George G. Brenkert, 1983
Source: Marx's ethic of freedom (1983) publ. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983. Just the first Chapter reproduced here.
Our insipid, moralising Sancho believes ... that it is merely a matter of a different morality, of what appears to have a new outlook on life, of ‘getting out of one’s head’ a few ‘fixed ideas’, to make everyone happy and able to enjoy life. (The German Ideology, MECW, 5:419)
The nature of Marx’s views on morality and ethics has long been a matter of considerable dispute. One widespread view is that Marx had no ethics, he rejected morality, and envisioned a communism beyond both.  Marx is supposed to have founded a science which sought in an objective, morally neutral manner to understand the origin, growth, and collapse of capitalism as well as the ultimate succession of communism. One only has to read in the history of Marxism to appreciate how generally this view has been defended. Comments such as the following are wholly common:
Marxism is distinguished from all other socialist systems by its anti-ethical tendency. In all of Marxism from beginning to end, there is not a grain of ethics, and consequently no more of an ethical judgment than an ethical postulate. 
The obsolescence of ethical ideology is a corollary of historical materialism as applied to the superstructure of a socialist society. Ethical laws come into being as attempts to solve social antagonisms, not by removing their basic causes, but through moral coercion. An appeal to ethical doctrine is a confession that the given standpoint does not enable social antagonisms found to be resolved. 
Marx’s revolution in philosophy explicitly renounced the normative tradition of philosophical ethics while affirming the heritage of positive science. 
Accordingly, it can be said without exaggeration that it has seemed to many that it is misleading at best, wrong-headed at worst, to speak of Marx having an ethics. He simply does not fit into the categories into which we expect those having an ethics and reflecting on morality to fit.
There are, however, relatively straightforward problems with this view. For example, many of those who hold this view attribute a rather empiricist notion of science to Marx. But it is doubtful that Marx used such a notion of science. Indeed, Marx’s claims about science must be understood in light of Hegel’s claims about science. Marx’s views were significantly influenced by Hegel — and surely Hegelian science was not empiricist. Secondly, it is often noted that Marx was not, as one would expect a scientist to be, a neutral, dispassionate observer in his writings. This is as evident in his writings on political economy as it is in his newspaper articles. In Capital, for example, he condemns the egoism, exploitation, estrangement, degradation, etc. which capitalism brings in its train. Marx’s writings are pervaded by a normative and partisan atmosphere. His commitment to the particular kind of social order which he sees his work as advancing is always obvious and constantly present. Further, this commitment is not simply a personal commitment, but one which he clearly believes that others should share. Finally, if Marx were a scientist without an ethics, it is unclear how we are to understand his many comments that communism will constitute a ‘higher’ plane of existence for humanity, that there is a ‘progressive’ nature to history, and that communism will institute a ‘true realm’ of freedom.
Problems of these kinds have led some to modify the above view of Marx. They claim, instead, that Marx did have some kind of ethical or evaluative view but that this was simply added on to his scientific views. The two together explain the above kinds of problems. His science remains non-normative, neutral, objective and descriptive. It was his own personal commitments which explain his partisanship, his condemnation of various aspects of capitalist society, and his talk of communism as a ‘higher’ stage of society. Thus we may read amongst those who interpret Marx in this manner:
As theoretical abstractions employed for specific methodological reasons, the models of both the abstract labour process and the capitalist labour process are neutral. No moral recommendations are implied. On the one hand, we have the claim that if one examines all past societies, then certain general features of the labour process common to them all will be found; while on the other hand, we have the claim that if one examines the capitalist labour process, then certain specific features of that process will be found. However, moral implications can be drawn from a comparison between these models, if, like Marx, we are committed to a position which stresses the desirability and, in a kind of society not yet known in history the possibility of the free, purposive activity of human beings. 
Marx undertakes to predict on the basis of what he sees happening ... and he proposes to make his prediction come true by arousing the minds of other men — the proletariat — to a sense of their future role.... We cross the inner threshold of the Marxian temple and pass from the strictly materialistic and evolutionary purlieus of history to the inner sanctum where the revelation of class consciousness and class struggle makes right belief essential, intense propaganda imperative, and ruthless political action a moral duty ... But in this [latter] part of his system Marx is really not thinking of his economic and material laws. He has become an ordinary political writer with a strong moral bias. 
There are, however, also difficulties with this interpretation. It does not modify the notion of science underlying the previous view. It simply adds an ethics to that science. The two remain wholly external to each other. This is not what we should expect, given Marx’s demands for a unity of theory and practice, or given his claim that he seeks to form a single, all-embracing science. Even more disturbingly, this interpretation suggests no basis for Marx’s advocacy of communism other than that (a) it was his own personal view — i.e. an arbitrary ultimate commitment — or that (b) he simply opted to defend morally that which he saw as inevitable — i.e. a kind of moral futurism or fatalism. Both suggestions leave much to be desired. The former contends that Marx’s ethics are ultimately personal and arbitrary, even though, throughout his life, Marx emphasised the social dimensions of life, and argued that communism would be founded upon a rational, non-arbitrary, basis. The latter leaves us wondering why, if it was bound to come, Marx worked for that moral future. Indeed, how could he — as he did — condemn some of those things which came to pass within his own lifetime?
