Simply Because It Is The Right Thing To Do

Simply Because It Is The Right Thing To Do

Platform address by Dr. Joseph Chuman, leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County

Dec. 1, 2012

          The horror of the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, last month, has revived a debate and an issue in American life that has been dormant for far too long.  For decades, gun rights extremists have turned our political leaders into cowards and cowed the rest of us into silence with the conclusion that their position has triumphed.

            And it is an extremist position, as nutty as the views taken by those who deny global warming, that Obama was not born into the United States and that the earth is no more than 10,000 years old, with Adam and Eve cavorting with dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden.

            We should make no mistakes about it. The wish and the intention of the gun manufacturing industry is to oppose any initiative, legal or otherwise, that results in the sale of one fewer gun. And the National Rifle Association is the front , the lobby and the mouthpiece of the gun industry, which, as mentioned, has held an almost vice-grip hold on our lawmakers, federal, state and local, and on the American mind. In the policies of such zealots, the gun and its ownerships have taken on the quality of a religious cult, the gun being an untouchable and sacred object.

            Those who invoke the Second Amendment base their claims on the dubious unrestricted right to own a gun.  I will talk about the issue of the prevention of gun violence in my address next month. But the national debate that has been revived around gun control, and the positions of those who hold them, is a good introduction to my talk this morning, which is about individualism, individual rights in American life, and their limits.

            My own philosophy of life: More specifically, my talk centers on individualism and the philosophy of individual rights upon which it is based. In many ways, what I want to share is personal in that it frames my own philosophy of life, which is deeply rooted in humanism and Ethical Culture as I understand it.

            There is no doubt that there is a powerful strain of individualism that flows through American life and American history.  American individualism was in great measure born in reaction to the oppressive discriminations of monarchy, aristocracy and the solid, class-bound nature of European societies. The American Bill of Rights, that glorious afterthought appended to the Constitution, outlines the protections that individuals legally and morally claim against the power and encroachment of the state. Early in the 19th Century, the great American sage Ralph Waldo Emerson waxed rhapsodic about the virtues of self-reliance and the joys of glorying in one’s uniqueness. The American West with its endless expanses of wilderness inspired an ethos of rugged individualism, which no doubt fuels the gun culture. But to a great measure this ethos of rugged individualism was myth. No one alone could survive the winters of Montana and Wyoming, with temperatures of 20 below zero, without a lot of help from neighbors and friends on the frontier. The image of the cowboy who rides alone is the greatest exemplar of that myth of western individualism and is one that is deeply seared into American identity. The cowboy has a sense of moral justice and saves those in need. But the Lone Ranger never settles down, gets married, raises a family or prepares a meal that he shares at his church’s potluck dinner. That notion of rugged individualism endures up to the moment and takes many forms. Among the most extreme, beyond gun ownership, is found today among Texans who are signing petitions calling for the succession of Texas from the Union and its restoration as an independent republic – from my perspective, maybe not such a bad idea.

            Beyond the rugged individualism of the American West is the very heart of the so-called “American Dream.” That dream is most powerfully expressed in the idea of upward mobility and social climbing.  When freedom of opportunity is wedded to individual initiative and hard work, the individual can move from poverty, usually as an immigrant, right up into the middle class. One can move out of the stifling city to the suburbs and own one’s own home, with one’s own garden, two cars in the garage and 2.2 children, each with his own computer, ipod and TV set. Rather than reflect real communities or neighborhoods, in the suburbs one can live for years without knowing one’s neighbor, while basking in the freedom that individualism brings. This notion of class mobility based on individual initiative is more myth these days than not. There is more class mobility nowadays in Britain and Sweden. But that’s not the point. It is an assumption rooted in American identity, whether true or false. 

            It is individualism that lies at the heart of conservative politics and its contempt for large government. The ideology of the right in contemporary American politics, calling for lower taxes and smaller governments, is based on the sense that the federal government has become a leviathan that stifles and crushes individual liberty.

            Despite the extreme expressions that individualism has taken in the current moment, defense of individualism and individual rights has a noble place in American history and consciousness. We, especially in Ethical Culture, believe in the dignity, the sacredness, of the individual.

