy are not arcane knowledge found only in the realm of philosophers. Eight-year-olds have a knack for it, too. They have opinions about right behavior and are capable of evaluating their actions.
Now for some of my rules. I like the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Its sensible reciprocity is appealing. Yet it doesn’t seem to go far enough. The restatement of the Golden Rule in the Christian tradition goes one step further. I find “Love your neighbor as yourself” to be more pro-active. It starts to break down the barriers that separate us. Felix Adler’s restatement of the Golden Rule takes it one step further. His version is to act so as to elicit the best in others and thereby elicit the best in yourself. Adler’s version is pro-active. It requires us to cultivate the best that is in each other. It sees the best expression of our own personality is dependent on helping to develop others. It requires us to see others’ interests as equal to our own.
But the rule I really like the best is “: Everyone can play.” It goes even further. I first encountered a version of this rule when I heard Vivian Paley give a keynote address at a conference on “Moral Education in a Diverse Society”. Ms. Paley, a winner of a MacArthur “Genius” Award, spoke about her experience implementing a new rule, “You can’t say you can’t play”, at the University of Chicago Lab School. This rule had a profound affect on the school. This mandate of inclusion let everyone participate. Many of these children had never been included before.
It was a brilliant application of consequentialist ethics. The benefits to the self-esteem of those who were usually left out outweighed the limits imposed on the freedom of those who previously exercised the ability to exclude. Benefits also were experienced by these “excluders” as they came to realize that everyone has rights and feelings deserving of respect. Rather than saying, “You can’t say you can’t play”, I prefer a positive restatement of this principle, “Everyone can play.” “Everyone can play” has benefits in the school setting but I believe that it has broader implications.
- Everyone can play means that everyone should be heard.
- Everyone can play means that everyone has a right to participate and the right to what is needed to participate: food, shelter, education, employment, and political participation.
- Everyone can play means that we must take care of our environment so that there is a place to play for future generations.
My “everyone can play” rule has other, global implications. We live in the wealthiest nation on earth and we are not good at sharing. The United States is part of a global community. We share the benefits and the responsibilities that come with belonging to that community. The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population, yet we consume over 25% of the world’s resources. If the entire world consumed resources at the average consumption level of a citizen of the U.S., we would need four earths to support us all! When you take a hard look at it, we aren’t letting everyone play.
I believe that we have a moral obligation to open our circle so that others can play, too. This obligation means that we should use our wealth and resources for development, not destruction. Our foreign policy should help feed the world, not arm it. For this change to occur, first we must change ourselves, our society and our government. We must change ourselves by reducing our own consumption in order to share our bounty with others. We must change our society to recognize that continuing to consume more and more is morally unacceptable. We must change our government to one that promotes peace, education, and human rights abroad, not violence, suffering and narrow self-interest. We must change in order to make the ethic of human worth real. I ask you today to reflect on what I have said and consider making a commitment to change. Think about letting everyone play.
A fictional narrative exploring several key philosophical issues surrounding the morality of suicide
My name is Joshua. It is three o’clock on a pale and quiet Sunday afternoon in October. I have just attended the funeral of a childhood friend who had committed suicide because of a breakup with his longtime girlfriend. I had been out of touch with him for years, but this tragedy compelled me to join in sympathy with the mourners. I am heading home now, walking alone through the cemetery and into the neighboring park, and experiencing the strangest sense of displacement; I feel as though I’ve lost my equilibrium; I am even having difficulty feeling the ground beneath my footsteps. What could have led my old friend to such an act? How could it have been prevented? And how will his family deal with this tragedy? In the midst of these confused thoughts, I remember the words of the preacher at the funeral, who, despite taking all care to give comfort and hope to the bereaved, gave several brief but pointed words on the immorality of my friend’s suicide. I can recall them clearly. He said,
My brothers and sisters, even in the midst of this time of trial it is of the greatest importance to keep in mind that it is not for man to decide the time of life and death. These are the special province of the Lord above, the creator and sustainer of all things on Earth, and the author of all goodness. It belongs to God alone to pronounce sentence on these matters, for as the Lord says in Deuteronomy Chapter 32, verse 39, “I will kill and I will make to live.” We who remain in His service, while keeping hope that those who go astray will again live in Your sight in Heaven, must remember that self-destruction, even in times of greatest trial, is always a sin against the will of God and the community of the faithful. It is our privilege to have been given life by God, and it is our obligation to God to maintain that life, until He should call us back to Him.
Yes, I remember it very clearly. And I remember almost all of those who attended the funeral nodding at the preacher’s words. But I was not so inclined; for though my friend’s rash suicide is certainly a great tragedy, surely the issues surrounding the morality of suicide cannot be dealt with in such a summary fashion, by reference to an obscure passage in a holy book, or even by the common belief of society. I am but in college; and my formal study of philosophy is still in its beginning stages, but I have already learned enough to know that one cannot expect to achieve truth through an uncritical acceptance of societal beliefs, no matter how common or seemingly intuitive. Issues of this depth and importance require patient and critical reflection into the reasoning given for judgments about them, and as a student of philosophy, I see that this is my task now regarding the issue of suicide. And so I pause for a moment in my walk home; and I state the question to myself unambiguously: what is the moral status of intentionally taking one’s life?
Pausing to sit on a bench beside a pond in the park, I see an old woman painting on the other shore, and I am sharply reminded of the other reason this issue is of such importance to me. Only last week, my grandfather, himself an artist, and a very old man, asked my family for permission to end his life. Although at first shocked and dismayed — for I love my grandfather dearly — I have come, through the past several days, to accept that I must give careful thought to his situation; it is the least I can do for one whom I admire so much. And his situation is extraordinary. It is true that he is very old; but he is not dying of a terminal disease or undergoing intense physical suffering. He is not facing severe mental degeneration or dementia; he is not even in a state of profound sorrow. He is in full command of his faculties, and has given the thought of his own death careful and deliberate attention — he now feels that it is his time to pass on and he asks for his family’s permission — and my permission — to do so. But before I can come to consider this incredible request, the question, so strongly punctuated by today’s funeral, cries out to be answered: can this action of intentionally ending one’s life be moral, requiring understanding and acceptance, or is this unequivocally an action of selfishness and immorality, requiring blame? Although I have not yet come to the answers I seek, I feel strongly one thing. The account of my friend’s rash, despairing suicide, compared with my grandfather’s considered and even peaceful desire to be the author of his own death, means that this issue will most likely not be decided by black and white, absolute pronouncements, but must take into account the specific nature of the case in order to judge it correctly.
Having decided at last to undertake this inquiry, I must try to bring some order to it. The little study that I have done in medieval philosophy now comes to mind, and I remember that Thomas Aquinas gave three principal reasons why suicide should be judged as immoral:
(i) First, because it violates our moral obligation to God;
(ii) Second, because it violates our moral obligation to other people;
(iii) And lastly, because it violates our moral obligation to ourselves.
Our moral obligations to God, to others, and to ourselves. A condemnation of suicide would involve showing a violation of one or more of these obligations; and a defense of suicide would either have to show these obligations to be false, or to show cases in which one can maintain these obligations, and still intentionally end one’s life.
First then: the idea of suicide as a violation of our moral obligation to God. Once again the preacher’s words return to mind: “It belongs to God alone to pronounce sentence on life and death… self-destruction, even in times of greatest trial, is always a sin against the will of God.” What to make of this claim? Mulling over this, I reflect that it is very understandable that religious believers would feel themselves fully justified in giving a universal condemnation of suicide for that very reason; but conversely, it is just as understandable that I would find absolutely no force in such reasoning, for I do not believe that God exists. I was raised in the humanist tradition, but not dogmatically; I have come to this position on my own. Certainly my parents explained their humanistic and atheistic beliefs to me, but they always made it very clear that I was to judge the matter for myself when I felt ready. I have considered the matter thoroughly, and I have come to share their convictions. I believe that in all likelihood these ideas of gods and goddesses, and heaven, and hell, and supernatural realms of divine beings, and so forth — these ideas were created by us, by humans, when we were still in our intellectual infancy, to explain a world that we didn’t understand. And bolstered by time, tradition, and institutionalization, supernatural religion has become a powerful societal force, there is no doubt of that; but no amount of social power can give religious beliefs objective validity if they were at first the product of human ignorance trying to explain the unknown by positing the agency of supernatural persons. These matters are very deep, but I have considered them at great length, and so I do not feel that it is necessary at this moment to laboriously go over them once more.
I would hope not to be misunderstood; I have no animosity towards most religious believers; and I greatly appreciate the influence they have had — and still have — towards the establishment of a moral society; but if my perspective is correct, and the idea of a god is a fiction invented by humans — then it is all the more important to put my trust in what I do believe in, what I must believe in: the human species of which I am a member. Arguments for the immorality of suicide based on the moral will of God have no validity if God does not exist. But Aquinas’ second claim then arises all the more forcefully: what are my obligations to my fellow humans, and how do they reflect upon the morality of suicide? This question, I realize, is of the utmost importance for correctly judging the issue, and it promises also to be one of the most difficult.
Standing up from the park bench where I have been ruminating over these matters, I decide that it is time to broach the subject with an authority. Normally I would seek out my parents, but it is unlikely that they can discuss this issue now with the kind of objectivity that responsible philosophy requires. Instead I will seek out my mentor at the university, the professor of philosophy and Englishman, Dr. Nigel Brace.
I reach the university by four o’clock — I can hear the town’s church bells ringing the hour. I find Dr. Brace working in his study, preparing a lecture for his political philosophy course. He is just the person with whom to discuss this issue, being acutely interested in social affairs, and being himself a well-educated humanist. Sitting beside him, I apologize for the interruption, and, after talking briefly about my friend’s funeral — and receiving his sincere condolences — I proceed to ask for his help in my inquiry into the morality of suicide — without, however, mentioning my grandfather’s situation. Specifically, I tell him, I want to understand whether or not the presence of obligations to others — to family and to community — always makes suicide an immoral act, or whether there are extenuating circumstances that might provide suicide with a moral justification, even in the face of social obligations? Dr. Brace is at once keenly interested in this inquiry, and he launches into dialogue with me, as I had hoped.
“It seems to me,” he begins, “that we will not be able to answer this question without some notion of who or what it is that holds moral authority in society. For once we have a clear idea of the source of societal moral authority, we can hopefully discover some kind of standard by which to judge the issue.”
