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Ethical Culture was established by Felix Adler in 1876. The Ethical Culture Movement is an ethical, educational, and religious movement. Individual chapter organizations are generically referred to as Ethical Societies, though their names may include "Ethical Society," "Ethical Culture Society," "Society for Ethical Culture," "Ethical Humanist Society", or other variations on the theme of "Ethical."

Ethical Culture is premised on the idea that honoring and living in accordance with ethical principles is central to what it takes to live meaningful and fulfilling lives, and to creating a world that is good for all. Practitioners of Ethical Culture focus on supporting one another in becoming better people, and on doing good in the world.

Ethical perspective

While Ethical Culturists generally share common beliefs about what constitutes ethical behavior and the good, individuals are encouraged to develop their own personal understanding of these ideas. This does not mean that Ethical Culturists condone moral relativism, which would relegate ethics to mere preferences or social conventions. Ethical principles are viewed as being related to deep truths about the way the world works, and hence not arbitrary. However, it is recognized that complexities render the understanding of ethical nuances subject to continued dialogue, exploration, and learning.

While the founder of Ethical Culture, Felix Adler, was a transcendentalist, Ethical Culturists may have a variety of understandings as to the theoretical origins of ethics. Key to the founding of Ethical Culture was the observation that too often disputes over religious or philosophical doctrines have distracted people from actually living ethically and doing good. Consequently, "Deed before creed" has long been a motto of the movement.

Religious aspect

Functionally, Ethical Societies are similar to church or synagogues. Ethical Societies typically have Sunday morning meetings, offer moral instruction for children and teens, and do charitable work and social action. They may offer a variety of educational and other programs. They conduct weddings, commitment ceremonies, baby namings, and memorial services.

Individual Ethical Society members may or may not believe in a deity or regard Ethical Culture as their religion. In this regard, Ethical Culture is similar to traditional religions such as Buddhism and Taoism, about whose practitioners similar statements could be made. Felix Adler said “Ethical Culture is religious to those who are religiously minded, and merely ethical to those who are not so minded.” The movement does consider itself a religion in the sense that

Religion is that set of beliefs and/or institutions, behaviors and emotions which bind human beings to something beyond their individual selves and foster in its adherents a sense of humility and gratitude that, in turn, sets the tone of one's world-view and requires certain behavioral dispositions relative to that which transcends personal interests.

The Ethical Culture 2003 ethical identity statement states:

It is a chief belief of Ethical religion that if we relate to others in a way that brings out their best, we will at the same time elicit the best in ourselves. By the "best" in each person, we refer to his or her unique talents and abilities that affirm and nurture life. We use the term "spirit" to refer to a person's unique personality and to the love, hope, and empathy that exists in human beings. When we act to elicit the best in others, we encourage the growing edge of their ethical development, their perhaps as-yet untapped but inexhaustible worth.

Since around 1950 the Ethical Culture movement has been increasingly identified as part of the modern Humanist movement. Specifically, in 1952, the American Ethical Union, the national umbrella organization for Ethical Culture societies in the United Statesmarker, became one of the founding member organizations of the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

Key ideas

While Ethical Culture does not regard its founder's views as necessarily the final word, Adler identified focal ideas that remain important within Ethical Culture. These ideas include:

  • Human Worth and Uniqueness - All people are taken to have inherent worth, not dependent on the value of what they do. They are deserving of respect and dignity, and their unique gifts are to be encouraged and celebrated.
  • Eliciting the Best - "Always act so as to Elicit the best in others, and thereby yourself" is as close as Ethical Culture comes to having a Golden Rule.
  • Interrelatedness - Adler used the term The Ethical Manifold to refer to his conception of the universe as made up of myriad unique and indispensable moral agents (individual human beings), each of whom has an inestimable influence on all the others. In other words, we are all interrelated, with each person playing a role in the whole and the whole affecting each person. Our interrelatedness is at the heart of ethics.

Many Ethical Societies prominently display a sign that says:

"The Place Where People Meet to Seek the Highest is Holy Ground"


Albert Einstein was a supporter of Ethical Culture. On the seventy-fifth anniversary of the New York Society for Ethical Culture he noted that the idea of Ethical Culture embodied his personal conception of what is most valuable and enduring in religious idealism. Humanity requires such a belief to survive, Einstein argued. He observed, "Without 'ethical culture' there is no salvation for humanity."

Motivation for founding

The impulse that led originally to the formation of Ethical Societies sprang from Adler's profound belief that human life must be treated as sacred and never violated. Adler believed that the emerging influence of secular society and the rise of scientific thinking in the public mind would make traditional religious metaphors less believable and compelling. Adler held that religion needed to evolve to keep pace with the evolution of politics, economics, and science. He was concerned because he believed religious communities to be essential because they are the one institution with the exclusive mission to sanctify life, teach ethical values, and provide a personal experience of living in a caring community. An Ethical Society would fulfill these roles, but in a way that was more in keeping with modernity.