I believe that both this and the preceding view of Marx are fundamentally mistaken. I shall argue instead that Marx has a moral theory and that this moral theory was integrally part of his ‘scientific’ views. This position (at least as so far minimally described) has had other defenders. Most notable are the accounts of Howard Selsam (Socialism and Ethics) and Eugene Kamenka (The Ethical Foundations of Marxism).
Selsam’s account was written forty years ago. It was a broadly aimed, but not a terribly rigorous, attempt to formulate a Marxist ethics. Selsam lacked a number of crucial manuscripts of Marx (The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, and Grundrisse); he underestimated how radically different Marx’s views on ethics were; and indeed, he was not particularly concerned with explicating Marx’s ethics so much as using the writings of Marx and his followers down to Stalin to develop a new ethics. Kamenka’s work was written twenty years ago. But whereas Selsam did not have Marx’s early writings, Kamenka’s work oftentimes gives the impression of being overwhelmed by them. This is understandable in that ready access to those manuscripts occurred shortly before Kamenka began his book. Nevertheless, a more balanced account is needed. The purpose of the present book, however, is not to criticize such predecessors as Selsam and Kamenka, but to continue the work of explicating and evaluating Marx’s ethics. This is especially important in light of the considerable discussion of Marx’s ethics which has occurred in the last twenty years. 
At the outset it should be clear that I do not maintain that Marx formulated a moral theory in a manner comparable to the moral theories which past or present moral philosophers have formulated. Marx did not write a treatise, any pamphlets, or even any essays on ethics and morality. At the most we have various sections in larger works, paragraphs, and scattered comments on ethics and morality which are interwoven with his reflections on history, economics, and politics. Further, on those occasions on which he does speak of ethics he does not engage in moral reflection as traditional and contemporary moral philosophers have. He does not pose for himself the question, ‘What ought I to do?’ as a way of entering into moral reflection. He does not set out, as Kant and others have, to search for and establish the supreme principle of morality by argument and consideration of the reasons and views of others. Thus, he does not, in any obvious way, urge the universalisation of the maxims of our actions (as Kant did) or the calculation of the greatest good our actions might promote (as J.S. Mill did). Such individual questions are quite secondary to Marx’s concern for the social system within which people raise such questions. Nor does Marx attempt to develop a theory of the meaning and purpose of moral statements as individuals make them. As such, Marx was not a moral philosopher. There are few, I think, who would deny this.
However, it does not follow that Marx did not have a moral theory. A person may be said to have a moral theory, even though he may never have explicitly formulated it. Whether one has a moral theory and whether one has formulated a moral theory are two different questions. The answer to the one question is not necessarily the answer to the other question. The latter question refers to a certain process that a person engages in, while the former question refers to a set of reasonably coherent and interrelated views which generally are but need not be the product of that process. For example, it has been maintained that to engage in the process of formulating a moral theory one must suspend one’s commitments; one must make certain conscious decisions or choices to act on the basis of moral principles; and one must have been able to have chosen otherwise.  Whether or not these conditions for ethical inquiry are plausible, they are not plausible for determining whether or not one has an ethics or a moral theory. Suppose, for instance, I have been inclined to promote the pleasurable aspects of any situation and that I have not generally been inclined to do this simply for myself. I have tried to promote the pleasures of others as well. Still I have not myself given any thought to such matters, and do not always act or judge in the above manner. However, someone gives me Bentham’s work, I read it and am convinced.  Now I did not suspend my judgment. I have always been inclined along Bentham’s lines. I do make, I suppose, a conscious decision to act in these ways in the future, but it is unclear whether I could have chosen to do otherwise. In this case, I think we might well say that though I did not at first have a moral theory, I now do have a moral theory which underlies my actions and desires. Thus, those features which characterise the formulation of a moral theory, the engaging in ethical inquiry, need not characterise the having of a moral theory or an ethics. Because these two different questions are confused, it is concluded that since the answer to the first question is negative, the answer to the second question must also be negative. But this does not follow. 
