Our Money and Our Ethics

Our Money And Our Ethics

Putting Our Money Where Our Values Are

An Appeal and Study Guide by the National Leaders Council of the American Ethical Union

There is a deep concern in the Ethical Movement, shared by lay and professional leaders, that if we are to enter the 21st century as a force to be reckoned with the Movement needs:

(1) More members,
(2) More financial support.

A past president of one Society, who is still a very active member, put it this way:

“Continued non-support (or minimal support) from the membership is the main reason as to why the movement is not growing. If we want our religion to continue past 2010, we have to put our money where our values are.”

To meet this concern, the Leaders of the Ethical Societies in Washington, Baltimore, and Northern Virginia (in Region IV of the American Ethical Union) have urged that we set ourselves a high goal of giving to causes that express our values, among which our Ethical Society should rank high. They proposed a tenth, or tithe, of income to causes. They would like to see all of us accept such a challenge.

Membership growth and pledging are, of course, not ends in themselves. It is not just a matter of numbers. The statistics are really symbols of a larger reality. The energy that drives the Ethical Movement comes from our vision of a way of life that can make a better world. Membership growth and increasing support are indicators that we are sharing that vision persuasively and that more people are embracing it and committing themselves to it.

The principles of strategic planning have taught us to approach such matters by taking certain steps: Defining our vision in a statement of mission, setting goals, creating action plans, recruiting participation and financial support, implementing the plans, and developing a feedback loop to assess results.

The purpose of this pamphlet is to stimulate reflection on just one aspect of this growth process. That aspect is the issue of putting our money where our values are. And to study it, we need to step back for a wider view of how values and money work for us.

Values are guidelines for conduct. They sum up the things we hold to be important in life. They indicate our priorities. They help us to sort out the claims upon our resources made both by our own internal desires and also by the external forces that impinge on our lives. Do I spend so much on education or so much on recreation? Do I repair the roof or buy a new car? What about the homeless? Or children with malnutrition?

Looking Ethically at Personal Finances

A checkbook – some banknotes in wallet or purse – some coin in the pocket – a credit card: These are the instruments by which we do business in the world. They are means of conveying money to pay for goods or for services. The money is our medium of exchange, and how it works is a very complicated story that we will not pursue here. But let us look at some of the things that may go on in our minds when we spend money, and especially let us look at the part that our values – as guidelines – play when we engage in exchange of goods and services.

There are two ways of looking at our mindset when we are thinking of using our money. They dovetail into one another but they can be separated mentally. These two ways of looking are thedescriptive and the prescriptive approaches.

Descriptive: It is often helpful just to describe what a situation is or what is going on – without any value judgment placed on it. Since even our descriptions are influenced by subjective bias, this is not as easy as it sounds. But with practice we can look just at the lay of the land. With regard to money, we can set out how much comes in, what we are worth if we include all our assets, what money we have invested or saved, and what our expenditures are. We can also set out a list of what we need or want, including the causes that we wish to support. That is the descriptive approach and it needs to be followed through carefully if we are to have a sound basis for the judgment calls that we then want to make about the use of our money.

Prescriptive: As soon as we move on from simply describing the situation to composing a “wish list” of any kind, we have shifted mental gears into the prescriptive approach. We begin to look at what we want to prescribe for the expenditure of our financial resources. This approach can itself by divided into three sub-categories that indicate the different kinds of “values” that influence our choosing how to proceed.

[1] The preferential: Here we are dealing with the aesthetic value that we bring to bear on our selection and purchase of goods or services. Here we are giving expression to our tastes and preferences. “I like Art Deco,” one person may say. “I am into antiques,” another may say. One person prefers to vacation in the hills, another at the shore. And so on. Preferences in taste become the prescription for choosing.

[2] The prudential: Prudence entails foresight and careful calculation in making a purchase. It asks questions like: “Is this a reasonable price for this item?” “Though more expensive, is this a better quality item that will last longer?” “How does this expenditure fit into our budget?” “Can we afford to buy this at this time?” In this way of considering our spending, carefulness and foresight dictate the prescription for choosing.

[3] The ethical: With the ethical outlook in mind, we now raise questions of moral value. This involves more than asking if an expenditure is tasteful or economical. It goes beyond whether the expenditure is legal, and even beyond a simple right-or-wrong assessment. Beyond these, the ethical approach takes what we hold to be our values, our overarching standards and principles, as criteria by which to choose: “Is this expenditure in keeping with our sense of obligations, with our principles, with all that we consider important in life?” In this way of looking, our ethical self-imagebecomes the prescription for choosing.