            The right simply to be left alone: If the story of America is grounded in any one idea, it is probably best identified with the value of individual freedom: Freedom from tyranny and freedom bestowed on widening circles of previously disenfranchised individuals, whether they be African-Americans, women, immigrants and minorities of many types, gays, or the disabled. This freedom of the individual has meant greater acceptance, access to the opportunities afforded by society, greater empowerment, and greater respect and dignity as well as the right simply to be left alone and to think and do as one pleases. For many Americans, when surveyed, individual  freedom means getting into one’s car and going where one wants on the open road.

            This validation of the freedom of the individual has also been part and parcel of a minor and vital tradition in American life, that is the right to dissent, the right to be different, the right to hold one’s own views and to express what one thinks even if it stands out from the crowd. It is the right of the individual not to conform.

            In the best sense, this right to dissent from prevailing opinion can be upheld not merely as expression of idiosyncrasy, but in a higher sense, it can be argued that it is necessary to sustain a healthy democracy and to ensure social progress. Only by exposure to different ideas, grounded in the individual right to express them, does our democracy and society remain supple and fresh. Only by standing against and challenging accepted ideas, and introducing new ones, does society move ahead. This is individualism expressing itself in the noblest way, and we need to defend the rights of individuals to do so: To speak freely and stand against the current.

            As a statement of personal and political belief, I am strongly, indeed, militantly committed to the rights of the individual: The right to free speech, to religious belief, to assembly, to a fair trial, to think what I want and to say what I think. I am also committed to the rights of every man, woman and child to live a life of economic well-being, commensurate with living a life of dignity.

            In defense of human rights: From my childhood I have been a passionate civil libertarian. I am a proud card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and have been actively engaged, especially in years past, with specific cases the ACLU has picked up in order to further its agenda of individual rights and freedoms. This included testifying in court on behalf of the ACLU to defend religious freedom, to speaking before committees of the State legislature, to lending myself to arrest in order to broaden the free-speech rights of individuals in otherwise private shopping malls. In more recent decades, I have moved the emphasis of my concern for individuals to the international stage in defense of human rights, both as an academic, teaching at Columbia University and other colleges, as well as an activist, defending the freedom of prisoners of conscience, refugees and others. The defense of individual rights has long been at the heart of my political commitments. Likewise, defending and upholding the dignity of individuals has been the heart of my religious commitments as a leader in the Ethical Culture movement. As with many of us, when I feel that my individual rights are being threatened, I rebel.

            But despite this militant, life-long, commitment, I am by no means a radical individualist. Here is what I mean. We can understand individualism in at least two ways. We can see the individual as outside of and over and against society. Or, we can see the individual as embedded within society. My individualism is very much the latter type.

            The radical individual sees that the individual comes first, and society and community is nothing but a congeries of individuals. Communities, therefore, have no organic status on their own. This is opposed to the Communist, for example, who sees society and community as primary and the individual–and his or her rights, we might add–as subordinate to the interests and the rights of society taken as whole.

          The radical individual also sees little value in the claims of tradition, the past, or the claims of future generations. The individual comes first, and therefore the individualist of this stripe downplays binding obligations, duties and responsibilities. Such an individual sees himself essentially detached from society and its claims on him, which he does not acknowledge. He is outside of society and sees himself, again, as over and against society.  For the individualist, freedom is equated with being, we might say, “unencumbered.”

            As implied, this is not my preferred view of the individual. There are several reasons for this.  In a practical sense, this view of individuals leaves the person potentially isolated. Heroic, perhaps, but potentially lonely. Indeed, one of the downsides of American individualism is the often cited loneliness that Americans suffer, alone from extended families, as grandparents have relocated to Florida; alone from neighbors, whom they barely know; away from co-workers  as companies are downsized and owner loyalty to their employees is a thing long in the past; alone from partners as more people divorce and fewer marry;  alone from clubs and associations, an historical mainstay of American life, as electronic media have replaced face-to-face relationships, even alone from fellow religionists, as institutional religious affiliation has begun to fall. As the sociologist Robert Putnam observed a while back, people still bowl in large numbers, but far fewer people bowl in leagues. “Bowling alone” has become a metaphor for American life and where an excessive individualism leads.

            An inflated sense of self: But on the psychological level, I think that excessive individualism leads simply to a sense of narcissism, to an inflated sense of self that is, by definition, anti-social and narrowing of the personality. It is distorted, inelegant, and can frankly be an adolescent and obnoxious way to comport one’s life.

