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

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

Subjectivistic vs. Objectivistic Ethics
Humanistic Ethics: The Applied Science of the Art of Living

If we accept the principle of humanistic ethics, what are we to answer those who deny man’s capacity to arrive at normative principles which are objectively valid?

Indeed, one school of humanistic ethics accepts this challenge and agrees that value judgments have no objective validity and are nothing but arbitrary preferences or dislikes of an individual. From this point of view the statement, for instance, that “freedom is better than slavery” describes nothing but a difference in taste but is of no objective validity. Value in this sense is defined as “any desired good” and desire is the test of value, not value the test of desire. Such radical subjectivism is by its very nature incompatible with the idea that ethical norms should be universal and applicable to all men. If this subjectivism were the only kind of humanistic ethics then, indeed, we would be left with the choice between ethical authoritarianism and the abandonment of all claims for generally valid norms.

Ethical hedonism is the first concession made to the principle of objectivity: in assuming that pleasure is good for man and that pain is bad, it provides a principle according to which desires are rated: only those desires whose fulfillment causes pleasure are valuable; others are not. However, despite Herbert Spencer’s argument that pleasure has an objective function in the process of biological evolution, pleasure cannot be a criterion of value. For there are people who enjoy submission and not freedom, who derive pleasure from hate and not from love, from exploitation and not from productive work. This phenomenon of pleasure derived from what is objectively harmful is typical of the neurotic character and has been studied extensively by psychoanalysis. We shall come back to this problem in our discussion of character structure and in the chapter dealing with happiness and pleasure.

An important step in the direction of a more objective criterion of value was the modification of the hedonistic principle introduced by Epicurus, who attempted to solve the difficulty by differentiating between “higher” and “lower” orders of pleasure. But while the intrinsic difficulty of hedonism was thus recognized, the attempted solution remained abstract and dogmatic. Nevertheless, hedonism has one great merit: by making man’s own experience of pleasure and happiness the sole criterion of value it shuts the door to all attempts to have an authority determine “what is best for man” without so much as giving man a chance to consider what he feels about that which is said to be best for him. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that hedonistic ethics in Greece, in Rome, and in modern European and American culture has been advocated by progressive thinkers who were genuinely and ardently concerned with the happiness of man.

But in spite of its merits hedonism could not establish the basis for objectively valid ethical judgments. Must we then give up objectivity if we choose humanism? Or is it possible to establish norms of conduct and value judgments which are objectively valid for all men and yet postulated by man himself and not by an authority transcending him? I believe, indeed, that this is possible and shall attempt now to demonstrate this possibility.

At the outset, let us not forget that “objectively valid” is not identical with “absolute.” For instance, a statement of probability, of approximation, or any hypothesis can be valid and at the same time “relative” in the sense of having been established on limited evidence and being subject to future refinement if facts or procedures warrant it. The whole concept of relative vs. absolute is rooted in theological thinking in which a divine realm, as the “absolute,” is separated from the imperfect realm of man. Except for this theological context the concept of absolute is meaningless and has as little place in ethics as in scientific thinking in general.

But even if we are agreed on this point, the main objection to the possibility of objectively valid statements in ethics remains to be answered: it is the objection that “facts” must be clearly distinguished from “values.” Since Kant, it has been widely maintained that objectively valid statements can be made only about facts and not about values, and that one test of being scientific is the exclusion of value statements.

However, in the arts we are accustomed to lay down objectively valid norms, deduced from scientific principles which are themselves established by observation of fact and/or extensive mathematico-deductive procedures. The pure or “theoretical” sciences concern themselves with the discovery of facts and principles, although even in the physical and biological sciences a normative element enters which does not vitiate their objectivity. The applied sciences concern themselves primarily with practical norms according to which things ought to be done—where “ought” is determined by scientific knowledge of facts and principles. Arts are activities calling for specific knowledge and skill. While some of them demand only common-sense knowledge, others, such as the art of engineering or medicine, require an extensive body of theoretical knowledge. If I want to build a railroad track, for instance, I must build it according to certain principles of physics. In all arts a system of objectively valid norms constitutes the theory of practice (applied science) based on the theoretical science. While there may be different ways of achieving excellent results in any art, norms are by no means arbitrary; their violation is penalized by poor results or even by complete failure to accomplish the desired end.

