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Felix Adler, An Ethical Philosopy of Life

Chapter VII
The Supreme Ethical Rule: Act So As To Elicit the Best In Others and Thereby In Thy Self(1)

It is difficult to see the potentially divine nature in men when masked by the forbidding traits which human beings so often exhibit.

A number of vital considerations will now have to be emphasized as pertinent to the subject we are dealing with.

The first point is that the character of every person contains contrary elements.(2)  Let the two kinds of qualities be called the fair and foul, or more simply still the plus and minus traits. The bright qualities, the plus traits, are undoubtedly more predominant in some, the dark or minus traits in others. But potential plus qualities exist in the worst characters, and potential minus traits may be surmised, and on scrutiny will be found, in those whom the world most admires.

A second point is mentioned as an hypothesis not indeed as yet verified, but I believe verifiable, namely, that certain defined minus traits will be found to go with certain plus traits. Wherever bright qualities stand out we are likely to meet with corresponding dark qualities or dispositions, and conversely. There are, I am persuaded, uniformities of correspondence between the plus and minus traits, and it would be of greatest practical help in judging others and ourselves if these uniformities could be worked out. A kind of chart might then be made, a description of the principal types of human character, with the salient defects and qualities that belong to each. Extensive statistical treatment of a multitude of biographies would lay the foundation for such an undertaking; also sketches of the prominent characteristics of nations, like those furnished by Fouillée would be utilized. Also the study of the character traits of primitive races as partially carried out by Waitz in his Anthropology and the character types of animals, so far as accessible to observation, might be used for comparison. Instructed in this manner, we should, on coming into contact with others, either on their attractive or repellent side, be prepared to expect and to allow for the opposite traits. And we should learn to see ourselves in the same manner; we should see our empirical character as it really is, the dark traits side by side with the bright. The courage to wish to know the truth about one's self is rare, and when the revelation comes or is forced upon us, it often breeds a kind of sick self-disgust and despair. The saint at such times in moral agony declares himself to be the worst of sinners. He has striven to attain a higher than the average moral level, and behold he has slipped into only deeper depths. The minister of religion, the revered teacher, the political and social leader, when abruptly shocked into self-examination by some evidence of grossness or deviousness in themselves, no longer to be glossed over or explained away, are fated to go through the same ordeal. A profound despondency is the consequence. It is not only the badness now exposed, but the previous state of hypocrisy that seems in the retrospect intolerable. Some persons live what is called a double life in the face of the world. But who is quite free from living a double life in his own estimate? Achilles said of himself (greek omitted) ("cumberer of the ground"). Many a man has echoed that cry with a bitterness of soul more poignant than that which Achilles felt when he uttered the words.

Now the principle of the duality(3) of character traits, or as we may also designate it, the principle of the polarity of character, applies to our natural or empirical character, and our empirical character is not our moral character. The distinction between the two will serve, as we shall presently see, to rescue us from the state of moral dejection just described. But first it is indispensable to fix attention on the natural character, to recognize that we are composite, each and every one of us, and that the all-important thing to know is which of our plus qualities go with which of the minus. Here the psychologist can help us. Here a great field is open for a practical science of ethology. This would give us a more adequate knowledge of the empirical character, the substratum in which ethical character is to be worked out.

Point three opens up a great enlightenment in regard to the whole subject. It is that the distinction must be drawn, and ever be kept in mind, between the bright and dark qualities and the virtues and vices. The bright qualities are not of themselves virtues. The dark qualities are not of themselves vices. To suppose that they are, to confuse the bright with virtue and the dark with viciousness, is the most prevalent of moral fallacies.(4)

A person is found to be kind, sympathetic, gentle, and on this score is said to be virtuous or good. But gentleness, kindness, a sympathetic disposition, while they lend themselves to the process of being transformed into virtues, are not of themselves moral qualities at all, but gifts of nature, happy endowments for which the possessor can claim no merit. And sullenness, irascibility, the hot, fierce cravings and passions with which some men are cursed, are not vices, though it is obvious how readily they turn into vices as soon as the will consents to them.

The question becomes urgent: What then is a virtue? The fair qualities are the basis, the natural substratum of the virtues., the material susceptible of transformation into virtues. In what does the transformation consist? When does it take place? The answer is, when the plus quality has been raised to the Nth degree, and in consequence the minus qualities are expelled. This result, of course, is never actually achieved. The concept here presented is a concept of limits. But in the direction defined lies growth and continuous development not of but toward ethical personality. In public addresses I have often said: Look to your virtues, and your vices will take care of themselves. I can put this thought more exactly by saying: Change your so-called virtues into real virtues: raise your plus qualities to the Nth degree. And the degree to which you succeed in so doing you can judge of by the extent, to which the minus qualities are in process of disappearing.

