The ancient Hebrew sage, Hillel, asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself only, what am I?” With those rhetorical questions, Hillel framed the underlying predicament of our social situation.
If we were to put those questions in a more modern idiom, we might ask, “to what extent are we individuals, and to what extent are we social beings?” How we answer these questions helps to determine how we relate to other human beings, what we can expect or demand from others, and to what extent we are responsible to other people. How we respond to these reflections lies at the very heart of our conception of ethics, and as well as out political philosophy.
The novelist, Ayn Rand, who achieved notable popularity in the mid-20th century, held to a position that we might refer to as “ethical egoism.” For Rand, such concepts as altruism or sacrifice were anathema. One lives first, foremost, if not always, for oneself —- for the enhancement of one’s own life, she wrote. If we extend ourselves to others, and it should solely be in emergencies, she argues, we do so only to uphold our own integrity, in other words, because it is of value to us as individuals. For Rand, outreach to others is never a duty, and once the emergency has passed, one should feel no sense of obligation to other people.
Rand’s image of the human being is that of the atomized individual, the person, who by nature is radically disconnected from others, who enters into associations and friendship only to the extent that they feed the self. For Rand, society is merely background, against which the life of the individual is played out. For Ayn Rand, human beings by nature have no primary fellow feelings, and no intrinsic obligations to others.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the primitive communist or collectivist. By the light of such a human image, the individual is almost totally absorbed into the group. The interests and welfare of each is subordinate to the interests and welfare of all others, understood collectively. Whereas for the ethical egoist, individual expression, creativity, even idiosyncrasy, is prized, for the collectivist, individualism is seen as diversionary from group interests and is suppressed. In a political sense, the radical individualist is concerned only with the protection of his rights; the collectivist is not concerned with rights, but with duties. When it comes to making history, the individualist tends to believe that history moves forward by virtue of the creativity, genius and energy of outstanding individuals, the so-called “great man” theory of historical change. For the collectivist, history is propelled by great economic, social, and even intellectual currents that have a life of their own, are impersonal, and operate outside of any individual human agency.
There is another difference, as well. For the individualist, all associations with others, except for relations with members of the family into which a person is born, are what we might call “contractual relationships.” Whether one belongs to a club, a church, a workers’ guild, or a neighborhood, these relations result as a matter of free choice, suggesting that the person who freely joins such an association does so to enhance his or her interests, and can freely choose to leave these associations when his or interests fail to be met. By contrast, for the collectivist, human relations are what we might call deeply organic relationships. The individual person is related to the group in the way in which the hand is related to the body. He or she is a non-detachable part of the entire organism. Relationships for the collectivist are not freely chosen; rather, they are given, they are inherited. One is born into one’s relationships, not only to family, but to the community of which one is a part, and the circumstances of one’s birth in this regard define for the person a web of responsibilities and duties, which are sustaining of life and limb, and from which one cannot exit.
Needless to say, these examples of the radical individualist and primitive communist or collectivist, are what we might call “ideal types.” They are extreme models of society that barely exist anywhere in their true form. All of us, by contrast, wherever we are in the world, live our lives, and develop political philosophies, which map out territory somewhere between these extremes.
I mention these ideal models because I think they shed light on our own political philosophies, here and now. Everyone who partakes in the political life of our country, or even if you don’t, is a political philosopher whose values govern how one will vote in elections, this election, even if you can’t articulate those values with subtlety.
Roughly speaking, these two extreme models underlie whether a person is a “liberal” or a “conservative.” “Liberal” and “conservative” have lost a lot of their precision and have changed their meanings since the founding of our Republic. But I mean to use them in the contemporary sense. In the most general terms, the contemporary conservative is closer to the poll of the “radical individualist” The contemporary liberal, is closer to the pole of the “collectivist.” But, as mentioned, both contemporary conservatives and liberals are somewhere far between these extremes.
In a certain sense, in our modern times, both liberals and conservatives are closer to the radical individual side, than the collectivist side. Because, in a certain sense, this is what it means to be “modern.” In the Middle Ages, everyone lived in a tightly hierarchical society, with God on top, kings and churchman below God, all the way down to the lowest landless serf. Everyone knew where he or she stood, and individualism was not highly prized, nor very apparent. In the 17th and 18th century that radically changed, and political authority shifted from God and king to the people themselves and democracy was born. But the democratic state was understood to be based on a contract in which individuals choose to give their power to their government in exchange for the protection of their rights. The 17th saw the birth, not only of democracy, but also the birth of the individual as well. All of us today are the legatees of that recognition — of that individualism and individual freedom that comes with it. If organic societies exist anymore in the modern world, they perhaps can only be found, not in the West, but among indigenous people and tribes in the developing world. But, with the advent of globalization, and in a world grown much smaller, it is doubtful that such traditional or organic societies exist anymore.
