Felix Adler: An Ethical Philosophy of Life.
Chapter V: The Ideal of the Whole and the Ethical Manifold
Original copyright 1918. Reprinted 1986, Ethica Press.
The ethical manifold, conceived of as unified, furnishes, or rather is, the ideal of
the whole. The ethical manifold is the true universe, not "Universe" in the
sense in which the word is too laxly used at present to designate those fragmentary and in
many respects unconnected lines of experience which might better by way of discrimination
be called World.
The ideal of the whole, as the terms imply, must fulfill two conditions: it must be a
whole, that is, include all manifoldness whatsoever; and it must be ideal, or perfectly
unified. In such an ideal whole the two reality-producing functions of the human mind
would find their complete fruition.
Point 1. -- The totality of manifoldness must be comprised.
Point 2. -- The connectedness must be without flaw,
From point one it follows that the ethical manifold cannot be spatial or temporal,
since juxtaposition and sequence lapse into indefiniteness, abounding without ceasing, but
never attaining or promising the attainment of totality. Our first conclusion then is that
the ethical manifold is non-temporal and non-spatial.
Furthermore it is necessary and decisive for the theoretical construction here
attempted to keep sharply In view, that the manifoldness may not be derived from the
unity, or conversely. The manifold remains forever manifold. This means that in the
ethical manifold each member(1) will differ uniquely from all
the rest, and preserve his irreducible singularity. The member of the ethical manifold was
not created by the One or any One. He is not derived as effect from any cause.
Causality does not apply to the ethical manifold, being a -category of spatial sequence.
The member of the ethical manifold, or the ethical unit, as we may now call him (I say him
metaphorically and provisionally) is unbegotten, induplicable, unique. In the ethical
manifold each infinitesimal member is indispensable, inasmuch as he is one of the totality
of intrinsically unlike differentiae. A duplicate would be superfluous. Inclusion implies
indispensableness; no member acquires a place within the ethical universe save on the
score of his title, as one of the possible modes of being that are required to complete
the totality of manifoldness.
But the reality-producing functions of the mind are two, and they act jointly. The same
manifold that is regarded as the scene of irreducible manifoldness, is also regarded sub
specie unitatis. The immense practical importance of holding fast to diversity as
indefeasible, and at the same time stressing the unity, will amply appear in the course of
the third Book. It is this insistence on the two aspects jointly, that
distinguishes the theory here worked out from preceding ethical philosophies, and will be
found to open new ethical applications to conduct. It is this insistence on the joint
action of the two reality-producing functions that will enable us to see in the ideal of
the whole a pattern traced, and to derive from this pattern of relations a
supreme rule of conduct. If the differences that exist among the members of the manifold
be slurred over, if the indefeasible singularity of each member be overlooked, if the many
be derived from the One, since the One is an empty concept, we shall gain no light upon
the conduct to be followed by each of the many. It is true that our notion of the
distinctive difference or the uniqueness of each ethical unit is also empty as far as
knowledge goes. The unique is incognizable. Yet we are able to apprehend, and do
apprehend, a determinate relation as subsisting between the ethical units, and this
relation supplies us with an ideal plan of the ethical universe and a first principle and
rule of ethics.' The relation is that of reciprocal universal interdependence.
Consider that an infinite number of ethical entities is presented to our minds--each of
them radically different from the rest. In what then possibly can the unity of this
infinite assemblage consist? In this -- that the unique difference of each shall be
such as to render possible the correlated unique differences of all the rest. It is in
this formula that we find the key to a new ethical system, in this conception we get our
hand firmly on the notion of right, and by means of it we discover the object which Kant
failed to find, the object to which worth attaches, the object which is so indispensable
to the ideal of the whole as to authenticate unconditional obligation or rightness in
conduct with respect to it. It is as an ethical unit, as a member of the infinite ethical
manifold, that man has worth.(2)
In accordance with the above, the first principle of ethics may be expressed in the
A. Act as a member of the ethical manifold (the infinite spiritual universe).
B. Act so as to achieve uniqueness (complete individualization-the most completely
individualized act is the most ethical).
C. Act so as to elicit in another the distinctive, unique quality characteristic of him
as a fellow-member of the infinite whole.
A and B are comprised in C. I am taking three steps toward a fuller exposition of the
meaning of the principle. To act as a member according to A is to strive to achieve
uniqueness as declared in B. To achieve uniqueness as declared in C is to seek to elicit
the diverse uniqueness in others. The actual unique quality in myself is incognizable, and
only app ears, so far as it does appear, in the effect produced by myself upon my fellows.
Hence, to advance towards uniqueness I must project dynamically my most distinctive mode
of energy upon my fellow-members.
Since the finite nature of man is a clog and screen, clouding and checking the action
of man viewed as an ethical unit, it follows that no man will ever succeed in carrying out
completely the rule which is derived from the ideal pattern. He will invariably meet with
partial frustration in his efforts to do so, and yet in virtue of his ethical character he
will always renew the effort. While in physical science the recurrence of phenomena
supplies the occasion for exemplification or verification, in conduct, or the sphere of
volition, not recurrence but the persistence of the effort after defeat is at least a help
to verification, arguing in one's self a consciousness, however obscured, of the relation
of reciprocal interdependence and of subjection to the urge or pressure thence derived.(3) It is our own reality-producing functions, exerted to
their utmost, to which we are delivered over. Hence the final formulation: So act as to
raise up in others the ideal of the relation of give and take, of universal
interdependence in which they stand with an infinity of beings like themselves, members of
the infinite universe, irreducible, like and unlike themselves in their respective
The simile that may be used is that of a ray of light which has the effect of kindling
other rays, unlike but complementary to itself. Each ethical unit, each member of the
infinite universe, is to be regarded as a center from which such a ray emanates, touching
other centers, and awakening there the light intrinsic in them. Or we may think of a
fountain from which stream forth jets of indescribable life-power-playing out of it,
playing into other life, and evoking there kindred and yet unkindred life-waves, waves
effluent and refluent. Whatever the symbolism may be, inadequate in any case, the idea of
the enmeshing of one's life in universal life without loss of distinctness--the
everlasting selfhood to be achieved on the contrary, by means of the cross-relation -- is
the cardinal point.
