Erich Fromm: Humanistic Ethics (1947)

Note: These are passages from Chapter II of “Erich Fromm: Man for Himself.” In the following passage, Erich Fromm gives an account of humanistic ethics and makes reference to some thinkers who have outlined the main features of humanistic ethics.

Humanistic vs. Authoritarian Ethics

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 norm 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 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” as synonymous with totalitarian and anti-democratic 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 reactions of the significant people in is life. In view of his complete dependence on the care and love of 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 or 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 flower each has its virtue, its combination of specific qualities. Mans’ 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.

Humanistic Ethics

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 can not help wanting to live regardless of what he would like to think about it. 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, through 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 towards his own existence. Evil constitutes the crippling of man’s power; vice is irresponsibility towards himself.

These are the first principles of an objectivistic humanistic ethics.

At this point, we must take up the question of whether a “science of man” is possible – as the theoretical foundation of an applied science of ethics.

The Science of Man

The concept of a science of man rests upon the premise that its object, man, exists and that there is a human nature characteristic of the human species. On this issue the history of thought exhibits its special ironies and contradictions.
Authoritarian thinkers have conveniently assumed the existence of a human nature, which they believe was fixed and unchangeable. This assumption served to prove that their ethical systems and social institutions were necessary and unchangeable, being built upon the alleged nature of man. However, what they considered to be man’s nature was a reflection of their norms- and interests – and not the result of objective inquiry. It was therefore understandable that progressives should welcome the findings of anthropology and psychology which, in contrast, seemed to establish the infinite malleability of human nature. For malleability meant that norms and institutions – the assumed cause of man’s nature rather than the effect – could be malleable too. But in opposing the erroneous assumption that certain historical cultural patterns are the expression of a fixed and eternal human nature, the adherents of the theory of the infinite malleability of human nature arrived at an equally untenable position.
First of all, the concept of infinite malleability of human nature easily leads to conclusions which are as unsatisfactory as the concept of a fixed and unchangeable human nature. If man were infinitely malleable then, indeed, norms and institutions unfavorable to human welfare would have a chance to mold man forever into their patterns without the possibility that intrinsic forces in man’s nature would be mobilized and tend to change these patterns. Man would be only the puppet of social arrangements and not – as he has proved to be in history – an agent whose intrinsic properties react strenuously against the powerful pressure of unfavorable social and cultural patterns. In fact, if man were nothing but the reflex of culture patterns no social order could be criticized or judged from the standpoint of man’s welfare since there would be no concept of “man.”

As important as the political and moral repercussions of the malleability theory are its theoretical implications. If we assumed that there is no human nature (unless as defined in terms of basic physiological needs), the only possible psychology would be a radical behaviorism content with describing an infinite number of behavior patterns or one that measures quantitative aspects of human conduct. Psychology and anthropology could do nothing but describe the various ways in which social institutions and cultural patterns mold man and, since the special manifestations of man would be nothing but the stamp which social patterns have put on him, there could be only one science of man, comparative sociology. If, however, psychology and anthropology are to make valid propositions about the laws governing human behavior, they must start out with the premise that something, say X, is reacting to environmental influences in ascertainable ways that follow from its properties. Human nature is not fixed, and culture thus is not to be explained as the result of fixed human instincts; nor is culture a fixed factor to which human nature adapts itself passively and completely. It is true that man can adapt himself even to unsatisfactory conditions, but in this process of adaptation, he develops definite mental and emotional reactions which follow from the specific properties of his own nature.

Man can adapt himself to slavery, but he reacts to it by lowering his intellectual and moral qualities, he can adapt himself to a culture permeated by mutual distrust and hostility, but he reacts to this adaption by becoming weak and sterile. Man can adapt himself to cultural conditions which demand the repression of sexual strivings, but in achieving this adaptation he develops, as Freud has shown neurotic symptoms. He can adapt himself to almost any culture pattern, but in so far as these are contradictory to his nature he develops mental and emotional disturbances which force him eventually to change these conditions since he can not change his nature

Man is not a blank sheet of paper on which culture can write its text; he is an entity charged with energy and structured in specific ways, which, while adapting itself, reacts in specific and ascertainable ways to external conditions. If man had adapted himself to external conditions auto-plastically, by changing his own nature, like an animal, and were fit to live under only one set of conditions to which he developed a special adaptation, he would have reached the blind alley of specialization which is the fate of every animal species, thus precluding history. If, on the other hand, man could adapt himself to all conditions without fighting those which are against his nature, he would have had no history either. Human evolution is rooted in man’s adaptability and in certain indestructible qualities of his nature which compel him never to cease his search for conditions better adjusted to his intrinsic needs.

The subject of the science of man is human nature. But this science does not start out with a full and adequate picture of what human nature is; a satisfactory definition of its subject matter is its aim, not its premise. Its method is to observe the reactions of man to various individual and social conditions and from observation of these reactions to make inferences about man’s nature. History and anthropology study the reactions of man to cultural and social conditions different from our own; social psychology studies his reactions to various social settings within our own culture. Child psychology studies the reactions of the growing child to various situations; psychopathology tries to arrive at conclusions about human nature by studying its distortions under pathogenic conditions. Human nature can never be observed as such, but only in its specific manifestations in specific situations. It is a theoretical construction which can be inferred from the empirical study of the behavior of man. In this respect, the science of man in constructing a “model of human nature” is no different from other sciences which operate with concepts of entities based on, or controlled by, inferences from observed data and not directly observable themselves.

Despite the wealth of data offered by anthropology and psychology, we have only a tentative picture of human nature. For an empirical and objective statement of what constitutes “human nature” we can still learn from Shylock if we understand his words about Jews and Christians in the wider sense as representatives of all humanity.

“I am a Jew! Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.” (William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act III)

The Tradition of Humanistic Ethics

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 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 [Ethica Nicomachea], 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 labour on acquiring knowledge of the body. 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.” 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 [Ethics], 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.” 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.”

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.” 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 trough the active use man makes of his power. 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 interests, which are freedom and the productive use of his powers.

John Dewey

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.” (John Dewey and James H. Tufts, Ethics, 1932) 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.” (John Dewey, Problems of Men, 1946) The enjoyment is a basic datum, but it has to be “verified by evidential facts.” 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.” (John Dewey, Theory of Valuation, 1939)

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. (John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, 1930)

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.” (John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, 1930)

Ends can be ascertained by the empirical analysis of the total phenomenon – of man – even if 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.

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