The Moral Powers in Man
Problems of Humanistic Ethics
Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than Man.—Sophocles, Antigone.
a. Man, Good or Evil?
The position taken by humanistic ethics that man is able to know what is good and to act accordingly on the strength of his natural potentialities and of his reason would be untenable if the dogma of man’s innate natural evilness were true. The opponents of humanistic ethics claim that man’s nature is such as to make him inclined to be hostile to his fellow men, to be envious and jealous, and to be lazy, unless he is curbed by fear. Many representatives of humanistic ethics met this challenge by insisting that man is inherently good and that destructiveness is not an integral part of his nature.
Indeed, the controversy between these two conflicting views is one of the basic themes in Western thought. To Socrates, ignorance, and not man’s natural disposition, was the source of evilness; to him vice was error. The Old Testament, on the contrary, tells us that man’s history starts with an act of sin, and that his “strivings are evil from childhood on.” In the early Middle Ages the battle between the two opposing views was centered around the question of how to interpret the Biblical myth of Adam’s fall. Augustine thought that man’s nature was corrupt since the fall, that each generation was born with the curse caused by the first man’s disobedience, and that only God’s grace, transmitted by the Church and her sacraments, could save man. Pelagius, Augustine’s great adversary, held that Adam’s sin was purely personal and had affected none but himself; that every man, consequently, is born with powers as incorrupt as Adam’s before the fall, and that sin is the result of temptation and evil example. The battle was won by Augustine, and this victory was to determine—and to darken—man’s mind for centuries.
The late Middle Ages witnessed an increasing belief in man’s dignity, power, and natural goodness. The thinkers of the Renaissance as well as theologians like Thomas Aquinas of the thirteenth century gave expression to this belief, although their views on man differed in many essential points and although Aquinas never reverted to the radicalism of the Pelagian “heresy.” The antithesis, the idea of man’s intrinsic evilness, was expressed in Luther’s and Calvin’s doctrines, thus reviving the Augustinian position. While insisting on man’s spiritual freedom and on his right—and obligation—to face God directly and without the priest as an intermediary, they denounced man’s intrinsic evilness and powerlessness. According to them the greatest obstacle to man’s salvation is his pride; and he can overcome it only by guilt feelings, repentance, unqualified submission to God, and faith in God’s mercy.
These two threads remain interwoven in the texture of modern thought. The idea of man’s dignity and power was pronounced by the enlightenment philosophy, by progressive, liberal thought of the nineteenth century, and most radically by Nietzsche. The idea of man’s worthlessness and nothingness found a new, and this time entirely secularized, expression in the authoritarian systems in which the state or “society” became the supreme rulers, while the individual, recognizing his own insignificance, is supposed to find his fulfillment in obedience and submission. The two ideas, while clearly separated in the philosophies of democracy and authoritarianism, are blended in their less extreme forms in the thinking, and still more so in the feeling, of our culture. Today, we are adherents both of Augustine and Pelagius, of Luther and Pico della Mirandola, of Hobbes and Jefferson. We consciously believe in man’s power and dignity, but—often unconsciously—we also believe in man’s—and particularly our own—powerlessness and badness and explain it by pointing to “human nature.”67
In Freud’s writings the two opposing ideas have found expression in terms of psychological theory. Freud was in many respects a typical representative of the Enlightenment spirit, believing in reason and in man’s right to protect his natural claims against social conventions and cultural pressure. At the same time, however, he held the view that man was lazy and self-indulgent by nature and had to be forced into the path of socially useful activity.68 The most radical expression of the view of man’s innate destructiveness is to be found in Freud’s theory of the “death instinct.” After the First World War he was so impressed by the power of destructive passion that he revised his older theory, according to which there were two types of instincts, sex and self-preservation, by giving a dominant place to irrational destructiveness. He assumed that man was the battlefield on which two equally powerful forces meet: the drive to live and the drive to die. These, he thought, were biological forces to be found in all organisms, including man. If the drive to die was turned to outside objects, it manifested itself as a drive to destroy; if it remained within the organism, it aimed at self-destruction.
