“Even Better Than the Golden Rule” Opening Words from Sun. October 17 by Matthew Hile

Good morning. Even though I am an old white guy, I share my pronouns, he and his. Over the years I have served the Society on a variety of committees and taskforces. Until recently, I was our web master. However, I became concerned that the word “master” has both gendered and racial connotations that seemed out of keeping with our beliefs. So, I am announcing today that I have become our “webadmin.”

As webadmin, I try to make information about our Society’s current activities, history, and philosophy, easily available. As part of this effort, I am converting a document that Jeff Hornback intended to offer as his dissertation into an online friendly format.

Jeff was the sixth leader of this Society, serving 33 years from 1951-1984. During his tenure, in 1965, this building was dedicated. As a point of reference, our first Sunday was Jeff’s last Sunday. So, saving you the trouble of doing the math, Allison and I have been members for some 37 years. (As a side note if you are interested in helping proofread this project, please contact me.)

But, back to my story.

Jeff’s document “The philosophical sources and sanctions of the founders of Ethical Culture” was written in the early ’80s with the first chapter entitled “Felix Adler and the organic ideal.”

Adler was the founder of our ethical culture movement. Today, the organic ideal is stated in a phrase that will be familiar to our members, “To bring out the best in others and thereby in ourselves.”

As I was working with this document the language Adler first used to describe the organic ideal tickled my fancy.

Philosophers of the late 18 th and early 19 th centuries had a way with words. A way that causes more modern
readers to scratch their heads, or perhaps, nod off. I liken it to a word puzzle that we need to tease apart to
understand the meaning.

My favorite was a 1904 version which reads. “So act as to elicit what is autotelic (that is mentally and morally unique) in the self of others, and thereby develop what is autotelic in thyself….” (Adler, 1904). That just rolls off the tongue, don’t you think? While I am sure “autotelic” is a great word for you crossword puzzlers (though only 9 points for scrabblers), I had never heard it before. The dictionary defines autotelic as “having within itself the purpose of its existence…” That is every person is important and unique. (If this is a new word for you as well, you can go home and casually drop it into a conversation this afternoon.)

Let me be clear at this juncture, I am not a philosopher, nor do I pretend to be one on the internet. But I am a psychologist and appreciate the power of particular words and know that real philosophers are very careful with their words. So, what did Adler mean?

I have often heard this described as our version of the golden rule.

  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  • To bring out the best in others and thereby in ourselves.

While, at first blush, they sound similar, in Adler’s view, they were definitely not the same. He described the golden rule as the notion that there is “one” way to be moral. A “What Would Jesus Do” mindset.

But Adler asked “Can … any individual serve as a universal pattern upon which all human beings may fashion their conduct?” (Adler, 1910). His conclusion (translated into a 21 st century vernacular), No.

The Golden Rule assumes that the way I want to be treated is the way everyone else wants to be treated. But in fact, as individuals, and as groups, we are different and want different things.

My understanding is circumscribed by my experiences in the world. To elicit the best in a new immigrant, a Black American, a transgender teen, a woman, a person with conservative beliefs, I must first be consciously curious and open to see the world through their eyes.

This is a process, an interaction, an unfolding. I cannot go to a book and look up the “correct” answer. My view of the world, based on my experiences, is unlikely to be the same as theirs. I need to learn their autotelic expression. (See how easy it is to drop that word into a conversation?)

Another important difference with the golden rule is that we are not doing unto others. “Doing” treats “those people” an object on which to act. We seek to “elicit,” to bring forth, others’ views of the world, by treating them fairly and kindly, and appreciating their unique perspectives.

Adler suggested that we seek those unlike ourselves and learn from the differences between us, both as individuals and groups. Those differences help us understand together what is ethical.

In today’s world we see more and more different groups emerging. While pundits call this out as a problem, we need to see it as an opportunity. To paraphrase the 1911 Adler, the purpose of human life … is to gain new understandings among these disparate groups. Not sterile or contemplative, but a dynamic understanding that prompts new activity. And that this new activity leads to newer understanding, and this again to renewed activity, and so on without end. (Adler, 1911).

It is these interactions, and the growth that results, that is at the heart of our ethical practice.

After thinking about this for the past few weeks I finally understood that the phrase really means that it takes my best self to bring out the best selves of those whom I do not know, or with whom I disagree.

With this process, as an old white guy, I really cannot take umbrage at suggestions that we change the name of a military base or remove a statue of an individual who engaged in atrocities if I really see what those oppressed experience in that name or statue.

So as an old white guy, as it true for all of us, I develop my autotelic self from the world around me by using my senses, mind, and feelings. Even an old white guy can learn new tricks.

Adler, F. (1904). The Problem of Teleology. The International Journal of Ethics, XIV (April), 265-80. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdf/10.1086/intejethi.14.3.2375917

Adler, F. (1910). The moral ideal. The International Journal of Ethics, XX(4), 387-394. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdf/10.1086/intejethi.20.4.2377087

Adler, F. (1911). The Relation of the Moral Ideal to Reality. The International Journal of Ethics, XXII (October), p. 18. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdf/10.1086/intejethi.22.1.2376552

Hornback, J. (1980). The philosophical sources and sanctions of the founders of Ethical Culture. Archives of the Ethical Society of St. Louis.

Lyman, E. W. (1924). [Review of Reconstruction of the Spiritual Ideal, by F. Adler]. The Journal of Philosophy, 21(23), 633–641. https://doi.org/10.2307/2014027

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.