ETHICAL CULTURE, an American nontheistic movement based on a humanist ideology. From the time of its establishment in 1876, the Ethical Culture movement has appealed to a relatively well-educated, middle- and upper-class, socially idealistic public. Originally and until about 1945, the people attracted to this movement were residents of major urban centers: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis. Felix *Adler (1851–1933), the leading figure of the first half century of the movement, was deeply influenced in his idealism by both the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson and the German transcendentalist Immanuel Kant. Adler's personal variation of Kant's ethic was developed into a "religion of duty," purportedly neutral on theological and metaphysical questions.

Among the comparatively small number of followers of Adler (never more than about 5,000), Jews of German background were prominent in New York City; outside of New York, Germans of Christian background outnumbered the Jews. Again, as the social service activities of the New York group entered the Lower East Side, some of the young Jews of Eastern European backgrounds joined the movement; nothing comparable occurred in other urban centers. Thus it is possible to describe the New York Society for Ethical Culture as largely an offshoot of German Reform Judaism, while describing the other Ethical Culture societies as largely offshoots of liberal German Protestantism.

The later philosophical orientation of the Ethical Culture movement was influenced by American humanistic and naturalistic ideas, and its audience became increasingly a Jewish and non-Jewish suburban public. The suburban societies have also served as compromise religious "homes" for couples of mixed background.

In keeping with the movement's mandate to affirm the importance of working to make people's lives and the world at large more humane, the American Ethical Union takes positions on specific issues at delegated national assemblies and meetings, striving to apply its ideals to current concerns. Local Ethical Societies engage in a wide range of service, humanitarian, and social change projects. An affiliate of the AEU, the National Service Conference, works with other non-governmental organizations at the United Nations and within the AEU on ethical peace-building and other programs. The Washington Ethical Action Office works toward achieving its selected goals by activities such as lobbying and disseminating information through the Washington Ethical Action Report.

Since 1990, some of the resolutions passed by the American Ethical Union include opposing capital punishment, seeking a peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict by ensuring a Palestinian state and a secure Israel, supporting the legalization of gay marriages, and advocating free choice regarding abortion.

On the international front, the International Humanist and Ethical Union has special consultative status with the UN, general consultative status at UNICEF and the Council of Europe, and maintains operational relations with UNESCO.

Succeeding Adler, David Algernon *Black led the movement into the 1980s.


American Ethical Union, Ethical Religion (1940); D.S. Muzzey, Ethical Religion (1943); idem, Ethical Imperatives (1946); H. Neumann, Spokesman for Ethical Religion (1951); H. Radest, Toward Common Ground: The Story of the Ethical Societies in the United States (1969). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: C. Neuhaus, A Lively Connection: Intimate Encounters with the Ethical Movement in America (1978); H. Friess, Felix Adler & Ethical Culture: Memories & Studies (1981); E. Ericson (ed.), The Humanist Way: An Introduction to Ethical Humanist Religion (1988); H. Radest, Can We Teach Ethics? (1989); H. Radest, Felix Adler: An Ethical Culture (1998).

[Joseph L. Blau /

Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.