Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (Fairness Ethics)

…If to love means to have a loving attitude toward everybody, if love is a character trait, it must necessarily exist in one’s relationship not only with one’s family and friends, but towards those with whom one is in contact through one’s work, business, profession. There is no “division of labor” between love for one’s own and love for strangers. On the contrary, the condition for the existence of the former is the existence of the latter. To take this insight seriously means indeed a rather drastic change in one’s social relations from the customary ones. While a great deal of lip service is paid to the religious ideal of love of one’s neighbor, our relations are actually, at their best, by the principle of fairness. Fairness meaning not to use fraud and trickery in the exchange of feelings. “I give you as much as you give me,” in material goods as well as in love, is the prevalent ethical maxim in capitalist society. It may even be said that the development of fairness ethics is the particular ethical contribution of capitalist society.

The reasons for this fact lie in the very nature of capitalist society. In pre-capitalist societies, the exchange of goods was determined either by direct force, by tradition, or by personal bonds of love or friendship. In capitalism, the all-determining factor is the exchange on the market. Whether we deal with the commodity market, the labor market, or the market of services, each person exchanges whatever he has to sell for that which he wants to acquire under the conditions of the market, without the use of force or fraud.

Fairness ethics lend themselves to confusion with the ethics of the Golden Rule. The maxim “do unto others as you would like them to do unto you” can be interpreted as meaning “be fair in your exchange with others. But actually, it was formulated originally as a more popular version of the Biblical “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Indeed, the Jewish-Christian norm of brotherly love is entirely different from fairness ethics. It means to love your neighbor, that is, to feel responsible for and one with him, while fairness ethics means NOT to feel responsible, and one, but distant and separate; it means to respect the rights of your neighbor, but not to love him. It is no accident that the Golden Rule has become the most popular religious maxim today; because it can be interpreted in terms of fairness ethics it is the one religious maxim which everybody understands and is willing to practice. But the practice of love must begin with recognizing the difference between fairness and love.

Here, however, an important question arises. If our whole social and economic organization is based on each one seeking his own advantage, if it is governed by the principle of egotism tempered only by the ethical principle of fairness, how can one do business, how can one act within the framework of existing society and at the same time practice love? Does the latter not imply giving up all one’s secular concerns and sharing the life of the poorest? This question has been raised and answered in a radical way by the Christian monks, and by persons like Tolstoi, Albert Schweitzer, and Simone Weil. There are others who share the opinion of the basic incompatibility between love and normal secular life within our society. They arrive at the result that to speak of love today means only to participate in the general fraud; they claim that only a martyr or a mad person can love in the world of today, hence that all discussion of love is nothing but preaching. This very respectable viewpoint lends itself readily to a rationalization of cynicism. Actually it is shared implicitly by the average person who feels “I would like to be a good Christian – but I would have to starve if I meant it seriously.” This “radicalism” results in moral nihilism. Both the “radical thinkers” and the average person are unloving automatons and the only difference between them is that the latter is not aware of it, while the former knows it and recognizes the “historical necessity” of this fact.

I am of the conviction that the answer of the absolute incompatibility of love and “normal” life is correct only in an abstract sense. The principle underlying capitalistic society and the principle of love are incompatible… Even if one recognizes the principle of capitalism as being incompatible with the principle of love, one must admit that “capitalism ” is in itself a complex and constantly changing structure which still permits of a good deal of non-conformity and of personal latitude.

In saying this, however, I do not wish to imply that we can expect the present social system to continue indefinitely, and at the same time to hope for the realization of the ideal of love for one’s brother. People capable of love, under the present system, are necessarily the exceptions; love is by necessity a marginal phenomenon in present-day Western [and Eastern] society. Not so much because many occupations would not permit of a loving attitude, but because the spirit of a production-centered, commodity-greedy society is such that only the non-conformist can defend himself successfully against it. Those who are seriously concerned with love as the only rational answer to the problem of human existence must, then, arrive at the conclusion that important and radical changes in our social structure are necessary, if love is to become a social and not a highly individualistic, marginal phenomenon… Our society is run by a managerial bureaucracy, by professional politicians; people are motivated by mass suggestion, their aim is producing more and consuming more, as purposes in themselves. All activities are subordinated to economic goals, means have become ends; man is an automaton – well fed, well clad, but without any ultimate concern for that which is his peculiarly human quality and fuction. If man is to be able to love, he must be put in his supreme place. The economic machine must serve him, rather than he serve it. He must be enabled to share experience, to share work, rather than, at best, share in profits. Society must be organized in such a way that man’s social, loving nature is not separated from his social existence, but becomes one with it. If it is true, as I have tried to show, that love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence, then any society which excludes, relatively, the development of love, must in the long run perish of its own contradiction with the basic necessities of human nature. Indeed, to speak of love is not “preaching,” for the simple reason that it means to speak of the ultimate and real need in every human being. That this need has been obscured does not mean that it does not exist. To analyze the nature of love is to discover its general absence today and to criticize the social conditions which are responsible for this absence. To have faith in the possibility of love as a social and not only exceptional-individual phenomenon, is a rational faith based on the insight into the very nature of man.

-Chapter IV: The Practice of Love


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