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Man for Himself
An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics
By Erich Fromm
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 Estate of Erich Fromm
All rights reserved.
Surely, I said, knowledge is the food of the soul; and we must take care, my friend, that the Sophist does not deceive us when he praises what he sells, like the dealers wholesale or retail who sell the food of the body; for they praise indiscriminately all their goods, without knowing what are really beneficial or hurtful: neither do their customers know, with the exception of any trainer or physician who may happen to buy of them. In like manner those who carry about the wares of knowledge, and make the round of the cities, and sell or retail them to any customer who is in want of them, praise them all alike; though I should not wonder, O my friend, if many of them were really ignorant of their effect upon the soul; and their customers equally ignorant, unless he who buys of them happens to be a physician of the soul. If, therefore, you have understanding of what is good and evil you may safely buy knowledge of Protagoras or any one; but if not, then, O my friend, pause, and do not hazard your dearest interests at a game of chance. For there is far greater peril in buying knowledge than in buying meat and drink....
A spirit of pride and optimism has distinguished Western culture in the last few centuries: pride in reason as man's instrument for his understanding and mastery of nature; optimism in the fulfillment of the fondest hopes of mankind, the achievement of the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
Man's pride has been justified. By virtue of his reason he has built a material world the reality of which surpasses even the dreams and visions of fairy tales and utopias. He harnesses physical energies which will enable the human race to secure the material conditions necessary for a dignified and productive existence, and although many of his goals have not yet been attained there is hardly any doubt that they are within reach and that the problem of production—which was the problem of the past—is, in principle, solved. Now, for the first time in his history, man can perceive that the idea of the unity of the human race and the conquest of nature for the sake of man is no longer a dream but a realistic possibility. Is he not justified in being proud and in having confidence in himself and in the future of mankind?
Yet modern man feels uneasy and more and more bewildered. He works and strives, but he is dimly aware of a sense of futility with regard to his activities. While his power over matter grows, he feels powerless in his individual life and in society. While creating new and better means for mastering nature, he has become enmeshed in a network of those means and has lost the vision of the end which alone gives them significance—man himself. While becoming the master of nature, he has become the slave of the machine which his own hands built. With all his knowledge about matter, he is ignorant with regard to the most important and fundamental questions of human existence: what man is, how he ought to live, and how the tremendous energies within man can be released and used productively.
The contemporary human crisis has led to a retreat from the hopes and ideas of the Enlightenment under the auspices of which our political and economic progress had begun. The very idea of progress is called a childish illusion, and "realism," a new word for the utter lack of faith in man, is preached instead. The idea of the dignity and power of man, which gave man the strength and courage for the tremendous accomplishments of the last few centuries, is challenged by the suggestion that we have to revert to the acceptance of man's ultimate powerlessness and insignificance. This idea threatens to destroy the very roots from which our culture grew.
The ideas of the Enlightenment taught man that he could trust his own reason as a guide to establishing valid ethical norms and that he could rely on himself, needing neither revelation nor the authority of the church in order to know good and evil. The motto of the Enlightenment, "dare to know," implying "trust your knowledge," became the incentive for the efforts and achievements of modern man. The growing doubt of human autonomy and reason has created a state of moral confusion where man is left without the guidance of either revelation or reason. The result is the acceptance of a relativistic position which proposes that value judgments and ethical norms are exclusively matters of taste or arbitrary preference and that no objectively valid statement can be made in this realm. But since man cannot live without values and norms, this relativism makes him an easy prey for irrational value systems. He reverts to a position which the Greek Enlightenment, Christianity, the Renaissance, and the eighteenth century Enlightenment had already overcome. The demands of the State, the enthusiasm for magic qualities of powerful leaders, powerful machines, and material success become the sources for his norms and value judgments.
Are we to leave it at that? Are we to consent to the alternative between religion and relativism? Are we to accept the abdication of reason in matters of ethics? Are we to believe that the choices between freedom and slavery, between love and hate, between truth and falsehood, between integrity and opportunism, between life and death, are only the results of so many subjective preferences?
Indeed, there is another alternative. Valid ethical norms can be formed by man's reason and by it alone. Man is capable of discerning and making value judgments as valid as all other judgments derived from reason. The great tradition of humanistic ethical thought has laid the foundations for value systems based on man's autonomy and reason. These systems were built on the premise that in order to know what is good or bad for man one has to know the nature of man. They were, therefore, also fundamentally psychological inquiries.
