Soul Metaphors: Contents

Chapter 4

Chapter 6


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Chapter 5: A Moral Yardstick

            Adler would have heartily agreed with the poet, John Donne, that “no man is an island.” The fact that people live in constant interaction with one another remains central to Adlerian theory. In fact, Adler maintains that it is impossible to interpret a person’s lifestyle without considering his or her relations to other people. He points out rather wryly that “Character is a social concept. We can speak of a character trait only when we consider the relationship of an individual to his environment. It would make very little difference what kind of character Robinson Crusoe had.” [1]

A person can best be understood in the context of her relationships with other people.

            Adler repeatedly stresses that all human advancement in based upon cooperation. Physically among the weakest of all animals, human beings build their civilizations, protect themselves from other organisms, and protect themselves from the elements through cooperation: “None of us is the only member of the human race. There are others around us, and we exist in association with them. The weaknesses and limitations of the individual human being make it impossible for him to achieve his own aims in isolation.” [2]
            Success in life, according to Adler, is contingent upon a human being’s ability to cooperate with fellow human beings. Out of this proposition, Adler also draws two stunning corollaries: Mental health is directly linked to an individual’s ability to cooperate with other human beings; and so, too, is moral goodness measured by the interest a person shows in his fellow man.

Adler measures both mental health and moral goodness according to “social interest”: the ability to show concern for and cooperate with other human beings.

            Adler measures both mental health and moral goodness with the yardstick he calls, in German, Gemeinschaftsgefühl. This term has been alternatively translated as “social interest” or “community feeling,” and it refers both to an individual’s concern for her fellow human beings and her ability to cooperate with her fellow human beings.
            Adler, who worked with patients with mental disorders and who wrote often on the subject of neurosis, observes that, “Cooperation is the only safeguard we have against the development of neurotic tendencies.” [3] He adds:

All neurotic symptoms are safeguards of persons who do not feel adequately equipped or prepared for the problems of life, who carry within themselves only a passive appreciation of social feeling and interest. [4]

            His strategy, in psychotherapy, was to encourage his patients to take more interest in the other people in their lives. A healthy interest in the welfare of others led his patients down the path to wellness. Likewise, in his writings on school children, Adler holds that “… children should be trained and encouraged in cooperation and should be allowed to find their own way among children of their own age, in common tasks and shared games.” [5]

No one has a completely healthy or absolutely perfect lifestyle, and any lifestyle can improve.

            Let us look at the difference in the degree of social interest suggested by two memories analyzed by Adler.
            Memory 1. “While I was on the stairs in the dark, a boy cousin, a little older than myself, opened the door and came down after me. I was very frightened of him.” Here, we see an individual who is frightened by other people and, particularly, by males. Adler posits that, as a girl, the woman was probably unaccustomed to playing with other children. He then adds, “A guess that she was an only child proved correct, and she was still, at the age of thirty-five, unmarried.” [6] (It is important to keep in mind that Adler was writing in the early 20th Century when women not only married young, but also were expected to marry.)
            Memory 2. “I remember my mother letting me wheel my baby sister in the pram.” Here, wheeling the baby sister is a privilege, something that the mother “lets” the older daughter do. Adler comments that this memory shows “ … a more highly developed sense of social feeling.” [7] “To help other human beings is a privilege,” this memory says.
            Thus, Individual Psychology is a moral psychology. Adler worked not only with students and patients, but also with prisoners. In stark contrast to the more recent “person-centered” therapeutic approach crafted by Carl Rogers [8], Adler does not see people as innately good, (nor does he see them as innately bad): "Social interest in not inborn in human beings, only the potentiality of developing it is inborn. The inborn potentiality requires cultivation." [9]
            Rather, people are creative; each person determines for himself what his meaning of life is. Based upon this meaning, the individual develops a lifestyle, and that lifestyle may either be good or bad – that is, problem solving or problem creating, rooted in social interest or devoid of social interest.
            It is important to reiterate, at this point, that Adler also believes that unhealthy lifestyles can be changed. In Individual Psychology, people may heal or they may be rehabilitated. Adler is quick to point out that no lifestyle can ever be “altogether right.” Historically, Individual Psychology evolved against the backdrop of Socialism with lofty goals of improving human destiny. In his writings, Adler calls on teachers and psychologists to guide students and patients to develop a sense of social interest and concludes, “If life is approached in this way, as a cooperation of independent human beings, there are no limits to the progress of our human civilization.” [10]

Adler recognizes three tasks of life – responsibilities that every person must meet.

            More specifically, Adler believes that human progress advances through cooperation in three specific areas which he calls the “tasks of life.” The three tasks of life are: to cooperate with fellow human beings in greater society; to cooperate with a partner in marriage; and to pursue an occupation. His therapy, in the first part of the 20th Century, focused on helping patients to become successful in meeting these three tasks of life.
            As noted, Adler’s views on marriage may seem outdated today. It might also be possible to add additional tasks of life at the beginning of the 21st Century – such as maintaining good health in a world of sedentary lifestyles, widespread pollution and unhealthy food, or the task of responsibly stewarding the environment. In any case, the three tasks of life hold a significant place in Adlerian theory, and it is important to mention them here. Understood in a broader context – that there are inevitable responsibilities in life which an individual must successfully meet – the notion of life tasks remains sound.
            Let us now turn to a new set of sample memories and consider to what extent each reflects social interest.

1. Adler, Alfred. Understanding Human Nature. 1949. New York: Permabooks. 143.
2. What Life Could Mean to You, 3.
3. What Life Could Mean to You, 17.
4. Superiority and Social Interest, 95.
5. What Life Could Mean to You, 17.
6. What Life Could Mean to You, 16.
7. What Life Could Mean to You, 16.
8. Rogers, Carl. On Becoming a Person: A Therapist's View of Psychotherapy. 1961. London: Constable.
9. Superiority and Social Interest, 263
10. What Life Could Mean to You, 18.


(Copyright Ellen Alderton, www.WeLoveAdler.net)