Freud’s theory is dualistic. He does not see man as either essentially good or essentially evil, but as being driven by two equally strong contradictory forces. The same dualistic view had been expressed in many religious and philosophical systems. Life and death, love and strife, day and night, white and black, Ormuzd and Ahriman are only some of the many symbolic formulations of this polarity. Such dualistic theory is indeed very appealing to the student of human nature. It leaves room for the idea of the goodness of man, but it also accounts for man’s tremendous capacity for destructiveness which only superficial, wishful thinking can ignore. The dualistic position, however, is only the starting point and not the answer to our psychological and ethical problem. Are we to understand this dualism to mean that both the drive to live and the drive to destroy are innate and equally strong capacities in man? In this case humanistic ethics would be confronted with the problem of how the destructive side in man’s nature can be curbed without sanctions and authoritarian commands.
Or can we arrive at an answer more congenial to the principle of humanistic ethics and can the polarity between the striving for life and the striving for destruction be understood in a different sense? Our ability to answer these questions depends on the insight we have into the nature of hostility and destructiveness. But before entering into this discussion we would do well to be aware of how much depends on the answer for the problem of ethics.
The choice between life and death is indeed the basic alternative of ethics. It is the alternative between productiveness and destructiveness, between potency and impotence, between virtue and vice. For humanistic ethics all evil strivings are directed against life and all good serves the preservation and unfolding of life.
Our first step in approaching the problem of destructiveness is to differentiate between two kinds of hate: rational, “reactive” and irrational, “character-conditioned” hate. Reactive, rational hate is a person’s reaction to a threat to his own or another person’s freedom, life, or ideas. Its premise is respect for life. Rational hate has an important biological function: it is the affective equivalent of action serving the protection of life; it comes into existence as a reaction to vital threats, and it ceases to exist when the threat has been removed; it is not the opposite but the concomitant of the striving for life.
Character-conditioned hate is different in quality. It is a character trait, a continuous readiness to hate, lingering within the person who is hostile rather than reacting with hate to a stimulus from without. Irrational hate can be actualized by the same kind of realistic threat which arouses reactive hate; but often it is a gratuitous hate, using every opportunity to be expressed, rationalized as reactive hate. The hating person seems to have a feeling of relief, as though he were happy to have found the opportunity to express his lingering hostility. One can almost see in his face the pleasure he derives from the satisfaction of his hatred.
Ethics is concerned primarily with the problem of irrational hate, the passion to destroy or cripple life. Irrational hate is rooted in a person’s character, its object being of secondary importance. It is directed against others as well as against oneself, although we are more often aware of hating others than of hating ourselves. The hate against ourselves is usually rationalized as sacrifice, selflessness, asceticism, or as self-accusation and inferiority feeling.
The frequency of reactive hate is even greater than it may appear, because often a person reacts with hate toward threats against his integrity and freedom, threats which are not obvious and explicit but subtle or even disguised as love and protection. But even so, character hate remains a phenomenon of such magnitude that the dualistic theory of love and hate as the two fundamental forces seems to fit the facts. I have to concede, then, the correctness of the dualistic theory? In order to answer this question we need to inquire further into the nature of this dualism. Are the good and evil forces of equal strength? Are they both part of the original equipment of man, or what other possible relation could exist between them?
According to Freud destructiveness is inherent in all human beings; it differs mainly with regard to the object of destructiveness—others or themselves. From this position it would follow that destructiveness against oneself is in reverse proportion to that against others. This assumption, however, is contradicted by the fact that people differ in the degree of their total destructiveness, regardless of whether it is primarily directed against themselves or against others. We do not find great destructiveness against others in those who have little hostility against themselves; on the contrary we see that hostility against oneself and others is conjunctive. We find furthermore that the life-destructive forces in a person occur in an inverse ratio to the life-furthering ones; the stronger the one, the weaker the other, and vice versa. This fact offers a clue to the understanding of the life-destructive energy; it would seem that the degree of destructiveness is proportionate to the degree to which the unfolding of a person’s capacities is blocked. I am not referring here to occasional frustrations of this or that desire but to the blockage of spontaneous expression of man’s sensory, emotional, physical, and intellectual capacities, to the thwarting of his productive potentialities. If life’s tendency to grow, to be lived, is thwarted, the energy thus blocked undergoes a process of change and is transformed into life destructive energy. Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life. Those individual and social conditions which make for the blocking of life-furthering energy produce destructiveness which in turn is the source from which the various manifestations of evil spring.
