All Commentary
Sunday, April 1, 1962

To Rebuild the Ethical Foundation

Dr. Sennholz heads the Department of Eco­nomics at Grove City College, Pennsylvania.

Albert Schweitzer, in his Decay and Restoration of Civilization, expressed his hopes for the sur­vival of civilization in the follow­ing words:

“The renewal of civilization has nothing to do with movements which bear the character of ex­periences of the crowd; these are never anything but reactions to external happenings. But civiliza­tion can only revive when there shall come into being in a number of individuals a new tone of mind independent of the one prevalent among the crowd and in opposi­tion to it, a tone of mind which will gradually win influence over the collective one, and in the end determine its character. It is only an ethical movement which can rescue us from the slough of bar­barism, and the ethical comes into existence only in individuals…”

But most men lack character depth and stability. Infirm or shaky in our ethical moorings, we are guided by public opinion that is maintained by means of mass communication. Our opinions are shaped by the press, radio, and television, by financial and other considerations. Our understanding of ethical, political, and sociologi­cal phenomena is fashioned by heresay and propaganda, by ma­jority beliefs and decisions.

We like to cling to and identify ourselves with popular labels. In democratic surroundings we are eager to be good democrats. In a socialistic setting we are good so­cialists, among communists prob­ably good communists, and among conservatives we strive to be good conservatives.

But no matter what label ap­pears to be the most fashionable, we are prone to attach the pre­vailing beliefs and prejudices to the label we adopt. If, for in­stance, we choose the conservative label because it appears fashion­able and personally desirable, we tend to interpret it socialistically if the prevailing opinion is social­istic. As a crowd we thus usurp the fashionable labels and pervert them with popular notions and prejudices. Old venerable terms, such as democratic, liberal, and even American, thus are changed through usurpation and reinter­pretation until they now purvey the very opposite of their original meanings.

Lest we become a speck in the crowd of which Schweitzer was speaking we must continuously re-examine the religious and ethi­cal foundation to which we are moored. With unrelenting zeal and scrupulous care we must reorient ourselves always anew toward the ethics we profess. Without the greatest alertness we are bound to sink into the shallowness and instability of the mass.

If we believe in the inherent freedom and dignity of man, in his responsibility before his Crea­tor and his fellow men, we must re-examine tirelessly our individ­ual actions and readjust them to the foundation. If we profess the principles of a free society, polit­ical and economic freedom, indi­vidual property and enterprise, we must conform our words and actions to the principles professed. For we relapse into the mind of the crowd if we mean to profess the principles of individual free­dom and responsibility, but in our daily affairs advocate collective action and coercion. And yet, this is the common failure of which we often are guilty.

We aim to be Christian, but sin­fully transgress against our fel­low men. We claim to be democrat­ic, but advocate the tyranny of government over the people. We speak of ethics, but act ruthlessly and mercilessly. We pride our­selves in being American, but sneer at the dreams of the Found­ing Fathers. We call ourselves in­dividualists, but mainly trust in collective action. We conveniently use the label “conservative,” but clamor for more laws, and govern­ment intervention. In short, we echo the collective tone of mind.

According to Albert Schweit­zer’s analysis, a few individuals must bring into being a new tone of mind in opposition to the one of the crowd. In lonely existence, often despised and misunderstood, they must rebuild the ethical foun­dation that can give life to a new civilization.

  • Hans F. Sennholz (1922-2007) was Ludwig von Mises' first PhD student in the United States. He taught economics at Grove City College, 1956–1992, having been hired as department chair upon arrival. After he retired, he became president of the Foundation for Economic Education, 1992–1997.