Humanistic vs. Authoritarian Ethics - Humanistic Ethics: The Applied Science of the Art of Living

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

Humanistic vs. Authoritarian Ethics
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

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.

The difference between humanistic and authoritarian ethics is illustrated in the different meanings attached to the word “virtue.” Aristotle uses “virtue” to mean “excellence”—excellence of the activity by which the potentialities peculiar to man are realized. “Virtue” is used, e.g., by Paracelsus as synonymous with the individual characteristics of each thing—that is, its peculiarity. A stone or a Rower each has its virtue, its combination of specific qualities. Man’s virtue, likewise, is that precise set of qualities which is characteristic of the human species, while each person’s virtue is his unique individuality. He is “virtuous” if he unfolds his “virtue.” In contrast, “virtue” in the modern sense is a concept of authoritarian ethics. To be virtuous signifies self-denial and obedience, suppression of individuality rather than its fullest realization.

Humanistic ethics is anthropocentric; not, of course, in the sense that man is the center of the universe but in the sense that his value judgments, like all other judgments and even perceptions, are rooted in the peculiarities of his existence and are meaningful only with reference to it; man, indeed, is the “measure of all things.” The humanistic position is that there is nothing higher and nothing more dignified than human existence. Against this position it has been argued that it is in the very nature of ethical behavior to be related to something transcending man, and hence that a system which recognizes man and his interest alone cannot be truly moral, that its object would be merely the isolated, egotistical individual.

This argument, usually offered in order to disprove man’s ability—and right—to postulate and to judge the norms valid for his life, is based on a fallacy, for the principle that good is what is good for man does not imply that man’s nature is such that egotism or isolation are good for him. It does not mean that man’s purpose can be fulfilled in a state of unrelatedness to the world outside him. In fact, as many advocates of humanistic ethics have suggested, it is one of the characteristics of human nature that man finds his fulfillment and happiness only in relatedness to and solidarity with his fellow men. However, to love one’s neighbor is not a phenomenon transcending man; it is something inherent in and radiating from him. Love is not a higher power which descends upon man nor a duty which is imposed upon him; it is his own power by which he relates himself to the world and makes it truly his.