The Moral Problem of Today

Man for Himself: An Inquiry Into the Psychology of Ethics - Erich Fromm 2013

The Moral Problem of Today

Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils, no, nor the human race, as I believe—and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.—Plato, The Republic.

Is there a special moral problem of today? Is not the moral problem one and the same for all times and for all men? Indeed it is, and yet every culture has specific moral problems which grow out of its particular structure, although these specific problems are only various facets of the moral problems of man. Any such particular facet can be understood only in relation to the basic and general problem of man. In this concluding chapter I want to emphasize one specific aspect of the general moral problem, partly because it is a crucial one from the psychological viewpoint and partly because we are tempted to evade it, being under the illusion of having solved this very problem: man’s attitude toward force and power.

Man’s attitude toward force is rooted in the very conditions of his existence. As physical beings we are subject to power—to the power of nature and to the power of man. Physical force can deprive us of our freedom and kill us. Whether we can resist or overcome it depends on the accidental factors of our own physical strength and the strength of our weapons. Our mind, on the other hand, is not directly subject to power. The truth which we have recognized, the ideas in which we have faith, do not become invalidated by force. Might and reason exist on different planes, and force never disproves truth.

Does this mean that man is free even if he is born in chains? Does it mean that the spirit of a slave can be as free as that of his master, as St. Paul and Luther have maintained? It would indeed simplify the problem of human existence tremendously if this were true. But this position ignores the fact that ideas and the truth do not exist outside and independently of man, and that man’s mind is influenced by his body, his mental state by his physical and social existence. Man is capable of knowing the truth and he is capable of loving, but if he—not just his body, but he in his totality—is threatened by superior force, if he is made helpless and afraid, his mind is affected, its operations become distorted and paralyzed. The paralyzing effect of power does not rest only upon the fear it arouses, but equally on an implicit promise—the promise that those in possession of power can protect and take care of the “weak” who submit to it, that they can free man from the burden of uncertainty and of responsibility for himself by guaranteeing order and by assigning the individual a place in this order which makes him feel secure.

Man’s submission to this combination of threat and promise is his real “fall.” By submitting to power = domination he loses his power = potency. He loses his power to make use of all those capacities which make him truly human; his reason ceases to operate; he may be intelligent, he may be capable of manipulating things and himself, but he accepts as truth that which those who have power over him call the truth. He loses his power of love, for his emotions are tied to those upon whom he depends. He loses his moral sense, for his inability to question and criticize those in power stultifies his moral judgment with regard to anybody and anything. He is prey to prejudice and superstition for he is incapable of inquiring into the validity of the premises upon which rest such false beliefs. His own voice cannot call him back to himself since he is not able to listen to it, being so intent on listening to the voices of those who have power over him. Indeed, freedom is the necessary condition of happiness as well as of virtue; freedom, not in the sense of the ability to make arbitrary choices and not freedom from necessity, but freedom to realize that which one potentially is, to fulfill the true nature of man according to the laws of his existence.

If freedom, the ability to preserve one’s integrity against power, is the basic condition for morality, has man in the Western world not solved his moral problem? Is it not only a problem of people living under authoritarian dictatorships which deprive them of their personal and political freedom? Indeed, the freedom attained in modern democracy implies a promise for the development of man which is absent in any kind of dictatorship, regardless of their proclamations that they act in man’s interest. But it is a promise only, and not yet a fulfillment. We mask our own moral problem from ourselves if we focus our attention on comparing our culture with modes of life which are the negation of the best achievements of humanity, and thus we ignore the fact that we too bow down to power, not to that of a dictator and a political bureaucracy allied with him, but to the anonymous power of the market, of success, of public opinion, of “common sense”—or rather, of common nonsense—and of the machine whose servants we have become.

Our moral problem is man’s indifference to himself. It lies in the fact that we have lost the sense of the significance and uniqueness of the individual, that we have made ourselves into instruments for purposes outside ourselves, that we experience and treat ourselves as commodities, and that our own powers have become alienated from ourselves. We have become things and our neighbors have become things. The result is that we feel powerless and despise ourselves for our impotence. Since we do not trust our own power, we have no faith in man, no faith in ourselves or in what our own powers can create. We have no conscience in the humanistic sense, since we do not dare to trust our judgment. We are a herd believing that the road we follow must lead to a goal since we see everybody else on the same road. We are in the dark and keep up our courage because we hear everybody else whistle as we do.

Dostoevski once said, “If God is dead, everything is allowed.” This is, indeed, what most people believe; they differ only in that some draw the conclusion that God and the church must remain alive in order to uphold the moral order, while others accept the idea that everything is allowed, that there is no valid moral principle, that expediency is the only regulative principle in life.

In contrast, humanistic ethics takes the position that if man is alive he knows what is allowed; and to be alive means to be productive, to use one’s powers not for any purpose transcending man, but for oneself, to make sense of one’s existence, to be human. As long as anyone believes that his ideal and purpose is outside him, that it is above the clouds, in the past or in the future, he will go outside himself and seek fulfillment where it can not be found. He will look for solutions and answers at every point except the one where they can be found—in himself.

The “realists” assure us that the problem of ethics is a relic of the past. They tell us that psychological or sociological analysis shows that all values are only relative to a given culture. They propose that our personal and social future is guaranteed by our material effectiveness alone. But these “realists” are ignorant of some hard facts. They do not see that the emptiness and planlessness of individual life, that the lack of productiveness and the consequent lack of faith in oneself and in mankind, if prolonged, results in emotional and mental disturbances which would incapacitate man even for the achievement of his material aims.

Prophecies of doom are heard today with increasing frequency. While they have the important function of drawing attention to the dangerous possibilities in our present situation they fail to take into account the promise which is implied in man’s achievement in the natural sciences, in psychology, in medicine and in art. Indeed, these achievements portray the presence of strong productive forces which are not compatible with the picture of a decaying culture. Our period is a period of transition. The Middle Ages did not end in the fifteenth century, and the modern era did not begin immediately afterward. End and beginning imply a process which has lasted over four hundred years—a very short time indeed if we measure it in historical terms and not in terms of our life span. Our period is an end and a beginning, pregnant with possibilities.

If I repeat now the question raised in the beginning of this book, whether we have reason to be proud and to be hopeful, the answer is again in the affirmative, but with the one qualification which follows from what we have discussed throughout: neither the good nor the evil outcome is automatic or preordained. The decision rests with man. It rests upon his ability to take himself, his life and happiness seriously; on his willingness to face his and his society’s moral problem. It rests upon his courage to be himself and to be for himself.