What is it then to have a moral theory? Surely it is not sufficient that one simply speak in favour of various notions which one might identify as moral notions. Politicians, farmers, and the common man speak, on occasion, in favour of various moral notions, but we are not immediately inclined to ascribe moral theories to them.  As such they are, in one sense of the word, simply moralists. If they are to be said to have a moral theory, their ideas about ethics must possess a certain unity, even if their statements of these ideas be scattered. Their ideas cannot simply be unconnected references to various moral notions. Consider, for example, a person who (almost) always acts consistently on his moral choices (we must allow for weakness of the will and other human failings). He praises certain ends and various ways of acting. He defends his choices and views by giving certain reasons which are connected both with the choices and views he advocates and other systematic views he holds and expounds on. He attacks opposing views and tries to show their weaknesses in ways which are both consistent with and a consequence of his views. Certainly, such a person is more than the moralist. He may also be less than a moral philosopher in that he has never brought all these ideas together, he has never shown their interrelations and connections. Nevertheless, though he may not have formulated the moral theory implicit in his views it is not strange to say that he operates on the basis of an implicit moral theory. Accordingly, I suggest that to have a moral theory it is sufficient that one expresses an (essentially) consistent body of ethical judgments, that one be aware of some sort of systematic connection between these judgments, and that one derive them in a more or less conscious way from some common foundation. It is in this sense that Marx can be said to have a moral theory.  The proof of this must wait upon the discussions in the remainder of this book.
My proof will take various forms. Firstly, it will consist in the formulation of that theory itself, together with supporting textual evidence. This part of my proof will have two parts. On the one hand, I will discuss the logical and methodological aspects of Marx’s ethics. That is, I will consider what might be called Marx’s meta-ethics. This I shall do in Chapters 2 and 3. On the other hand, the moral values and standards Marx defends and by which he criticises capitalism must also be developed. This normative side of his ethics is developed in Chapters 4 to 6. If a consistent moral theory can be extracted from, and shown to be supported by, Marx’s writings, my thesis will be substantially proven. Secondly, I shall consider, while discussing Marx’s meta-ethics, a number of traditional objections to the view that Marx can have an ethics. By answering these objections my thesis will be further supported. Thirdly, if my thesis helps to integrate and explain other views of Marx, e.g. his views on punishment and violence, as well as indicating difficulties and problems which those who subscribe to Marx’s views encounter, then my thesis will be yet further confirmed. Finally, I would point out that Marx did, throughout his life, engage in discussions which have the appearance of ethical inquiry and discussion. For example, he discussed the relation of morality and moral principles to their historical and material settings; he analysed and criticised egoism, utilitarianism, bourgeois rights and liberty, as well as other notions such as charity. In addition, he seems to defend values such as freedom, brotherhood, solidarity, and community. Now these various discussions may not constitute the formulation of an ethical theory. However, if he does have the moral theory which is developed below, then it would not be surprising to find such discussions in Marx and they would be an additional confirmation of the underlying moral theory that is here identified.
At the outset, we must begin by reflecting on the fact that not only did Marx not formulate a moral theory but he also seemed to have opposed any attempt to do so. For example, his works reveal precious little use, in any traditional manner, of moral language. Certain concepts central to modern moral philosophy are rarely, if ever, used.  In addition, there is a significant body of textual evidence that Marx simply rejected ethics and morality and wanted to have nothing to do with them. Statements such as the following are exemplary of Marx’s apparently anti-moral and anti-ethical views:
It may be remarked in passing that German philosophy, because it took consciousness alone as its point of departure, was bound to end in moral philosophy, where the various heroes squabble about true morals. (MECW, 5:36)
In a party one must support everything which helps towards progress, and have no truck with any tedious moral scruples. (MECW, 6:56)
My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them. (Capital, I: p10)
I wrote An Address to the Working Class.... My proposals [in this Address] were all accepted by the subcommittee [of the Workingmen’s International Association] . Only I was obliged to insert two phrases about ‘duty’ and ‘right’ into the Preamble to the Statutes, ditto ‘truth, morality, and justice,’ but these are placed in such a way that they can do no harm. 
[I]t was, of course, only possible to discover ... [the connection between the kinds of enjoyment open to individuals at any particular time and the class relations in which they live, and the conditions of production and intercourse which give rise to these relations] ... when it became possible to criticise the conditions of production and intercourse in the hitherto existing world, i.e., when the contradictions between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat had given rise to communist and socialist views. That shattered the basis of any morality, whether of asceticism or of enjoyment. (MECW, 5:418-19)
These kinds of statements and the previously mentioned characteristics of Marx’s work demand explanation. How can Marx be said to have an implicit ethics and yet make statements such as the preceding? Do not such statements simply reveal an antipathy towards and a rejection of morality and moral philosophy?
The problem is not as insurmountable as it may seem. Marx was indeed opposed to the morality and ethics of his time. They represented to him a kind of dream-like acquiescence in the face of the increasing degradation suffered by larger and larger numbers of people in modern society. Either they amounted to a kind of simple moralism in which moral conclusions were drawn, society was condemned or criticised, but (after all this) everything remained simply as it was. Or they amounted to an attempt to justify the status quo. Whatever evils they saw were rationalised away in one way or another. In either case, morality and ethics neither understood nor affected the problems of the time. Marx’s comment on Max Stirner illustrates these views on morality and ethics: he ‘arrives merely at an important moral injunction.... He believes Don Quixote’s assurance that by a mere moral injunction he can without more ado convert the material forces from the division of labour into personal forces’ (MECW, 5:342-3). Similarly, morality and ethics did not do or accomplish anything since they did not directly face the problems and conflicts of society. Their theory was separated from any practical consequences or reflections.