With the triumph of the modern world, all relations, except for the nuclear family are contractual relations; are relationships of choice. I have even heard of a child who is waging a lawsuit to divorce himself from his parents. If this suit succeeds, we might conclude that even being born into a nuclear family is constitutive of a voluntary relationship, maintained by one’s own free will; a relationship the person can choose to leave, if it doesn’t suit his or her interests. Looked at from the long sweep of history, even contemporary conservatives are liberals in the sense that they operate within our political form of government, which is, broadly speaking, a liberal creation.
Take any political issue you choose, and you can find this philosophical tension of the individualism vs. communalism underneath.
Conservatives applaud our free market economy on the grounds that it prizes individual initiative and honors individual self-reliance. Liberals, by contrast, note that a totally free economy works to the disadvantage that for many people, who by an accident of birth, which in no reasonable way is their fault, lack the skills or initiative to get ahead, or by bad luck did not inherent wealth which moves them to the top of the queue in the struggle for survival. Consequently, liberals argue for social responsibility and look to government as a agent of that responsibility, and, through its social welfare programs, to supply that support so that those whose who cannot succeed in the struggle for survival at least have enough economic resources, be it food, housing or medical care to live a dignified life. Consequently, conservatives will argue for lower taxes to put more money in the hands of individuals, while liberals will look more favorably upon taxation in order to enable government, acting in the name of all of us collectively, to ensure our social responsibility to the disadvantaged.
Or, take the controversy over gun control. Conservatives will generally favor the right of the individual to own guns, whereas liberals will generally look to the issue of public safety, and therefore be willing to place limits on individual rights.
With virtually all issues, be it government regulation, environmental protection, health care, the funding of social security, affirmative action, physician assisted suicide, abortion and myriad other issues, this tension between individual rights and social obligations, lies beneath them. Admittedly these issues and the arguments used in defending one side or the other can be very nuanced and complex. Often they don’t fit into the neat paradigm defining liberal and conservatives as I have sketched. On the issue of defense spending, for example, conservatives are usually willing to have the government spend more in order to provide for collective defense, recognizing that the common defense is one of the traditional roles of government, whereas, liberals tend to be more skeptical. Despite a commitment to individualism, conservatives often tend to give more deference to tradition and the authority of past, which sometimes leads conservatives to more of a communal position. Because of this greater regard for tradition and keeping things as they are, conservatives may feel a stronger sense of communalism when it comes to preserving the social bonds in the smaller associations of life, the family, the neighborhood the small town, represented in rural America. On the other hand, contemporary liberals, while looking favorably to government as a repository for social welfare, at the same time fear government, as do conservatives, as being potentially tyrannical, and therefore will defend, for example, the individual right of free speech, and the civil liberties agenda which very much is vested in the rights of the individual. These various dynamics lead to often complex and surprisingly creative political positions. But my point is that, as mentioned, behind almost all political positions we can find this tension that pits individualism against social responsibility. The question is where does my individualism end and my social responsibility begin? Do I live primarily for myself? Or, do I live primarily for others? What is my philosophy of the person in society? What kind of creature am I?
Ethical Culture is a humanistic movement. It is a movement committed to molding what we might call “ethical personalities.” It is also a movement deeply invested in the world, in the life of society. As such, it has a philosophy of the human being, and therefore, it is a good place for us, and especially for us as Ethical Culturists, to look for answers to these questions.
For the 128 years of its existence, Ethical Culture has been built on the vision of its founder, Felix Adler, which, despite that expanse of time, still glows, however dimly with his moral and political philosophy. In personal terms it this vision, this concept of the human image, which I find one of the most attractive and inspirational aspects of Ethical Culture.
To the question: “Are we primarily individuals, or primarily social?” Adler had a very well worked out and sophisticated answer. Adler was neither an ethical egoist, nor a a radical individualist. For him, society did not merely serve as the background against which the life of the individual is played out. We don’t simply use other people for our own purposes, however benevolent and sublime those purposes may be. Nor, was he a communist for whom the life of the individual is submerged and subordinated and lost within the collective.
