Introduction to Section III
The final section discusses how to live an Ethical Humanist life. It includes a guide to relationships, social justice, and how to live a flourishing life in general. If the previous section was about the theoretical, then this section is about the practical aspects of Ethical Culture.
So, we finally get to Ethical Humanism. Adler’s thought prioritized the supersensible and ideal as the ground of ethics but it was also visionary in its respect for individual worth and for the human basis of this spiritual, ethical universe. The latter is a good description of the Humanistic understanding of life as a struggle for self expression in the interactive ethical, relational, and cultural experience of human existence.
This description of ourselves as Ethical Humanists states our place in the larger Humanist array. Life is an ethical journey made by humans living within a human perspective. We are not searching for absolute Truth, but we are making the best out of the empirical lives that we have been given.
To put it in Adlerian terms with a Pragmatist, Bergsonian twist: human beings participate in building a world together, and this process is an act of personal expression. It is an evolving fluid world of attitudes, tastes, judgments, and values, including feelings about good and evil, love and hate. Our choices are creative acts. As each human expresses her deepest feelings and thoughts in action, she creates herself, and she helps create our human world. This human world is the pure natural world filtered through the lens of human understanding; it is an ethical world of culture and relationships, of spiritual beings acting in harmony. The ethical culture we strive for is one in which each individual is encouraged to express what is best in himself.
First, it must be stated that intrinsic worth is something freely attributed to human beings, not something demanded by some ethical maxim or another. We do not have to treat others as individuals who deserve respect but the reasons to do so are staring us in the face. We can live in our individual, solipsistic worlds, or we can live in the real world of human interrelations. First, our reality is made up of individuals, nodes in the web of life. Each node is both dependent on others and independent in itself. Each has his own reason for being, his own desires, his own sense of good, and his own destiny. Worth comes with existence as an individual takes his essential place as part of the whole. Each belongs to himself as an individual, and that should be respected. Yet at its core life is a relational experience, and that relationship is with persons who are in varying degrees our equals in their own individuality. There are not ours to use simply as we wish. Viewing others merely as objects of use is a form of control and domination, not of genuine and equal interaction.
Second, believing in the intrinsic worth of human beings, besides being an acceptance of the individual character of reality, is a tool for improving our world. In the way we relate to others we help to determine how they feel about themselves, and, in turn, how we view our own existence. A world of individuals treating one another with respect as coequals is the ideal world to be forever pursued.
In this understanding of worth, Alder’s recommendation to act so as to elicit the best in others and thereby in yourself becomes a universal approach to life. Bringing out the best becomes the explanation of what it means to be good. We are not expected to endlessly searching for the absolute best within everyone. Adler’s axiom is a way of living, not a set of instructions. It is recognition of the individual nature of our world and of the nebulous quality of goodness itself. Good intentions are important but the effects of those intentions are also important. We can have benign feelings and thoughts, but we are what we manifest in the real human reality.
The proof that an action is good depends not just on one’s feelings but on its effects on others – did it bring out the best within them? If one treats people as ends in themselves, one respects their unique perspective on life. The goal is to encourage it and cooperate with it so that the individual in question can flourish.
Adler’s claim is the following: to be good is to act respectfully to the living beings around you. Good living is not making yourself good, but being a force that brings the good out of the individuals around you. One becomes oneself in action, and one becomes a good self by bringing out the best in others. Adler’s instructive advice is at once a practical approach to living well and a theory about the best way to live life. The emphasis is no longer on specific acts or obeying rules, but on one’s approach toward others. In any relationship the two parties are creating something together, and the more you both feel appreciated, the better will be the result. There is no special knowledge or goodness in us that is not developed in our relationships with the rest of life. You are what you do.
But what does that mean in actually living? In the final analysis, what is Ethical Culture’s suggestion for an approach to living?