            But on the philosophical level I abjure radical individualism because I think it is not true to the way in which human beings are put together. I believe rather that the self is social. In other words, there is no such thing as the individual person outside of society. Furthermore, I believe that we grow into our distinct individual selves, to the extent that we are such, through our active engagement and relationship with others. The individual is deeply invested in the web of society and we need others to become ourselves.

            We can look at it this way. No one is this room, or on Earth, for that matter, had to invent the language they speak. It was given to us as a type of gift. In fact, language and speech make no sense without society, without others to hear our speech. Speech itself is a social act. Likewise, our values or thoughts, even our gestures, to a great extent are endowments deeded to us by others—by our parents, first of all, and then by the society in which our familial life is embedded. The cliché, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” much the bane of headstrong adolescents, one finds as one ages, for better and worse, is true.

            We like to think that the ideas and values we hold are somehow our creation because we struggle with them and they reside in our heads. But I think that such a conclusion is an act of self-deluding narcissism. I think of the self like an iceberg. Only the peak of the iceberg we can claim as our individual selves, while the bulk of the iceberg below the surface is the funded ideas and values of humankind, extending back through the obscurities of time. We may tweak those endowed ideas and values a little bit, and maybe the few geniuses among us can create something that is truly new. But what we like to believe is our individual originality is really our specific reworking and spin of what has long been there and has come from the society of humankind, past and present.

            Standing on the shoulders of ancestors: When I was in my late twenties, I came to an enlightening revelation, or better said, it came to me. I realized that with all the thinking I do, there wasn’t a single idea in my mind that hadn’t been thought by someone else before. Even the cherished values I hold, I do so because of the thoughts generated by moral philosophers and the exemplary deeds of activists whom I admire, not to mention the legacy I have received from my parents and my familial lineage. As Ecclesiastes says, “There is nothing new under the sun,” or at least very little, I would conclude.

            Isaac Newton was assuredly among the most brilliant people who ever lived, a man who was lionized as a genius of freakish proportions in his own lifetime. But it was Newton who in a statement of moving humility had once observed, “The only reason that I have been able to see a little further than other men, is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” He was referring specifically to Galileo and Johannes Kepler, who stood on the shoulders of their giants and on the entire funded knowledge of the Greeks and Romans, medievals and the philosophers of the nascent European Enlightenment. We are all the legatees of far more than we know.

            Where this all leads is to a different view of the person than the one proposed by the radically individualist. It is one of the individual person, deeply embedded and organically connected to a very complex web of social relations extending back into time, across society to other people who share our world, and even to the future in terms of my relationship to generations not yet born who will be the beneficiaries of the gifts that I can give to them. I am born not only with rights, but I am born into a matrix of social obligations.

            To acknowledge this web of social relations—the fact that I am a product of society past, present, even future, the fact that the self is social—is also to make a moral statement. In other words, other people, individuals, community make a claim on me as I make a claim on them. To put it otherwise, I believe in the “encumbered self.”

            What I mean is that the human being, whom I believe is born with individual rights, is born no less into a universe of social obligations, duties and responsibilities. If I am an individualist, I also have a great deal of sympathy for what is known as communitarianism.

            An obligation to give back: The communitarian believes that society or community is not just a congeries of individuals who come together for practical purposes, but that community is a real entity itself that imposes upon me certain obligations and responsibilities, which I am morally duty-bound to fulfill. In the most basic terms: As I have been the beneficiary of a multitude of goods, so I have an obligation to society and to others to give back—not as a matter of contract so much, but out of a sense of obligation that is knitted into the fabric of the social universe and runs much deeper. Communitarians believe that others make a claim on me, and that I have obligations to others, and to a certain degree obligations even to tradition and to the past. Communitarianism espouses that my aim in life is not merely the fulfillment of my own individual needs, interests and pursuits, but that I need to commit myself to what is often referred to as “the common good.”

            Though I don’t think that it is inevitable, many see communitarian as primarily conservative in character. And I agree, there is a conservative flavor to it, and so in that sense I reveal myself to be conservative. And no doubt in its extreme form, communitarianism can legitimate nationalism, and in its malignant forms even fascism, in which the individual is totally submerged in the national community and virtually exists for it alone. There are certainly dangers in communitarianism taken too far.