Practical considerations:

To make any of these approaches work effectively, we need to educate ourselves in what is required to support them:

  • To properly describe our money-spending habits, we need some kind of record-keeping.
  • To hone our preferences, we need to become more sophisticated shoppers.
  • To exercise prudence, we need a budget.
  • To view things ethically, we need to clarify our values.

Values And Commitment

“Between the idea and the reality…. Falls the shadow,” T.S. Eliot said. There is a distinction between our “espoused” theory of values (what we project) and our values “in use” (what we actually do). To establish a value-informed personal economy, we need to know our values, make a commitment, and discipline ourselves against derailments.


A dominant feature of the classical theory of economics is the contention that humans act out of calculating self-interest. Presupposing that this is so, attempts have been made to control that self-interest either by governmental action to limit it (for example, by progressive taxation or by inheritance taxes) or by moral persusasion to harness it to wider purposes of good (for example, by linking doing good to reward in an afterlife).

But the classical premise itself has been challenged both by economists and by moralists. It is pointed out that alongside of optimizing our own good we are moved to share in and act on behalf of the collectives to which we belong: family, profession, workplace, religion, nation, world. These collectives pressure us towards certain choices based on shared social affections and shared value systems.

When taste and preference are the guiding value, we are pretty much on our own. Chacun a son gout, as the French say: “Each to his or her own taste.” Of course, we can become more educated in our tastes but in the end our subjective judgment is the deciding factor.

When prudence is the guiding value, it urges us to become informed citizens, educated shoppers and consumers. To learn to take critical measure of advertising. To be financial planners. To make our money work for us. Since very little of this gets taught us in school, we do well to study such matters as adults.

When social conscience is the guiding value, there is also much self-education required to allow us to “rate corporate America,” to buy or to boycott in terms of the social and environmental responsibility shown by companies, and to engage in public-spirited action designed to get some leverage on the larger political and economic systems in which we are immersed.

When our religious and ethical values are at issue, we see our money serving the larger causes that give meaning to our lives. As ethical humanists, we see the whole of life as the focus of our commitment to the Good. We see ethical value expressed in providing our family and our selves with such basics as shelter, food, clothing, transportation, education, health, recreation, and culture, and with insurance against contingencies (accident, illness, and loss of job). But we also feel a concern and commitment to the “causes” that embody our values.


So back to the question of tithing.

Tithing has a long history. Giving a tithe, or tenth, of one’s income to support one’s religion is a very old practice (along with other guidelines, like giving the “first fruits” of one’s crop). It made sense because the professional practitioners of religion were considered to be “not-for-profit” and therefore needed the support of the “earners.” Or, one could say the tithe was their “pay.” Mandatory tithing under religious sanction was often abused, and some religious leaders, like John Wesley, resisted the notion of tithing because they felt that all our money, not just a tenth of it, should be subject to one’s commitment to the good life. On this premise, securing a roof over the family’s head or supporting a child in college is as “spiritual” as supporting one’s religion.

But it is easy to fool ourselves. We may intend to be generous but the actual figure of our giving may be more like 1% or 2% in support of causes promoting the values we hold.

Hence the plea from the Leaders who raised the issue, that we earmark a tithe or tenth of our income to “causes.” They also urged a further guideline: namely, that we give half of the tithe to causes generally that we want to support and half of the tithe to the Ethical Society to make it a strong and effective operation.

None of the Leaders indicated that they were already pledging at the level of a tithe and it was recognized that in the Ethical Movement such guidelines are voluntary, not mandatory. There are religious groups today that do endorse tithing as a part of membership and they are very strong financially to pursue their growth. The National Leaders Council endorses this challenge both to Leaders and to our readers. Let’s make this a goal to strive towards, step by step, increment by increment, moving as fast as we can. Definite percentages are a necessary discipline if we are to succeed in harnessing our spending habits to our values.

Remember, the tithe was to cover support for all causes dear to us, not the Ethical Society alone – but also the hope was that we would see the Ethical Society as a primary commitment for its members.

Also, special considerations were noted: At different times in our lives, our financial capabilities vary. Supporting a parent, supporting a child in college, heavy medical expenses, unemployment, retirement, going back to school oneself – all these factors influence what money we have available for other causes. It was specially noted that to volunteer one’s time is also to contribute.


When we have established a goal, we need to go on to establish a plan for its implementation. We need to discipline ourselves to carry it out. In the older religious language, there were always “temptations” to pull us off track. Call them what one will, the reality of pressures to divert us from our purpose is still with us. Four such important pressures are:

Unawareness: One thing that readily undermines the keeping of a budget, as part of a value-guided life, is a lack of knowledge as to what exactly is happening to our money. For example, we may begin record-keeping for major expenditures – like mortgage, rent, loan, credit cards, car insurance – but keep no record of food expenses only to find that the budget “leaks” through that unguarded exit. Or we make one big stab at getting the picture, pull the figures together, set a budget, but then not keep it up, allowing minor or major expenditures to bore a hole in our budget that is only vaguely recognized. A budget leak develops. A first – and continuing – step is to know our financial profile, updating it regularly.