This opposition to the ineffectiveness, as well as the illusions, of morality and ethics can be found throughout Marx’s writings — from his early essays and poetry, through The German Ideology to Capital. Needless to say, it is a criticism that he brings not simply against morality and ethics, but against all theories and social institutions. Religion, political economy, as well as the sciences in general were the objects of such criticism. With regard to moral philosophy, Marx’s well-known eleventh thesis on Feuerbach captures his view perhaps most succinctly: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it’ (Theses on Feuerbach). As opposed to the moral philosophers and moralists of his time, Marx insisted that any creditable critical theory of man and society must clearly distinguish between appearance and reality. It must relentlessly pursue and analyse ‘the common wisdom’ for the realities it conceals. Furthermore, such an account must show how human society really operates, how it can be and must be changed. In short, any critical science must be illusionless and effective.
This twofold demand manifests itself in the following ways. Firstly, it manifests itself in his language, in his rhetoric. The language of the poet or revolutionary is just as much Marx’s language as is the dry, sober language of the ethicist or economist. Even in his ‘economic works,’ vivid, forceful, persuasive language is mixed with dry economic analyses. However, more is involved here than an intention simply to state his views forcefully. Marx’s language also reveals his views about the nature of argument and how readily people can be moved by cool rational argument alone. Marx recognised the obvious point — though one often forgotten by ethicists — that people are not wholly rational beings, that they cling to their views at times for various reasons which no strictly rational argument can alter. ‘The real, practical dissolution of these [forms and products of consciousness] , the removal of these notions from the consciousness of man, will ... be effected by altered circumstances, not by theoretical deductions’ (MECW, 5:56). Thus, though the rational argument behind Marx’s views can be formulated, the statement of his views often takes the form of polemic, of ridicule, of indignation and denunciation. The Preface to The German Ideology exemplifies the point:
The first volume of the present publication has the aim of uncloaking these sheep, who take themselves and are taken for wolves, of showing that their bleating merely imitates in a philosophic form the conception of the German middle class; that the boasting of these philosophic commentators only mirrors the wretchedness of the real conditions in Germany. It is its aim to ridicule and discredit the philosophic struggle with the shadows of reality, which appeals to the dreamy and muddled German nation. (German Ideology)
This passage is quite typical of Marx — forceful, vivid language used to attack the illusions of certain philosophers and, not only by argument but also by ridicule, to work on those who would accept such shadows of reality. Surely Marx would admit that there is something which might be called ‘the force of ideas.’ But the mistake of ethicists and moralists has been to rely entirely on this ‘force.’ Thus, they have been ineffective. On the contrary, Marx insists, ideas are not simply disembodied mental entities with an existence all their own. Instead, they come bound up with the various aspects of individual, social, and historical existence. One’s emotions, feelings, and sensitivities — as well as one’s cognitive beliefs and reasoning abilities — play a role in determining the rational arguments one is able to accept. Thus, for one’s arguments to be effective, one must direct one’s argument and views not simply at disembodied minds. Accordingly, Marx uses his language to threaten, ridicule, and hound, as well as to denounce. ‘Criticism appears no longer as an end in itself, but only as a means. Its essential sentiment is indignation, its essential activity is denunciation’ (MECW, 3:177).  On the other hand, one’s social and historical position may also affect the arguments one is able to accept. Then argument alone, even denunciation and ridicule, may be inadequate. ‘Criticism dealing with this content is criticism in hand-to-hand combat, and in such a fight the point is not whether the opponent is a noble, equal, interesting opponent, the point is to strike him’ (MECW, 3:178). In both cases, ethics and morality as traditionally conceived and practiced must be transcended.
Marx’s opposition to the ineffectiveness and illusions of the moralists and ethicists of his time manifests itself in a second way. This is Marx’s view that a critical account of man and society must start out from the various forms of practical consciousness or practical activity by which humans sustain and develop themselves. ‘Where speculation ends, where real life starts, there consequently begins real, positive science, the expounding of the practical activity, of the practical process of development of men’ (MECW, 5:37). Out of a study of this basic human reality the criteria and standards for evaluating human society must be drawn. Thus, in contrast to the ethics with which he was familiar, Marx did not see his task as the imposition on human society of a set of external or transcendent demands and obligations derived from religion, God, or Spirit. Rather, a critical science must develop out of the various forms of practical activity and consciousness ‘the true reality as its obligation and its final goal’ (MECW, 3:143). Nor was Marx prepared, as some moralists he knew were, to give ‘final’ answers to man’s present and future problems. ‘Constructing the future,’ he insists, ‘and settling everything for all times are not our affair ...’ (MECW, 3:142). Finally, Marx held that only if we understand the nature of the social system within which people live can we then say something about the particular (moral) questions which individuals have. Hence, moral philosophers who place questions of individual morality first, who seek the supreme principle of morality so as to answer such questions, are attempting to answer abstract, impossible questions.
