American (brought to USA from Germany in 1857). b: 13 August 1851, Alzey, Germany. d: 24 April 1933, New York City. Cat: Ethical idealist. Ints: Ethics; applied ethics; moral education; Kant’s ethics; ethical culture. Educ: Columbia University, AB 1870; Universities of Berlin and Heidelberg, PhD Heidelberg, 1873. Infls: Literary influences include Humboldt, F.Bacon, M. Arnold, F.A.Lange, Emerson and Kant; personal influences include H.Bonitz, Hermann Cohen, Abraham Geiger, Eduard Zeller, Heymann Steinthal and Thomas Davidson. Appts: Professor of Hebrew and Oriental Literature, Cornell University, 1874–6; Founder, Ethical Culture Movement, 1876; Professor of Social and Political Ethics, Columbia University, 1902–18; started The Ethical Record (1888) and The International Journal of Ethics (1890); organized the New York Philosophy Club, 1900; President, American Philosophical Association, 1928.
Felix Adler’s thought was dominated by practical ethical concerns to an extent practically unparalleled in the history of philosophy. As an ethical leader, Adler can be ranked with Confucius, Socrates, Jesus, Tolstoy and Gandhi. Starting from a basis in Kant’s ethics, with its emphasis on the intrinsic worth and dignity of the person, Adler rejected Kant’s metaphysics and reformulated the categorical imperative so as to emphasize the development of the human personality in relation to human fellowship and communal concerns. Adler combined Kant’s emphasis on a supreme moral principle with an ideal of self-realization and also emphasized the essential social nature of humanity and morality. He thus advanced a special form of moral perfectionism. However, unlike the vast majority of philosophers, Adler concerned himself with the actual conditions of human life for people who had to live in conditions of poverty, misery, hunger and disease, and proposed ways for rectifying these conditions in accord with essential human dignity. He also provided fundamental criticisms of the basic institutions and proposals for improving or reconstructing them. Thus, before Dewey, Adler was concerning himself with the ‘problems of men’ rather than just with the problems of philosophers.
Adler’s first principle of ethics goes thus: ‘A. Act as a member of the ethical manifold (the infinite spiritual universe). B. Act so as to achieve uniqueness…C. Act so as to elicit in another the distinctive, unique quality characteristic of him as a fellow-member of the infinite whole.’ These are summed up in ‘the supreme ethical rule: Act so as to elicit the best in others and thereby in thyself.’ To a greater extent than Kant and the Stoics, Adler emphasized that virtue is and must be its own reward. A virtuous act is one in which the ends of self and of the other are respected and promoted jointly’. One ‘who claims a reward because of his virtue has thereby forfeited his right to…the claim, since that is not virtue which looks for reward’.
In his attempt to coordinate a Kantian universalistic and imperative ethics with a form of self-realizationism, itself a form of consequentialism, Adler anticipated the attempts in the later twentieth century to combine Kantian ethics with utilitarian-type ethics. Adler, however, rejected utilitarianism: ‘The quantitative standard implied in such phrases as “the greatest good of the greatest number” is out of place when we deal with ethical relations, which in their very nature are qualitative.’ The critical question is whether Adler could successfully combine a modified Kantian formalism with his own idealistic and spiritualistic, but neither egoistic nor altruistic, form of self-realization. Success in this would indicate that deontological and Ideological ethical standards are not necessarily incompatible with each other.
Sources: DAB, 1944, 21, supplt 1, pp. 13–14; WAB; EncAm; CollEnc; WWW(Am) 1892–1942; WWW 1929–10.
We're sorry this article wasn't helpful. Tell us how we can improve.