I agree with this immediately, for it seems to me very sensible. If we are going to discover the morality of suicide in relation to society, we will need to reference some kind of social moral authority to judge the issue. But I hasten to share my doubts with Dr. Brace as to the possibility of finding this social moral authority. Surely, I say, it would not have been difficult to do so in many of the past centuries, dominated as they were with the teachings of the Church. In past times, it seems as though it would have been a much simpler matter of discovering the Church’s stance on the issue, and allowing that to stand as the established social moral authority. And in fact this approach remains pervasive today. But if God does not exist, then the question of social moral authority immediately becomes much less clear. To my thinking, I continue, it seems that our greatest hope for societal progress now lies within a humanistic philosophy: one which accepts the fact that our species must rely solely upon itself for the progress it makes; and moreover, it seems that progress in humanistic social philosophy can only be made on the principle of the equal worth of each individual. But if this is accurate — if in fact we are to understand human society from a humanistic point of view, as a collection of individuals of equal worth — the problem becomes acute. What is the source of a common social moral authority? Without overarching commands from the divine, we are left to ourselves to create the society we want. And yet if we are to accept the principle of the equal worth of all individuals, then how can we find a common moral authority? For will we not descend into a relativism of the worst kind, with each individual deciding for themselves what they will accept as moral or immoral? And if this is the case, I say, it seems that we can never arrive at a source for a social moral authority, and consequently we will not be able to say anything concerning the moral status of suicide — and a hundred other issues — in relation to society, which is what we are seeking.
Dr. Brace ponders this for a moment, and then speaks. “You have touched, Joshua, upon a problem of great significance, and one that must be answered confidently if humanistic ethical culture is to flourish. But even in the midst of the relativism into which a humanistic approach to society seems to lead, I believe that we can discover the source of a moral authority which will not only provide us with a standard by which to judge social issues — including suicide — but also one which will allow the freedom of personal expression that we would expect from a society of autonomous, equal individuals.”
At last it seems that we have come to the heart of the matter, and I exhort him to continue. He takes a deep breath, and begins.
“In a humanistic ethical society, authority must be reached by free, rational agreement between autonomous individuals. Authority is not assumed to lie with any person or social group in particular; rather, authority is created, and created by the common agreement of the society’s responsible, autonomous members working within a framework of free, rational agreement. Free, rational agreement is the key, Joshua. For if this society is to be truly ethical, it must not be one in which force is ever used to impose one’s ideas of the good on others. There must be discussion, and there must be debate, and it must be free and rational, and supported at all times by the principle of the worth of each individual. Now it seems to me — and this is key — that there are certain minimum requirements that must be observed in order for such a society to exist. And these requirements, stated broadly, are, I believe, twofold. First, the requirement that individuals within the society act in accordance with the principle of self-respect; and second, the requirement that individuals within society act in accordance with the principle of mutual respect. Without these basic principles to serve as a foundation, an ethical culture of individuals creating authority by common agreement on issues cannot exist. But why are these two principles so fundamental? The possession of self-respect is required for individuals to realize that they are autonomous, free, and responsible for their own self-guidance. The practice of mutual respect is required by individuals in order for there to exist an atmosphere of free and humane dialogue on social matters. They are both necessary, for if there were only self-respect without mutual respect, there would be no basis for social responsibility; and if there were only mutual respect without self-respect, there would be no basis for personal responsibility, which is the backbone of an ethical culture founded on the inherent worth of each of its individuals. And truly, I might add, you cannot have g enuine respect for others without genuine respect for yourself. It is only when one possesses a genuine respect for oneself that one knows how to treat others with respect. Does this make sense to you, Joshua?”
I sit thinking about it for a short time, and although it certainly isn’t possible to give the issue the thorough consideration it demands, what he says seems to make sense. Basically, there are certain minimum requirements that have to be in place in order for an ethical culture of autonomous individuals to exist under common agreement. Its members must respect themselves as social legislators, and must respect the responsible legislations of others. But these principles seem so general, I ask Dr. Brace: how can they lead to the standard of social moral authority we’re seeking?
“But don’t you see, Joshua? I believe we’ve found the source of social moral authority in a humanistic society. All of the members of a humanistic ethical culture, in order for it to exist, must, without exception, adhere to those two basic precepts. Without them, it is impossible. And if we adhere to these two precepts, we now have a standard by which to judge the actions and decisions of people in our society. Now Joshua, you have taken my ethics course, so you should know the answer to my next question: when we judge other people for the morality of their actions, what do we concentrate on? What is it that we judge?”
Yes, I remember very well, I tell him. Usually, when we judge others for the morality of their actions, we are looking at their intentions and the effects of their actions — it is these that we describe as moral or immoral.
“Yes, that’s right.” he says. “Moral judgments on people concentrate on their intentions, and on the effects of their actions. If these are good, the people are considered good, and vice-versa.”
But I quickly note to Dr. Brace that we need the right moral standard to judge these things correctly.
“Yes, that’s right, and that’s what we’re looking for now,” he says. “And I would say that we’ve found, at least in outline, the correct social moral standard by which to judge things. Remember, a humanistic ethical culture cannot exist without its members adhering to the two basic principles of self-respect and mutual respect. And so we have found our social moral standards: in a humanistic society, those intentions and actions are moral which are in keeping with the principles of self-respect and mutual respect, and those intentions and actions are immoral which violate the principles of self-respect and mutual respect. I imagine it may sound a bit generalized, Joshua, but consider this: most of the actions which are taken as immoral by most people are condemned as immoral on this standard. It condemns theft, murder, adultery, cheating, torture, blackmail, intimidation, bribery, and so on and so forth, because these actions violate the mutual respect necessary to maintain a free society of autonomous individuals — and in so violating they are rightfully called immoral. And further, it condemns drug addiction, sloth, greed, hatefulness, uncontrolled indulgence, excessive vanity, and so on and so forth, because these violate the self-respect necessary to responsibly take part in a free society of autonomous individuals. The beauty of this approach is that, while giving us a social moral authority based on the minimum requirements for the very existence of an ethical culture, it allows for the widest range of personal expression within it, just as long as these basic precepts are observed. Doesn’t it seem to you, Joshua, that we have found, at least tentatively, a basis for a common social moral authority in a humanistic ethical society, and a standard by which to judge the social moral status of issues such as suicide?”
I have to take a breath myself and think about that for a moment. But I have to admit that at least on the surface, it sounds very sensible, and might serve as a strong basis from which to make social ethical judgments. However, I’m not so taken with his account that I think it completely unproblematic. My exposure to philosophy is limited, yes, but I’ve studied enough to know that broad ethical systems like the one he just gave to me often get into difficulties when one starts sifting through the details, and I tell him so.
“Oh yes, I certainly wouldn’t want to say that it is a perfect ethical system,” Dr. Brace quickly responds. “I doubt if such a thing exists in ethics. For as Aristotle said in the beginning of his masterful work, Nichomachean Ethics,
We must be content, in speaking of [ethical] subjects to indicate the truth roughly and in outline…[and] In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated person to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits.
“You see, Aristotle was very wise to say this,” he continues, “for when we are seeking for general ethical standards — and that is precisely what we have been doing here — it is necessary to concentrate on actions and principles in general, and we necessarily look over many of the particulars of situations that plague us in everyday life. But we should consider ourselves fortunate if we can arrive at general principles which allow us to judge in a moral way with most particular situations. And I think that this is the benefit of the ethical standards we’ve discussed today.”
I continue to ponder what he has said, and I am just about to ask Dr. Brace some further questions, but it appears that we have run out of time. He must go to teach. And so he thanks me for seeking his counsel, apologizing that we did not get a chance to investigate how those principles apply to the issue of suicide, and he says that he hopes that his few words have given me some guidance and help. I assure him that he has helped me, and I promise to see him again.
Walking back home, I try to complete the work that we had begun I think about the social moral standards he had mentioned, and try to determine of their application to the question of the morality of ending one’s life. This, after all, is my main concern right now. What were the principles he used? “In a humanistic society, those intentions and actions are immoral which violate the principles of self-respect and mutual respect. Those intentions and actions are moral which are in keeping with the principles of self-respect and mutual respect.” I try to think of the most common kinds of suicide that occur in society. So many of them — probably most of them — are suicides of despair, like my childhood friend’s. Some great grief or melancholy descends upon them, and they eventually come to think that they cannot bear them, and so they end their lives in terrible anguish. Most of these suicides are violent and desperate, and seem to reflect such self-contempt in those who commit them, and for those who are affected by them. Surely these kinds of suicides do reflect a violation of self-respect, for no person possessing genuine self-respect would make self-destructive decisions while in the throes of emotional disorder. And surely these kinds of suicide are greatly in violation of mutual respect as well, for is it not the case that most suicides of despair are committed with no thought of its effects on those around them? This is especially the case when a suicide leads to the utter emotional bereavement of living friends and family members, or to the financial ruin of the suicide’s dependents. It seems quite clear that these kinds of suicide — which form the majority — violate the basic principles that underlie the possibility of ethical culture, and so can be condemned as immoral. People who would seek to commit these kinds of suicide should not be given respect for their autonomous decisions, but rather care, and treatment, and support, to allow them to return to a state in which they can make their de cisions responsibly. This much seems to resonate with the prevailing societal view of the issue.
But the question then becomes, are there cases of suicide which are moral by the social standards of humanistic ethical culture? By the rule given by Dr. Brace, these would include suicides committed for the sake of maintaining self-respect, in accordance with the demands of mutual respect. Are there any suicides like this? My first thought is of those suicides that are committed out of a desire to die with dignity. Admittedly these seem to be in the great minority of suicides, but perhaps for that very reason they deserve closer attention. It is easy to feel sympathy, I reflect, for those people who, facing the prospect of profound physical and mental degeneration, the loss of their powers, the loss of their ability to live meaningfully, should wish to end their lives with dignity before they are reduced to a state of degradation and monstrous pain. Indeed I have heard some say that it is a crime that our society would seek to have terminally ill humans hang on to the bitter end when, were it one of our pets, we would put the animal to sleep out of a desire to be humane. But the question remains: are such suicides moral in relation to the standards under consideration? It seems, firstly, that they are examples of acts done with the intention of maintaining self-respect; for it is precisely the desire to die in a dignified manner that propels these suicides. It seems that such people do not want to be reduced to the indignity and suffering of advanced physical and mental decay. Such people would seek to end their lives painlessly and mercifully, before they would be so reduced, out of respect for the human spirit. I remind myself that these kinds of suicide must be few in number, and that most people would probably not consider it an option — very well then, they are few in number, but no less deserving of respect if their autonomous decisions are made in accordance with the standards of social morality. But a question remains unanswered: even if it is granted that there are suicides genuinely committed for the sake of self-respect, do they violate mutual respect? Is it possible to seek suicide in a way keeping with mutual respect? It seems, I must admit, that one can, at least in theory. If the person seeking suicide makes the decision in an unselfish and responsible way, making sure that the act would not lead to irrevocable financial or emotional ruin in others, and with the knowledge and understanding — if not the acceptance — of those who would be most affected, it seems that the act can be in accordance with the principle of mutual respect. And in that case, the act can be considered moral in relation to society.