One or two examples will illustrate the pivotal thought thus reached in the exposition of our ethical system with respect to its practical consequences. To raise to the Nth degree is to infinitize a finite quality, or to enhance it in the direction of infinity. I shall take two examples, one self-sacrifice, the other justice, both viewed in their finite aspect as plus traits requiring to be subjected to the process of transformation.

The empirical motive of self-sacrifice may be egocentric or altruistic. In egocentric self-sacrifice, doing for others is a means of exalting the idea of self to the mind of the doer. He uses others, not as sacred personalities, worth while on their own account, but subtly exploits them by benefiting them. He uses them as objects by means of which to achieve a finer self-aggrandizement. He may indeed go to the utmost lengths of devotion for his friends. He may perform for them the most repulsive offices. He may give freely of his means, denying himself meanwhile comforts and even necessaries in order perhaps to extricate them from pecuniary difficulties. He may contribute in refined ways to their pleasure. As a physician he may watch night after night at the bedside of the sick, foregoing sleep though fatigued to the point of exhaustion in order to be at hand to mitigate the pains of the sufferer, jeopardizing his own health in order to assist others in recovering theirs. Yes, he may even give of his own blood to renew their ebbing life. In all this be will look for no material compensation. Gratitude, especially gratitude expressed in words, is repugnant to him. The lofty image of self which he strives to create would be marred if any such coarsely selfish motive were allowed to intrude. All that he requires, but this he does inexorably require, is that his beneficiaries shall silently confess their dependence on him, that he shall see the exalted image of himself mirrored in their attitude, and that they shall move in their orbits as satellites around his sun. The egocentrism is veiled and easily confounded with the purest moral disposition. But it is there all the same, and the proof of it is that the very same person who is thus friendly to his friends, and an unstinting benefactor to those who pay him the kind of homage he exacts, is capable of behaving with almost inconceivable hardness and even cruelty toward others who will not stand in this subordinate relation to him, or who in any way wound his self-esteem. Sister Dora, serving enthusiastically in a small-pox hospital, while neglecting the nearer duties at home, intent on dramatic, histrionic self-representation, is likewise a palpable instance of egocentric self-sacrifice.

The self is precious on its own account. The nonself, the other, equally so. A virtuous act is one in which the ends of self and of the other are respected and promoted jointly. It is an act which has for its result the more vivid consciousness of this very jointness. Egocentric self-sacrifice errs on the one side, the personality of another being made tributary to the empirical self, despite the actual benefits conferred. Altruistic self-sacrifice errs in the opposite way. In it the personality of the self is effaced or made servile to the interests or supposed interests of another. Not, let me add, to the real interests, for the spiritual interests are never achievable at the expense of other spiritual natures. The wife or mother is an instance, who slaves for husband or children, obliterating herself, never requiring the services due to her in return and the respect for her which such services imply, degrading herself and thereby injuring the moral character of those whom she pampers. An historic instance of the altruistic error on a larger scale is afforded by the Platonic scheme of scientific breeding under state supervision, a suggestion revived in modern times, in which freedom of choice between the sexes, and the integrity of the personality of those concerned, is sacrificed to the supposed interests of the community. Nietzsche's doctrine may possibly be regarded as a compound of the two errors described, the Superman representing the egocentrism, while altruistic self-sacrifice, entire annulment of their personalities is expected of the multitude.

It is easy to distinguish the plus and minus qualities in the characters of the egocentrist and the altruist: in the one case, beneficence combined with hardness; in the other, service of others combined with absence of self-respect.

The second example to be briefly considered is the finite trait commonly mistaken for justice. A typical illustration of this is presented by the merchant who ascribes to himself a just character on the ground that he is punctual in the payment of his debts, that his word is as good as his bond; or by the manufacturer who entertains the same opinion of himself because he pays scrupulously the wages on which he has agreed with his employees.(5)  One wonders that so great and profound a notion as that of justice should be understood so superficially, restricted to such narrow limits, and that rational human beings should claim to possess so lofty a virtue on the score of credentials so inadequate. The reason is that the empirical substratum of justice is mistaken for the ethical virtue itself. This substratum may be described as an inborn propensity toward order in things and in relations, a natural impatience of loose fringes, a certain mental neatness. Hence insistence on explicitly defined arrangements and on simple, over-simple formulas. These are favored because they keep out of sight the complex elements which if considered might introduce uncertainty and possibly -disorder into the situation. Thus a manufacturer, impatient of looseness, over-rating explicitness, will be led to grasp at a formula of justice which reduces it to the bare literal performance of a fixed agreement, no matter with what unfreedom, owing to the pressure of want, it was entered into by the wage-earners, and no matter how deteriorating the effect of the insufficient wage may prove to be on their standard of living.