If it is true that destructiveness must develop as a result of blocked productive energy it would seem that it can rightly be called a potentiality in man’s nature. Does it follow then that both good and evil are potentialities of equal strength in man? In order to answer this question we must inquire into the meaning of potentiality. To say that something exists “potentially” means not only that it will exist in the future but that this future existence is already prepared in the present. This relationship between the present and the future stage of development can be described by saying that the future virtually exists in the present. Does this mean that the future stage will necessarily come into being if the present stage exists? Obviously not. If we say that the tree is potentially present in the seed it does not mean that a tree must develop from every seed. The actualization of a potentiality depends on the presence of certain conditions which are, in the case of the seed, for instance, proper soil, water, and sunlight. In fact, the concept of potentiality has no meaning except in connection with the specific conditions required for its actualization. The statement that the tree is potentially present in the seed must be specified to mean that a tree will grow from the seed provided that the seed is placed in the specific conditions necessary for its growth. If these proper conditions are absent, if, for instance, the soil is too moist and thus incompatible with the seed’s growth, the latter will not develop into a tree but rot. If an animal is deprived of food, it will not realize its potentiality for growth but will die. It may be said, then, that the seed or the animal has two kinds of potentialities, from each of which certain results follow in a later stage of development: one, a primary potentiality which is actualized if the proper conditions are present; the other, a secondary potentiality, which is actualized if conditions are in contrast to existential needs. Both the primary and the secondary potentialities are part of the nature of an organism. The secondary potentialities become manifest with the same necessity as does the primary potentiality. The terms “primary” and “secondary” are used in order to denote that the development of the potentiality called “primary” occurs under normal conditions and that the “secondary” potentiality comes into manifest existence only in case of abnormal, pathogenic conditions.
Provided we are right in assuming that destructiveness is a secondary potentiality in man which becomes manifest only if he fails to realize his primary potentialities, we have answered only one of the objections to humanistic ethics. We have shown that man is not necessarily evil but becomes evil only if the proper conditions for his growth and development are lacking. The evil has no independent existence of its own, it is the absence of the good, the result of the failure to realize life.
We have to deal with still another objection to humanistic ethics which says that the proper conditions for the development of the good must comprise rewards and punishment because man has not within himself any incentive for the development of his powers. I shall attempt to show in the following pages that the normal individual possesses in himself the tendency to develop, to grow, and to be productive, and that the paralysis of this tendency is in itself the symptom of mental sickness. Mental health, like physical health, is not an aim to which the individual must be forced from the outside but one the incentive for which is in the individual and the suppression of which requires strong environmental forces operating against him.69
The assumption that man has an inherent drive for growth and integration does not imply an abstract drive for perfection as a particular gift with which man is endowed. It follows from the very nature of man, from the principle that the power to act creates a need to use this power and that the failure to use it results in dysfunction and unhappiness. The validity of this principle can be easily recognized with regard to the physiological functions of man. Man has the power to walk and to move; if he were prevented from using this power severe physical discomfort or illness would result. Women have the power to bear children and to nurse them; if this power remains unused, if a woman does not become a mother, if she can not spend her power to bear and love a child, she experiences a frustration which can be remedied only by increased realization of her powers in other realms of her life. Freud has called attention to another lack of expenditure as a cause of suffering, that of sexual energy, by recognizing that the blocking of sexual energy can be the cause of neurotic disturbances. While Freud overvalued the significance of sexual satisfaction, his theory is a profound symbolic expression of the fact that man’s failure to use and to spend what he has is the cause of sickness and unhappiness. The validity of this principle is apparent with regard to psychic as well as physical powers. Man is endowed with the capacities of speaking and thinking. If these powers were blocked, the person would be severely damaged. Man has the power to love, and if he can not make use of his power, if he is incapable of loving, he suffers from this misfortune even though he may try to ignore his suffering by all kinds of rationalizations or by using the culturally patterned avenues of escape from the pain caused by his failure.
The reason for the phenomenon that not using one’s powers results in unhappiness is to be found in the very condition of human existence. Man’s existence is characterized by existential dichotomies which I have discussed in a previous chapter. He has no other way to be one with the world and at the same time to feel one with himself, to be related to others and to retain his integrity as a unique entity, but by making productive use of his powers. If he fails to do so, he can not achieve inner harmony and integration; he is torn and split, driven to escape from himself, from the feeling of powerlessness, boredom and impotence which are the necessary results of his failure. Man, being alive, cannot help wishing to live and the only way he can succeed in the act of living is to use his powers, to spend that which he has.