In this sense, Marx’s views bear a resemblance to Hegel’s views. Hegel too criticised the attempt to give answers to individual moral questions by establishing the supreme principle of morality. However, Hegel’s and Marx’s reasons for this shared view are different. Hegel claimed that moral philosophers simply could not give such advice. They always came upon the scene too late:
One word more about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it. As the thought of the world, it appears only when actuality is already there cut and dried after its process of formation has been completed. The teaching of the concept, which is also history’s inescapable lesson, is that it is only when actuality is mature that the ideal first appears over against the real and that the ideal apprehends this same real world in its substance and builds it up for itself into the shape of an intellectual realm. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy’s grey in grey it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk. 
Marx, however, did not hold that the world could not be changed, or that thinkers (if not critical philosophers) always come upon the scene too late. Indeed, it was the view that philosophers could only interpret the world, not change it, that he criticised in his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach. Rather, Marx’s refusal to deal directly with the traditional moral questions which occupied Kant, J.S. Mill, and other moral philosophers was due, in part, to his view that such individual questions are secondary to questions concerning the social systems within which people ask these questions. Only if we understand the nature of social systems — how they can and morally should be changed — can we proceed to answer concretely moral questions of a personal and individual nature.
It is this lack of attention to the basic human conditions of a morality which condemns moralists both to their illusions and ineffectiveness. The moralist assumes not only that we can be better than we can actually be, but also that we can significantly change our moral behaviour within our present situation, even though we cannot.”  Thus, the moralist ‘preaches.’ He assumes it is simply a matter of individual will, rather than deriving from human social reality the standards by which society and individuals may correctly be measured and effectively changed. For Marx, that is, the criticism of society can only be effective if it is illusionless, and it can only be illusionless if it is effective. In any case, it must rest upon a study of practical human activity. The idea that an effective theory or movement could depend on ‘the big lie,’ that it need not be based on a clear, demystified view of reality is utterly foreign to Marx’s thought. His views are rather traditional, if not classical, in these regards. Knowledge of truth, of reality, is a central, constitutive element of what makes one free. The distinction of reality from appearance is thus at the very center of Marx’s endeavours. Consequently, Marx contends, one cannot begin with founding a social critique, as the morality and ethics of his time did, on God or Spirit, or in some idealistic manner. Ethics must be brought down to the ground. Once it loses its footing, it loses, like the Greek god Antaeus, all its force and power.
It is little wonder then that Marx was not enamoured with the morality and ethics of his time. By and large they were moralistic, conservative, and founded on religious bases. It is little wonder, accordingly, that Marx disdained to express his views in terms which would suggest his sympathy with their views and general standpoint. To have used the (moral) language of those who merely moralised about the evils of capitalist society, but did nothing about it, ran the risk of confusing his theory with theirs. It is for such a reason that Marx attacks any presentation of ‘communism as the love-imbued opposite of selfishness ... [a presentation which] reduces a revolutionary movement of world-historical importance to the few words: love — hate, communism selfishness’ (MECW, 6:41; cf. 315, 318). Similarly, because moralistic radicals of his time had appropriated the word ‘alienation,’ Marx all but gave up using the word ‘alienation’ in his published writings after 1845, though he continued to use both the concept and the word in his unpublished writings — as the Grundrisse, for example, has made clear.  Marx was understandably cautious about employing the same language as moralists who were content to preach moral regeneration which the facts of the social situation rendered impossible. 
This kind of occurrence should not be thought to be limited to an explanation of Marx’s views on the use of moral terminology. A similar thing also happens, for example, when the political Right seizes upon such phrases as ‘law and order,’ to state their views. Political views of the Left are not thereby to be understood as opposed to ‘law and order,’ advocates of lawlessness and disorder. Nevertheless, those of the political Left would be quite wary of stating their views in terms of ‘law and order’ to the extent that the political Right has pre-empted this phrase.  A similar consideration motivates Marx, in general, with regard to moral words. It is also, at least one of the reasons, why his works manifest the anti-ethical and anti-moral tenor that they do.