But it is a far cry from this empirical predisposition to the sublime ethical idea itself. The idea of "the just" as exemplified in any act performed by me includes the totality of all those conditions which make for the development of the ethical personality of others in so far as it can be affected by my action. To do a just act is to act with the totality of these conditions in view, in order to promote the end in view, which is the liberation of personality or at least the idea of personality in .others and in myself.

It is thus evident that a just act -- an ideally, perfectly just act, -- can be performed by no man. First because the right conditions of human development are but very imperfectly known, and are only brought to light by slow degrees. Secondly because even as to the known conditions of justice, for instance the abolition of the evils of the present industrial wage system, a single employer, or even a group of well-intentioned employers can bring about the desired changes only to a very limited extent.

Raising the finite quality underlying justice to the Nth degree therefore means opening an illimitable prospect. The ethical effort in this, as in all other instances, is destined to be thwarted. It is an effort in the direction of the finitely unattainable; the effort itself, with the conviction it fosters as to the reality of that which is finitely unattainable, being the ethically valuable outcome. The just man, therefore, in any proper sense of the word, is one who is convinced of the fact that he is essentially not a just man, and a deep humility as to both his actual and possible achievements will distinguish him from the "just man" so-called, who arrogates to himself that sublime attribute on the ground of the scrupulous payment of debts, or the fulfilment of contracts. Humility in fact will be found to be the characteristic mark of those who have attained ethical enlightenment in any direction. It is the outward sign from which we may infer that the finite quality in them is in process of being raised to the Nth degree.

I have given these few specific illustrations of my meaning, but what has been said applies equally to any of the plus qualities. The plus qualities are the ones which are favorable for transformation into the infinitized ethical quality. The ethical principle itself is one and indivisible. Amy one of the plus qualities, when ethicized, will conduce to the same result. From whatever point of the periphery of the ethical sphere we advance toward the center we shall meet with the same experience. Thus self-affirmation or egoism when in idea raised to the Nth degree will reveal that the highest selfhood can be achieved only when the unique power of a spiritual being is deployed in such a way as to challenge the unique, distinctive power that is lodged in each of the infinite multitude of spiritual beings that are partners with us in the eternal life.

And altruism, or care for others, at its spiritual climax, will conversely involve the recognition that true service to others can only be perfectly performed when the power that is resident in ourselves is exercised in its most vigorous, most spontaneous, and most self-affirming mode. And as the diverse empirical qualities which we observe in one another all appear to be modes of or cognate with these two principal tendencies-the self-affirming and the altruistic-the method of transfiguring empirical qualities which has been set forth may be found to apply in every instance.


(1) Or more exactly act so as to elicit the sense of unique distinctive selfhood, as interconnected with all other distinctive spiritual beings in the infinite universe.

(2) The conception underlying Robert L. Stevenson's sketch of Jekyl and Hyde is to be taken seriously, and applied without exception mutatis mutandis to every human being whatsoever (but see footnote p. 76). It is not original with Stevenson. The French, who are perhaps the keenest psychologists, long ago invented the apercu that everyone has the defects of his qualities.

(3) The use of the term duality is not intended to exclude the possibility of multiplicity, but only to call attention to one striking bifurcation of human character.

(4) Stevenson falls into this error. He confounds Jekyl with the virtuous and Hyde with the vicious side of character. In reality the one should stand for the empirical plus traits, the other for the empirical minus traits.

(5) Contract-keeping is peculiarly, the moral rule applicable to mercantile transactions. To apply it without modification to the dealings of employers and wage-earners is to intrude the mercantile standard into the industrial sphere. This is what we are now witnessing, The industrial standard is only in process of development and clarification, and the accepted mercantile standard is really in conflict with it. Among merchants it is of the very essence of their transactions that a contract shall not be invalidated, despite the injurious consequences to one or the other party which it may turn out later on to involve. The security of commercial transactions would be gone if revision of the contract should be permitted whenever consequent loss appears. Again, and this is particularly important, merchants are assumed to be on a footing of equality in dealing with one another, equally free in accepting or rejecting a proposed contract., equally competent to take care of their respective interests. The relation of employers to wage-earners however is not that of economic equals, but of the economically stronger with the economically weaker. And this difference is of cardinal importance in determining the rule of justice as it should obtain in the industrial sphere. I do not of course intend to imply that an agreement between employer and wage-earners once made should not as a rule be kept as scrupulously as that between merchant and merchant. What I affirm is that in view of the greatness of the injury possibly inflicted upon the weaker, the economically stronger party is bound at least to share the responsibility with the weaker for the essential fairness of the terms of the agreement before it is finally completed. Nay, I would go a step farther, and say that despite the indispensable condemnation of contract-breaking, provision should be made for possible revision in cases where it can be shown that exceptional hardships have appeared, unforeseen and unforeseeable at the time when the agreement was made.

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