Impulse buying: Sometimes in response to a strong desire to own something, sometimes to relieve tensions, sometimes in pursuit of an addiction (say, to books or to gadgets!), sometimes to keep up with a social style, we spend more than our budget allows. Derailment occurs. Further, the modern Supermarket is a carefully engineered device to part us from our money. One Consumer Union article proposed that careful shopping can save a buyer $2,500 a year! A buying plan and a shopping list go far to control impulse buying.

Easy credit: Banks, department stores, gas stations, and other institutions push their credit cards at us. It is easy to get into trouble with the all-too-easily available credit, which is really an installment loan at a very high interest rate. From the Executive Reports Corporation comes the warning: “Credit cards have an awesome power to singlehandedly destroy your budget.” The rule of thumb proposed is: Subtract fixed expenses from take-home income – payments for credit should not exceed 10-15% of that.

Lack of conviction: “If you work at it, it will work for you.” To pursue ethical financial planning we need the perseverance to stay with it and the conviction that our pledging is serving a great cause. Why give so much to the Ethical Society? Let’s see:

Ethical Futures

Every organization has its weak points, its faults, its blind spots, its failures. But when we approach it in the mode of brain-storming “blue skies” for its future, then we look to what potential it now has that can enable it to become a major positive force. “Futures” are speculative or risky stock in which a person may invest in hope of a good return later. As Leaders of the Ethical Movement, we have faith in that future and believe the risks attendant on getting there are worth taking.

The Ethical Society is a viable alternative within religion that presents a powerful focus on behavior and an open-ended search for truth.

The Ethical Society has developed a solid human-centered philosophy that places responsibility for this planet and our life on it in human hands.

The Ethical Society believes that the value-dimension should permeate all human activities from personal relationships to international engagements and works to study and promote ethics in all aspects of life.

The Ethical Society is a fellowship of persons committed to the worth of all individuals and it is a support group for all of life’s transitions and passages.

For these reasons, we think it worth major support – not only now by our ongoing pledges to it but even after our death by a legacy to it. Many a Society has gone on benefiting from the largesse of members or friends even after their death. They sought to ensure an effective future for the Society long after their own lifetime.


The suggestions made in this pamphlet come down to this: That we should install a mental alert system, a checkpoint, to increase awareness of what is happening when we earn and spend money, so that we:

[ 1 ] Know the state of our finances on an ongoing basis.

[ 2 ] Become more sophisticated shoppers.

[3] Pass our earnings and expenditures through a “values filter.”

[4] Pursue our profession and practice our business in accordance with a high standard of what is good for the community as well as profitable for ourselves.

[ 5 ] Seriously increase our financial support to organizations that promote our values, especially to our Ethical Societies, to make them more effective now and into the future.

Do We Put Our Money Where Our Values Are?

A Personal Testimony by Leader Joy McConnell

“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Every year we all look at our budgets to see how much we can afford to allot to our pledges toward the Ethical Society in the next fiscal year.

For most of us the question hinges around the amount of discretionary funds remaining after we have paid the mortgage or rent, fed and clothed our families and ourselves, provided for healthcare, insurance, and other necessities. What is left may be much, little, or none. How we choose to spend those discretionary funds tells much about who we are, what our values are.

This came home to my husband and me when we were fairly new members of the Society. No one had ever really talked to us about the financial needs of the Society, what it would take to merely keep it alive or what it would take to help it grow and flourish. Our pledge was embarrassingly low on our list of priorities.

Then we were asked to think about how we spent our discretionary funds on a weekly basis. How much did we spend on donations, concerts and theatre, magazines, junk food, movies, going out to eat, impulsive buying? We were surprised at how much we spent on things that really didn’t matter to us and how little we spent on this institution that was becoming increasingly important in our lives — our philosophical home, our spiritual center, a pathway for our social commitment to the wider community, our main source of intellectual stimulation, the place where we met our closest friends, where we committed a great deal of our volunteer efforts and creativity.

That was the year we made our first, real, committed and value-laden pledge. We chose to put our treasure where our hearts already were. As a result of that commitment, we felt more ownership, more stake in what happened at the Society, more pride in its successes, more responsibility for its shortcomings. As we shared more of our material treasure with the Society, which embodies so many of our deepest values, we in turn were gifted with the treasures of being part of this very special group of people whose caring, idealism, wisdom, achievement, and creativity fill our lives.

Where do you place your treasure? Is it where you choose for your heart to be?