Does the preceding show or suggest, then, that Marx did not or could not have an ethics? I do not think so. To begin with, the view that if Marx did not use a certain moral vocabulary, he cannot be engaged in moral evaluation or criticism presupposes that some words are particularly moral words. This view has often been held. People even speak of ‘the language of morals’ — as if there were some special set of moral words or vocabulary which is particularly moral. Still, this view is mistaken. ‘Good,’ ‘right,’ ‘duty,’ etc., are not simply and solely moral words. They can be used in many different contexts and in many different ways. But other words and expressions can take their place. We see this in Marx. Certainly, he did not evaluate capitalism using the traditional moral words of ‘justice,’ ‘right,’ ‘duty,’ etc. It is striking, nevertheless, that much of Marx’s writings, for example the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 7he Communist Manifesto, even Capital and the Grundrisse, sound very much like moral tracts — or at least significant parts of them do — even though little ‘moral language’ appears in them. Thus, though Marx does on occasion use the words, ‘good,’ ‘bad,’ ‘right,’ ‘wrong,’ etc., his main words, his central categories, of criticism of bourgeois society are quite different. They include the following: ‘human,’ ‘inhuman,’ ‘exploitation,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘slavery,’ ‘dependence,’ ‘subjugation,’ ‘imperfection,’ ‘defect,’ ‘brutalization,’ ‘venality,’ ‘corruption,’ ‘prostitution,’ ‘money-relation,’ ‘self-interest,’ ‘despotism,’ ‘repulsiveness,’ ‘suffering,’ ‘impotent,’ ‘involuntary,’ etc. These are clearly less general, more concrete words and concepts than such words as ‘good,’ ‘right,’ etc. However, it is not obvious that all of them are intended in some non-moral way, or that none of them have moral uses. Certainly, words such as ‘freedom,’ ‘slavery,’ ‘self-interest,’ ‘despotism,’ etc. suggest moral ideas and uses. Whether this suggestion is defensible depends on views of Marx which we will examine in subsequent chapters. The point here is, quite simply, that the absence of traditional moral terms does not prove Marx’s antipathy to the whole of morality and ethics.
In fact, the degree to which Marx abandoned traditional moral language can well be over-stressed. That is, it is quite possible to find instances in which he does, in more or less traditional moral ways, criticise society. Thus, he speaks of the ‘tainted morals’ due to capitalism,  and condemns the evil of wages (MECW, 6:436); he also claims that the elimination of exchange value will do away with the evil of bourgeois society (Grund., 134).  Similarly, Marx characterises communism in terms which, at least, appear moral:
When communist artisans associate with one another ... the brotherhood of man is no mere phrase with them, but a fact of life, and the nobility of man shines upon us from their work-hardened bodies. (MECW, 3:313)
The standpoint of independent morality ... is based . . . on the consciousness of human dignity. [The] morality [of Rudolph, a character in a book Marx attacks] , on the contrary, is based on the consciousness of human weakness. (MECW, 4:201)
Only within the community has each individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; hence personal freedom becomes possible only within the community. (MECW, 5:78)
In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and classes antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. (MECW, 6:506)
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banner: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs! 
Such characterisations of communism should be kept in mind when one reads other statements of Marx which seem obviously anti-moral and anti-ethical.  Certainly, any decision as to Marx’s views on morality and ethics cannot be based on various isolated quotations. On any particular occasion, Marx may have overstated his views or even misrepresented them, due to inattention or an attempt to gain a tactical advantage over opponents. The point to be stressed here is simply that it is mistaken to claim that Marx forswore all moral language. Indeed, though he rarely uses ‘right,’ ‘duty,’ and the like, he quite commonly uses the terms listed in the preceding paragraph. The appropriate conclusion to draw, then, at least from such textual evidence, is not that Marx abandoned morality, in any wholesale fashion, but that he held a view of morality in which certain traditional words and concepts did not prominently figure, while others did. This moral view, to be explored in subsequent chapters, deserves initial comment here.
Discussion of Marx’s moral views has hitherto been deficient because it has failed to recognise a common distinction between two different conceptions of morality. Because it seems apparent that he does not have a moral theory in one sense of the term ‘morality,’ it is concluded that he does not have a moral theory at all. But this does not follow if there is another sense of ‘morality.’ We must recognise, that is, that the notion of morality is not a simple and unambiguous notion. We must distinguish between an ethics of duty and an ethics of virtue.  On the one hand, morality has been viewed as centrally concerned with the duties and obligations one person owes to another. So viewed, morality is characterised by certain notions such as duty, obligation, guilt, justice, rights, etc. On this understanding of morality, to be moral is to act in accordance with certain moral laws and duties, or to be moved by a sense of moral obligation. It is the morality of ‘thou shalt’ and ‘thou shalt not.’ Failure to act in these ways is met with condemnation for moral corruption, for being recreant to duty. In this sense, it has already been suggested, Marx does not have a moral theory. He rarely uses the notions and vocabulary which are identified with this view of morality, If one then assumes that this view is the only (proper) view of morality, one will quite naturally conclude that Marx must have been a scientist. Accordingly, one might further conclude that he condemned capitalism either simply because it was self-destructive, or because it violated various non-moral reasons or values. 
However, there is another understanding of morality which should not be forgotten. This is the sense of morality in which morality is linked with certain virtues, excellences, or flourishing ways of living. In this sense, morality is not primarily concerned with rules and principles, but with the cultivation of certain dispositions or traits of character. This view has been expressed in this way: ‘The moral law ... has to be expressed in the form, “be this”, not in the form, “do this” ... the true moral law says “hate not”, instead of “kill not”...... the only mode of stating the moral law must be a rule of character.’  This, I believe, is quite close to Marx’s views.