There is perhaps no phenomenon which shows more clearly the result of man’s failure in productive and integrated living than neurosis. Every neurosis is the result of a conflict between man’s inherent powers and those forces which block their development. Neurotic symptoms, like the symptoms of a physical sickness, are the expression of the fight which the healthy part of the personality puts up against the crippling influences directed against its unfolding.
However, lack of integration and productiveness does not always lead to neurosis. As a matter of fact, if this were the case, we would have to consider the vast majority of people as neurotic. What, then, are the specific conditions which make for the neurotic outcome? There are some conditions which I can mention only briefly: for example, one child may be broken more thoroughly than others, and the conflict between his anxiety and his basic human desires may, therefore, be sharper and more unbearable; or the child may have developed a sense of freedom and originality which is greater than that of the average person, and the defeat may thus be more unacceptable.
But instead of enumerating other conditions which make for neurosis, I prefer to reverse the question and ask what the conditions are which are responsible for the fact that so many people do not become neurotic in spite of the failure in productive and integrated living. It seems to be useful at this point to differentiate between two concepts: that of defect, and that of neurosis.70 If a person fails to attain maturity, spontaneity, and a genuine experience of self, he may be considered to have a severe defect, provided we assume that freedom and spontaneity are the objective goals to be attained by every human being. If such a goal is not attained by the majority of members of any given society, we deal with the phenomenon of socially patterned defect. The individual shares it with many others; he is not aware of it as a defect, and his security is not threatened by the experience of being different, of being an outcast, as it were. What he may have lost in richness and in a genuine feeling of happiness is made up by the security he feels of fitting in with the rest of mankind—as he knows them. As a matter of fact, his very defect may have been raised to a virtue by his culture and thus give him an enhanced feeling of achievement. An illustration is the feeling of guilt and anxiety which Calvin’s doctrines aroused in men. It may be said that the person who is overwhelmed by a feeling of his own powerlessness and unworthiness, by the unceasing doubt of whether he is saved or condemned to eternal punishment, who is hardly capable of any genuine joy and has made himself into the cog of a machine which he has to serve, that such a person, indeed, has a severe defect. Yet this very defect was culturally patterned; it was looked upon as particularly valuable, and the individual was thus protected from the neurosis which he would have acquired in a culture where the defect would give him a feeling of profound inadequacy and isolation.
Spinoza has formulated the problem of the socially patterned defect very clearly. He says: “Many people are seized by one and the same affect with great consistency. All his senses are so strongly affected by one object that he believes this object to be present even if it is not. If this happens while the person is awake, the person is believed to be insane… But if the greedy person thinks only of money and possessions, the ambitious one only of fame, one does not think of them as being insane, but only as annoying; generally one has contempt for them. But factually greediness, ambition, and so forth are forms of insanity, although usually one does not think of them as ’illness.’”71 These words were written a few hundred years ago; they still hold true, although the defect has been culturally patterned to such an extent now that it is not generally thought any more to be contemptible or even annoying. Today we can meet a person who acts and feels like an automaton: we find that he never experiences anything which is really his; that he experiences himself entirely as the person he thinks he is supposed to be; that smiles have replaced laughter, meaningless chatter replaced communicative speech and dulled despair has taken the place of genuine sadness. Two statements can be made about this kind of person. One is that he suffers from a defect of spontaneity and individuality which may seem incurable. At the same time it may be said that he does not differ essentially from thousands of others who are in the same position. With most of them the cultural pattern provided for the defect saves them from the outbreak of neurosis. With some the cultural pattern does not function, and the defect appears as a more or less severe neurosis. The fact that in these cases the cultural pattern does not suffice to prevent the outbreak of a manifest neurosis is a result either of the greater intensity of the pathological forces or of the greater strength of the healthy forces which put up a fight even though the cultural pattern would permit them to remain silent.
