Psychoanalysis And Morals
Man for Himself.
By Erich Fromm.
Rinehart. 254 pp. $3.00.
It used to be said that if society were good the individual would be happy. In these days of moral and emotional confusion this proposition has been reversed. A faith has arisen that the psychiatric processes by which individuals are freed from neurosis will, in some mystical way, also result in stabilizing the social order: if the individual is happy the social order will be good. Based on an unshakable faith in reason equal to that of the Marxists, this point of view has been expressed in various ways by many psychoanalytic writers. In Man For Himself, Dr. Erich Fromm restates it.
He attempts to demonstrate that, though the tradition of cultural relativism regards systems of morals and ethics as arbitrary and matters of changing opinion, ethical values are as objectively true “as other judgements derived from reason”; and that once correct ethical values are found they will make possible personal solutions that will inevitably produce justice and a good life for all men.
Unlike much of contemporary psychiatric writing, which reveals, in spite of itself, an underlying contempt for man, Dr. Fromm’s argument rides on a passionate conviction of man’s inherent goodness. But, unfortunately, this passion leads him into a primitive logical error—the failure to distinguish between what is already proven and what is still to be proven. The inherent goodness of man has most distinctly not been proven.
Dr. Fromm regards ethics as ultimately an applied science founded upon certain theoretical assertions about man. Like every applied science, it is based, he states, on the assumption that the end, the purpose of an act of choice, is desirable—as medicine is based on the premise that to cure disease and prolong life is desirable. But how can ethics be an applied science if it attempts to establish its own values and aims as well as the means of obtaining them?
Dr. Fromm’s attempt to bring ethics within the framework of psychoanalysis is not convincing primarily because he fails to face the problems he himself raises. After all, the amoral role assumed by the analyst in the therapeutic situation—a role that evades the question of whether the patient’s behavior is morally correct or not—is not arbitrary but involves many considerations which are held important to the process of cure. Dr. Fromm, who asserts that psychoanalysis “made the mistake of divorcing psychology from problems of philosophy and ethics,” tells us neither at what points or specifically how the reconciliation with philosophy and ethics is to be effected nor what the consequences to psychoanalytic theory would be if it were effected.
In discussing one of the traditional problems of ethics, Dr. Fromm defines happiness, which is assumed to be the final end of any “humanistic” ethics, as the “concomitant of productive living.” “Productive” remains undefined: man should be a productively oriented character; being productively oriented means that one is able “to use his powers and to realize potentialities inherent in his nature.” But Dr. Fromm never states clearly just which powers are to be unfolded and just what man’s responsibilities are toward his own existence. “While it is true,” he states, “that man’s productiveness can create material things, works of art, and systems of thought, by far the most important object of his own productiveness is man himself.”
But even granting that we understand what Dr. Fromm means by “productively oriented”—a term he uses like a magic incantation—the underlying, though not specifically stated, assumption of his book, that a world of productively oriented men will result in a good social order, is not satisfactorily demonstrated. It does not follow that two productively oriented men will be in agreement—say—on whether or not Negroes should be admitted to Stuyvesant Town, or on what constitutes an equitable economic system.
It would be difficult to gather from Dr. Fromm that psychoanalysis is concerned with, in Ernst Kris’ words, human behavior viewed as conflict. This makes it possible for Dr. Fromm to talk about Man rather than men, and leads him to beg one of the traditional questions raised by ethics—justice, which is always fraught with conflicts, inner and outer. When Dr. Fromm discusses the problem of how to judge a murderer he is torn between psychoanalysis and the law. “We can understand how and why he became what he is but we can also judge him as to what he is.” Then he retreats to an analogy of much lower emotional intensity—the verdict delivered on a bad pair of shoes by a shoemaker. What Dr. Fromm really demonstrates is that as a psychoanalyst he can’t be a judge, and as a judge he doesn’t know how much of a psychoanalyst he has a right to be. And this was precisely the problem he meant to solve.
Dr. Fromm neither accomplishes the union of psychoanalysis and ethics nor establishes even the foundation of a system of ethics. He has merely affirmed that a system of ethics which permits man to lead a full and happy life would be desirable. In this he has not affirmed more than the writers on ethics who have gone before, without giving us much of a clue, from either psychoanalysis or philosophy, as to how this full and happy life is to be sought or achieved by contemporary man.