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Ethical Manifold
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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 following formulas:

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 uniqueness.

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)


(1) Say not part or element, but member, to distinguish the components of the ethical manifold from such concepts as are used in mathematics and physical science.

(2) The distinction between value and worth must be stressed for it is capital. Value is subjective. The worth notion is the most objective conceivable. Value depends on the wants or needs of our empirical nature. That has value which satisfies our needs or wants. We possess value for one another, for the reason that each of us has wants which the others alone are capable of satisfying, as in the case of sex, of cooperation, in the vocation, etc. But value ceases when the want or need is gratified. The value which one human being has for another is transient. There are, in the strict sense, no permanent values. The value which the majority have for the more advanced and developed members of a community is small; from the standpoint of value most persons are duplicable and dispensable. Consider only the ease with which factory labor is replaced, in consequence of the prolific fertility of the human race. The custom of speaking of ethics as a theory of values is regrettable. It evidences the despair into which many writers on ethics have fallen as to the possibility of discovering an objective basis for rightness.

(3) But the verification itself is the clearer and more explicit vision of the ethical relation, as it ought to be.

(4) The term "ethical unit" used above should be found useful. The chemists have found the concept of the atom useful, though no one has ever seen an atom. And all the sciences have recourse to similar inventions, -- such as the electron, or the ion, or energy regarded as a substance, and in mathematics the sublimated, space-transcending concepts. Looking through the eyes of science, we are taught to see, underlying the grossest forms of matter, imaginary entities which are well-nigh metaphysical in nature. Science starts from the realm of the sensible, and constructs its super-rarefied devices on mechanical models. Then it leaves the field of the intuitively perceptible, and rises by the path of analogy into realms where the notions with which it operates are no longer imaginable. I do not wish, in speaking of an ethical, invisible, and unimaginable entity, to derive the postulation of this conception from science. The ethical concept transcends wholly the field of sensible experience. It is not discovered by way of analogy. It is frankly and overtly super-sensible. It is not exemplified in the effects it produces in the world of volition as the most nearly metaphysical concepts of science are exemplified in the field of phenomena by the recurrences or uniformities which they serve to account for. The ethical concepts are not verified by their results at all, not by recurrences of phenomena, but by the persistence of the effort to attain that which is finitely never attained, and by the more explicit perception of theideal itself which follows the persistent effort; for as has been shown above, when face to face with fundamental truth, seeing is believing. But I allude to these matters in order to show that the movement in ethical thinking represented by the system which I propose is not contrary to the present-day movement in science, but in line with it, though beyond it. It does not ask leave of science; it does not base its certainty on scientific precedent; but neither does it expect a veto from the lips of science. The worthwhileness of scientific endeavor itself depends at bottom on the sanction which the ideal of the complete carrying out of the reality-producing functions lends to their incomplete execution in the world of the space and time manifold.

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