Victor Nuovo: Jane Addams looked at systems

34th in a series

The achievement of Jane Addams can be put in one sentence. She invented Social Ethics, both practically and theoretically. Social Ethics is a theory of normative behavior, which is founded on the premise that the moral life of individuals can be perfected only in society, only through social engagement and interaction. To live a fully good life, individuals must examine their social institutions as well as their own consciences to determine whether they are just and democratic, and if they find that they are not, to endeavor to make them so.

This may explain the current interest in Critical Race Theory, which is premised on the principle that racism is systemic, that it is rooted in existing social institutions and prevailing traditions as well as in the private beliefs and prejudices of individuals. And it is the reason why Critical Race Theory should be taught in schools. This does not mean that we should turn our backs on traditional moral theory, rather we must revise and enlarge it by adding a social dimension. Academically speaking, moral philosophy should be yoked to sociology and social history.

Jane Addams was born on Sept. 6, 1860, in Cedarville, Illinois; she was the eighth of nine children. Two years later, her mother died giving birth to her ninth child. She became her father’s favorite, and he determined to give her a good education. She attended Rockford College, where she graduated as valedictorian; after graduation she went abroad to England. In 1889, Jane Addams and her college classmate and friend Ellen Gates Starr (1858–1940) established the first settlement house in America, Hull House on Halstead Street in Chicago.

The Settlement House movement was begun in England by Arnold Toynbee (1852–83), who was, incidentally, uncle to the historian Arnold J. Toynbee (1889–1975). He believed that the most effective way to bring about social justice was by integrating the social classes; they must dwell among each other, become neighbors, bound together by the bonds of neighborly care and affection. To this end he proposed that the members of the upper classes should settle in neighborhoods inhabited by the working poor. Once settled, they should open their homes to them. And they should make their homes centers of assistance that offer essential services, such as day care, health care and education, all designed to bring people less advantaged than themselves out of poverty and into the social and cultural mainstream. Addams visited Toynbee House in London in 1888. Her visit inspired her to establish Hull House, and for the remainder of her life, she lived and worked there. She never married.

At Hull House, one of her innovations was a special program for mentally challenged and disturbed children. She knew the value of parental love, and a chief goal of the program was not to separate children from their parents.

The philosopher John Dewey (1859–1952), who was then teaching at the University of Chicago, was a frequent visitor at Hull House; he and Addams became friends, and he fell under her influence, and perhaps also her tutelage. Dewey made Social Ethics an academic discipline, although, as Dewey acknowledged, Addams had already made it a philosophy. Dewey left Chicago in 1904 and concluded his academic career at Columbia University in New York. At the time of Dewey’s retirement, across Broadway, at Union Theological Seminary, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) was busy creating a program of Christian Social Ethics. This would have intrigued Addams, for she often justified her social beliefs by appealing to the social teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, in which she was well versed. Essays on Dewey and Niebuhr will follow.

Addams was a powerful speaker and prolific writer; her speeches and writings were integral to her social work. In them she provided the theoretical and moral justification of the social welfare movement.

Her book “Democracy and Social Ethics,” first published in 1902, provides a concise statement of her social program. As the title indicates, the goal of the programs she developed was not only to offer assistance to recently arrived immigrants and the working poor, but to create a more inclusive, and hence, more perfect democratic society. The political and the social were yoked. To her mind, a true Democracy must also be a Welfare State, the two must become one. It could be said that she anticipated the New Deal. Eleanor Roosevelt was one of her admirers, and they became friends.

But besides Hull House, Addams had other interests, including international and world politics. She was a pacifist, and strongly opposed the United States entry into the First World War. Her dedication to pacifism and her involvement in movements to achieve it won her international recognition and acclaim. In 1931 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, the first woman to receive this honor. She was also the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Yale University.

Reading through a collection of Addams writings is a dizzying experience. The range of topics is so broad: essays on child welfare, on the restoration of broken homes and families, on the proper way to be charitable, the moral education of children, on women’s suffrage, on American self-righteousness, on Tolstoy and Gandhi. She was a polymath, a philosopher. And there is no doubt that she belongs in any gallery of great American thinkers.

Postscript: “Democracy and Social Ethics” is available in paperback, published by University of Illinois Press; also “Twenty Years at Hull House.” “The Jane Addams Reader,” published by Basic Books, is a copious collection, with a fine introduction. Visit your local bookshop.

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