If humanistic ethics is based on the knowledge of man's nature, modern psychology, particularly psychoanalysis, should have been one of the most potent stimuli for the development of humanistic ethics. But while psychoanalysis has tremendously increased our knowledge of man, it has not increased our knowledge of how man ought to live and what he ought to do. Its main function has been that of "debunking," of demonstrating that value judgments and ethical norms are the rationalized expressions of irrational—and often unconscious—desires and fears, and that they therefore have no claim to objective validity. While this debunking was exceedingly valuable in itself, it became increasingly sterile when it failed to go beyond mere criticism.
Psychoanalysis, in an attempt to establish psychology as a natural science, made the mistake of divorcing psychology from problems of philosophy and ethics. It ignored the fact that human personality can not be understood unless we look at man in his totality, which includes his need to find an answer to the question of the meaning of his existence and to discover norms according to which he ought to live. Freud's "homo psychologicus" is just as much an unrealistic construction as was the "homo economicus" of classical economics. It is impossible to understand man and his emotional and mental disturbances without understanding the nature of value and moral conflicts. The progress of psychology lies not in the direction of divorcing an alleged "natural" from an alleged "spiritual" realm and focusing attention on the former, but in the return to the great tradition of humanistic ethics which looked at man in his physico-spiritual totality, believing that man's aim is to be himself and that the condition for attaining this goal is that man be for himself.
I have written this book with the intention of reaffirming the validity of humanistic ethics, to show that our knowledge of human nature does not lead to ethical relativism but, on the contrary, to the conviction that the sources of norms for ethical conduct are to be found in man's nature itself; that moral norms are based upon man's inherent qualities, and that their violation results in mental and emotional disintegration. I shall attempt to show that the character structure of the mature and integrated personality, the productive character, constitutes the source and the basis of "virtue" and that "vice," in the last analysis, is indifference to one's own self and self-mutilation. Not self-renunciation nor selfishness but self-love, not the negation of the individual but the affirmation of his truly human self, are the supreme values of humanistic ethics. If man is to have confidence in values, he must know himself and the capacity of his nature for goodness and productiveness.CHAPTER 2
Humanistic Ethics: The Applied Science of the Art of Living
Once Susia prayed to God: "Lord, I love you so much, but I do not fear you enough. Lord, I love you so much, but I do not fear you enough. Let me stand in awe of you as one of your angels, who are penetrated by your awe filled name."
And God heard his prayer, and His name penetrated the hidden heart of Susia, as it comes to pass with the angels. But at that Susia crawled under the bed like a little dog, and animal fear shook him until he howled: "Lord, let me love you like Susia again."
And God heard him this time also.
1. Humanistic vs. Authoritarian Ethics
If we do not abandon, as ethical relativism does, the search for objectively valid norms of conduct, what criteria for such norms can we find? The kind of criteria depends on the type of ethical system the norms of which we study. By necessity the criteria in authoritarian ethics are fundamentally different from those in humanistic ethics.
In authoritarian ethics an authority states what is good for man and lays down the laws and norms of conduct; in humanistic ethics man himself is both the none giver and the subject of the norms, their formal source or regulative agency and their subject matter.
The use of the term "authoritarian" makes it necessary to clarify the concept of authority. So much confusion exists with regard to this concept because it is widely believed that we are confronted with the alternative of having dictatorial, irrational authority or of having no authority at all. This alternative, however, is fallacious. The real problem is what kind of authority we are to have. When we speak of authority do we mean rational or irrational authority? Rational authority has its source in competence. The person whose authority is respected functions competently in the task with which he is entrusted by those who conferred it upon him. He need not intimidate them nor arouse their admiration by magic qualities; as long as and to the extent to which he is competently helping, instead of exploiting, his authority is based on rational grounds and does not call for irrational awe. Rational authority not only permits but requires constant scrutiny and criticism of those subjected to it; it is always temporary, its acceptance depending on its performance. The source of irrational authority, on the other hand, is always power over people. This power can be physical or mental, it can be realistic or only relative in terms of the anxiety and helplessness of the person submitting to this authority. Power on the one side, fear on the other, are always the buttresses on which irrational authority is built. Criticism of the authority is not only not required but forbidden. Rational authority is based upon the equality of both authority and subject, which differ only with respect to the degree of knowledge or skill in a particular field. Irrational authority is by its very nature based upon inequality, implying difference in value. In the use of the term "authoritarian ethics" reference is made to irrational authority, following the current use of "authoritarian" a: synonymous with totalitarian and antidemocratic systems. The reader will soon recognize that humanistic ethics is not incompatible with rational authority.