And my own grandfather, I realize with a feeling of shock, has done precisely that: in asking for his family’s permission to end his life — in making us a living part of his decision — he is honoring the mutual love and respect that binds us; he is fulfilling what he sees as his obligation to us. I am suddenly overwhelmed by this. I had been distancing myself from thoughts of my grandfather all week, and even today, forcing myself to remain objective. But it strikes me now with such clarity: the beauty of his action: the fact that he would honor us with this profound confidence.
It seems much clearer to me now that there can be cases of ending one’s life which are socially moral, in keeping with dignity and a sense of obligation to others, at least from the standpoint of humanistic ethical culture. And if this is correct, then how great of a failing is it for a society which claims to be based on the equal worth of its autonomous, responsible citizens, to deny this freedom?
But I have no energy for further objective inquiry. I am intellectually drained, and quickly becoming emotionally spent as well. Yet doubts about my grandfather’s desire to intentionally end his life keep nagging at me, and they won’t go away. Granted that his suicide is no violation of his obligation to God — if God does not exist — and granted that his suicide is no violation of his obligation to society — for our society should respect as moral those decisions made in accordance with self and mutual respect — is he not violating his obligation to himself? This was the third of Aquinas’ claims. My grandfather is not yet degenerating in any kind of advanced way, and he could doubtless live many more productive months, if not even perhaps years. Does he not have a moral obligation to continue to live the unspoiled life remaining to him, the life that so many people would pray to be given?
I have delayed long enough; I must speak with him. All the principles in the world cannot replace direct human contact. I must speak with him.
The sun is just beginning to set as I approach my grandfather’s house, where he lives alone. I find him sleeping in his recliner; and I hold for a moment, and do not wake him, so that I can look at his face, and the life that still flows through him. It saddens me so deeply to imagine that he might soon be gone, and I wish with powerful suddenness that he would end this talk of death, and stop dragging my parents and me through such upheaval. But I stop myself — I must remember at least to attempt to appreciate his situation, and the possibility that he might have a legitimate claim to ending his life. I am confused and I give a loud sigh — and my grandfather wakes up and smiles at me, and he says my name, and extends his arms that I might hug him. I embrace his frail form, and suddenly break down. He cries with me, and we comfort each other.
At last the emotion passes, and I speak with him. I tell him about my friend’s funeral, and my decision to think, as carefully as I could, about the morality of suicide. I tell him about my discussion with Dr. Brace, and about all of my reflections. I thank him for including me in his decision. And I ask him if we might talk about it. He is so infinitely gentle with me; he smiles and says that it is just the time for us to talk; and he suggests that we go to his observation deck up on the roof, that we might watch the sun set while we speak. And so we make our way upstairs, and I must help him, for his legs have grown thin and weak, and the steep stairs are beyond his power. We arrive at the observation deck, where in days past my grandfather painted so many of his beautiful works. To the west, the sky is a brilliant expanse of lightest blue fading into orange and crimson streaks at the horizon. I help him into his seat and take my own. At first we cannot talk for a long stretch, he is having such trouble recovering his breath after the climb. At last he has composed himself, and I begin to speak.
“Grandfather, I love you and I do not want to be separated from you. The thought of your death is so difficult to accept. I want you to know that I respect your decision, because I know that you would never make such a choice lightly. I’ve always admired your wisdom. And so I feel that I have to hear you out; that I have to understand why you want this. It’s just that — I could understand so much more easily if you were dying or in great pain. I could accept that so much more easily. But — but you — you have good life left within you; you still have control of your mind and body, and you could still paint so many beautiful things. Grandfather, don’t you feel an obligation to yourself to continue living while you still have good life to live?”
He bows his head forward in reflection, and then answers me in a soft voice. “Joshua, I love you. And I know that I haven’t always been wise, but you have always honored me with your love and respect; and this has been one of the greatest gifts of my life. I know that it must be so painful to discuss this with me, and yet, you are here, and we are discussing it; and for your own courage and wisdom I am so proud of you…” He trails off for a moment, seeming to collect his thoughts. In a moment he finds them, and taking a deep breath, looks directly at me as he continues: “Joshua, I have lived a long life. And I have lived a good life. I have had a wonderful family, and wonderful friends, and the good fortune to come into a bit of wisdom. I have tried to understand this world, and I have tried to contribute to our understanding of it in what small ways that I could. I have created artwork that has given simple pleasure to some few people, and I have taken great happiness in all of this. And what you say is true: I am not yet in the desperate throes of some terminal illness. And I still feel happiness, as I did when I saw you. But Joshua, my grandson, I am so weary, and I have declined. Where I used to blaze with life, it now but seeps from me. I fall asleep while watching the world that used to make me gasp in wonder. I am lonely, and often I’m tired, and I find myself listless and dull. And I am afraid of pain, Joshua. I fear that I will suffer an unexpected and painful death, alone and terrified. My heart is so heavy within me, grandson. And I feel that I am ready to die.”
I cannot hear my grandfather speak in this way without being again moved to emotion, and I put my face in my hands, and feel my tears flow, warm on my cheeks.
“My grandson, my beautiful Joshua, you mourn for me already, but what I want is that my death not be a cause for despair and misery! I want — I want to be able to embrace you, and all of our family, knowing that you will be comforted that my death was of my own peaceful choosing, and that it was painless. As the end of my life approaches — and it approaches, whether wished or not — I think that there is no greater gift that one could possibly possess than the freedom to end one’s life peacefully, in the most meaningful way possible. I want to accept death, Joshua, and find meaning in it; I do not want to claw away from it in some wretched fear of its inevitability. This is, to my mind, one of the greatest fruits of humanistic philosophy; this is one of greatest rewards of genuine and responsible self-determination. And I believe that Friedrich Nietzsche realized this when he wrote, speaking as the prophet Zarathustra,
Die at the right time! In your dying, your spirit and virtue should still glow like a sunset around the earth: else your dying has turned out badly.
“No, my grandson, I do not feel that I violate my obligation to myself. What I feel is that I would fulfill my obligation to myself by dying at the right time: with acceptance, and dignity, and perhaps even poetry. I don’t believe this is the path of every person. Some lack the freedom. Some lack the courage. But I believe that it is my path. Others will find it moral or immoral as their hearts tend, but I believe that it is my path — but I will not walk it without your blessing, grandson.”
A suspended silence descends upon us. My tears have stopped, but my hands still cover my face, and for a long time I stare into the blackness they cast over my eyes; and I do not think of anything, but instead I listen to my own breathing. When at last I uncover my face, I breathe deeply and feel a sense of peace — it hints of sadness, but it is peace. The last of the sun’s rays grace us, and in the dreamlike atmosphere of descending dusk, I see that my grandfather has fallen asleep.
My grandfather died only a week after that conversation — the victim of a heart attack. I had given him my acceptance, but my parents had not, and he had waited, and death had come unexpectedly. After all of this, I think back on my thoughts on the morality of suicide, and two things come to mind. First, it is true that we need some conception of a moral authority to help determine the moral status of suicide in relation to society, and Dr. Brace’s principles seem like a good place to start, especially for those committed to maintaining a humanistic ethical culture founded on equal respect for its responsible, autonomous members, and their decisions. But secondly, and at the same time, I realize that suicide is an intensely personal issue, and one that cannot be fully understood or decided by reference to a set of general ethical principles. For my own part, I feel fortunate that my grandfather helped me to appreciate the idea that intentionally ending one’s life cannot be unequivocally understood as a tragedy and act of immorality; rather it can be an act of dignity and meaning, one accepted responsibly, and peacefully. And I know that this is not the common feeling; and I would never seek to impose my personal acceptance of it on others; but I would hope that for their part, others might at least genuinely listen to my point of view, in an effort to increase their understanding, and to decide the issue for themselves responsibly.
I am working on an Ethics of Wealth. It is one of my primary passions. Money is the air we live and breathe in. People work for it, fight for it, scheme for it, dream about it, feel enormous stress about it. Work hours dominate our lives. Without an ethic of wealth, our ethic is woefully incomplete. My talk was originally titled Moral Reflections on Wealth. But the terrorist attack intervened, and I found I could not emotionally pick up where I left off in my preparations. Still, in these times of heightened nerves and questioning, there is perhaps more of a chance to glimpse a vision of something new. So, with this hope, I offer you these reflections on terrorism and wealth.
How close we have been to death these past weeks. How quickly a life can be snuffed out, thousands of lives.
But how close we have been to life in these past weeks as well — to the preciousness of living.
In our closeness to death we have experienced a deep commonality with each other. Minor differences vanished. Differences that we felt were major in our everyday lives became minor. In our closeness to death and heightened awareness of life, we knew everyone as our brother and sister. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson said that the terrorist attacks may have been God’s punishment for the sins committed by liberals, gays, feminists, and secular America. The spontaneous community in New York City in response to the attack put the lie to this. Liberals, gays, immigrants, secularists, rich, poor — all these distinctions became meaningless as New Yorkers gave blood, consoled victims’ families, and volunteered to dig in the burning rubble. Together, as compatriots, we wept and mourned the dead in candlelight vigils and interfaith services. We experienced the community that is generated when each one’s entire interest and focus coincides with the focus and interest of every other. This experience of community we should not forget.
But how were we to understand the terrorist attack? In the media from all over the world, we have heard three different explanations. One, the terrorists are insane. Case closed. Exterminate the infestation. Two, the terrorists represent a fundamentalist hatred of freedom, democracy, and religious pluralism. We have to rally ourselves to fight for liberty once again. Three, the terrorists are retaliating against our oppression against them. We have to clean up our own act. These three views are vitriolically at odds with one another. Yet there is a thread of connection among them that is crucial to grasp. Grasping it will give us a better chance of finding an ethical response.
One view is that the terrorist acts were the work of madmen, literally mad. Mamoun Fandy, scholar and author of Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent, was interviewed on NPR this past week. He spent two years in Saudi Arabia, 1994-1996, interviewing dissident clerics and analyzing their sermons. Fundamentalism first emerged in Saudi Arabia in the 1970’s, but they were reformers, not terrorists. The Saudi government, like Egypt, used harsh measures to silence their voice, to keep it from influencing the general population, and to maintain a more open and secular society. Then the Saudi and the U.S. government gave the nod to support the holy war in Afghanistan against the Russian occupation. Here was a chance to openly fight for Islam. So the dissidents, including Osama bin Laden, went to fight the evil empire of Russia. They expected a rousing hero’s welcome when they returned to Saudi Arabia, but found a cool reception. The Gulf War was going on. Bin Laden went to the royal family and offered his Afghan men (the mujahadeen) to help fight against Saddam Hussein. The ruling family refused! Rebuffed and furious, bin Laden went to Sudan and started his jihad against Saudi Arabia and its global patron, the U.S. Bin Laden took this rebuff as proof that Saudi Arabia was no longer redeemable. His expectation of glory turned to hatred of those who had scorned him. In the meantime, he had acquired a taste for violence in Afghanistan. And he felt invincible, as though he had a special calling from God because of his victory against Russia. He could hardly wait to take on the remaining superpower, the United States, the leader of the capitalist system.