But not only medicine, engineering, and painting are arts; living itself is an art2 —in fact, the most important and at the same time the most difficult and complex art to be practiced by man. Its object is not this or that specialized performance, but the performance of living, the process of developing into that which one is potentially. In the art of living, man is both the artist and the object of his art; he is the sculptor and the marble; the physician and the patient.

Humanistic ethics, for which “good” is synonymous with good for man and “bad” with bad for man, proposes that in order to know what is good for man we have to know his nature. Humanistic ethics is the applied science of the “art of living” based upon the theoretical “science of man.” Here as in other arts, the excellence of one’s achievement (“virtus”) is proportional to the knowledge one has of the science of man and to one’s skill and practice. But one can deduce norms from theories only on the premise that a certain activity is chosen and a certain aim is desired. The premise for medical science is that it is desirable to cure disease and to prolong life; if this were not the case, all the rules of medical science would be irrelevant. Every applied science is based on an axiom which results from an act of choice: namely, that the end of the activity is desirable. There is, however, a difference between the axiom underlying ethics and that of other arts. We can imagine a hypothetical culture where people do not want paintings or bridges, but not one in which people do not want to live. The drive to live is inherent in every organism, and man cannot help wanting to live regardless of what he would like to think about it.3 The choice between life and death is more apparent than real; man’s real choice is that between a good life and a bad life.

It is interesting at this point to ask why our time has lost the concept of life as an art. Modern man seems to believe that reading and writing are arts to be learned, that to become an architect, an engineer, or a skilled worker warrants considerable study, but that living is something so simple that no particular effort is required to learn how to do it. Just because everyone “lives” in some fashion, life is considered a matter in which everyone qualifies as an expert. But it is not because of the fact that man has mastered the art of living to such a degree that he has lost the sense of its difficulty. The prevailing lack of genuine joy and happiness in the process of living obviously excludes such an explanation. Modern society, in spite of all the emphasis it puts upon happiness, individuality, and self-interest, has taught man to feel that not his happiness (or if we were to use a theological term, his salvation) is the aim of life, but the fulfillment of his duty to work, or his success. Money, prestige, and power have become his incentives and ends. He acts under the illusion that his actions benefit his self-interest, though he actually serves everything else but the interests of his real self. Everything is important to him except his life and the art of living. He is for everything except for himself.

If ethics constitutes the body of norms for achieving excellence in performing the art of living, its most general principles must follow from the nature of life in general and of human existence in particular. In most general terms, the nature of all life is to preserve and affirm its own existence. All organisms have an inherent tendency to preserve their existence: it is from this fact that psychologists have postulated an “instinct” of self-preservation. The first “duty” of an organism is to be alive.

“To be alive” is a dynamic, not a static, concept. Existence and the unfolding of the specific powers of an organism are one and the same. All organisms have an inherent tendency to actualize their specific potentialities. The aim of man’s life, therefore, is to be understood as the unfolding of his powers according to the laws of his nature.

Man, however, does not exist “in general.” While sharing the core of human qualities with all members of his species, he is always an individual, a unique entity, different from everybody else. He differs by his particular blending of character, temperament, talents, dispositions, just as he differs at his fingertips. He can affirm his human potentialities only by realizing his individuality. The duty to be alive is the same as the duty to become oneself, to develop into the individual one potentially is.

To sum up, good in humanistic ethics is the affirmation of life, the unfolding of man’s powers. Virtue is responsibility toward his own existence. Evil constitutes the crippling of man’s powers; vice is irresponsibility toward himself.

These are the first principles of an objectivistic humanistic ethics. We cannot elucidate them here and shall return to the principles of humanistic ethics in Chapter IV. At this point, however, we must take up the question of whether a “science of man” is possible—as the theoretical foundation of an applied science of ethics.