The Ethical Foundations of Marxism Eugene Kamenka 1962
TO preach morality is easy, to give ethics a foundation is difficult. The difficulty stems from the contradiction that has lain at the heart of most traditional ethical theories and continues to lie at the heart of popular moralism. This contradiction is the uncritical mingling of science and advocacy in the illogical concept of a normative science, the attempt to give ethical judgments the objectivity of scientific descriptions and the imperative, exhortative force sought by prohibitions, recommendations and commands. The imperative side of ethical theory is essential to those who see ethics as a prescriptive theory of conduct and morality as the theory of obligation. The scientific, descriptive side is essential to those who want to save the objectivity of ethical judgments and to escape the conclusion that ethical disagreements are nothing more than the conflict of competing authorities, attitudes or demands.
The conflict between scientific and advocative conceptions of ethics is closely linked with the conflict between treating ‘good’ as a quality and treating it as a relation. The objectivity of ethical judgments can be most easily established if ‘good’ is a quality, an intrinsic character common to those things or activities we correctly call goods. The assertion that a thing or activity has a certain quality raises in logic a clear, unambiguous issue; the truth of the assertion is logically independent of any relations into which the thing or the activity or the assertor may enter. A table is either red or not red, painted or not painted; whereas it may be to the left of the bookshelf and to the right of the door. But whether the table stands to the left of the bookshelf or not, whether I like it or dislike it, has no logical bearing on the questions whether it is red or painted. Qualities do not logically depend on relations; nor do qualities by themselves imply relations. The assertion that this table is red does not, by itself, imply that I am attracted to it; the assertion that X has the positive quality ‘good’ would not imply that I necessarily seek, commend or require it. To treat ‘good’ as a quality would be to open the way to making ethics a science and to clarifying the distinction between ethical and non-ethical fields; but it would also be to shear ethics of its advocative and its normative pretensions. It would be to investigate the common characters, the ways of working, of goods and the relations into which they are able to enter as a result of these characters; but it would be to destroy the illusion that such goods logically imply or require support or pursuit. The question whether they are supported or pursued and by whom would be logically independent of their character and could be raised only after their common characters had been established.
The traditional moralist cannot afford to see ‘good’ as ‘merely’ a quality which some display or seek and others lack or reject. For him it must also be a relation, something demanded, pursued, required, which it is illogical — or ‘wrong’ — to reject. A vicious attempt to straddle the issue, to confuse and amalgamate quality and relation, reveals itself in the popular traditional conception of ‘good’ as that whose nature it is to be demanded or pursued. This is to treat a relation as constituting the character or quality of a thing. But things cannot be constituted by their relations: a thing must have characters before it can enter into a relation; it must be something before it can be commended, rejected or pursued. If we treat ‘good’ (or ‘piety’ in Euthyphro’s case) as standing for a relation that anything may have, i.e., like the word ‘burden’, for instance, then, as the Euthyphro shows, our commendations would be entirely arbitrary, there would be nothing to prevent anything from being treated as ‘good’, or as pleasing the gods, just as there is nothing to prevent anything from becoming a burden.
Normative conceptions of ethics with positive, scientific pretensions, then, require the confusion or the amalgamation of qualitative and relational treatments of good. This confusion is facilitated by the possibility of framing statements with incomplete relations as terms. ‘John is taller’, we say; ‘Mary is much sought after’; ‘Pork-eating is abhorrent’. In each case the sentence is logically incomplete. It does not raise a single unambiguous issue until we have filled in the additional term required by the relation: ‘John is taller than Robert’; ‘Mary is much sought after by those young people in her set who are interested in girls’; ‘Pork-eating is abhorrent to pious Muslims and Jews.’ In ordinary speech, we often save time by omitting the second term of the relation and relying on our hearer to fill it in for himself from the context in which we have uttered the phrase. Mostly this works satisfactorily; occasionally it leads to ambiguity and fruitless argument in which the contestants are not discussing the same issue and therefore not contradicting each other. ‘Mary is popular’ and the rejoinder ‘No, she is not’ are perfectly compatible with each other if the first speaker means ‘popular with her friends’ and the second speaker ‘popular with her parents’ friends’.