Mamoun Fandy recounts vividly that when interviewing bin Laden’s second-in-command and others, it was plain in their manner of conversation, look in their eye, and offhand remarks, that there is a “dance of death,” a “killing for air time,” not for Allah and the tribe, but to see themselves as global heroes. There’s a convergence between pop stardom and criminality. The movement acquired a logic of its own, unrelated to its original ideology. Their talk about Osama bin Laden was as if they were talking about Mick Jagger. They blur TV picture and reality. They exhibit a mental aberration with antiseptic talk about violence and blood and tactics in the game of destruction. The important thing is the image. Were they directing a movie in which the climactic scene would be the twin towers exploding and burning, or were they plotting to kill real people? It was one and the same. Fandy said, “I interviewed these people in pursuit of social science, but I came away asking myself, ‘Is it worth it?’, when the interviews make me feel so disturbed.”
In this view, the terrorist network is a disease, and the appropriate response is to go in and eradicate every cell of it, before it does more violence — and that will be the end of it. In this view, those who are full of this rabid hatred are out of touch with reality, and therefore we can totally discount anything they say about us.
Unfortunately, we cannot rest with this view. Hatred does not pop up out of nowhere. It arises from a large pool of anger. One of the most chilling reports I’ve read is by an Italian journalist, Elisabetta Burba, published in the Wall Street Journal. She was on vacation in Beirut, Lebanon.
Where were you on Sept. 11? I was at the National Museum with my husband. This tour of past splendor only magnified the shock I received later when I heard the news and saw the reactions all around me. Walking downtown, I realized that the offspring of this great civilization were celebrating a terrorist outrage. And I am not talking about destitute people. Those who were cheering belonged to the elite of the Paris of the Middle East: professionals wearing double-breasted suits, charming blond ladies, pretty teenagers in tailored jeans. Trying to find our bearings, my husband and I went into an American-style cafe in the Hamra district, near Rue Verdun, one of the most expensive shopping streets in the world. Here the cognitive dissonance was immediate, and direct. The cafe’s sophisticated clientele was celebrating, laughing, cheering, and making jokes, as waiters served hamburgers and Diet Pepsi. Nobody looked shocked, or moved. They were excited, very excited. An hour later, at a little market near the U.S. Embassy, a thrilled shop assistant showed us, using his hands, how the plane had crashed into the twin towers. He, too, was laughing. Once back at the house where we were staying, we started scanning the international channels. Soon came reports of Palestinians celebrating. The BBC reporter in Jerusalem said it was only a tiny minority. Astonished, we asked some moderate Arabs if that was the case. “Nonsense,” they said. “Ninety percent of the Arab world believes that Americans got what they deserved.”
Well, we know that the vast majority of Muslims condemn this terrorist attack. But in some places, a spontaneous cheer erupted, almost in spite of themselves, in spite of their own better sensibilities — like someone who professes to not like football but when his home team scores he notices himself cheering.
How many are there who are angry? There would be many more who are angry than the number who have succumbed to hate. There are reported to be 5,000 soldiers in bin Laden’s army. Let’s assume these 5,000 are all infected with rabid hatred. This kind of hatred is a far cry from anger. Anger is commonplace. Anger is an everyday experience. Hardly a day can pass, hardly an hour actually, without a flash or rill of anger. Anger is normal. It ranges from irritation over trivial matters to rage over important matters.
When anger at the same thing is repeated over and over again, it becomes chronic anger, resentment. And when chronic anger is fed and reinforced in certain ways, it can become hatred. Out of a million people who have chronic anger, how many will develop the condition of rabid hatred? An educated guess is that about one in 25,000 people with chronic anger will develop rabid hatred. (The real number might be 1 in a 1000, or 1 in 100,000; the point is to stretch our minds to working with large numbers like these.) To produce 5,000 terrorists in bin Laden’s network with rabid hatred toward the United States, there would then have to be 125 million people with chronic anger and resentment toward us. This would be 10% of the total adherents of Islam, and this strikes me as about right. If this 10% figure holds up, and we apply to the entire world’s population, there would be about 600 million people angry at us. At any rate, there are a lot of people who are angry at us, and we can’t simply write them off as insane. And for every 5,000 who have crossed the line to insane hatred, there are another 5,000 on the brink of crossing the line. Each time we kill a terrorist, we add to the anger of those on the brink. For every terrorist down, a new one or two or three will appear.
So much for the view that the terrorist network is simply an irrational disease we can kill off. We have to deal with a much more widespread anger. In the media I have found two basic answers to the question, Why are they angry at us? One answer is: They are angry at democracy and freedom. Serge Schmemann wrote in the NY Times: “The terrorists who organized and carried out the attack on Tuesday … issued no demands, no ultimatums. They did it solely out of grievance and hatred — hatred for the values cherished in the West as freedom, tolerance, prosperity, religious pluralism, and universal suffrage, but abhorred by religious fundamentalists (and not only Muslim fundamentalists) as licentiousness, corruption, greed, and apostasy. The attack in Manhattan was not only against a nation or government, but against a symbol — the twin towers of Sodom and Mammon.” (9/16/2001) George Bush adopted this same view in his war speech to the Joint Session of Congress September 20: “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”
The other basic answer says that they are angry at us because we have attacked them, oppressed them, and impoverished them, all to increase our own wealth and power. Robert Fisk wrote in The Nation shortly after the attack: “This is not really the war of democracy versus terror that the world will be asked to believe in the coming days. It is also about US missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and US helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996 and American shells crashing into a village called Qana and about a Lebanese militia — paid and uniformed by America’s Israeli ally — hacking and raping and murdering their way through refugee camps.”
Seumas Milne wrote in The Guardian in London: “Since George Bush’s father inaugurated his new world order a decade ago, the US, supported by its British ally, bestrides the world like a colossus. Unconstrained by any superpower rival or system of global governance, the US giant has rewritten the global financial and trading system in its own interest; ripped up a string of treaties it finds inconvenient; sent troops to every corner of the globe; bombed Afghanistan, Sudan, Yugoslavia and Iraq without troubling the United Nations; maintained a string of murderous embargoes against recalcitrant regimes; and recklessly thrown its weight behind Israel’s 34-year illegal military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as the Palestinian intifada rages…. It is this record of unabashed national egotism and arrogance that drives anti-Americanism among swaths of the world’s population, for whom there is little democracy in the current distribution of global wealth and power.”
Well before the attack, Harvard professor Samuel Huntington said that in the eyes of most of the world the US is seen as “THE rogue superpower,” considered “THE single greatest threat to their societies.” [quoted by Doug Morris in CounterPunch, 9/20/2001]
Not easy to take. Our ethical response is to engage in an honest self-examination and a taking of responsibility for what our country does abroad. Beyond this, the point that I want to make is that there is an important connection between the two explanations of why they are angry at us. Is it because they are religious fundamentalists? Or is because they feel oppressed by our wealth and power? My claim is this: religious fundamentalism is always itself a response to feeling oppressed by wealth and power. Fundamentalism is always prone to arise among people who feel left out of the good life. The two answers reduce finally to the same: People are angry because they feel oppressed by us, feel that there is an oppressive inequality of wealth and power. When people feel systematically cut off from material prosperity and personal dignity, they can air their grievance, they can deny their own feelings, they can look for ways to distract themselves from their feelings. Or, one of the most ingenious things they can do, and a certain number will use this strategy, is to invert their feeling into its opposite and proclaim triumphantly, “I didn’t want those things anyway because those things are bad. I repudiate those things, and I cling to my new faith in a God who condemns those things and who will reward me in the end.” This is a psychological, self-protective mechanism. Twist the feeling of non-self-worth into its opposite. Fundamentalism is not belief in God. Fundamentalism is a use of the belief in God to overcome feelings of indignity stemming from inequity of wealth, rights, and power.
So here are the two expressions of the world’s anger at us. The direct expression: “We have grievances against you; we want our fair share of prosperity, of political rights, and of personal dignity.” The indirect expression: “We do not want any of the things you value; we repudiate them; we will fight to keep from becoming contaminated by them.” The two expressions share the same source: Inequality of wealth, rights, and sense of dignity. A solution to this broad inequality would by the same stroke address the anger of those who state their grievances and remove the material condition upon which fundamentalism grows.
Karen Armstrong, in her scholarly study of the fundamentalist movements in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, The Battle For God (2000), writes: “One of the most startling developments of the late 20th century has been the emergence within every major religious tradition of a militant piety popularly known as ‘fundamentalism.’ Its manifestations are sometimes shocking [and violent]…. But even the most peaceful and law-abiding are perplexing, because they seem so adamantly opposed to many of the most positive values of modern society. Fundamentalists have no time for democracy, pluralism, religious toleration, peacekeeping, free speech, or the separation of church and state…. In the middle years of the twentieth century, it was generally taken for granted that secularism was an irreversible trend and that faith would never again play a major part in world events…. But in the late 1970’s, fundamentalists began to rebel against this secularist hegemony and started to wrest religion out of its marginal position and back to center stage.” [pp. xi-xii]
Why the late 1970’s? This date leaped out at me because of another writer, an economist, who wrote that 1970 was the watershed year in American economic history. It was the year that the U.S. government instituted policies that reversed the equalizing prosperity of the 50’s and 60’s and began the long journey toward steep inequalities of wealth in our country today. The same general pattern prevailed throughout the world, with rising multinational companies gaining greater influence over government policies. For example, Karen Armstrong writes of Egypt: “[In 1973] Sadat announced a new policy designed to bring Egypt into the capitalist world market. He called it ‘Open Door’… Open Door benefited a small percentage of the rising bourgeoisie, and a few Egyptians made a great deal of money. But the vast majority suffered. The ostentatious consumerism of the elite aroused intense disgust and discontent.” [pp. 288-289] Into this environment of inequality came a new religious fundamentalism, the Sunni, and in 1981 Sadat was assassinated by one of them. To Sadat’s funeral came no Arab leaders, and no crowds lined the streets.