There is no situation which provides for a better opportunity to observe the strength and tenacity of the forces striving for health than that of psychoanalytic therapy. To be sure, the psychoanalyst is confronted with the strength of those forces which operate against a person’s self-realization and happiness, but when he can understand the power of those conditions—particularly in childhood—which made for the crippling of productiveness he cannot fail to be impressed by the fact that most of his patients would long since have given up the fight were they not impelled by an impulse to achieve psychic health and happiness. This very impulse is the necessary condition for the cure of neurosis. While the process of psychoanalysis consists in gaining greater insight into the dissociated parts of a person’s feelings and ideas, intellectual insight as such is not a sufficient condition for change. This kind of insight enables a person to recognize the blind alleys in which he is caught and to understand why his attempts to solve his problem were doomed to failure; but it only clears the way for those forces in him which strive for psychic health and happiness to operate and to become effective. Indeed, merely intellectual insight is not sufficient; the therapeutically effective insight is experiential insight in which knowledge of oneself has not only an intellectual but also an affective quality. Such experiential insight itself depends on the strength of man’s inherent striving for health and happiness.
The problem of psychic health and neurosis is inseparably linked up with that of ethics. It may be said that every neurosis represents a moral problem. The failure to achieve maturity and integration of the whole personality is a moral failure in the sense of humanistic ethics. In a more specific sense many neuroses are the expression of moral problems, and neurotic symptoms result from unsolved moral conflicts. A man, for instance, may suffer from spells of dizziness for which there is no organic cause. In reporting his symptom to the psychoanalyst he mentions casually that he is coping with certain difficulties in his job. He is a successful teacher who has to express views which run counter to his own convictions. He believes, however, that he has solved the problem of being successful, on the one hand, and of having preserved his moral integrity, on the other, and he “proves” to himself the correctness of this belief by a number of complicated rationalizations. He is annoyed at the suggestion of the analyst that his symptom may have something to do with his moral problem. However, the ensuing analysis shows that he was wrong in his belief; his spells of dizziness were the reaction of his better self, of his basically moral personality to a pattern of life which forced him to violate his integrity and to cripple his spontaneity.
Even if a person seems to be destructive only of others, he violates the principle of life in himself as well as in others. In religious language this principle has been expressed in terms of man’s being created in the image of God, and thus any violation of man is a sin against God. In secular language we would say that everything we do—good or evil—to another human being we also do to ourselves. “Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you” is one of the most fundamental principles of ethics. But it is equally justifiable to state: Whatever you do to others, you also do to yourself. To violate the forces directed toward life in any human being necessarily has repercussions on ourselves. Our own growth, happiness, and strength are based on the respect for these forces, and one cannot violate them in others and remain untouched oneself at the same time. The respect for life, that of others as well as one’s own, is the concomitant of the process of life itself and a condition of psychic health. In a way, destructiveness against others is a pathological phenomenon comparable to suicidal impulses. While a person may succeed in ignoring or rationalizing destructive impulses, he—his organism as it were—cannot help reacting and being affected by acts which contradict the very principle by which his life and all life are sustained. We find that the destructive person is unhappy even if he has succeeded in attaining the aims of his destructiveness, which undermines his own existence. Conversely, no healthy person can help admiring, and being affected by, manifestations of decency, love, and courage; for these are the forces on which his own life rests.
b. Repression vs. Productiveness
The position that man is basically destructive and selfish leads to a concept which maintains that ethical behavior consists in the suppression of these evil strivings in which man would indulge without exercising constant Self-control. Man, according to this principle, must be his own watchdog; he must, in the first place, recognize that his nature is evil, and, in the second, use his will power to fight his inherent evil tendencies. Suppression of evil or indulgence in it would then be his alternative.
Psychoanalytic research offers a wealth of data concerning the nature of suppression, its various kinds, and their consequences. We can differentiate between (1) suppression of the acting out of an evil impulse, (2) suppression of the awareness of the impulse, and (3) a constructive fight against the impulse.
In the first kind of suppression not the impulse itself is suppressed but the action which would follow from it. A case in point is a person with strong sadistic strivings who would be satisfied and pleased to make others suffer or to dominate them. Suppose his fear of disapproval or the moral precepts he has accepted tell him that he should not act upon his impulse; hence he refrains from such action and does not do what he would wish to do. While one cannot deny that this person has achieved a victory over himself, he has not really changed; his character has remained the same and what we can admire in him is only his “will power.” But quite aside from the moral evaluation of such behavior, it is unsatisfactory in its effectiveness as a safeguard against man’s destructive tendencies. It would require an extraordinary amount of “will power” or of fear of severe sanctions to keep such a person from acting according to his impulse. Since every decision would be the result of an inner battle against strong opposing forces, the chances for the triumph of the good would be so precarious that from the standpoint of the interest of society this type of suppression is too unreliable.
