The Tradition of Humanistic Ethics - Humanistic Ethics: The Applied Science of the Art of Living

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

The Tradition of Humanistic Ethics
Humanistic Ethics: The Applied Science of the Art of Living

In the tradition of humanistic ethics the view prevails that the knowledge of man is the basis of establishing norms and values. The treatises on ethics by Aristotle, Spinoza, and Dewey—the thinkers whose views we shall sketch in this chapter—are therefore at the same time treatises on psychology. I do not intend to review the history of humanistic ethics but only to give an illustration of its principle as expressed by some of its greatest representatives.

For Aristotle, ethics is built upon the science of man. Psychology investigates the nature of man and ethics therefore is applied psychology. Like the student of politics, the student of ethics “must know somehow the facts about the soul as the man who is to heal the eyes or the body as a whole must know about the eyes or body… but even among doctors the best educated spend much labor on acquiring knowledge of the body.”5 From the nature of man, Aristotle deduces the norm that “virtue” (excellence) is “activity,” by which he means the exercise of the functions and capacities peculiar to man. Happiness, which is man’s aim, is the result of “activity” and “use”; it is not a quiescent possession or state of mind. To explain his concept of activity Aristotle uses the Olympic Games as an analogy. “And, as in the Olympic Games,” he says, “it is not the most beautiful and the strongest that are crowned, but those who compete (for it is some of these that are victorious), so those who act win, and rightly win, the noble and good things in life.”6 The free, rational, and active (contemplative) man is the good and accordingly the happy person. Here we have, then, objective value propositions which are man-centered or humanistic, and which are at the same time derived from the understanding of the nature and function of man.

Spinoza, like Aristotle, inquires into the distinctive function of man. He begins by considering the distinctive function and aim of anything in nature and answers that “each thing, as far as it is in itself, endeavors to persevere in its being.”7 Man, his function, and aim can be nothing else than that of any other thing: to preserve himself and to persevere in his existence. Spinoza arrives at a concept of virtue which is only the application of the general norm to the existence of man. “To act absolutely in conformity with virtue is, in us, nothing but acting, living and preserving our being (these three things have the same meaning) as reason directs, from the ground of seeking our own profit.”8

Preserving one’s being means to Spinoza to become that which one potentially is. This holds true for all things. “A horse,” Spinoza says, “would be as much destroyed if it were changed into a man as if it were changed into an insect”; and we might add that, according to Spinoza, a man would be as much destroyed if he became an angel as if he became a horse. Virtue is the unfolding of the specific potentialities of every organism; for man it is the state in which he is most human. By good, consequently, Spinoza understands everything “which we are certain is a means by which we may approach nearer and nearer to the model of human nature He set before us” (italics mine). By evil he understands “everything which we are certain hinders us from reaching that model.”9 Virtue is thus identical with the realization of man’s nature; the science of man is consequently the theoretical science on which ethics is based.

While reason shows man what he ought to do in order to be truly himself and thus teaches him what is good, the way to achieve virtue is through the active use man makes of his powers. Potency thus is the same as virtue; impotence, the same as vice. Happiness is not an end in itself but is what accompanies the experience of increase in potency, while impotence is accompanied by depression; potency and impotence refer to all powers characteristic of man. Value judgments are applicable to man and his interests only. Such value judgments, however, are not mere statements of the likes and dislikes of individuals, for man’s properties are intrinsic to the species and thus common to all men. The objective character of Spinoza’s ethics is founded on the objective character of the model of human nature which, though allowing for many individual variations, is in its core the same for all men. Spinoza is radically opposed to authoritarian ethics. To him man is an end-in-himself and not a means for an authority transcending him. Value can be determined only in relation to his real interests, which are freedom and the productive use of his powers.10

The most significant contemporary proponent of a scientific ethics is John Dewey, whose views are opposed both to authoritarianism and to relativism in ethics. As to the former, he states that the common feature of appeal to revelation, divinely ordained rulers, commands of the state, convention, tradition, and so on, “is that there is some voice so authoritative as to preclude the need of inquiry.”11 As to the latter, he holds that the fact that something is enjoyed is not in itself “a judgment of the value of what is enjoyed.”12 The enjoyment is a basic datum, but it has to be “verified by evidential facts.”13 Like Spinoza, he postulates that objectively valid value propositions can be arrived at by the power of human reason; for him, too, the aim of human life is the growth and development of man in terms of his nature and constitution. But his opposition to any fixed ends leads him to relinquish the important position reached by Spinoza: that of a “model of human nature” as a scientific concept. The main emphasis in Dewey’s position is on the relationship between means and ends (or, consequences) as the empirical basis for the validity of norms. Valuation, according to him, takes place “only when there is something the matter; when there is some trouble to be done away with, some need, lack, or privation to be made good, some conflict of tendencies to be resolved by means of changing existing conditions. This fact in turn proves that there is present an intellectual factor—a factor of inquiry—whenever there is valuation, for the end-in-view is formed and projected as that which, if acted upon, will supply the existing need or lack and resolve the existing conflict.”14

The end, to Dewey, “is merely a series of acts viewed at a remote stage; and a means is merely the series viewed at an earlier one. The distinction of means and ends arises in surveying the course of a proposed line of action, a connected series in time. The ’end’ is the last act thought of; the means are the acts to be performed prior to it in time. … Means and ends are two names for the same reality. The terms denote not a division in reality but a distinction in judgment.”15

Dewey’s emphasis on the interrelation between means and ends is undoubtedly a significant point in the development of a theory of rational ethics, especially in warning us against theories which by divorcing ends from means become useless. But it does not seem to be true that “we do not know what we are really after until a course of action is mentally worked out.”16 Ends can be ascertained by the empirical analysis of the total phenomenon—of man—even of we do not yet know the means to achieve them. There are ends about which valid propositions can be made, although they lack at the moment, so to speak, hands and feet. The science of man can give us a picture of a “model of human nature” from which ends can be deduced before means are found to achieve them.17