It would take a long treatise to validate my claim that fundamentalism arises from conditions of felt inequality. But inequality has other pernicious effects as well. James Galbraith sums up his book, Created Unequal (1998), this way: “Since 1970 the pay gap between good and bad jobs in America has grown. It is now so wide that it threatens, as it did in the Great Depression, the social stability of the country. It has come to undermine our sense of ourselves as a nation of equals…. A high degree of inequality causes the comfortable to disavow the needy. It increases the psychological distance separating these groups, making it easier to imagine that defects of character or differences of culture, rather than an unpleasant turn in the larger schemes of economic history, lie behind the separation. High inequality has in this way caused our dreadful political condition. It has caused the bitter and unending struggle over the transfer state, the ugly battles over welfare, affirmative action, healthcare, Social Security, and the even more ugly preoccupation in some circles with the alleged relationship between race, intelligence and earnings. The ‘end of welfare as we know it’, to take just one example, became possible only as rising inequality insured that those who ended welfare did not know it, that they were detached from the life experiences of those on the receiving end.” [article in The Nation 9/7/98, p. 24]
These evils stem from the inequality itself. It largely doesn’t matter if the poorest in a country are actually well off; if there is a large gap between them and the richest, it poisons the possibility of community. But what caused the rise in inequality? Most Americans would say that inequality is just one of the costs of having our wonderful free-market system of capitalism. But here is a crucial point. There is no such thing as capitalism. There are only sets of agreements about trade that are in operation at any given time, and these vary widely, even if all are called capitalism. What caused the sharp rise in inequality since 1970 was particular economic policies that were put into place at that time. We can reverse the trend by influencing our legislators to adopt those policies which have proven to build toward more equality of wealth.
To greatly abbreviate Galbraith’s recommendations, he says that liberals are not wrong to agitate for progressive taxation and for generous public assistance programs, including Social Security. But in the long run this kind of redistribution is insufficient. As society grows increasingly unequal and increasingly unfriendly, the compensating transfers from the rich to the poor become odious and intolerable to everyone. Instead, we need to primarily focus on policies that promote patterns of wage equality, reducing the amount of redistribution needed to a minor percentage of economic activity. To do this, we need two things: (1) A return to policies of sustained full employment, which was given up in 1970, and (2) instead of trying to control inflation with high interest rates, as the Fed has done since 1970, establish low and stable interest rates. Galbraith has much more to say, but if you remember these two points, you will have the core of his program to restore greater equality among us.
Finally, I want to take Galbraith one step further, and add a note of ethics. I want to talk about community in its down-to-earth sense of people in a network of relationships resting on a foundation of friendly regard ranging from genuine interest to full caring. I’m talking about the kind of community we want the Ethical Society to be, and the kind of community we have in mind when we strive to create ethical culture.
There’s an ingredient of community that has been missed, probably because no one has wanted to say it. Community can flourish only when there is an underpinning of basic wealth equality among all the members of the community. I propose this as a fundamental ethical principle. Here’s what’s at stake.
Human beings seek community. Since community can flourish only when there is an underpinning of basic wealth equality among all the members of the community, human beings therefore seek to congregate with people who are closer rather than farther from themselves in terms of material prosperity.
Research has shown clearly that the happiness of people and of whole classes of people is not dependent on absolute wealth or poverty, but is dependent on relative wealth or poverty. A basic happiness, a basic contentment, a basic dignity of life, can be had in the direst of circumstances, barring starvation. But a basic sense of dignity is difficult to maintain when there is broad inequality among the members of your community. What the rich call jealousy on the part of the have-nots is most of the time just a simple recognition on the part of the poor of the strain in human community that offends the moral conscience.
A humanly significant, mutually sharing conversation cannot be engaged in by two people with widely divergent lifestyles based on wealth. I know about these things because I was a waiter for many years, surviving just above the poverty line, and on the one hand had to carry on conversations with customers of great wealth, and on the other hand be cordial with dishwashers who lived below the poverty line. If I find it very interesting to talk about the details of bus schedules, the different bus drivers, the particular people who get on and off at distinct bus stops, the kinks in the system of transfers, tips for mastering the whole process of getting to where you want to go, and you have zero experience of this world and no prospect of experiencing it, these details of which I speak will be meaningless to you, and there will be no conveyance of human regard between the two of us. Meanwhile, the details that get your attention are stock portfolios, interest rates, insider tips, or on the other hand, ways to save money on luxury cars, etc., I may listen with politeness, but no authentic interest. There’s a strain between us. An extra emotional reaction interferes with the simple communitarian exchange. I know about these things because I have one daughter who is much richer than I am, and one daughter who is much poorer than I am. If I’m the wealthier of the two of us, I will feel something about the discrepancy in wealth between us. I might feel sorry — sorry that you’re not about as well off as me — and this sentiment will entrain others that interfere with the simple exchange of human interest. I will feel triggered to ask myself, “Should I do something to offset the discrepancy? Should I give this person something? Money? Advice?”
Or I may not feel sorry. I may feel contempt — contempt that this person has not planned hard enough or worked hard enough to bring himself up to the level of wealth I enjoy.
Or I may feel neither sorry nor contempt, but a numbness. A self-induced numbness or a studied indifference in order to not feel sadness or contempt. Or I may feel angry, because being with you makes me start to feel sad or contemptuous or numb.
If I am the poorer of the two, I will likely feel sorry that we seem unable to share stories with each other. Some emotion will address the discrepancy. Awkwardness is the feeling of being out of joint with each other in our sharing of our stories. My feelings may run from self-contempt for being poor and being ignorant of the details of your stories, to anger at you for flaunting your lifestyle.
In our culture, individuality is prized over community. Community is always sought, but always as subsidiary to individuality. What happens when someone rises from the ranks of the poor to the ranks of the rich? Does he take his newly acquired fortune and subdivide it equally among all members of the personal community to which he belonged before he became rich? That would be putting community first, keeping it intact by arranging an equal material substrate for all involved. But that is not what happens. The newly rich person keeps his wealth — or most of it — securely attached to himself as an individual or to his marriage unit, a concession to community, and he finds himself a new community — a new community of people whose wealth per person is roughly equivalent to his own.
For these simple common sense reasons, a basic equality of wealth is necessary for community. Since community is a moral imperative, basic equality of wealth is a moral imperative. There’s a thought to consider. Objections about the impracticality of such a proposal or the dogma that self-interest and desire for ever-increasing personal wealth is what drives the energy of capitalism toward creative innovation, will have to answered. I am utterly confident that such objections can be answered, and answered easily, once we get the right angle on them, because my faith is that what is ethically mandatory is practically possible. In some future year, the federal government will have a new cabinet-level office: the Department of Ethical Economic Design, or D.E.E.D., the Department of Deed for short. Centuries from now, if we make it that far, we’ll still be calling it capitalism, but what a different set of policies and regulations and agreements and priorities will be in place!
“So Andy, what’s your religion?”
“Well, I’m an Ethical Humanist.”
“An ethical what?”
The setting is a hotel porch in Kansas City at about 11:30 at night, and I’m on a school band trip with my friends. Now, I have a theory that at a certain time in the night the teenage brain somehow switches from the typical day-to-day machine to an intellectual, philosophical machine. When it does this, then it creates the best discussion questions in the world. It has just reached this time for myself and my friends.
An example of these conversation starters is, “Is the entire universe really finite or infinite?” The one put forth tonight was not very intellectual or deep for most, but for me it usually becomes a full hour discussion.
Around the porch, we learned that out of the four of us, we had two Christians, one Jewish person, and one Ethical “what?” Since I got this response that I receive more times than I care to count. I began to go into my usual Ethical Humanism 101 for my friends. Even after an in-depth explanation of my belief in the goodness of man, and the Ethical Society’s statement of purpose, I still got looks of disbelief and questioning. I decided to give up on my quest of explanation. A couple of minutes later, the conversation ended and we went on to things like calling other rooms and getting into stupid arguments, ya’know, important teenage stuff like that. This particular conversation has probably become a phantom of memory to my friends, but to me it became another in a long line of misunderstood religious conversations.
I am here today to tell you about what it is like to belong to youth society and the Ethical Society. First of all, I want to reassure you that I’m not here to tell you a tale about religious misrepresentation, but to share some of my experiences and to give my perspective of the responsibility of young Ethical members.
First, my experiences: the following encounters have occurred over the past two years. Ironically enough, this was about the same time that I was becoming more aware of my religious standpoints and views. I think that the same thing was happening with my peers, hence that heated response I received every time I tried to explain the entire notion of my religion. I believe they viewed it as a threat to their thinking, when in fact it was not. So, my example. I’m in seventh grade. Today my Unified Studies class has some high school visitors and is doing a reach-out program with the middle school. In this program we were asked to write down some people who we admired; included in my list was Felix Adler. After being asked who he was, I explained as much as I knew about him and a little about Ethical Humanism.
At the time I didn’t know much beyond the fact that he was the founder of the Ethical movement, and therefore admired him. The rest of that day came very uneventful. But the next came action-packed. Towards the end of Unified Studies, we were given some free time to work on our homework. In this time, the kid sitting behind me, who we will call Thomas, pulled out a bible and started reading me a passage. After about a minute of Corinthians, I asked him what he was doing and he calmly responded with, “Trying to convert you.” I then said “No thanks, but thanks for the gesture.” He continued to read. At this point, he and I both knew that he was past trying to convert me and moved on to trying to anger me. I continued to work quietly while he continued to read. About five minutes later, the bell rang, and I left. From this experience, I took away two things. One, the understanding that along with belonging to a religion like Ethical Humanism sometimes comes explaining and misunderstanding, the second thing that I took away from this experience was my finished homework. Side note–Thomas came to class the next day without his homework. After that year, I never saw Thomas again, and thankfully so.
My other experience was not as drawn out, but managed to hold more power than my first. It took place at a school dance. I was having a great night with my friends, and one person managed to ruin it, for about five minutes. It was right after the end of a song, and a girl came up to me with another one of her friends. The girl asked me, “Is that him?” The other girl, who happened to be in my Unified Class the previous year, responded with “Yep”. The first girl then called me an atheist, and told me to get out. Since I was having too good of a time I didn’t even honor her with a response, I simply turned around and I left her to believe whatever she wanted to believe. This further supports the idea of my peers feeling threatened by me. Luckily, that was in the past, and I have not had an encounter like that since. I have found that most of my friends have decided on their religious beliefs, and have matured, these both contributing to a more calmed and respected response to my religion. I now have more valued and in-depth discussions with my friends instead of negative ones. I have also found that the weekly discussions that I have with the Youth Group help me better understand my Ethical friends and their viewpoints.
Next, I want to tell you about my thoughts on faith. It may seem like I’m downplaying other religions. But I really feel that religion or faith is one of the most important things in life. It gives one hope and emotional strength. In his book, William J. Bennett considered faith to be one of his top ten virtues, and I agree. Another thing that I felt was important was to give you my idea of responsibility that I and others should have. I have spoken to people who do not reveal their affiliation with the Ethical Society because they feel that whomever they reveal that to would not understand and therefore treat them differently. I have also spoken with one of my other friends who is an agnostic. He feels afraid to reveal his beliefs to certain teachers who have different religious beliefs, because of what they will think of him later. I feel that it is mine and hopefully other’s responsibility to make life so that people can openly associate themselves with certain religious beliefs and not have to fear the effects of it. This is my hope and wish.
