Man for himself - An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics (by Erich Fromm)

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“There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as 'moral indignation,' which permits envy or hate to be acted out under the guise of virtue.” 


“If faith cannot be reconciled with rational thinking, it has to be eliminated as an anachronistic remnant of earlier stages of culture and replaced by science dealing with facts and theories which are intelligible and can be validated.” 


“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 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 of skill in a praticular field. Irrational authority is by its very nature based on inequality, implying difference in value.” 


"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 powers; vice is irresponsibility towards himself.' By the 'unfolding of man's powers' is meant 'living productively' ".


"Problems of ethics cannot be omitted from the study of personality...The value judgments we make determine our actions, and upon their validity ..."


"There is no meaning in life except the meaning man gives by unfolding his powers, by living productively."


 “If man is to have confidence in values, he must know himself and the capacity of his nature for goodness and productiveness.”


"Temperament refers to the mode of reaction and is constitutional and not changeable; character is essentially formed by a person's experiences, especially of those in early life, and changeable, to some extent, by insights and new kinds of experiences. If a person has a choleric temperament, for instance, his mode of reaction is "quick and strong." But what he is quick or strong about depends on his kind of relatedness, his character. If he is a productive, just, loving person he will react quickly and strongly when he loves, when he is enraged by injustice, and when he is impressed by a new idea. If he is a destructive or sadistic character, he will be quick and strong in his destructiveness or in his cruelty. The confusion between temperament and character has had serious consequences for ethical theory. Preferences with regard to differences in temperament are mere matters of subjective taste. But differences in character are ethically of the most fundamental importance."


"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"





  • first published in 1947
  • connection between ethics and psychology through character and personality
  • outline how an ideal ethic of man would look.
  • neurosis is but a failure in morality.
  • many neurotic symptoms have one-to-one correspondences with instances of poor judgment, moral confusion and moral contradictions.
  • E. F. reproaches Freud and psychoanalysis for what he calls a 'relativistic position' in ethics. 
  • Confusion of modern women and men who, because they lack faith in any principle by which life ought to be guided, become the helpless prey forces both within and without.
  • psychology cannot divorce itself from the problems of philosophy and ethics, and that human nature cannot be understood without understanding the values and moral conflicts that confront us all.
  • E. F. shows that an ethical system can be based on human nature rather than on revelations or traditions.
  • Both Freud and Jung shared the view that ethics and morality, and psychology, must nevertheless be parsed out and treated separately. However, they believed this separation was necessary for somewhat opposite reasons: Freud considered human values irrationally based and as vastly inferior to reason and thus saw no reason why they could not be treated relativistically. Jung, on the other hand, believed that the unconscious, and the (irrational) values that ensued from it, were the source of human revelation. Thus in the same way that religionists do, Jung elevated myth, faith, and feelings to a higher plane, giving them logical weight equal to reason. 
  • Ethics reduces to a battle between individuals with "integrated personalities" and "balanced characters" seeking normal self-actualization, and promoting humanistic ethics, and those on the other hand driven by unbalanced and neurotic impulses: One is life-affirming, the other self-destructive. Thus, Fromm's crowing point: Developing a healthy psychology is paramount to developing a healthy corpus of humanistic ethics.
  • psychology cannot be separated from art, sociology, philosophy, economics, or even science -- especially biology.
  • psychology, by relying on man's personality and character structure, is the true precursor to the development of any science of man.

Erich Fromm


Aim of the book

to identify "what man is, how he ought to live, and how the tremendous energies within man can be released and used productively."

The Connection Between Psychology and Ethics: The first step on the Road to developing a science of man (By Herbert L Calhoun)

Other psychologists interested in ethics

Pfister, Flugel, Müller-Braunschweig, Heinz Hartmann, Pichon, and Odier. 

Ernest Becker, anti-psychiatry and "science of evil"

Becker came to believe that individuals' characters are essentially formed around the process of denying their own mortality, that this denial is necessary for us to function in the world, and that this character-armor prevents genuine self-knowledge. Much of the evil in the world, he believed, was a consequence of this need to deny death.


Becker also wrote The Birth and Death of Meaning, which gets its title from the concept of humankind moving away from the simple-minded ape into a world of symbols and illusions, and then deconstructing those illusions through our own evolving intellect.

Main concepts

  • irrational authority
  • link between psychology and ethics
  • productive man
  • ethical relativism in modern psychology
  • authoritarian ethics vs. humanistic ethics.
  • humanistic norms vs. authoritarian norms
  • freedom as a fundamental part of human nature
  • The social unconscious
  • Humanism
  • Social analysis
  • Personality orientations
  • Theory of human needs
  • anti-social behavior as response to unfulfilling/negating social environments
  • characters: receptive, exploitative, hoarding, marketing, productive
  • connection between ethics and psychology through character and personality
  • foundation upon which a science of man too could eventually be built
  • moral relativity trap
  • ethics cannot be divorced from psychology
  • biophilia


The problem

Humanistic ethics: The applied science of the art of living

  • Humanistic vs. Authoritarian ethics
  • Subjectivistic vs. objectivistic ethics
  • The science of man
  • The tradition of humanistic ethics
  • Ethics and psychoanalysis

Human nature and character

  • The human situation
    • Man's biological weakness
    • The existential and the historical dichotomies in man
  • Personality
    • Temperament
    • Character
      • The dynamic concept of character
      • Types of character: the nonproductive orientations
        • The receptive orientation
        • The exploitative orientation
        • The hoarding orientation
        • The marketing orientation
      • The productive orientation
        • General characteristics
        • Productive love and thinking
      • Orientations in the process of socialization
      • Blends of various orientations

Problems of humanistic ethics

  • Selfishness, self-love, and self-interest
  • Conscience, man's recall to himself
    • Authoritarian conscience
    • Humanistic conscience
  • Pleasure and happiness
    • Pleasure as a criterion of value
    • Types of pleasure
    • The problem of means and ends
  • Faith as a character trait
  • The moral powers in man
    • Man, good or evil?
    • Repression vs productiveness
    • Character and moral judgment
  • Absolute vs relative, universal vs. socially immanent ethics

The moral problem of today



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