By far the more effective way to deal with evil strivings would seem to be to hinder them from becoming conscious, so that there is no conscious temptation. This kind of suppression is what Freud called “repression.” Repression means that the impulse, although it exists, is not permitted to enter the realm of consciousness or is quickly removed from it. To use the same illustration, the sadistic person would not be aware of his wish to destroy or to dominate; there would be no temptation and no struggle.
Repression of evil strivings is that kind of suppression upon which authoritarian ethics relies implicitly or explicitly as the safest road to virtue. But while it is true that repression is a safeguard against action, it is much less effective than its advocates believe it to be.
Repressing an impulse means removing it from awareness but it does not mean removing it from existence. Freud has shown that the repressed impulse continues to operate and to exercise a profound influence upon the person although the person is not aware of it. The effect of the repressed impulse on the person is not even necessarily smaller than if it were conscious; the main difference is that it is not acted upon overtly but in disguise, so that the person acting is spared the knowledge of what he is doing. Our sadistic person, for instance, not being aware of his sadism, may have the feeling that he dominates other people out of concern for what—he thinks—would be best for them or because of his strong sense of duty.
But as Freud has shown, the repressed strivings are not acted out in such rationalizations only. A person, for instance, may develop a “reaction-formation,” the very opposite of the repressed striving, as, for instance, oversolicitousness or overkindness. Yet the power of the repressed striving becomes apparent indirectly, a phenomenon which Freud called “the return of the repressed.” In this case a person whose oversolicitousness has developed as a reaction-formation against his sadism may use this “virtue” with the same effect his manifest sadism would have had: to dominate and to control. While he feels virtuous and superior, the effect on others is often even more devastating because it is hard to defend oneself against too much “virtue.”
Entirely different from suppression and repression is a third type of reaction to destructive impulses. While in suppression the impulse remains alive and only the action is prohibited, and while in repression the impulse itself is removed from consciousness and is acted upon (to some extent) in disguised fashion, in this third type of reaction the life-furthering forces in a person fight against the destructive and evil impulses. The more aware a person is of the latter the more is he able to react. Not only his will and his reason take part, but those emotional forces in him which are challenged by his destructiveness. In a sadistic person, for instance, such a fight against sadism will develop a genuine kindness which becomes part of his character and relieves him from the task of being his own watchdog and of using his will power constantly for “self-control.” In this reaction the emphasis is not on one’s feeling of badness and remorse but on the presence and use of productive forces within man. Thus, as a result of the productive conflict between good and evil, the evil itself becomes a source of virtue.
It follows from the standpoint of humanistic ethics that the ethical alternative is not between suppression of evil or indulgence in it. Both—repression and indulgence—are only two aspects of bondage, and the real ethical alternative is not between them but between repression-indulgence on the one hand and productiveness on the other. The aim of humanistic ethics is not the repression of man’s evilness (which is fostered by the crippling effect of the authoritarian spirit) but the productive use of man’s inherent primary potentialities. Virtue is proportional to the degree of productiveness a person has achieved. If society is concerned with making people virtuous, it must be concerned with making them productive and hence with creating the conditions for the development of productiveness. The first and foremost of these conditions is that the unfolding and growth of every person is the aim of all social and political activities, that man is the only purpose and end, and not a means for anybody or anything except himself.
The productive orientation is the basis for freedom, virtue, and happiness. Vigilance is the price of virtue, but not the vigilance of the guard who has to shut in the evil prisoner; rather, the vigilance of the rational being who has to recognize and to create the conditions for his productiveness and to do away with those factors which block him and thus create the evil which, once it has arisen, can be prevented from becoming manifest only by external or internal force.