In conclusion, I want to reiterate my feeling that faith is phenomenal and every human needs it, whether they find it in a rabbit’s toe or God. I also send the message to the young Ethical Humanists in the crowd, to be proud of what you belong to, for it is more special than you will ever know. And I end with a quote from Immanuel Kant:
Two things fill my mind with ever increasing wonder and awe . . . the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.
Perhaps the two most fundamental questions that humans face are: “Why are things the way they are?” and “How should we behave.” Traditional religions answer the first question with creation stories. Think of the Biblical Genesis:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said let there be light….
Or from the Hindu Satapatha Brahmana:
Verily, in the beginning, this universe was water, nothing but a sea of water. The waters desired, “How can we be reproduced?” They toiled and performed fervid devotions: when they were becoming heated, a golden egg was produced…. In a year’s time… Prajapati [the first being] was produced from the egg. Desirous of offspring he went on singing praises and toiling. He laid the power of reproduction into his own self. By the breath of his mouth he created the gods…
These creation narratives do more than just respond to the question of why things are the way they are. The stories also serve as a basis for guiding behavior: they attempt to explain where good and evil come from and what actions are correct — in other words “How should we behave.” Think of the Judeo-Christian story of original sin in the Garden of Eden. That sin is supposed to explain why this life is full of toil and suffering. Only by faith and obedience can we be forgiven and enter heaven after death.
The Hindu scripture has a simpler explanation of evil. After Prajapati created the gods by his breath, he created the demons by his flatulence.
From our modern perspective, we recognize that the creation stories told by traditional religions are myths: narratives invented to explain what was otherwise unexplainable. The fact that the narratives are invented implies a more important problem: Each story is different, a narrative of creation and history of one particular group of people. Each group sees themselves as the focus of creation, the “chosen” ones. And we know what that can — and often does — lead to: intolerance, persecution, war. The God of one group of people will smite the infidels, the enemies of that group. Here is just one recent example, from the New York Times, Nov. 22, 2000:
“In the name of the holy Torah, we are warning you, Arafat…,” said Israeli Rabbi Elnekave, “dare not touch… anyone among us… [or] we will pray to our Creator that He take you away.”
The scientific story provides an alternative explanation for why things are as they are. It has two advantages over the religious creation myths: It is true and it is universal. I should qualify the first of these: science does not give us Truth with a capital T. It is a self-correcting process that gets closer and closer to a true description of reality, but never actually arrives at some ultimate, absolute Truth. Yet even its relative truth is certainly universal: The scientific story of the origins of the universe, the earth, life, consciousness is the same for all of us.
Before telling this scientific story, let me start with a brief guide to our universe. We live on a planet that is 25,000 miles in circumference. That is so big that few of us make the journey in a lifetime. Yet our nearest neighbor, the moon is about 10 times further. Going to the moon gave us some perspective. Views of the Earth from space have, I believe, changed forever the way we view ourselves.
The sun is about 400 times further away than the moon. In fact it is so far that it takes light, moving at the incredible speed of 186,000 miles/second, about 8 minutes to get to us from the sun. The sun is just an ordinary middle-aged star, but it is important to us because we are close to it. The nearest star other than the sun is Proxima Centauri, about 24 trillion miles away. It takes light 4 years to get to us from Proxima Centauri — in other words, we say Proxima Centauri is 4 light years away. Let me give you some sense of how big that distance is: A trip to Proxima Centauri at the speed of the Apollo rocket (25,000 MPH) would take 100,000 years — about as long as our species, Homo Sapiens, has existed. Or another way: if you stood on Proxima Centauri and looked at the Earth, it would appear the same size as a penny viewed from 100,000 miles away.
About 100 billion stars like our sun or Proxima Centauri make up our galaxy, the Milky Way, which is about 70,000 light years across. The nearest other galaxy to ours is Andromeda, about 2.5 million light years away. Since Andromeda is 2.5 million light years away, we see Andromeda as it was 2.5 million years ago — when our ancestors were still coming down from the trees and developing the ability to walk upright. We believe Andromeda looks very much like our own galaxy. Galaxies themselves are grouped in huge clusters. We are part of the so-called Virgo cluster, whose center, a large concentration of galaxies, is about 60 million light years away.
The light we see now from galaxies 8 to 10 billion light years distant, left them well before our own sun or Earth had formed. All told there are may be 100 billion galaxies like this in the “observable universe.” We are clearly a very small part of the whole scheme of things.
Distant galaxies, like the ones we just saw, are moving away from us and from each other. We know this from the Doppler effect on their light — the same effect that makes the sound of a speeding ambulance siren decrease in pitch as it passes us. In fact, the further a galaxy is from us, the faster away it’s moving. This is the so-called “expansion of the universe.” Now imagine that someone took a movie of the expansion. If you ran the movie backwards, you would see the galaxies coming closer and closer together. In fact, the current speeds imply that at some time in the distant past — about 14 billion years ago — the galaxies were all in the same place at the same time. Indeed, they would have been crammed so closely together that they wouldn’t have been galaxies at all, just a very dense concentration of matter and energy. And it would have been incredibly hot; because when matter is compressed it heats up. (Think of how warm a bicycle pump gets when you use it to compress air into a bicycle tire.) The hot, dense concentration of matter and energy exploded in what we call the Big Bang, the start of our universe.
So, “In the beginning was the Big Bang.” Well, not quite. At some very early point, the universe would have been too dense and too hot for our current understanding of the laws of physics to be applicable. We cannot say what happened before that time. As I mentioned before, science can’t give us ultimate answers to questions — only relative ones. There is always a “what caused that?” that can come before.
So a better start is “Shortly after the beginning, there existed a state of matter and energy that we understand, and whose future evolution we can explain.” How much understanding you want determines how early you are willing to go. I like to start at about 10-32 (decimal point followed by 31 zeroes and a 1) seconds after the beginning. Our current observable universe was at that time about the size of a beach ball, and the temperature was 3×1026 (3 followed by 26 O’s) degrees Celsius. It was much too hot for normal matter to exist: everything was broken into its tiniest components. (This is the same effect that makes the molecules of liquid water separate and make up a gas (steam) when the temperature gets high enough.) Quarks, the constituents of protons and neutrons, moved around freely — not bound together at all. Indeed, protons, neutrons, atomic nuclei, and atoms would not exist at that time. Aside from esoteric particles that need not concern us here, there were just quarks, electrons, and radiation — electromagnetic waves of all frequencies, including what we call “light.”
At that early time, the universe was expanding at an enormous rate. And as it expanded, it cooled. A hundred thousandth of a second later, it was already 100 times the current earth-sun distance in size, and would have cooled to a temperature of a mere 10 trillion degrees. It was then cool enough that protons and neutrons could form out of the quarks. A little while later, 3 minutes after the Big Bang, it cooled enough for protons and neutrons to join together. About 1/7 of the protons joined with neutrons to make helium nuclei, which are combinations of 2 protons and 2 neutrons. But, interestingly, no larger nucleus than helium — nothing with more than 2 protons and 2 neutrons — was made at this time: no carbon, no oxygen, no iron. This is because the expansion of the universe soon separated the protons and neutrons and helium nuclei enough to isolate them and prevent further joining together.
The next important event occurred about 300,000 years after the Big Bang. At that time, it was cool enough — about 5000 degrees — for normal, neutral atoms to form for the first time. These were atoms of hydrogen, which has one electron orbiting a single proton, and helium, which has 2 electrons orbiting its nucleus. A neutral atom is a combination of negatively charged electrons and an equally positive nuclei; it has no net electric charge. Since light and other electromagnetic waves interact with electric charges, they have only a tiny probability of interacting with neutral atoms. Thus most of the light that existed at that time just continued moving in straight lines from then to now, without hitting anything. The glow from the hot matter that existed previously is thus still present today. All that has happened in the meantime is the electromagnetic waves have been cooled — reduced in frequency — by the expansion of the universe. The white-hot glow 300,000 years after the Big Bang cooled first to red hot, and then cooled below the visible range. So an imaginary observer at that time would see the glow disappear, and the universe cloaked in blackness. Today the glow still exists as microwave radiation, well below the visible range. It was discovered in 1964 by researchers at Bell Laboratories trying to study microwave emission in our galaxy. They found a glow coming equally from all directions. At first they attributed it to some problem with their antenna — perhaps the pigeon droppings on it — but when it persisted after they cleaned the antenna, they began to think it was real. Today we are sure that the so-called Cosmic Microwave Background exists. Indeed, some of the static seen on a TV tuned to an unused channel is due to that microwave radiation left over from the Big Bang. The Cosmic Microwave Background has now been measured very accurately and is an invaluable source of information about our universe at the young age of 300,000 years.
After the glow became invisible, the universe was dark for a long time. In the dark, gravity did its long, slow, silent work, pulling clumps of matter together. About a billion years later, scattered points of light started to appear — these were the first stars, gradually winking on like city lights at dusk. Gravity had produced enough heat in the compressed clumps of matter to reignite the nuclear ovens.
Inside big stars, the small nuclei made earlier were pushed close enough together to make heavier nuclei — first carbon, then oxygen, neon, magnesium, silicon, sulfur, upwards toward iron, that most stable of all nuclei. The biggest stars burned the fastest, going through the whole chain up to iron in as little as 25 or 50 million years. Such stars would then explode in an enormous dying gasp — a supernova explosion — blowing the newly made elements back out into space.
The heavier elements, made in stars and blown out into space by supernova explosions, then mixed with the hydrogen and helium already there, and some of that gas and dust condensed by gravitational attraction into new stars. The larger new stars would explode once again, repeating the cycle many times. After about 8 billion years of such element cooking, about 4.5 billion years ago, a moderate sized, run-of-the mill star condensed in our neighborhood. This was our sun. As a moderate sized star, it has a relatively long lifetime — about 10 billion years — so it is not quite middle aged yet. From left-over gas and dust condensed several planets, including our Earth. The atoms that make up our Earth — carbon, oxygen, silicon, sulfur, iron — are those that were formed inside stars. So our Earth is in fact made of stardust — and so are we.
The birthright of the Earth also includes relatively small amounts of heavy, radioactive elements such as uranium, made in the supernova explosions themselves. Decay of these elements heats the Earth, keeping it on a slow boil. Where the hot rock reaches the sea floor are so called “hydrothermal vents.” Although it is by no means proven, current theory says that life began about 4 billion years ago at one of these hydrothermal vents. The high temperature and pressure and the presence of facilitators — catalysts — like iron and sulfur produced complex molecules out of the available carbon, oxygen, phosphorus, nitrogen and hydrogen. Those molecules included nucleic acids as well as pyruvate, a fatty substance that would have joined to form soap-bubble-like enclosures. At some point, the nucleic acids in one of these enclosures combined to make chain-like molecules, called RNA, that could facilitate the copying of molecules like themselves. That was the beginning of life.