Relations, then, require two terms: the demander as well as the demanded, the pursuer as well as the pursued, the obligor as well as the obliged. What is made obligatory or demanded by one code, moral tradition or person may be forbidden or rejected by another. The concept of absolute obligation, of unconditional codes and duties, is thus revealed as a contradiction in terms, while the illusion of a single binding morality has to be replaced by the empirical recognition of competing ‘principles’ and ‘authorities’ — i.e., of competing demands and codes that cannot be brought before a common tribunal or under an ‘ultimate’ law. The conditional character of duties and obligations comes out, to some degree, in the terms ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Their relational character is evident; what is right in terms of one morality may be wrong in terms of another. But the moralist has an interest in preventing this recognition; he requires both the imperative force and the vagueness of terms like ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and the suggestion of absolute, unconditional, qualitative distinctions conveyed by the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
The normative function of moralism, then, has partly depended on the adoption of a moral language particularly suited to obscuring the sources of the demands it makes by dealing in incomplete relations. ‘You ought to do this’, ‘Stealing is wrong’, ‘Children must obey their elders’ all suggest authority without specifying it: in many cases they thus successfully invoke the terrors of an anonymous authority, or of one filled in by the hearer himself, simply by leaving the relation incomplete. Ethical discussion and enquiry, on the other hand, require the completion of the relation and thus threaten the foundations of moral obedience much as a close acquaintance with officers and the general staff threatens the foundations of military obedience. It is here that the moralist is driven back on hierarchical, anti-empirical, conceptions of reality. If ethical propositions are to have prescriptive force, the source of moral demands must be elevated above ‘the world’ to which the demands are addressed. It is thus that the relational, prescriptive treatment of ‘good’ leads inevitably to a dualism of ‘facts’ and ‘standards’, ‘actions’ and ‘principles’, ‘apparent interests’ and ‘true interests’. This is patently obvious where the source of moral obligation is treated as supra-empirical, as god, soul, or an unhistorical faculty of reason or conscience. It is equally true, however, where the source is allegedly ‘natural’ — human nature, human interests or social demands. These, too, have to be given a primacy in which moral advocacy masquerades as logical priority, and left imprecise to avoid conflict and incoherence. It is here that we find the reappearance of constitutive relations to protect the source of moral authority from criticism. just as ‘conscience’ becomes that whose nature it is to approve of good, so ‘principles’ become that whose nature it is to be obeyed. For the empirical study of goods, or for the social and historical investigation of moral attitudes, we find substituted the attempt to bind conduct with seeming tautologies.
It is fashionable in certain circles these days to say that if one does abandon the claim to absolute moral obligation, or to ‘objective’ distinctions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, a coherent relational treatment of ‘good’ is possible. To say something is ‘good’, on this view, is to say nothing more than that it is commended, or commanded, or approved of, and while people may in fact share moral principles and attitudes, there is no logical way of resolving disagreements or of showing one set of attitudes or ‘principles’ ‘better’ than another. Commands and attitudes may conflict, but they do not contradict each other. Once we recognise that ‘good’ is not a quality, there is not necessarily a contradiction between your calling X good and my calling it not good.
If this view is sound, there can be no genuine study of the ethical content and contribution of Marx’s thought. There can also be no ethical science. We might make some logical criticism of past illusions that there was an ethical science, we might consider whether any of these apply to Marx, and we would then draw up a list of the things Marx advocates, of the moral preferences he displays. About the soundness of his ethical views we could say nothing, for to us there would be no ethical field with which his views are concerned. But how then do we tell which are his ethical views, how do we distinguish his ethical demands from other demands? This is precisely what the ethical relativist cannot do. He cannot distinguish ‘approval’ from ‘liking’ except by a circular reference to goods; he cannot show how ethics, seen as a system of demands, is to be distinguished from economics, the science of demands in general; he cannot explain how ethical distinctions came to be made or moral judgments came to maintain themselves. For if we pass ethical judgments, it is because we suppose there are ethical facts; if there are no ethical facts, there is nothing to show that these judgments are ethical.
Anacharsis the Scythian, who came from the plains north of the Black Sea some two centuries before Plato, is reputed to have said:
Nature is almost always in opposition to the laws, because she labours for the happiness of the individual, without regard to other individuals who surround him, while the laws only direct their attention to the relations by which he is united to them, and because Nature infinitely diversifies our character and inclinations, while it is the object of the laws to bring them back to unity.
