By Dr. Joseph Chuman
Narcissism – self-aggrandizement and promotion of the self to the exclusion of other concerns. Our chief executive exhibits this character trait to an extreme degree and it seems to drive his actions, utterances and policies. With the constancy of news cycles, we are bombarded with it, and it makes me want to recoil.
It also reminds me of the type of person I don’t want to be, which is the inspiration for this column.
We are humanists. Narcissists are accountable only to themselves. But to whom are humanists accountable? If we were devotees of the traditional religions, the answer to that question would be prescribed. Most of all, we would be accountable to our creator. We would live so as to fulfill God’s wishes for us, his or her command-ments. We would live, above all things, to fulfill a divine assignment and align our lives with the cosmic plan as confidently as it could be known to us. Needless to say, the religions also prescribe accountability to the community of fellow believers, at best to all humankind, and for some religions, the natural world, understood as God’s creation. But our accountability to other people and to the natural world ultimately trace back to God, as the source of all being. But humanists who generally do not affirm a divine creator dwell in a more open, existential environ-ment. The targets of our accountability are not given. They must be affirmed of our own experience.
So I return to my original question: To whom or to what are humanists accountable? I think there are several general responses to this, none of which alone is adequate but together, I believe, are compelling, even though they may not harmonize perfectly together.
Values underlying issues of the day
David Brooks of “The New York Times” has written a series of columns recently on the need for greater community in American life in the light of the breakdown of institutions and the epidemic of loneliness, which he asserts plagues American life. I have a confession to make (I can hear the criticisms coming!): I often don’t agree with the conclusions Brooks arrives at on specific political issues, and I find him oily and too self-impressed, but I do like the level, the voice with which he addresses the problems of American society. He is often concerned with the values that underlie issues of the day, as opposed to merely commenting on events that catch his attention. He burrows a bit deeper. It is a perspective that as an Ethical leader I myself adopt. Ethical leaders are not journalists, but need to dig deeper to illuminate the dynamics, especially the ethical dynamics, that animate and drive the issues that we confront as individuals and as a society.
I broadly agree with his analysis, which plays down the excesses of individualism while highlighting our social and communal nature and needs. I broadly agree because Ethical Culture, to which I have dedicated my professional life, as well as my personal life, to the sincere extent that I strive to live out its values, is very much a social philosophy. To be clear, I fervently defend the rights of the individual. I am, after all, a professor of human rights and have long been active in defending civil liberties. But I believe that our individualism does not exist in opposition to society; it emerges out of our active engagement with society and community.
A web of obligation
This social outlook begins to provide an answer to my question. That answer is that we humanists are accountable to other human beings. We live not only for ourselves but within a web of obligation to others to whom we are accountable. The French-Jewish philoso-pher Emmanuel Levinas held that the mere existence of the other sets in motion this obligation.
But what about accountability to ourselves? Yes, this, too. When I ponder this side of the equation, what comes to mind is our accountability to conscience. We need, as ethical human beings, to strive to be true to ourselves and to do the right thing as we understand it. Conscience, in my moral lexicon, speaks with a strong voice. But as lofty and noble as the claims of conscience are, deeper reflection leads to the conclusion that fulfilling the demands of conscience can at times be selfish. What if we satisfy our conscience in a way that does harm to others? In a way that violates our social obligations? Which is the higher calling?
Such is a dilemma that striving to live a moral life can sometimes bring. And responding to this dilemma requires that we dig even deeper into the recesses of life and ethical thought.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.