WES Blog — Eliciting the Best

“Act so as to elicit the best in others, and thereby in ourselves.” What’s that maxim really mean?  Why is it a meaningful aspect of Ethical Culture? This is my take on it in these turbulent times.

Eliciting the best from myself… that seems like it is at least plausibly my own business. But eliciting the best from another?  How is their best conceivably my business – isn’t it their business?  I would strongly answer yes, it is their business, not mine. Hence, we come to “elicit.” The word chosen is not “demand” or “require” or “coerce,” but “elicit.” Here’s one definition of elicit: “to draw forth or bring out (something latent or potential).”

To me, elicit here means something close to invite, and the invitation may not always be accepted. Sometimes it might be accepted later, sometimes, never. But this is about how oneself acts.

And “best.” Who am I to define someone else’s best, let alone think they should be reaching it?  I translate it in my head to “highest aspirations and values.” I don’t pretend to know what those are, or say what they should be. I just try to stay in touch with the idea that I support that in them. If there is a faith for me in Ethical Culture, it is perhaps a trust that, by and large, a person’s highest aspirations and values will indeed be good. And I recognize, that in a given moment, the best someone has to offer may be very little, and my “eliciting” may simply be not making it any harder for them. In everyday life, I think this maxim can also just be a reminder to ourselves to not elicit the worst in others, just because we ourselves happen to be upset.

Regarding “others” —  Ethical Culture has to do with ethics, and in this context ethics has to do with relationships. Alone on the proverbial desert island, this portion of ethics has little meaning (except for relationship with oneself, and the creatures and things in the environment).

Which bring us to the closing phrase, “and thereby in ourselves.” I think it is sort of an article of faith, that when in relationship, if we focus on existence of the best, the highest aspirations and values, of others, we will also elicit some of our own highest values, and in some cases, move toward our highest aspirations.

My particular take on this maxim is informed by the notion of “freedom as a value,”¹ which is related to the “whose business is it?” question. I consider this notion the crux of understanding the maxim in a way that simultaneously preserves the boundaries of whose business is whose, and also supports our own highest values and aspirations.

A formal definition, or rather question for oneself, about freedom as a value is “Do I support people attempting to live their lives as they want?” (Note: “people” includes yourself!)

In this understanding, freedom is a value one has or holds: one is actively valuing and supporting people’s freedom, for its own sake. By being in touch with this as a value, it allows one to put it in one’s value hierarchy, to know where one stands as this value happens to come in conflict from time to time with either other values or other things one wants or thinks about or feels.

Not everyone has freedom as a value. But most seem to, although many have not had a chance to ask themselves the question above and be in touch with it.

I think an exemplar of the ideas above is Darryl Davis, who has spoken at WES. He is a black musician and author, who has befriended members of the KKK. He seems to act in accordance with the maxim. To do so in the challenging relationships he takes on, I believe he has freedom as a value of his.

Our candle-lighting words include “the warmth of compassion,” the “light of understanding,” and the “fire of commitment.” This post has been about my trying for a better understanding of what I see as a core of Ethical Culture, as we seek to build a brighter future for all.

John Mulligan
Member, WES Board of Trustees

¹ From the work of Robert Fritz. See for example: https://www.robertfritz.com/wp/freedom-of-the-individual