Once life existed, the immensely powerful forces of mutation and natural selection would come into play. Inaccurate copying — either through flaws in the copying mechanism or through environmental insults — would necessarily occur, producing new versions of RNA. Most of these variations would be worse than the original and be unsuccessful in copying themselves in turn. But once in a while the new version would be better at copying itself and would proliferate at the expense of the original.
After some time, the more efficient modern version of life evolved, with DNA taking the role of the “blueprint,” while proteins became the facilitators of chemical reactions like copying and metabolism. About 2.4 billions years ago modern photosynthesis evolved, producing free oxygen in the atmosphere for the first time, making possible life on land and setting the stage for the evolution of modern animals and plants. The production of oxygen was obviously crucial to our evolution, but it should be kept in mind that it was an environmental disaster for many of the pre-existing creatures for whom free oxygen was a poison.
During the course of evolution, the surface of the Earth has been continually changing. Kept “on the boil” by radioactive elements deep in its interior, the Earth bubbled and cracked — and still does today. Pieces of the Earth’s crust slide around like the surface of a thick bubbling pot of soup. That is “continental drift.” It is slow by human measure — St. Louis, as part of the North American continental plate, is moving westward at about the rate a fingernail grows. Yet continental drift, coupled with the effects of volcanoes and the impact of meteors, has been continually rearranging old environments and creating new ones — leading to the incredible variety of life on Earth.
The first multi-cellular organisms appeared a mere 600 million years ago. The division of labor that multi-cellularity made possible led to a proliferation of new life forms. Within 50 million years the first predatory weapons — jaws and teeth — appeared, and in response, the defensive weapons of shells and spines. This was the start of the “arms race” between predator and prey that has continued up the present. Twenty million years later, the first representative of the phylum chordata, of which we are a member, shows up in the fossil record. This creature was very similar to Amphioxus. It had a notochord, the stiffening rod that a hundred million years later would become the backbone of vertebrates, and a tiny nerve chord, which later evolved into a spinal chord, and ultimately, a brain. Indeed the brain has proved the most powerful weapon in that arms race between predator and prey, making possible rapid, coordinated movements, and, in more recent times, strategy and planning.
The most important division of labor brought on by multi-cellularity was the division between the “soma” (the body) and the “germ line” (the cells) that make eggs and sperm. The germ line takes on the responsibility of reproduction itself, while the soma does everything else that life does: breathing, moving, finding and eating food, thinking, finding a mate, raising young. This division of labor makes possible the enormous variety and adaptability that we see in multi-cellular animals, but it also comes at an enormous cost: death. One-celled creatures like bacteria or amoebae do not die, except by accident. They just keep growing and dividing — in principle forever. But once the soma lost its direct reproductive function, there was no longer an evolutionary requirement that it live forever. The “immortality” function has been taken over by the germ line alone — our genes live forever through our children. That is all evolution pushes for, after all — that genes be passed on to offspring. Our bodies and our consciousness are indeed just short-term visitors to the universe.
As Ursula Goodenough likes to say, “Death is the price we pay for having a brain.” Looked at this way, it’s a bargain. Most would agree that life in what doctors call a “persistent vegetative state” is not worth living. And none of us would trade places with an immortal bacterium.
OK. That, in brief, is the scientific story of why things are as they are. Can this guide to our universe also be a guide to our actions, an answer to the question of how we should behave? Robert Wright, in his book The Moral Animal, discusses the evolution of altruism in our species. Initially altruism was directed only at relatives: our kin share many of the same genes with us, so by helping our relatives we help our own genes. This kin-directed altruism is what drives the apparently selfless behavior of social insects like bees. Later, altruism extended to members of the same group or tribe, even if they were not directly related. This so-called “reciprocal altruism” is based on a “tit for tat” mechanism — “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” Since reciprocal altruism would leave both people better off, it had an evolutionary advantage. According to Robert Wright, our feeling of gratitude when someone does us a good turn is merely evolution’s way of enforcing reciprocal altruism, making sure we repay a favor with a favor. But there is also a stick with this carrot: We have a feeling of righteous indignation, leading to a desire for revenge, when people transgress against us. This “Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” heritage is deeply ingrained in us. It finds expression, for example, in our punitive criminal justice system.
In the end, I don’t think one can base a morality on reciprocal altruism. Reciprocal altruism is really just enlightened self-interest, but driven by emotions created by evolution, rather than reason. Morality should be something more than that — we believe that truly moral actions are done for their own sake, not for what they will buy us. Indeed, I don’t think you can logically deduce ethics from science at all. Attempting to do so would make us guilty of what philosopher G. E. Moore called the “Naturalistic Fallacy” — trying to deduce what should happen from what does happen. But I do think that the scientific narrative can be a starting point from which we can develop a true Morality.
For one thing the scientific story is universal, unlike the proliferation of creation stories that come from traditional religions. As Loyal Rue says in his book, Everybody’s Story, “the photo [of the earth] from space has taught us one thing for sure: there is only one story.” If we’re all in the same boat, then perhaps we can see each other as spiritual sisters and brothers and treat each other with true altruism. In fact, we humans differ in less than 1% of our genes. When we realize that we really are sisters and brothers in this genetic sense, maybe our kin-directed altruism can be put in service of all humanity. It is believed that the word “religion” comes from the Latin root, “religare,” meaning to bind together. A religion grounded in the scientific story could truly bind us all together.
And finally, science shows us the incredible beauty of the universe. Some might say that rational, scientific understanding of the mechanisms of the universe diminishes our spiritual connection to it. I think the reverse is true: science gives us a front row seat from which to observe and appreciate the majesty and mystery of the universe. The resulting awe and wonder are reasons enough to feel a gratitude to nature for our existence. And as we know, gratitude is nature’s way of getting us to repay a favor. So let us repay it by treating all of creation with respect and love.
Well, here we are on a Sunday morning. Other people in the city are attending church or temple. We come here. What is that we’re doing when we do what we do here on a Sunday morning? At the New York Society this morning, people can read a declaration inscribed right on the wall behind the speaker: “Where people meet to seek the highest is holy ground.” What we do here on Sunday morning has something to do with that.
In general, our Movement has four broad components. If any one is missing, we’re not hitting on all four cylinders. We jerk and sputter along. We need all four. One is our emphasis on moral action. “Deed before creed.” That’s right, “put up or shut up.” A second cylinder is Community — friendship and mutual encouragement. A third cylinder is our scientific approach to moral knowledge — Think something is right, test it, revise what you thought, test again, get confirmation from others. The fourth cylinder is: Feeling. Whoa! How’d that one sneak in? Feeling? It’s as though we’re a little embarrassed by feeling. Hasn’t science put feeling in its place — subsidiary to mind? Isn’t feeling the thing that gets us into trouble? Isn’t feeling the demon that leads us into accepting irrational beliefs, out of fear or desperation? Well, yes and no. Feeling out of touch with thought, out of balance with life, can lead to massive delusion, just as thought out of touch with feeling can do the same. But the fact is, I believe, that a certain Feeling is the fourth essential cylinder of our Movement. One way it might be described is a feeling of awe toward the moral core of reality.
So why do we gather together on a Sunday morning? Cylinder # 1 is moral action. Is our Sunday gathering like a committee meeting where we gain new information and plan strategies for moral action? Yes, partly. But members of our Ethical Action committee know that they still need to hold their own meeting anyway. Cylinder # 2 is community. Certainly our gathering today is a form of communalizing, yet is less interactive than community-building in the usual sense. Cylinder # 3 is moral science. Here too, we will often find examination of some moral issue and the various evidences that have come to light, but of course this is just the tip of the iceberg. Cylinder # 4 is the feeling of awe. I would like to suggest to you that our Sunday meeting, while supporting all four cylinders, most particularly aims to give fuel and spark to the fourth cylinder, the feeling of moral awe.
Where people meet to seek the highest is holy ground. Adler wrote, looking back, that the “impulse that led originally to the formation of Ethical Societies sprang from the profound feeling that the life of man needs to be consecrated” and that the old ways of consecrating human life were no longer working. “The Holiness conception,” Adler wrote, “had been my starting point. I never gave it up.”
Where people meet to seek the highest is holy ground.
Well, here we are, meeting.
Here we are to seek the highest.
If ever there were holy ground, this is it.
If ever people can draw upon the spiritual heft of one another’s presence, it is now, here.
If ever spirituality means anything more than a wisp of a wish, it is here, now, among us.
What is spirituality? This!
Our shared feeling, our shared thought, our shared intention and will, our shared attention and focus in this moment, is spiritual, is holy, is sustenance for our deeper lives.
Whatever words and concepts we find to describe this experience, they will always capture only fragments of the experience, and we must always return to the experience itself to recall what we mean when we say the words, “holy ground.”
What is it about this experience that is different from our ordinary experience? Is it not that in the intention to seek and open up to the highest, we drop the evaluations of ourselves that we routinely carry with us: “I’m a worker, and that has such-and-such a value to myself, to my family, and to my society,” “I’m a humorist, I’m a realist, I’m a thinker, I’m a helper, I’m a community-leader, and what I am is of such-and-such a value” — we drop all these evaluations, and we regard ourselves fresh, as having an infinite core value, not relative to anything else, an Intrinsic Worth that can be relaxed into, because it does not have to be defended.
And at the same time we do this for ourselves, we do the same for all those present with us seeking the highest. Our usual evaluations can dart around in our heads like a thousand barracuda just under the surface. We clear the water. We clear the air. In the safety of our intentional gathering, we open our minds and our hearts to the core of those around us, and we acknowledge their core value, not relative to anything else, and we relax and rejoice.
Adler wrote these wonderful words:
We can love only that which is lovable. If we could see holiness, beauty concealed within our fellow-beings, we should be drawn towards them by the most powerful attraction, willingly living in their life, and permitting them to live in ours. We should then love all men, for we should see in all what is unspeakably lovable…. We must somehow learn to regard the empirical traits, odious, harmful or merely commonplace and vulgar as they may be, as the mask, the screen interposed between our eyes and the real self of others. We must acquire the faculty of second sight, of seeing the lovable self as the true self.
What do we do then on a Sunday morning? Number one, we draw ourselves up to a higher intention — our intention to seek the highest. Number two, we drop our usual defenses; we relax into the feeling of a shared intention; we impute the same intention of seeking the highest to all those present with us. Beautiful music serves as an analogy and a lead-in. As we relax into the music, we assume — or perhaps we feel — that everyone else is relaxing into the music as well — and our musical experience deepens. So too, our shared intention to seek the highest. Third, we allow ourselves to shift into an alternate mode of perception, one in which we see ourselves and each other present as lovable selves.
