This collection of essays, taken from talks given by the author to Ethical Culture audiences over a 35-year span, explores the philosophy and history of ethics.
Chuman (Why the Ethical Movement Is so Small and What We Can Do About It, 1988) has been a pillar of the Ethical Culture movement for nearly five decades. This diverse collection introduces lay readers to what it means to be ethical and humanistic and how this moral stance differs from those based purely on reason or religion. After establishing that an ethical person “recognizes the importance of moral values and intends to act on them,” Chuman’s book breaks into four sections: “Ethics in Private Life,” which discusses subjects pertinent to the individual, such as sin and the pursuit of happiness; “Public Questions,” featuring topics one encounters in public life and how to address them, such as politics and the criticism of religion; “Humanist Heroes,” a survey of freethinkers throughout history, including Spinoza and the Founding Fathers; and “Interpretations of Ethical Culture,” which details the movement’s facets, from its spiritual tolerance to the value of reason. Throughout, Chuman uses his rigorous intellect—and savvy as a lecturer—to challenge dangerous suppositions, never backing away from difficult questions. In “A Humanist Looks at Sin,” he brings startling lucidity to the argument: “The problem of the notion of sin is that it makes a fetish and a celebration out of a particular aspect of human experience,” he says. “It seizes upon and dogmatizes pessimism.” And Chuman succeeds in maintaining a conversational tone; he never rants or condescends, even when covering basic ideas. For example, “The giving of myself in the effort to help another, not simply with transitory assistance, but in a way which leads toward his or her growth and greater actualization, is what I mean by caring.” Further into the collection, he delves into more fine-grained discussions, such as the problem with extreme secularism, which reward readers not only with provocative displays of reasoning, but with electrifying insights: “We are creatures of reason, to be sure….But our humanity extends far more broadly than our reason does.”
Critical reading not only for those who want to improve the world, but also for those who think we shouldn’t bother.