Authoritarian ethics can be distinguished from humanistic ethics by two criteria, one formal, the other material. Formally, authoritarian ethics denies man's capacity to know what is good or bad; the norm giver is always an authority transcending the individual. Such a system is based not on reason and knowledge but on awe of the authority and on the subject's feeling of weakness and dependence; the surrender of decision making to the authority results from the latter's magic power; its decisions can not and must not be questioned. Materially, or according to content, authoritarian ethics answers the question of what is good or bad primarily in terms of the interests of the authority, not the interests of the subject; it is exploitative, although the subject may derive considerable benefits, psychic or material, from it.
Both the formal and the material aspects of authoritarian ethics are apparent in the genesis of ethical judgment in the child and of unreflective value judgment in the average adult. The foundations of our ability to differentiate between good and evil are laid in childhood; first with regard to physiological functions and then with regard to more complex matters of behavior. The child acquires a sense of distinguishing between good and bad before he learns the difference by reasoning. His value judgments are formed as a result of the friendly or unfriendly reaction of the significant people in his life. In view of his complete dependence on the care and love or the adult, it is not surprising that an approving or disapproving expression on the mother's face is sufficient to "teach" the child the difference between good and bad. In school and in society similar factors operate. "Good" is that for which one is praised; "bad," that for which one is frowned upon or punished by social authorities or by the majority of one's fellow men. Indeed, the fear of disapproval and the need for approval seem to be the most powerful and almost exclusive motivation for ethical judgment. This intense emotional pressure prevents the child, and later the adult, from asking critically whether "good" in a judgment means good for him or for the authority. The alternatives in this respect become obvious if we consider value judgments with reference to things. If I say that one car is "better" than another, it is self-evident that one car is called "better" because it serves me better than another car; good or bad refers to the usefulness the thing has for me. If the owner of a dog considers the dog to be "good," he refers to certain qualities of the dog which to him are useful; as, for instance, that he fulfills the owner's need for a watchdog, a hunting dog, or an affectionate pet. A thing is called good if it is good for the person who uses it. With reference to man, the same criterion of value can be used. The employer considers an employee to be good if he is of advantage to him. The teacher may call a pupil good if he is obedient, does not cause trouble, and is a credit to him. In much the same way a child may be called good if he is docile and obedient. The "good" child may be frightened, and insecure, wanting only to please his parents by submitting to their will, while the "bad" child may have a will of his own and genuine interests but ones which do not please the parents.
Obviously, the formal and material aspects of authoritarian ethics are inseparable. Unless the authority wanted to exploit the subject, it would not need to rule by virtue of awe and emotional submissiveness; it could encourage rational judgment and criticism—thus taking the risk of being found incompetent. But because its own interests are at stake the authority ordains obedience to be the main virtue and disobedience to be the main sin. The unforgivable sin in authoritarian ethics is rebellion, the questioning of the authority's right to establish norms and of its axiom that the norms established by the authority are in the best interest of the subjects. Even if a person sins, his acceptance of punishment and his feeling of guilt restore him to "goodness" because he thus expresses his acceptance of the authority's superiority.
The Old Testament, in its account of the beginnings of man's history, gives an illustration of authoritarian ethics. The sin of Adam and Eve is not explained in terms of the act itself; eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil was not bad per se; in fact, both the Jewish and the Christian religions agree that the ability to differentiate between good and evil is a basic virtue. The sin was disobedience, the challenge to the authority of God, who was afraid that man, having already "become as one of Us, to know good and evil," could "put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life and live forever."
Humanistic ethics, in contrast to authoritarian ethics, may likewise be distinguished by formal and material criteria. Formally, it is based on the principle that only man himself can determine the criterion for virtue and sin and not an authority transcending him. Materially, it is based on the principle that "good" is what is good for man and "evil" what is detrimental to man; the sole criterion of ethical value being man's welfare.
Excerpted from Man for Himself by Erich Fromm. Copyright © 2013 Estate of Erich Fromm. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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