Philosophy & Practicality
In Ethical Culture, the attempt is made to keep philosophy walking hand in hand with practicality. It is possible to overreach on either side of this combination. As often, there is a proverb that characterizes each of the errors. We may overdo philosophy, we may become, as the proverb puts it,“Too heavenly mind
ed to be any earthly good.”On the other hand, we may err on the practical side, as the proverb reminds us,“Look before you leap.”That latter proverb goes back a long way, and when William Tyndale used it as long ago as 1528, he added the comment that its literal sense is,“Do nothing suddenly or without advisement.”In other words, think before you act.
In Ethical Culture, the discussion has turned around the balance between“creed”and“deed.”Early on, it was said that we were committed to“deed, not creed.”But this got modified to“deed before creed,”suggesting that there was a place for both, but that priority should be given to deed. We plunge again and again into the thick of things and out of that experience we draw philosophical conclusions to guide further action.
Actually, when Adler, our founder, used the dichotomy, in 1877, he presented it as“Not by the Creed, but by the Deed,”saying the Ethical Society was organized with that as its motto. The motto carried the litmus test of ethical religion. It was not saying that Creed, as philosophy or theology, was unimportant, but that the test of one’s religion was not in one’s beliefs but in one’s behavior. Later in life, Adler put the other side of the equation, when he said,“The plan of life must exist before the deed, at least in the mind of the leader, the guide. The various acts recommended must be seen as so many attempts to spiritualize human relations according to the ideal plan.”
So the balancing act continues. Thinking crystallizes out the principles by which we live, but the thrust of living goes beyond thinking. This, of course, is a commonplace of most religions. Jesus told a parable of a person who builds a house on rock and a person who builds a house on sand. The contrast in that picture is between someone who hears his words and practices them and someone who hears his words, and even loudly confesses allegiance, but does not do the deeds they teach. As another proverb says very pointedly,“Talk is cheap.”And a Chinese proverb adds,“Talk doesn’t cook rice.”
So how do we rightly balance thinking and acting?
ACTING is a part of the wide web of our experience. We are always acting, whether breathing, or digesting food, or sleeping. Indeed, death could be defined as the cessation of human acting. But in moral terms, acting refers to deliberate, consciously guided behavior. That is, acting in accordance with the values we hold. Behavior inevitably involves choice, and to choose in accordance with a value - like honesty, or justice, or care, or beauty - is to act ethically.
THINKING is also a form of acting. It’s the brain in action. But it has a degree of supervisory function to it. It organizes experience. A naturalist walks through our world of plants and animals and interacts with them. But thinking looks out on that experience of nature and begins to classify plants and animals. Further action may then use that classification to work with the relationships discerned between the plants and animals that share commonalities. In the sciences, thinking not only serves classification, but observes reactions and makes guesses as to why that led to this. Newton makes the leap of understanding that connects the fall of an apple to earth with the orbiting of the moon around the earth, and he names the explanatory force, gravity. Halley guesses that the same force of gravity will govern the movement of the comet named after him even when it has moved in its orbit out of our range of sight, so that he can calculate when it will return to be seen by viewers on our planet. Thinking has discerned the law involved in motion.
In the human realm, behavior happens, but it has also been ordered to create pleasant and useful and necessary relationships between members of society. The mind reflects on behavior and begins to put together what we would call ethical theory. Certain principles are seen as underlying guidelines for all human behavior. And so we get“laws”of human behavior forbidding taking life and sexual trespass and theft and lying, on the negative side, and promoting responsibility and respect and righteousness, on the positive side. Some of these principles are so clear and well established that there is no need to sit and think about them. We need to get on with it, and to act in accordance with them.
However, since acting involves choice, there are numerous occasions when we need to think through the right choice. Is abortion permissible or not? And if so, when, and on what grounds? And if not, why not? On what grounds do we deny it? Is war ever a right choice? If not, what are the alternatives in face of evil? If it is permissible, under what conditions, and how conducted?