Does this simple practice, this essential component of ours, make us a religion? What do you think? Are we a religion? The answer we give is important, because it affects the attitude we adopt toward the billions of people in the religions of the world, and the attitude we convey to people who may be interested in joining us.
Adler himself used the term “religion” according to the common meaning of the day. Religion meant a set of beliefs about ultimate reality and about how that connected with our moral striving in life. Religion was a certain set of beliefs. Adler personally had such a set of beliefs, which he developed over many years. But Ethical Culture has never asked members to accept any particular set of beliefs as creed. Thus Adler could say, “Ethical Culture is not my religion; Ethical Religion is my religion.” That is, he called his own set of ultimate beliefs his Ethical Religion, but you did not have to accept his religion — that is, his set of beliefs about ultimate reality — to belong to Ethical Culture.
All this was based on the narrow meaning of religion as a set of beliefs. But our understanding of the nature of religion has deepened and broadened in a century of sociological and anthropological study. For people today, “religion” means much more than a set of beliefs about ultimate reality. Religion has a tone of importance and exaltation that grabs the whole person, in feeling, thought, will, imagination, and aspiration. If we say to someone, Ethical Culture is not a religion, that means something entirely different today than it did a century ago. What it would say to the modern listener is that Ethical Culture is not a wholehearted endeavor, not something in which to find total felt meaning. If Adler were speaking today, I believe that he would say, “Ethical Culture is my religion; and based on the fundamental affirmations of Ethical Culture, I have also gone on to develop my own metaphysical set of beliefs about ultimate reality, which you are welcome to accept, develop, reject, or ignore.”
I am going to turn now to a scholar of religion, Huston Smith, whose text on the religions of the world is regarded as the leading resource for encompassing the major religions in one volume. He reveals, as though from the inside, the spirit of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and what he calls the Primal Religions, by which he means the native traditions of Australia, Africa, ocean islands, and the Americas. Huston Smith’s great work, The World’s Religions, was first published in 1958. Very recently however, he wrote a foreword to another book, and he used the opportunity to distill his 50 years of study and immersion in the various religions down to a concise statement about the nature of religion, and it is fascinating. He doesn’t give the usual insider’s answer that religion is the worship of God. Yet he does not give the usual outsider’s answer either, that religion is a cultural phenomenon by which people hypnotize themselves into enjoyable trance states and anxiety-relieving belief systems.
Rather, his answer is wholly original and perceptive. Here is what he actually says:
Whether revelation issues from God or from the deepest unconscious of spiritual geniuses, …its signature is invariably power. The periodic explosions… of this power in history are what created the world’s great religions, and by extension, the civilizations they have bodied forth. Its dynamite is its news of another world.
The radical socialists among us hate this kind of statement, and I have to honor their reaction, because they teach us that we should aim for a world in which economic structures serve rather than subvert ethical values. In the radical view, all religions are propaganda. That is, people with power promote those religious ideas which justify their power and increase it. But this observation can be completely true without denying that there may be something more in the religion than those aspects that the ruling class can turn to their advantage. This more can even be the essential part of religion.
And so I get back to Huston Smith: The periodic incursions of revelation in history are what created the world’s great religions. Its dynamite is its news of another world.
News of another world. This, Smith says, is what a religion is. Proclamation of this news is what all the major religions have done, is the thing that religions do that give them their power and their massive success. Why should news of another world be such dynamite? Imagine you grew up in a cave, and the cave was the only world you ever knew. Yes, you experienced some pleasure and saw a bit of dim light — you painted on the cave walls — but pain and darkness ruled your life. Then one day someone bursts into your world with news that there is another world! And that it is full of pleasure and light. And that there is a way to get to it. If you can trust this messenger, the news is dynamite. You take time to observe this person, his or her mannerisms, sincerity, sanity, the degree of openness and love that is present. If everything you see confirms that this person is normal, indeed is even more sane and more loving than normal, indeed that there seems to be a radiance of personality, then the excitement of the news becomes dynamite, a cultural explosion. It is news, and it is good news.
But if this is what religion is, don’t we have to say, We’re not one? News of another world? I don’t think so! More like news of no other world! This is it, buddy. Live with it. Wake up and smell the coffee. Stop and smell the roses.
Well, actually we don’t go so far as to say there are no other worlds; we just say, ” Other world or not, the key is deed in this one.” But we definitely do not bring news of another world. Not only are we not a religion by this standard, but if the one thing that religions do that attract millions into their fold is to bring news of another world, the implication is clear: we are going to remain small, hardly a blip on the radar screen of world religions.
But wait! We’ve jumped in too fast. We assumed we knew what Huston Smith meant by “news of another world.” Let’s go back to his words.
Whether revelation issues from God or from the deepest unconscious of spiritual geniuses, its signature is invariably power. The periodic explosions of this power in history are what created the world’s great religions, and by extension, the civilizations they have bodied forth. Its dynamite is its news of another world. Revelation [in these religions] invariably tells us of a separate (though not removed) order of existence.
“A separate (though not removed) order of existence.” The powerful religions bring convincing news of a separate order of existence, yet not one disconnected from this one. The trouble comes in when people start trying to picture this, or try to communicate it in pictures. Almost always the image that comes to dominate the feeling and thinking in these religions is that the other world is “above” this one. We connect to it by rising up in thought or feeling or desire. Our world is below, and that one is above. The irresistible pull of this image sees to it that we bring in ideas of hierarchy and one-way authority, top-down. We seem to have a built-in bias for thinking of up as better. After all, in our evolutionary history, we stood up. We looked down on the lower animals. And right now, my neocortex sits on top of the older parts of my brain that handle such “lower” functions as feelings, or sexuality. The Good News of another world, fresh and dizzying in the moment it’s originally proclaimed, gets fast translated into our habitual categories of “up = better”, and therefore the other world must be up, in comparison with which this world is dirty, lowly. The Good News becomes: how to escape from this one. Yes, our ordinary world is rescued from being a place of hell, but it does not become a place to celebrate. But what if a messenger brought us news of a different world, and the further news that this different world is simply a different dimension of our world, news of another way of taking the very world we are in? What if the good news that all of the powerful religions have been trying to proclaim is an ability to shift to an alternate perception of reality, and that this shift is better described as lateral, sidewise, rather than a shift up? Prayer would no longer be “I lift up my heart to Thee, O Lord,” but “I shift my heart and see.”
A digression. An example of shift from another field. Physicist Victor Stenger has been one of those who have cautioned against too-easy translations of quantum puzzles into spiritual cosmologies. For example, one of his books is titled, Not By Design! But in his new book, Symmetry, Simplicity, and Multiple Universes, he argues that at its deepest level, reality is literally timeless. Not at the level of ordinary experience — unfortunately no time-travel for us — but at the underlying level of reality, there is no time. If that doesn’t take your breath away, I don’t know what could! In the molecule of air sitting on my finger, the subatomic particles and energies inside it are timeless. So with every speck of my body — go deep enough and we pass out of time. Time and the timeless. Food for thought. Food for feeling. Just an example of what might be meant when we talk about making the mental shift from our ordinary reality to the same reality in different light, coextensive with it.
I believe that Adler was bringing radical news of another world, that is, of another dimension of this world. From the outset, we have had a positive feeling toward this world, our positive feeling that this world is worth living in and fighting for. At the same time that we’ve focused on this world, we’ve been groping toward a way to express our intuition of the moral character of reality. If your sense of the moral character of reality is a heavy and burdensome one, then you are not experiencing the news we’ve been trying to proclaim. You are probably thinking hierarchically, with the moral standards somehow floating above you, implying your own unworthiness.
In Adler’s day, the feeling was that the old religions would soon wither away. Many people had heard the good news of the freedom to think. It was to them good news that religions had been debunked, and that no-longer-meaningful superstitions and rituals could be left behind. This news predated Ethical Culture. Ethical Culture simply appealed to the large group of people who felt free of religious superstition, and it called them to ethics. It was like a Good News – Bad News scenario. The good news of the day was liberation from oppressive and institutional religion. The bad news, brought by Ethical Culture, was that “Liberated and exhilarated as you now are, you still must behave ethically!” Well, bad news has never won many followers. It’s a wonder the messenger wasn’t killed! It doesn’t help us or anyone if we go around proclaiming bad news, especially when the news that we really have discovered is great good news.
The good news that we have to proclaim is this: Extra! Extra! Read all about it! There is another world. We’re not doomed to this world of pain and bleak evaluations of yourself and others. The other world is available to you right now, for all it takes is a shift in awareness. When you make this shift, you experience yourself as a member of a glorious, wonderful, perfect, divine world! In this world you have intrinsic, unique Worth. Sometimes you experience it spontaneously. But there is a path to experiencing this world intentionally and habitually. It is to act always in your life in that same way you would act if you were fully experiencing this world, as though each other person you meet has unconditional Worth. This is the path. Through it you will come to experience the worthwhileness of all that is, and your life will be worthwhile, joyous, and fulfilling.
As we began our program today, you made a shift in order to appreciate the music. Despite the fact of bad things going on in the world outside, we shifted to a different mode of experience. Further, we left our usual evaluations at the door, in order to be able to shift into an affirmation of our Worth and the Worth of everyone gathered here with us. We made not a shift up, to heaven or to floating spirits. We just shifted in place, as though to see and hear from a different angle. As we become skillful in the ability to enter into this experience, it begins to color our ordinary lives. It becomes easier to act as though other people have intrinsic worth. We have to pretend less and less. As our Sunday morning program ends, and we shift back into ordinary experience, we find our ordinary experience slightly different than before. There’s more energy. There’s less anxiety. There’s more resolve to grapple with any problems we face. We have great good news to share. Worth is the heart of religion. Our Worthship service is our crucial weekly reminder of the call to our lovable selves. We come together with an intention to seek the highest, and the ground on which we stand shifts, becomes transformed into holy ground.
Felix Adler died in 1933. Two years earlier, he spoke these words on the Occasion of the 55th Anniversary of the Founding of the Ethical Movement:
In this solemn moment, at the end of 55 years, my mind goes back to a certain May evening in 1876, when I saw before me an assembly of men and women who had summoned me to state publicly the nature of the proposed Ethical Movement…. That evening the Society was founded. Of those who were present, the charter members of the Society, I am, to the best of my knowledge, today the sole survivor. I am as it were the memory of the Society. With deep gratitude I think of those who first asked me to lead them along a new path, and who followed so devotedly. They have all passed away, and others, thousands by this time, who succeeded them, have passed — a great procession! I greet them in meditative hours. Their faces are not mournful. Their extended arms point forward. They were interested in the future — in something great to be. And they put their trust, not in a person but in an idea. From the first they resented the imputation that this could be a merely personal movement; they believed rather that it was destined to acquire a universal significance.