Adler was a deeply metaphysical, and at times, difficult thinker. He had a religious view of reality in which he postulated a spiritual and ideal universe. In that universe, transcending the material world in which we live, all human souls, he believed, were bound together in a single, timeless organism, which he referred to with the ungainly title of the “Infinite Spiritual Manifold.” This spiritual, ideal, realm is characterized by the existence of individual members who are all bound together in such a way that the behavior of one affects all other members, and because we are all interconnected, any action by that one member reciprocally returns to have an influence on the one who initiated it. The idea animating this scheme is what is called “organicism.” An analogy drawn from biology might be such that if you are having a problem with one organ the body, say, the kidney, that problem will affect all other organs, as well as the metabolism of your body as a whole. Likewise, changes effected in all the other organs will reciprocally affect the kidney. All the organs have their own discrete functions, but they are also linked to all other parts of the body.
Adler believed that we are all so linked to each other. This ideal view of reality, which is impersonal, Adler averred, provides the blueprint, the template, for how we are related to each other, and suggested how we need to ethically behavior toward one another. It is because we are all reciprocally tied to each that Adler derived his supreme ethical rule, “Act in such a way that you elicit the best from others, and you will elicit the best yourself.”
While I am skeptical of Adler’s metaphysics, I think his spiritual blueprint is a marvelously useful and inspiring metaphor. It also provides an answer to the question of whether we are primarily individuals, or primarily social. Adler’s answer is that we are neither primarily one nor the other. We are neither detached, atomized individuals, nor are we collectivistically absorbed into a social mass in which our individualism is lost. Rather, our personal selves are both individual and social at the same time.
Politically this means that we as individuals need to protect our rights. But for Adler, since we are organically connected to the entirely family of human beings, we no less have responsibilities and duties to others. Throughout its history of social reform, Ethical Culture could and did and does inspire action by appeal to our responsibility to those who are disadvantaged through its support of the Labor Movement, the building of settlement houses and the housing of the homeless, for example. But at the same time, it could help create the American Civil Liberties Union for the defense of individual rights.
As I have grown older I have grown to appreciate more and more the sense of interconnection with others and the richness it brings. It is part of the maturing of my humanism through time. The life of the individual separated from others, and perhaps dedicated to the defense of individual rights alone, may play extremely an useful purpose, maybe even heroic, but I have come to believe that it can also be a relatively shallow and isolated life. Politically, a life committed to only protecting the rights of the individual, makes the mistake that rights are commensurate with life. The defense of rights may be necessary to keep us all free, but rights are not commensurate with life. Rights alone, l believe, do not console, they do not celebrate, they do not dance, they do not sing, they do not provide warmth or sustenance. They do not provide a sense of belonging, significance, love, friendship, charity, devotion, sanctity, forgiveness or forgiveness. The experience of these very human things comes only from an appreciation of the human bond, from an indwelling sense of how our lives are embedded in the lives of other people. This appreciation is also the wellspring of sense of responsibility toward others.
It is perhaps only in maturity that we can begin to move beyond egoism, and move beyond what I am calling “radical individualism.” When we are young, we need to fortify our egos in order to survive. But in the process of shoring up our egos we perhaps become blinded to the reality that we are extraordinarily dependent on other people for our survival, even for our identities in the deepest sense. That we are dependent on others for our physical survival, is quite easy to recognize. Without the farmer to grow our food, and all the intermediaries who bring food to our table, most of us would die within a short time. What is far less obvious is that the language we speak, the culture we enjoy, the intellectual life we pursue, the thoughts we think, the values we hold, we did not create ourselves. Rather we are the inheritors of all these things that have been deeded to us by past generations and by the society of which we are a part. It is as if our individual egos are the tip of the iceberg. While beneath the surface, unseen by us, is the massive repository of the accumulated fund of human experiences of which we are the beneficiaries. We did not create this fund, though we live off of it. The realization of this gift and our dependence on others for shaping us into who we are, I believe, is a sublime realization that connects us in a comforting way with others and with human species. It also suggests that we do not live for ourselves alone, but that we have responsibilities and duties to others with whom we are so connected. The self, I believe, is not solely individual; the self is also social. Just declare that as a function of your individual rights you are planning to commit suicide, and you might be surprised to learn how many people will claim a piece of you!
While I have dedicated much of conscious life to defending the rights of the individual, and now spend a lot of time teaching about rights to my students at Columbia and elsewhere, I do not define myself as a radical individualist. I think it was part of the genius of Ethical Culture, and Felix Adler’s vision, that he did not create Ethical Culture as a membership organization for individuals. Rather, he created a congregational movement, recognizing that for ethical growth to take place and be sustained we need one another, not only to receive fresh ethical experiences, but to shore up our own moral conviction. Unsupported by others, our ethical values, like muscles that go unused, become flabby and distorted. Ethical Culture is nothing if it is not active engagement with the lives of other people.
