Ethical Action, Opinions, and Faith ... Dick Reichart

Nothing else generates as much argument as a subject on which everyone really agrees. Who is there who would disagree that we humans have moral obligations? And who would disagree that these obligations extend beyond merely trying to avoid doing wrong, of merely eschewing evil that they impel us to undertake corrective ethical action?

People are righteous. Yet, it often seems the big problems of ethics are not so much in identifying what we should avoid doing, but in coming to agreement on which matters we are obligated to initiate action, and with what methods we should then act. Choosing what is central, what is more important, becomes the subject of debate among the most strongly motivated persons. The natural force of human right eousness goes beyond the benevolence sometimes seen in animals, but its outcome is often more conflict over just what is to be done.

As the world grows smaller, our exposure to the world's evils grows larger. Constant discussion and publicity provides instant intimacy with troubles that in the past would have been distant or even alien. Appeals for our moral, physical and financial support in righting wrongs -- presented in the most expert and professional manner -- multitudinously confront us every day. The result can be a depressing overload.

There are far more good things to do than our resources can possibly accommodate. How can we rationally choose which among the many well-founded and appealing projects we will act on, and which we will bypass often with sadness or feelings of inadequacy and guilt?

The AEU's recently reconstituted National Ethical Action Committee is in the midst of an effort aimed at selecting priorities for national action and devising plans for implementing them. I am contributing to this effort my knowledge of survey research to help quantify objectively the kinds of social activism that are already most common among the AEUs Societies and Fellowships, and what kinds of contributions from the National EA Committee are most often seen as needed.

Opinions are important facts, and measuring how many hold which opinions will help clarify the status of ethical action and the range of views held by Ethical Culturists even if no opinions show clear-cut majorities. The results of this survey can help direct the National EA Committees choices of ways to support the members of the movement.

Still, I have a concern about counting up opinions as a primary basis for Ethical Culture action. It is certain that no person should be hungry, or unclothed, or unhoused, or brutalized. As certainly, unhindered consumption of the world's natural resources is dangerous to humanity as a whole whether from profit motives of the wealthy or by poor people merely seeking survival. But while sympathy, or fear, or indignation, or love are the motivations which usually stimulate us to ethical action, I think that the philosophy of Ethical Culture calls for another dimension of concern.

After all, love, sympathy, indignation, and worry represent our personal needs and opinions. And since opinions are famously variable, they are too likely to be focused on the most recently received, or the most expertly presented, problem, thus fragmenting our resources and limiting our capacity to apply human righteousness to solving problems.

I think a more telling approach to the problem of identifying appropriate action for the Ethical Culture movement will lie in focusing our attention on ethical principle. Even using the term ethical action as a synonym for social or community or po litical activity is somewhat dubious. In truth, ethical activity is thought -- something which takes place first in the space between our ears, and then in careful communication about the most basic objectives we have for the well-being of all humanity.

Ethical thought is the basis for moral rules which provide tests of the significance of different and competing appeals to our righteousness. Fear, sympathy, indignation, or love are not our basic ethical principles, no matter how useful they are in helping us focus on poverty, or homelessness, or racism and all unearned groupist privilege, or violence of any variety as worthy targets for social action. Ethical Culture faces a more difficult challenge: a morality to help us elevate humanity as a whole.

I think we in Ethical Culture must work harder on explicitly enunciating how our moral rules our action imperatives are based on our fundamental principles. Our collective task is to show how ethical principles such as the inherent worth of every person, or the concept that the dignity of each person must be preserved apply to any social, legal, economic or political action.

Ethical Culture's highest aim is supporting the best in each person. Herein lies our faith, a faith which will support us in the face of the many (often unintended) destructive outcomes of human organizational, scientific and technological development. A faith with ethics at its core can have a motivational power at least as great as, and perhaps mor e enduring than, the power of any other traditional faith.

Ethical Culture, though always small numerically, has spawned some of the most important social-activist organizations in American history. In some ways they may have helped serve as models for the multitude of organized social activist efforts seen today. As with other religious movements, however, its key contribution was in providing a strong ethical foundation, upon which both members and others could agree to organize to ameliorate social problems.

Ethical Culture's task lies less in the difficult choosing among worthy causes than in working together to develop our collective ethical understanding into moral tests which will guide how the force of human righteousness can be made to work for the benefit of all of humanity.

[Originally published in the December 1997 issue of
the Princeton Ethical Humanist Fellowship Newsletter]

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