James White

Given that respect for human dignity is arguably the central value of Ethical Culture, how do we express that dignity in concrete ways towards people whom we do not like or are socially destructive?

I was beginning to absorb Felix Adler’s ethical theory in greater depth at the same time as my young sons were building relationships in and around our Society’s Sunday school. Our older son had grown close to Miguel, a delightful child of neighbors who lived one block down our street. In our relatively safe neighborhood, we saw Miguel often as groups of children moved from yard to yard playing out fantasies, enjoying sports, engaging in and resolving conflicts, and in growing physically and morally.We became friendly with his parents and began to learn of what we thought was an inspiring story. Childless, this couple had adopted Miguel and his older sister from Central America. Their mother had given them up because she despaired of any secure life for them in the hell of poverty and deadly conflict that still obtains in this region of super exploitation and violence. An horrific sadness! And Miguel’s adoptive parents, we thought, were doing their best to use their own passion for parenthood to do a simple good in the face of insuperable evil.

Tragically, no good is truly simple. Miguel seemed to be adapting well. Our multicultural schools met his needs socially and academically. He loved our youth baseball league and deepened a relationship with my son and his friends on the playing field and well as on our block. Two of the families who were among our closer friends lived next to Miguel’s family. We socialized with them all fairly often and enjoyed the appearance of Miguel’s and his sister’s positive family life. And Miguel shared occasionally in the activities of our Sunday School so others in our Ethical community came to know and care for him. None of us had an inkling of the horrors he increasingly endured in his home.

Tragically, adolescence saw Miguel’s emergence into a life of dangerous dysfunction. The economy of drug trade and the retched War on Drugs began to claim him. On one visit home from pre-trial detention he confided to us that he thought a prison term would be “good for him.” He is now serving, hopefully, the last of his successive imprisonments, this one for domestic violence and sexual child abuse. He may have been coerced into the inevitable plea-bargain that defines a broken system of “justice.” If in fact guilty, likely, he was acting out the horrors of his early home life in which, at times, he had to defend his sister from his father’s sexual advances.

My son is Miguel’s only regular contact with the world outside of prison. The parents, by report, are either dead, or living under other identities in Canada. No other friends have stood by him. His sister faces her own deep difficulties as a poor single mother living far from him. I have written him once and am planning to visit before his release and to explore how we as a national Ethical community can help him rebuild a life along truly human lines. How can my grounding in Felix Adler’s profound thought help?

According to my son’s ongoing interaction, Miguel usually expresses cynicism about any hopeful future for himself. He has found no one whom he can trust in his prison experiences. He feels that no effort at rehabilitation has been effective for him. He is wallowing in blame for the rotten lot life has thrown him and in constant blame of himself for not rising above it.

Is our affirmation of Miguel’s worth and dignity indeed an “optimistic illusion”? How does Adler attempt to “save” the doctrine of worth, the “sanest and… most real of all conceptions” from “the appearance of an optimistic illusion?” (“An Ethical Philosophy of life”. Chapter 5) What can I learn from this theory as I move, fearfully, toward a closer relationship with Miguel?

Adler thought he had defeated the critique of worth and dignity as an “optimistic illusion” by explaining that he does not FIND worth in others or in himself, but rather that he ATTRIBUTES it to them and to himself. In exploring the meaning and implications of this concept Adler explained “I need the idea of the whole in order to act rightly… (I)n order to advance toward uniqueness, to achieve… my own truth 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 on the other as …a moral being in order to become a moral being myself. And wherever I find consciousness of relation, of connectedness, even incipient, I project myself on that consciousness with a view to awakening in it the consciousness of universal connectedness.”

Adler’s “Ideal of the Whole” was metaphysical and transcendent. I have found in it a helpful metaphor for shaping my own pastoral and activist vocation. I translate Adler’s transcendental “Whole” into the totality of the influences that have molded Miguel’s life experiences. In resuming a relationship with Miguel I will try to help him better understand his connectedness to whatever positive life experiences that may have shaped him for good, and may continue to do so. I will work to help him realize that he is indeed worthy of respect and caring, and that there are positive roles that he can uniquely grow to fill in the future. I will seek out other professionals who can continue to do this at a greater depth with him. I may also come to explain how working with him is helping me to become a better activist against the forces of mass incarceration and a better advocate for successful reintergration into society.

The work I am hoping to begin with Miguel may well be unsuccessful. The resources others and myself turn up for his rehabilitation and social integration may be inappropriate, or too meager for the task. Opportunities for him to move toward a productive and fulfilling life will probably diminish markedly in this new and frightful political climate into which we’ve all been dragged. He is greatly wounded and may be largely unresponsive. He may again descend into the recidivism that a brutally racist system guarantees and predicts.

Again, Adler is helpful: “It is quite possible that the men and the women upon whom I try my power will not actually respond.” No matter. It is my duty to do my utmost for Miguel as a sacred, inviolable “end in himself.” whatever the odds of success or failure. Surely, in this process, I will become a more knowledgable and dedicated activist against the systemic racism of a drug and substance dominated economy and society, and the mass incarceration it has spawned. And there is the ultimate good of my own growth:

“…(H)ere one profoundly important practical consideration will come to our aid, namely the sense of our own imperfection, coupled with the inextinguishable power of moral renewal… a sense of humility—best moments followed by worst moments—imperfect grasp of our own ideals, most imperfect fidelity in executing them—will impel us to make ourselves more fitting instruments of spiritual influence than as yet we are.”

This is my hope.


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