Authoritarian ethics has imbued people with the idea that to be good would require a tremendous and relentless effort; that man has to fight himself constantly and that every false step he makes could be disastrous. This view follows from the authoritarian premise. If man were such an evil being and if virtue were only the victory over himself, then indeed the task would seem appallingly difficult. But if virtue is the same as productiveness, its achievement is, though not simple, by no means such a laborious and difficult enterprise. As we have shown, the wish to make productive use of his powers is inherent in man, and his efforts consist mainly in removing the obstacles in himself and in his environment which block him from following his inclination. Just as the person who has become sterile and destructive is increasingly paralyzed and caught, as it were, in a vicious circle, a person who is aware of his own powers and uses them productively gains in strength, faith, and happiness, and is less and less in danger of being alienated from himself; he has created, as we might say, a “virtuous circle.” The experience of joy and happiness is not only, as we have shown, the result of productive living but also its stimulus. Repression of evilness may spring from a spirit of self-castigation and sorrow, but there is nothing more conducive to goodness in the humanistic sense than the experience of joy and happiness which accompanies any productive activity. Every increase in joy a culture can provide for will do more for the ethical education of its members than all the warnings of punishment or preachings of virtue could do.
c. Character and Moral Judgment
The problem of moral judgment is frequently associated with that of freedom of will vs. determinism. One view holds that man is completely determined by circumstances which he cannot control, and that the idea that man is free in his decisions is nothing but an illusion. From this premise the conclusion is drawn that man cannot be judged for his actions since he is not free in making his decisions. The opposite view maintains that man has the faculty of free will, which he can exercise regardless of psychological or external conditions and circumstances; hence that he is responsible for his actions and can be judged by them.
It would seem that the psychologist is compelled to subscribe to determinism. In studying the development of character he recognizes that the child starts his life in an indifferent moral state, and that his character is shaped by external influences which are most powerful in the early years of his life, when he has neither the knowledge nor the power to change the circumstances which determine his character. At an age when he might attempt to change the conditions under which he lives, his character is already formed and he lacks the incentive to investigate these conditions and to change them, if necessary. If we assume that the moral qualities of a person are rooted in his character, is it not true, then, that since he has no freedom in shaping his character, he cannot be judged? Is it not true that the more insight we have into the conditions which are responsible for the formation of character and its dynamics, the more inescapable seems the view that no person can be morally judged?
Perhaps we can avoid this alternative between psychological understanding and moral judgment by a compromise which is sometimes suggested by the adherents of the free will theory. It is maintained that there are circumstances in the lives of people which preclude the exercise of their free will and thus eliminate moral judgment. Modern criminal law, for instance, has accepted this view and does not hold an insane person responsible for his actions. The proponents of a modified theory of free will go one step further and admit that a person who is not insane but neurotic, and thus under the sway of impulses which he can not control, may also not be judged for his actions. They claim, however, that most people have the freedom to act well if they want to and that therefore they must be morally judged.
But closer examination shows that even this view is untenable. We are prone to believe that we act freely because, as Spinoza has already suggested, we are aware of our wishes but unaware of their motivations. Our motives are an outcome of the particular blend of forces operating in our character. Each time we make a decision it is determined by the good or evil forces, respectively, which are dominant. In some people one particular force is so overwhelmingly strong that the outcome of their decisions can be predicted by anyone who knows their character and the prevailing standards of values (although they themselves might be under the illusion of having decided “freely”). In others, destructive and constructive forces are balanced in such a way that their decisions are not empirically predictable. When we say a person could have acted differently we refer to the latter case. But to say he could have acted differently means only that we could not have predicted his actions. His decision, however, shows that one set of forces was stronger than the other and hence that even in his case his decision was determined by his character. Therefore, if his character had been different he would have acted differently, but again strictly according to the structure of his character. The will is not an abstract power of man which he possesses apart from his character. On the contrary, the will is nothing but the expression of his character. The productive person who trusts his reason and who is capable of loving others and himself has the will to act virtuously. The nonproductive person who has failed to develop these qualities and who is a slave of his irrational passions lacks this will.
The view that it is our character which determines our decisions is by no means fatalistic. Man, while like all other creatures subject to forces which determine him, is the only creature endowed with reason, the only being who is capable of understanding the very forces which he is subjected to and who by his understanding can take an active part in his own fate and strengthen those elements which strive for the good. Man is the only creature endowed with conscience. His conscience is the voice which calls him back to himself, it permits him to know what he ought to do in order to become himself, it helps him to remain aware of the aims of his life and of the norms necessary for the attainment of these aims. We are therefore not helpless victims of circumstance; we are, indeed, able to change and to influence forces inside and outside ourselves and to control, at least to some extent, the conditions which play upon us. We can foster and enhance those conditions which develop the striving for good and bring about its realization. But while we have reason and conscience, which enable us to be active participants in our life, reason and conscience themselves are inseparably linked up with our character. If destructive forces and irrational passions have gained dominance in our character, both our reason and our conscience are affected and cannot exercise their function properly. Indeed, the latter are our most precious capacities which it is our task to develop and to use; but they are not free and undetermined and they do not exist apart from our empirical self; they are forces within the structure of our total personality and, like every part of a structure, determined by the structure as a whole, and determining it.