Early history

The movement was initiated in 1876 by Dr. Felix Adler in New York Citymarker with the founding of the New York Society for Ethical Culture.

The society adopted as the condition of membership a positive desire to uphold by example and precept the highest ideals of living and to aid the weaker to attain those ideals. The aims of the society were stated as follows:
  • "To teach the supremacy of the moral ends above all human ends and interests;
  • "To teach that the moral law has an immediate authority not contingent on the truth of religious beliefs or of philosophical theories;
  • "To advance the science and art of right living."

The members of the society were free to follow and profess whatever system of religion they choose, the society confining its attention to the moral problems of life. Adler did himself have an ethical philosophy that deeply influenced how this was approached. A central precept was "Always act so as to elicit the best in others, and thereby in yourself."

In adhering to its social and moral imperatives, the Society quickly initiated two major projects in 1877. First was the establishment of the District Nursing Service, a precursor of the Visiting Nurse Service, which is still active today.

The second project was the founding of a free kindergarten for the children of working people (the first free kindergarten in America). In 1880 the Workingman's School was chartered, a model institution for general and technical education in which the use of the kindergarten method in the higher branches of study was a distinctive feature. Each of its teachers was a specialist as well as an enthusiast in his subject; the Socratic method was followed. Pupils over seven were instructed in the use of tools. In 1895, the School was reorganized, becoming The Ethical Culture Schools. An upper school, The Fieldston School, was added in 1928.
What began as a free school for the benefit of the poor has become, according to a 2007 Forbes article, one of the most expensive and exclusive preschools in the United Statesmarker, with tuition currently at $30,440 USD per year [143555]. Despite sharing a building on Central Park West in New York City, the school is no longer affiliated with the Ethical Culture Society.

Under Dr. Adler's direction, the Society worked to improve conditions in tenement houses, created the Mothers' Society to Study Child Nature (later the Child Study Association), and helped to found the Visiting and Teaching Guild for Crippled Children in 1889.The Society was also instrumental in the formation of the National Child Labor Committee and in calling for the formation of the NAACP. The Chicago Society organized The Bureau of Justice, the organization that preceded the Legal Aid Society.

According to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the pro bono tradition among lawyers started with a speech by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis at an Ethical Society in 1905.

According to a 1906 encyclopedia article, while originally agnostic in feeling, the Society gradually developed into a simple, human brotherhood, united by ethical purpose and a humanistic outlook, and to some degree acquired an influence in distinctively Christian circles in some parts of Europe. The only approach to a religious service was a Sunday address on topics of the day, preceded and followed by music. Its chief supporters in New York and Philadelphia were Jews, as was its founder and leader, though the society did not in any degree bear the stamp of Judaism.

A similar movement was started in Berlinmarker. Today a society exists at Frankfurt am Mainmarker.Societies were established in Cambridge and London, United Kingdommarker but the only remaining society in that country is the South Place Ethical Society, based at Conway Hall, Londonmarker.


The largest concentration of Ethical Societies is in the New Yorkmarker metropolitan area, including a dozen or so Societies in New York, Manhattanmarker, the Bronx and Brooklynmarker; and New Jerseymarker, such as Bergenmarker and Essex Counties, New Jersey,.

Ethical Societies exist in a score or so U.S. cities and counties, including Austin, Texasmarker; Baltimoremarker; Bostonmarker; Chapel Hillmarker and Asheville, North Carolinamarker; Chicagomarker; Silicon Valley, CA; Rittenhouse Squaremarker, Philadelphiamarker; St. Louismarker and St. Peters, Missourimarker; Washington, D.C.marker, and Vienna, Virginiamarker. There is a new Ethical Society located in cyberspace, the Ethical Society Without Walls.

Legal challenges

The tax status of Ethical Societies as religious organizations has been upheld in court cases in Washington, D.C. (1957), and in Austin, Texas (2003). The Texas State Appeals Court said of the challenge by the state comptroller, "the Comptroller's test [requiring a group to demonstrate its belief in a Supreme Being] fails to include the whole range of belief systems that may, in our diverse and pluralistic society, merit the First Amendment's protection."


  1. FAQ
  2. Ethical Societies.
  3. Bergen, NJ Society
  4. Texas Ethical Culture wins important step at State Appeals Court - IIDB

Other sources


  • Ericson, Edward L. The Humanist Way: An Introduction to Ethical Humanist Religion. A Frederick Ungar book, The Continuum Publishing Company. 205 pages, 1988.
  • Radest, Howard. Toward Common Ground: The Story of the Ethical Societies in the United States. Ungar, 1969
  • Muzzey, David Saville. Ethics as a Religion, 273 pages, 1951, 1967, 1986.

Institutional web sites

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