Accordingly, Marx avoids (certain) ‘moral words’ not only because their use has been appropriated by moralists (as noted above), but also because he has different concerns than most modern moral philosophers. Usually morality tells us not to steal, kill, lie, cheat, commit adultery, etc. But what about the people to whom this is told? What if they have been transformed into commodities, into (say) the equivalent of hats (MECW, 6:125)? What if their labour or activity is itself treated as a commodity (MECW, 6:113, 125)? What if the crafts they learn are but forms of craft-idiocy (MECW, 6:190), and they are abased in the process (MECW, 6:201)? How do any of these things count in morality? Marx speaks, for example, of one’s feelings towards the dwelling in which one lives — does one find it a natural or an alien environment which one can have only in so far as one gives up blood and sweat on it (MECW, 3:314)? He speaks of activity in direct association with others becoming a means for expressing one’s own life (MECW, 3:301). He criticises money for ‘overturning and confounding ... all human and natural qualities’ (MECW, 3:324-5). In essence, Marx believes that it is crucial to push beyond the rules and principles of an ethics of duty to the underlying realities which constitute and form people’s daily lives. Morality has tended to demand that we act in certain ways, whereas the daily life we really live has told us other things. What we are, the nature our characters and dispositions take in society, is, Marx suggests, what is crucial and of immediate (moral) significance. The rules of duty and obligation seem remote to such concerns. Indeed, even some who defend an ethics of duty have noted this remoteness. Thus, they have expressed their consternation ‘that so many admirable people live by something other than a sense of moral obligation ... that what takes primacy in the lives of such people ... is not ... a sense of moral duty . . . but an ideal of being virtuous. ...’  That traditional morality, the ethics of duty, is separated from the underlying concerns of daily life is a crucial part of Marx’s attack on ethics and morality. One basis for life and another for science is a lie, Marx claims. Marx does not seek a morality that is separated from other crucial areas of life, but a view of life which would unify our daily concerns and our moral concerns. In so viewing the subject of his concern, Marx looks at morality more broadly than is often done today.
In this sense, Marx’s approach to morality is akin to that of the Greeks for whom the nature of virtue or human excellence was the central question of morality. In contrast to the more restricted notion of moral excellence as the fulfilment of moral duty, the Greeks wanted to know what kind of life is best suited for a human being. What kinds and range of activities are required for a person to lead a flourishing life? To lead such a life would be to lead the moral life par excellence. Marx too, when he was not condemning the narrow, ineffective morality of his time, thought in these broad terms. Thus, he comments that besides purely physical limitations, the extension of the working-day encounters moral ones. The labourer needs time for satisfying his intellectual and social wants, the extent and number of which are conditioned by the general state of social advancement’ (Capital, 1:232, my emphasis).  As such, Marx’s treatment of issues that relate to what we might understand as morality and ethics is broader and different from what we may expect. It is, essentially, an attempt to provide a characterisation of the moral or flourishing life, which is not separated from its underlying bases and conditions. It is an attempt which, because it jettisons certain concepts traditionally identified with morality, challenges our conceptual prejudices.
Now if Marx is said to have an ethics of virtue then it might be that some of those who have denied that Marx’s theory is a moral one merely meant to deny that it was an ethics of duty. Consequently, they might not actually disagree with the view that is defended here.”  Unfortunately, it is not clear exactly what sense of ‘moral’ others have used in their interpretations of Marx. Almost without exception they have neither made the distinction invoked above, nor discussed the sense of ‘moral’ or ‘morality’ they use. Still, there is reason to believe that by and large previous commentators have denied that Marx’s theory was a moral one in both of the two senses above. On the one hand, in either sense of the term, to speak of Marx’s moral views is to speak of views which carry normative force — they tell us how we should live, they act as guides and directives to a different kind of life. This, however, is explicitly denied in the quotations with which this chapter begins. On the other hand, if they have admitted that Marx was centrally concerned with certain characteristics of life which have been linked above with virtue, they have denied that for Marx this was a matter of morality. Instead, such virtues and excellences were of a non- moral nature. 
It is impossible fully to discuss here which one of the two senses of morality noted above might be the one which most faithfully and correctly captures ‘the’ meaning of ‘morality.’ Indeed, it may be that both are legitimate. However, because of the preceding challenge to the propriety of considering Marx’s concerns to be of an ethical nature, the following observations should be made. To begin with, if we see in morality only an ethics of duty, we restrict morality to a particular social and historical view. It becomes questionable, for example, whether the Greeks had a morality, since it is a matter of dispute whether Plato and Aristotle gave any significant place to the modern notions of duty and obligation.  Indeed, it has been argued that the notions of duty, guilt, and the like are bound up with a divine commandment — e.g. a Judaeo-Christian — view of morality.  But surely it is historically and intellectually mistaken to impose the requirements of such an ethics on all moralities. We may speak intelligibly of moral codes which do not employ a variety of notions common to present (bourgeois) morality. For example, it has been noted that
there may be codes of conduct quite properly termed moral codes (though we can of course say they are ‘imperfect’) which do not employ the notion of a right, and there is nothing contradictory or otherwise absurd in a code of morality consisting wholly of prescriptions or in a code which prescribed only what should be done for the realisation of happiness or some ideal of personal perfection. 
