success stories

The Crisis of Ethical Norms

Thoughts of Romano Guardini on ethics that are as pertinent to CEO's, church leaders and Ecologists as when he wrote them 50 years ago

This growing defenselessness against the inroads of power is furthered by the fact that ethical norms have lost much of their influence, hence their ability to curb abuses of power is weakened.

Ethical norms are valid by their own inner truth, but they become historically effective by taking root in man's vital instincts, inclinations of the soul, social structures, cultural forms and traditions. The process [of today's societal transformations] we have been studying breaks these ancient rootholds. They are replaced at least temporarily by formalistic rules and regulations and by the various techniques known as "organization." But organization does not create an ethic.

Thus the importance of ethical norms in men's lives gives way to stress on mere expediency. This is true, above all, of those norms which protect the person. Just one example: Not very long ago, it was considered a sacrilege to dissect a corpse not, as self-glorifying modernity insists, because the Middle Ages were backward, but because men still harbored an instinctive reverence for the human body, even when dead. From this we can measure the terrible speed with which one bulwark of reticence after the other has been torn down. For the average sentiment, does anything at all remain that is still untouchable? Are not experiments on living bodies performed constantly? Were the practices in certain "scientifically-minded concentration camps any different from vivisection? Trace the connecting line which leads from control for human conception to interrupted pregnancy; from artificial insemination to euthanasia; from race-breeding to the destruction of undesirable life. What may one not do to people if by "one" we mean the average man we encounter everywhere in the street; in our newspapers; on the screen; radio and television; in literature and drama; andmost ominous of all, in our statesmen, lawmakers, military and economic leaders?

When man drops the ethical reins, he places himself utterly at the mercy of power. Never could he have sunk as low as he did in Germany's all-too-recent past, never could he suffer such abuse as he continues to suffer right now in other parts of the world, had he not been so abandoned by his ethical sense and his feeling for his own personal being. As we have pointed out more than once, a one-sided causality simply does not exist among living beings. One being affects another as much as that other allows himself to be affected, indeed, cooperates in the process. In the long run, domination requires not only the passive consent, but also the will to be dominated, a well eager to drop personal responsibility and personal effort. Broadly speaking, the dominated get what they themselves desire: the inner barriers of self-respect and self-defense must fall before power can really violate.

A further point: life's religious content is steadily disintegrating. This does not necessarily mean that Christian faith is losing its influence on general conditions (though naturally this too can be true), but means something more elemental for man, namely, that the direct religious valuableness of existence is escaping him.

In primitive cultures, everything is religiously determined. Everything significant in man's life and work has a religious root which warrants its existence. The measurements with which he measures; the media he uses for exchange; tool and weapon, threshold and field-marker; the location of the city and its form, determined by the market-place at its heart and the walls which enclose it; natural objects, each with its special significance for man; the animals he hunts all come from the divine and possess mysterious powers. As critical thought takes over, as man becomes lord of nature, as various natural spheres are abstracted from the original whole, man's awareness of these powers declines.

Modern man cuts himself off not only from the community and from tradition, but also from his religious connections. He is indifferent both to the specific, once-authoritative Christian Credo and to religious ideas in general. Things, forces, processes have become "worldly" the word stripped of its former religious richness and given a new sense which implies "rationally understandable and technically controllable." This means that man as a whole as well as important individual aspects of human life the defenselessness of childhood, the special nature of woman, the simultaneous physical weakness and rich experience of the aged all lose their metaphysical worth.

Birth is now considered merely the appearance of a new unit of the species homo sapiens; marriage but an alliance of a man and a woman with certain personal and legal consequences; death the end of a total process known as life. Happiness or unhappiness are no longer providential, but simply lucky or unlucky accidents with which a man must cope as best he can. Things lose their mystery and transparency, becoming calculable forms with specific economic, hygienic and aesthetic values.

History no longer bears any relation to a Providence emanating wisdom and benevolence; it is a mere string of empirical processes. The majesty of the state no longer reflects divine majesty; it exists not "by the grace of God," but solely by grace of people. Or, to put it less irreverently and more sensibly, the state is the organizational apparatus of the people and operates according to psychological, sociological laws. It becomes progressively independent of the people, whom it ultimately dominates completely. All this strengthens and seals the process we described: man, with all he is and has, places himself ever more unreservedly at the disposal of power.

This process leads straight to a concept whose consequences cannot be overestimated: the idea of universal planning. Under such planning man would control everything before him not only raw materials and natural energies, but also living man in his entirety. Statistics would make an exact inventory of the material at hand; theory would demonstrate the means of utilizing it. "National interest" would determine the general goal; technology would provide the methods with which to attain it.

Universal planning is being prepared with weighty arguments: political necessity, increased population, limited resources and the need for better distribution, the magnitude of modern technical problems, and so forth. But the real drives behind it are spiritual rather than practical. They culminate in an attitude which feels it to be its right and duty to impose its own goal upon mankind, and to utilize all that is as material for the realization of its earthly "kingdom."