            But communitarianism also comes in its liberal forms, of which the humanist John Dewey is a prime example. It may come as a surprise that Dewey, who was a staunch supporter of the ACLU, technically didn’t believe in individual rights. He believed in social goods, not individual rights. He believed in the creation of flourishing, progressive communities, and reasoned that if we are to live in a democratic, humane world, then we need to act as if individuals possess rights, and respect them , or else we will live in a world that is neither democratic nor humane. For him, it was the promotion of the “common good” of which the individual was a component, rather than the other way around. But Dewey was assuredly a liberal and a progressive.

            As for myself, I put my individualist self or my communitarian commitments up front, depending upon the context. When I see individual rights needing defense, especially my own, I become a militant defender of those rights. But when I see social obligations needing to be met, as I always do, then I advocate for those out of my communitarianism. Where I place myself on that scale at any moment is contextual.

            In practical and personal terms, what does this communitarian commitment mean? I think it means quite a lot. I have come to believe in what I call “associative obligations.” What I mean is that every station that we occupy in life brings with it a series of obligation that calls upon us to make an effort to fulfill them.

            An obligation to all others: If I am a parent, I have obligations to my children, and children have obligations to parents. So it is for spouses toward each other. If I am an employer, I have moral obligations to my employees, they to me, and fellow employees to each other. Friendship and colleagueship brings with them their specific obligations. I have obligations to my community in which I live and in the associations and organizations of which I am a member. And I also believe that as a human being occupying this planet, I have in principle an obligation to all others, to the stranger with whom I share a common destiny as a member of the human family. We can even extend this further and conclude that as a child of nature, I have an obligation in the form of natural piety and stewardship to protect nature, which gave me life and which sustains me.

             What this social and moral outlook requires is that when I look over the social and natural landscape I cannot assume a “take it or leave it” approach. The radical individual can do so, but not the person of communitarian sensibilities. In practice, I will have to weigh every obligatory claim made by others against my own self-interests and my resources and come to what I hope will be practical and moral choices.  The potential claims on me are infinite, but my resources are very limited. I can do only what I can do.

            At this point some of you may be saying that this is not only a demanding, but also a rather dreary outlook on life. After all, when one hears the words “obligation” or “duty,” one no doubts thinks of commands, orders, shoulds, and all those humorless, burdensome requisites of life that we would rather put off, evade, escape, flee from and hope would disappear. If nothing else, obligation is joyless.

            Joyless, in the superficial sense, it probably is—but not meaningless.  On the contrary, the radical individualist who recognizes no binding obligations runs the risk of living a life that, in its detachment is ultimately vacuous, and what appears to be joyful may be truly empty of more lasting fulfillment.

            Spiritual fulfillment: I think that in recognizing our just obligations to others and trying to live them out, we not only enter into more meaningful, engaged and deeper relations with others, we can also find for ourselves a deeper sense of spiritual fulfillment, if I can use that word. There is a sublime feeling, I believe, that can come with knowing that we have done the right thing by others, that to the best of our abilities we have given ourselves in caring and concern. There is something that enriches the human bond in the act that flows outward to others rather than merely flows inward toward the self. There is something just, right and fitting about a life so lived.

             I have no doubt that often when duty calls it feels like an imposition coming from the outside that we often resist or even resent.  As such, I have come to believe that life is not like a jigsaw puzzle where we can expect all the pieces to fit neatly and comfortably together. There will always be jagged pieces and emotionally messy situations.

            But if we see our lives over the long range as something that we mold through practice, we can often reach the point where our fulfillment of obligation to others is something that we more smoothly internalize and simply act upon because of the type of people we have become. In briefest terms, we can reach a point in life when what we have to do is what we want to do; not always, but often.

            And then we may reach the point, if we affirm our obligations as part and parcel of the social matrix I have been describing, where we say to ourselves, “I will act on behalf of my friend, or my colleague, or the stranger, or give to charity, not because I will be rewarded if I do, or suffer if I don’t, but simply because it is the right thing to do.” 

            Once we reach this point, when there is an identity between what we need to do, what we want to do and who we are, I do believe we have created for ourselves a richer, deeper, more fulfilling humanism.

Dr. Joseph Chuman, Dec. 1, 2012



One Comment

  1. I have been feeling quite alone in my ethical journey in recent months. I have been perplexed that others I have tried to engage in the discussion have little to contribute because I had just assumed ethics is common knowledge. This is a good reminder, in 2012 or today, that I am not alone. And in fact I did learn something all those years in Ethical Culture Sunday school. Thanks Joe. -Eve Block

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