It is clear then that we need both acting and thinking. They piggy-back over each other. Out of our experiencing, we form thoughts to understand that experience and to guide our future experiencing, which then tests the projections we have formed. And the beat goes on: acting, thinking, acting, thinking, acting. Each playing into the other. The human system has "afferent" nerves that convey impulses to the brain and "efferent" nerves that convey impulses to the muscles. We need both pathways in good working order, but in Ethical Culture we would want to insist that a truth is not a truth until it has traveled the efferent circuit and issued in an effect, a deed.
But - as with any other human endeavor - there can be pathologies of the relationship between acting and thinking. It isn’t a pathology to be primarily a thinker or primarily an actor. Within the diversity of human nature, such are legitimate possibilities. Some people are primarily teachers, some people are primarily athletes. Some authors, some construction workers. And a little of each, in most of us - we may work primarily in one area, but find recreation or a hobby in another.
Pathology occurs when either thinking or acting become distorted by wrong ends or wrong means. Consider thinking. Why do we think? Some of our thinking is simply for fun. There is fun in solving a puzzle or being stimulated by a show or a novel. We often learn more about life through fiction than through non-fiction. Imagination is exploratory and revelatory. But the ethical person needs to address the values and ideals of life, and in so doing to think to a purpose. What is it that shapes my behavior? Out of what laws of mind and spirit am I drawing direction and strength to live by. This needs to be given time, both in the community of shared Society life and in solitude. Whether by hearing an address or joining in a discussion or reading a book. Pathology of thinking sets in when we drift or when some strong emotion, like a prejudice, pre-empts our rational reflection, or when we let a negative attitude color our judgments. And thinking fails when we do not relate it to action. One function of ethical thinking is to contemplate and plan how to make the ideal real.
Consider also the means by which we act. Once again, there is nothing wrong with play. And in fact play is helpful to health, to relating, and to reviving the mind. It teaches lessons in itself. But there is a time to be serious. And pathology sets in when the instruments of action are not sufficiently integrated with our core values. To try to secure a truth, as we see it, by means of manipulation or deceptive persuasion or by use of fear or by force is to be pathological of means.
Accepting the challenge implied in all this, the challenge to clarify our values and to activate our values, with as little pathological distortion as we can achieve, we can benefit by some practical advice. Here are some suggestions, giving expression to the guideline:
(1) DO (2) SOMETHING (3) AS YOU ARE (4) POSITIVELY (5) WITH OTHERS
(1) DO - Turn some thought into action - today, this week, now. You thought of a friend - okay, turn that thought into an email, a letter, a phone call. Don’t put it off. As the advertisement says, Just do it. Practice turning thoughts into things.
(2) SOMETHING - Even a small action is better than no action. Okay, you can’t liberate some Bastille in some far away country, but you can send support to Amnesty International. Don’t use the small action to appease your conscience if you know a larger action is called for, but don’t underestimate the value of the small action. Each helpful action is like planting an oasis in a desert. If there were enough oases, there would eventually be no desert.
(3) AS YOU ARE - It is good to have confidence in a breakthrough into some place you want to be, but on the way there be your best right where you are now. Don’t regret who you are. Start where you are. Tune the strings of your own life and profession. Not tomorrow, today. Seize the moment, draw out your good.
(4) POSITIVELY - Attend to attitude. It is a spiritual law that like attracts like. Be forgiving. Be patient. Be confident. Expect the good. Address your feelings. Let them speak to you, and also seek to change them as you would adjust your thinking when faced with a problem-solving task. I sometimes project my feelings on to a screen - maybe as a color, or as a climate - to get a sense of the emotional state out of which I am facing my world. Then I call up the faith out of which I live and create a climate of positive motivation.
(5) WITH OTHERS - For the ethical person, relationships have a priority. Practice to improve them right where you are. We are not waiting on the ideal to descend from the skies. We are making the ideal real right here and now. With the person we are with - in the family, at work, in our religious group, in our daily world. Each encounter is a challenge to be my ethical best.
These are but suggestions. Give yourself other suggestions if you prefer. But say to yourself, regularly, how can I make my philosophy practical? Then, how can I reflect on experience to make my philosophy better, so as to make my relationships better? Once we give ourselves this goal, many things begin to fall into place. Our thinking becomes action-oriented, and our actions become value-expressive. And the meaning of life is explored and claimed in meaningful relationships.
John Hoad, Ph.D.
Posted by John Hoad on March 27, 2003