Chris Harman


Marxist Morals?

(Autumn 1967)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.30, Autumn 1967, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

A Short History of Ethics
Alasdair MacIntyre
Collier-Macmillan, 42s.

Secularisation and Moral Change
Alasdair MacIntyre
Oxford, 12s 6d.

Marxists always find themselves in an ambiguous position when discussion on ethical questions arises. On the one hand they want to deny the possibility of any ahistorical system of morality; on the other they are usually quite categorical that certain things like gas chambers and H-bombs are wrong. These two books by a writer at least very much influenced by Marxism (one does not know whether he still considers himself a Marxist) point to both the origins of and the necessity for this dilemma. They also show that it is not peculiar to Marxism.

The prime aim of the first book is to provide a concise account of the history of moral philosophy for university students. As such it is probably the best introduction available. But it is only this because it attempts to provide more than just a historical outline. In attempting to make meaningful the discussions that constitute the history of ethics it has to provide an interpretation of the relationship of ethical theory to moral practice, or more generally of philosophy to social life. MacIntyre’s starting point is that ‘Moral concepts change as social life changes.’ They ‘are embodied in and partially constitutive of forms of social life.’ The arguments of moral philosophy are then not just arguments about how an existing morality is to be justified, but between protagonists for different modes of social life.

To preçis here what the author says about different historical forms of ethical theory would both take up too much room and because of simplification inevitably distort complex and sophisticated arguments. The major criticism to be made is not of the argument itself, but rather that too much – top many philosophers, too many ideas – is crammed into too short a space.

For Marxists the author’s conclusions are interesting. He seems to rule out the possibility of meaningful ethical discussion between protagonists of rival positions.

‘Between the adherents of rival moralities and between the adherents of one morality and the adherents of none there exists no court of appeal, no impersonal moral standard.’

This seems close to the position he ascribes to Marx: ‘the situation (is) one in which moralising can no longer play a genuine role in settling social differences.’ But in fact the two positions are not identical. It is possible to hold the second without holding the first. Even if it is only material interests or individual caprice that force men to adopt a certain moral, and necessarily social and political, standpoint (and, as a matter of fact, it is not), this does not mean that all standpoints cannot be judged one against the other. The fact is that discussion between rival viewpoints does occur – precisely because certain premises seem to be shared. For instance, it would seem that no system could claim to be ‘moral’ that did not serve the end of maintaining human life. One can judge between different social commitments according to the degree to which they do this. Possibly in this sense scientific socialism is scientific morality.

Whatever one thinks of MacIntyre’s conclusions, there is no disputing that his Short History of Ethics is a a useful and interesting work. Unfortunately one cannot say the same about Secularisation and Moral Change. Insofar as the book has strength it is through a redrafting of arguments already contained in the Short History. What is added is very lightweight indeed; schematic and misleading pocket histories of the consciousnesses of different classes, aphoristic arguments with Marx that do not take Marx’s own arguments seriously, proofs that Bishops and judges are not privileged in making moral pronouncements. One wonders why it was produced. At points it seems to mouth under its breath vague references to socialist alternatives. Yet its audience is hardly likely to be any group that could take these seriously. The cover blurb says that Maclntyre’s ‘answers ... will prove illuminating to sociologists and churchmen.’ Unfortunately that is about all.

Last updated on 15 November 2009