I have here to answer one question. By what warrant do I ascribe worth to any human
being? Where is the head deserving that this ray that streams out from me shall light upon
it? What man or woman merits that he be invested with this glory? Does not the same
objection opposed to Kant hold with respect to my own view? It is true that he found no
object at all, and sought indirectly to draw from the empty notion of obligation the
inference that man is an end per se. Perhaps it will be admitted that the supremely
worthwhile object has now been found, the holy thing (holy in two ways, as being
inviolable, reverence-inspiring, holding at a distance those who would encroach: and
intrinsically priceless as a component of the ethical manifold, as indispensable in a
perfect whole). But this object, you will say, is in the air, or in the heavens, and how
shall it be made to descend on empirical man?
My answer is that certainly I do not discover the quality of worth in people as an
empirical fact. In many people I do not even discover value. Judging from the point of
view of bare fact, many of us could very well be spared. Many are even in the way of what
is called "progress." And the suggestion of some extreme disciples of Darwin
that the degenerate and defective should be removed, or the opinion of others that
pestilence and war should be allowed to take the unpleasant business off our hands, is,
from the empirical point of view, not easily to be refuted. I can also enter into, if I do
not wholly share, the pessimistic mood with regard to actual human nature expressed by
Schopenhauer and others. To the list of repulsive human creatures mentioned by Marcus
Aurelius in one of his morning meditations, -- the back-biter, the scandal-monger, the
informer, etc. -- might be added in modern times, the white-slaver, the exploiter of
child-labor, the- fawning politician, and many another revolting type. And even more
discouraging in a way, than these examples of deepest human debasement -- the copper
natures, as Plato calls them, or the leaden natures, as we might call them -- is the
disillusionment we often experience with regard to the so-called gold natures, the
discovery of the large admixture of baser metal which is often combined with their gold.
It is imperative to acquaint oneself, nay, to impregnate one's mind thoroughly with
these contrary facts, if the doctrine of worth, the sanest and to my mind the most real of
all conceptions, is to be saved from the appearance of an optimistic illusion.
The answer to the objection is that I do not find worth in others or in myself,
I attribute it to them and to myself. And why do I attribute it? In virtue of the
reality-producing functions of my own mind. I create the ethical manifold. The pressure of
the essential rationality within me., seeking to complete itself in the perfect fruition
of these functions, i. e., in the positing of a total manifold and its total
unification, drives me forward. I need an idea of the whole in order to act rightly, in
such a way as to satisfy the dual functions within me. My own nature as a spiritual being
urges me to seek this satisfaction. This ideal whole as I have shown, is a complexus of
uniquely differentiated units. In order to advance toward uniqueness, in order to achieve
what in a word may be called my own truth, to build myself into the truth, to become
essentially real, I must seek to elicit the consciousness of the uniqueness and the
interrelation in others. I must help others in order to save myself; I must look upon the
other as an ethical unit or moral being in order to become a moral being myself. And
wherever I find consciousness of relation, of connectedness, even incipient, I project
myself upon that consciousness, with a view to awaking in it the consciousness of
universal connectedness. Wherever I can hope to get a response I test my power. Fields and
trees do not speak to me, as Socrates said, but human beings do. I should attribute worth
to stones and to animals could they respond, were the power of forming ideas, without
which the idea of relation or connectedness is impossible, apparent in them. Doubtless
stones and trees and animals, and the physical world itself, are but the screen behind
which lies the infinite universe. But the light of that universe does not break through
the screen where it is made up of stones and trees and the lower animals. It breaks
through, however faintly, where there is consciousness of relation: and wherever I
discover that consciousness I find my opportunity. It is quite possible that the men and
women upon whom I try my power will not actually respond. The complaint is often heard
from moral persons, or persons who think themselves such, that what they call the moral
plan of rousing the moral consciousness in others will not work. Perhaps the plan they
follow is not the moral plan at all, but the plan of sympathy or of some other empirically
derived rule. But be that as it may, the question is not whether we get the response but
whether we shall achieve reality or truth ourselves; in theological terms, save our own
life, by trying to elicit the response.
And here one profoundly important practical consideration will come to our aid, namely,
the sense of our own imperfection, coupled indeed with the consciousness of
inextinguishable power of moral renewal. Instead of attributing the lack of response to
the hopeless dullness of the person upon whom we labor, a sense of humility, based on the
knowledge of our own exceeding spiritual variability -- best moments followed by worst
moments, imperfect grasp on our own ideals, most irnperfect fidelity in executing
them-will lead us to turn upon ourselves, and far from permitting us to despair of others,
will impel us rather to make ourselves more fitting instruments of spiritual influence
than obviously as yet we are.(4)