Thus, the fact that Marx does not use certain traditional moral notions, that he does not have an. ethics of duty, does not imply that implicitly he could not have what may legitimately be called a moral theory. Those who raise this objection have an unjustifiedly restricted notion of morality.
Further, to view Marx’s thought as founded upon an ethics of virtue has a number of other advantages. Firstly, Marx himself uses the word ‘moral’ in contexts in which it clearly has a broad rather than a narrow nature.  That Marx held an ethics of virtue would be compatible — in a way that an ethics of duty would not be — with both such usages of ,moral’ as well as with his claim that communism will constitute ‘the most radical rupture with traditional ideas’ (MECW, 6:504). Similarly, the categories Marx uses to appraise and condemn capitalism (cf. p. 15) themselves suggest an ethics of virtue much more readily than an ethics of duty. Those words and categories are primarily connected with states or conditions of being rather than the qualities of particular actions which one may or may not be duty-bound to fulfil.
Secondly, Marx maintained that we must create a single science which can act as a guide to revolutionary activity, i.e. one which has normative implications. That is, he argued for a unity of theory and praxis. If we take this claim to mean that the normative implications of Marx’s science are intrinsic to it and not simply appended to it, then to view Marx’s science as a moral science is enlightening and faithful to Marx’s own demands. But to do so is possible only if we view morality in the broad sense of an ethics of virtue.
Finally, the relation of an ethics of virtue to social change is different from that of an ethics of duty. Inasmuch as an ethics of duty concerns the duties and obligations one person owes another person and/or society, it lends itself quite directly to formalisation in a legal code. ‘Thou shalt do this or that’ becomes a law requiring or forbidding this or that action. Thus, an ethics of duty lends itself easily to evolutionary change within present institutions. This is particularly so if it is correct, as it has been argued,  that an ethics of duty is conceptually linked with capitalism. An ethics of virtue, however, questions which ways of life are worthy of man. It seeks the virtues, excellences, the flourishing life. But judgments relative to these matters have no direct bearing on the law. They cannot so readily be translated into law as can judgments of duty. Rather, if such judgments are to be a vital part of people’s lives, the entire social structure of society — formal and informal — will have to be in accord with its prescriptions. Thus, if an ethics of virtue is to have an effect, and not simply serve as a set of ideals to which people hypocritically aspire, and if it rejects as illusory the flourishing life that present (capitalist) society prescribes, then it must give itself to more radical change, change which will significantly alter the face of society and its institutions. Accordingly, if we understand Marx’s implicit moral theory as an ethics of virtue, I think we shall more fully appreciate the dynamics of his thought which leads him to advocate the need for revolution.
What, then, are we to conclude regarding Marx’s unwillingness to use traditional moral terms and to engage in familiar moral reflection and evaluation? What we see here is Marx’s disdain for moralism and an ethics of duty. We do not have evidence for a wholesale rejection of morality and ethics. Others who have also opposed traditional ethics for its ineffectiveness, illusions, and duty-bound nature have nevertheless developed ethical theories. Hence this opposition does not of itself exclude the possibility of developing a Marxist ethics, or reconstructing the ethics to which Marx adhered implicitly. Correspondingly, we have seen that the categories in terms of which Marx does criticise bourgeois society may be used in various moral and ethical senses.
Marx saw his task as that of providing a critique of existing society. The preceding discussion indicates some of the parameters within which this critique, or science, and the ethics implicit in it, must be developed. For one, an acceptable critique must be linked to material considerations. It must not be separated from the practical activity through which people sustain and develop themselves. The immediate object o study and critique, then, is social phenomena. Marx assumes that answers to individual questions will be dependent on this prior critique. Further, the critique of such social phenomena must be systematic it must show how they are interrelated and what course of development they follow. Secondly, the criteria by which society is to be criticised do not lie beyond or external to that society, rather they lie within it. As opposed to previous ethicists and moralists ‘who have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks’ (MECW, 3:142), Marx sought to found his critique on an account of the ‘real relations,’ ‘the true reality,’ which constituted that society.”  That is, one must derive these criteria from a study of human practical activity — not simply impose them on it. Over against the ethicists and moralists of his day, this was Marx’s ‘Copernican Revolution.’ It did not mean that Marx ceased to see moral problems, it only meant he saw them from another perspective, which he wished to distinguish from the perspective he rejected. Thirdly, there must also be no separation of the proclamations of such an ethics from how people act and live. Moral theory and moral praxis must be joined. Ethics must concretely and practically show how society should be changed in light of the possibilities for such change. It is to a discussion of the methodological bases of this ethics that we now turn.