If we base our moral judgment of a person on the decision as to whether or not he could have willed differently, no moral judgment can be made. How can we know, for instance, the strength of a person’s innate vitality that made it possible for him to resist environmental forces acting upon him in his childhood and later on; or the lack of vitality that makes another person submit to the very same forces? How can we know whether in one person’s life an accidental event such as the contact with a good and loving person might not have influenced his character development in one direction while the absence of such an experience might have influenced it in the opposite direction? Indeed, we cannot know. Even if we would base moral judgment on the premise that a person could have acted differently, the constitutional and environmental factors which make for the development of his character are so numerous and complex that it is impossible, for all practical purposes, to arrive at a conclusive judgment whether or not he could have developed differently. All we can assume is that circumstances as they were led to the development as it occurred. It follows that if our ability to judge a person depended on our knowledge that he could have acted differently, we, as students of character, would have to admit defeat as far as ethical judgments are concerned.
Yet this conclusion is unwarranted because it is based on false premises and on confusion about the meaning of judgment. To judge can mean two different things: to judge means to exercise the mental functions of assertion or predication. But “to judge” means also to have the function of a “judge” referring to the activity of absolving and condemning.
The latter kind of moral judging is based upon the idea of an authority transcending man and passing judgment on him. This authority is privileged to absolve or to condemn and punish. Its dicta are absolute, because it is above man and empowered with wisdom and strength unattainable by him. Even the picture of the judge, who, in democratic society, is elected and theoretically not above his fellow men, is tinged by the old concept of a judging god. Although his person does not carry any superhuman power, his office does. (The forms of respect due the judge are surviving remnants of the respect due a superhuman authority; contempt of court is psychologically closely related to lèse-majesté.) But many persons who have not the office of a judge assume the role of a judge, ready to condemn or absolve, when they make moral judgments. Their attitude often contains a good deal of sadism and destructiveness. There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as “moral indignation,” which permits envy or hate to be acted out under the guise of virtue.72 The “indignant” person has for once the satisfaction of despising and treating a creature as “inferior,” coupled with the feeling of his own superiority and righteousness.
Humanistic judgment of ethical values has the same logical character as a rational judgment in general. In making value judgments one judges facts and does not feel one is godlike, superior, and entitled to condemn or forgive. A judgment that a person is destructive, greedy, jealous, envious is not different from a physician’s statement about a dysfunction of the heart or the lungs. Suppose we have to judge a murderer whom we know to be a pathological case. If we could learn all about his heredity, his early and later environment, we would very likely come to the conclusion that he was completely under the sway of conditions over which he had no power; in fact, much more so than a petty thief and, therefore, much more “understandable” than the latter. But this does not mean that we ought not to judge his evilness. We can understand how and why he became what he is, but we can also judge him as to what he is. We can even assume that we would have become like him had we lived under the same circumstances; but while such considerations prevent us from assuming a godlike role, they do not prevent us from moral judgment. The problem of understanding versus judging character is not different from the understanding and judging of any other human performance. If I have to judge the value of a pair of shoes or that of a painting, I do so according to certain objective standards intrinsic to the objects. Assuming the shoes or the painting to be of poor quality, and that somebody pointed to the fact that the shoemaker or the painter had tried very hard but that certain conditions made it impossible for him to do better, I will not in either case change my judgment of the product. I may feel sympathy or pity for the shoemaker or the painter, I may feel tempted to help him, but I cannot say that I cannot judge his work because I understand why it is so poor.
Man’s main task in life is to give birth to himself, to become what he potentially is. The most important product of his effort in his own personality. One can judge objectively to what extent the person has succeeded in his task, to what degree he has realized his potentialities. If he failed in his task, one can recognize this failure and judge it for what it is—his moral failure. Even if one knows that the odds against the person were overwhelming and that everyone else would have failed too, the judgment about him remains the same. If one fully understands all the circumstances which made him as he is, one may have compassion for him; yet this compassion does not alter the validity of the judgment. Understanding a person does not mean condoning; it only means that one does not accuse him as if one were God or a judge placed above him.