In this regard, Einstein, who was seemingly a solitary genius, and who often worked alone, did not see himself in individualist terms, though by his own admission he was a loner. He recognized that his discoveries rested on the insights of his predecessors and on the community of scientists of which he was apart. It was this appreciation that led him to write in 1932:
How strange is the lot of us mortal! Each of us is here for a brief journey; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people—first of al for those upon whose smiles and well being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of others, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.
I recently discovered while doing some research that there was an Ethical Culture Society in Zurich, Switzerland to which Einstein was a frequent visitor when he lived and worked there in the late 1890s. It is not a coincidence, since Einstein shared our social and political values.
Ethical Culture, I believe, teaches that we are not individuals alone; that we are deeply embedded in a boundless web of interdependent relations with others. To paraphrase the words of Hillel, “we are not for ourselves only.” But this realization still leaves us with a question, and that is “where do we draw the boundaries between ourselves and our responsibilities to others?” As mortals, our resources and energies are assuredly limited. How much do we marshal for our own egos, and how much to expend ourselves in support of our fellow human beings? To put this in monetary terms, how much of my income do I keep, and how much do I give to those who are needier than I am? Felix Adler had an answer for this, too. And his answer was 10%! In the early years of Ethical Culture, Adler formed an association in the New York Society of its most devoted members; those who most seriously wanted to put into practice its ethical ideals and live them out. Among the vows one had to take to participate in this exclusive group, which he inelegantly called, “The Union for the Higher Life”, was the pledge that 10% of one’s income would be given to the poor.
I suspect in our less authoritarian times, our members would be less likely to make such a pledge (though I bet Ethical Culture would immediately become more attractive in the public eye, if we did so!).
Unfortunately, I don’t think there is really an authoritative answer to this question as to where we draw the boundary between what we give to ourselves and what we give to others. As modern people, it is up to us to make this decision. But the absence of an absolute answer converts the question into a task.
It is the mission of Ethical Culture and the very goal of ethical education to make more vivid in the eyes of our members, the lines of connection between ourselves and the incumbent responsibility to others that these connections imply.
What is ethical education? Ethical education means sharpening our conscience and expanding our powers of empathy. It means being able to move beyond self-interest and beyond the natural affections of family, ethnicity and those who are just like us. It means being able to peer across the chasm that divides us from those who are not one of us, and widen the circle of inclusion, to recognize the humanity that we are they share. It is to recognize that though someone is of a different culture, skin color, gender or way of life, that we find strange, he or she shares with us a common capacity for suffering, for human longing. It is to understand that they grieve at the loss of their loved ones, can feel the pain of loneliness, and like us, yearn for warmth, understanding, caring and love.
I don’t believe that we gain this ethical education through reading books, or listening to erudite lectures, or from merely thinking about it. Rather, this ethical education, which I like to call “empathy education” is more a matter of feeling than it of intellect. We grow ethically, I believe, primarily through experience, experience which sensitizes and educates our emotions. We grow by encountering the other; pushing aside our fears and our prejudices, and leaving ourselves open to listen to their stories. For we sensitize our emotions and expand our empathy best, not through didacticism, but through narrative.
And so I would like to end my address this morning by telling a story, which I heard just this past week, and so well exemplifies the common bond that expands the circle of humanity and speaks to the responsibility that flows toward others across the chasm of difference.
I have attended a seminar for human rights scholars at Columbia. Among the participants, who is now visiting professor at Columbia, is Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. In her distinguished career as human rights commissioner Mary Robinsion has translated her historical appreciation of the Irish potato famine of the late 1480s into a special mission to assist the poor around the globe.
As the story goes, word of the suffering and destitution of the Irish during the famine traveled across the Atlantic and came to the attention of the Choctaw Indian tribe of Oklahoma. The Choctaw had known great suffering of their own. In 1831 they were forcibly relocated by President Andrew Jackson from their land in Mississippi and moved 500 miles west to the wastes of Oklahoma and placed on a reservation. During this forced transfer, of the 20,000 Choctaw Indians, it is estimated that 10,000 died along the way of hunger and disease. Nevertheless, despite their own suffering – and undoubtedly because of it – the Choctaw were able to raise $170 that they sent to Ireland – to a people they did not know and to a foreign land they could scarcely imagine, in order to relieve the suffering of the Irish. Mary Robinson went on to say that when she became president of Ireland on an official visit to the United States in 1992, she made a special trip to the Choctaw Indians to personally thank them for the assistance that their ancestors had given to her own people to long ago.
Dr. Joseph Chuman
3 October 2004