This tension between conflict and co-operation, discord and harmony, to which Anacharsis refers, has formed the underlying theme of most moral and political philosophy. Ethical and political theorists have portrayed it in different guises: as the struggle between egotism and altruism, self-love and love of the State, civil society and the political State, evil and good, chaos and harmony, Nature and civilisation or (alternatively) civilisation and Nature. The concrete empirical material here, however, has been obscured and distorted by a naive individualism (reflected in the false dichotomies of ‘individual’ and ‘society’, ‘egotism’ and ‘altruism’) and by the normative hopes and pretensions of moral and political theorists, leading them to the postulation of social and logical hierarchies.
The young Marx, as we have seen, also takes this struggle between discord and harmony, between necessary conflict and true co-operation, as the central theme of human history and social life. But he rejects flatly the attempt to impose harmony by appealing to supra-empirical powers, ‘principles’ or ideals. He sees that this would involve an insupportable dualism, that we could never connect these powers, ‘principles’ or ideals with empirical occurrences without robbing them of their supra-empirical pretensions and treating them as natural, historical events. He sees clearly that the supra-empirical can only be formulated and understood in terms of the empirical — that god, conscience and reason can have meaning only in so far as these words convey an empirical, historical content. It is from historical experience that these conceptions arise; it is only in terms of historical experience that they can be understood. What hangs on the Cross, as Feuerbach said, is not God but man.
The dualism implicit in normative theories is not always a patent appeal to non-natural, supra-empirical powers. The logico-ethical hierarchy may be established seemingly within historical experience: ,true interests’ may be singled out as having a more fundamental, more real, reality than ‘apparent interests’; ‘purposes’ may be elevated above ‘mere capricious desires’ (especially if the purposes I strive for are confused with the question-begging notion of the purposes for which I exist); ‘essential nature’ may be contrasted with ‘mere empirical nature’.
Marx was not a utilitarian. He recognised the incoherence and conflict of actual, existing human demands within existing societies, recognised that they sought no common end and could not be brought to a common market. He recognised — explicitly in his later work, tacitly in his earlier — that human demands are not ultimates: that we might as well judge a society by the demands it creates as by the demands it satisfies. But in his acceptance of the Hegelian view that history is working toward rationality, Marx was not able to come down unequivocally on the side of positive ethics against normative morality. He was not able to escape the dualism required by normative theories; he could not excise either individualism or the upholding of ‘ends’ from his thought. ‘Reason,’ we have seen Marx writing to Ruge (supra, II, 6), ‘has always existed, but not always in a rational form. The critic can therefore seize upon any form of the theoretical and practical consciousness and develop out of the special forms of existing reality the true reality of that which ought to be, that which is reality’s final aim’ (my italics). The normative conception of that ‘which ought to be’ is linked, as always in normative theory, with the dualistic hierarchical conception of a ‘true reality’ opposed to a mere ‘empirical reality’. ‘What is the kernel of empirical evil?’ we have seen Marx ask (supra, I, 4); ‘That the individual locks himself into his empirical nature against his eternal nature.’ Marx needs the distinction between ‘eternal’ and ‘empirical’ to lend the terms he sees as ethical a higher status, to elevate them as ‘ends’ towards which history is working. The dualism breaks out everywhere: between ‘will’ and ‘caprice’, between ‘true law’ and positive, empirical law, between Wesen and Existenz, Reason and Actuality. Characteristically, Marx’s dualism leads inescapably to monism. The ‘true reality’ in which empirical conflict and discord are destined to disappear must finally absorb every distinction; it is thus that all differences, between State and society, law and morality, Nature and man, one man and other men, one social function and another, must all disappear. All become ‘expressions’ of the truly human, truly self-determined man. How we could distinguish one expression from another is something Marx could not coherently explain; the concrete content of ‘the truly human’, too, must be left vague lest the suppressed distinctions and conflicts break out once again.
These, then, are the inevitable results of Marx’s failure to rid himself entirely of normative conceptions, the outcome of his attempt to mingle logic and ethics in a metaphysic of history. But it would be cavalier and to a significant extent false to regard the ethical distinctions he seeks to make as mere confused and unsupported advocacy of some metaphysical ‘true reality’ against empirical occurrences. As we have seen, he does link the distinction between good and evil with one of the traditional themes of moral and political philosophy — with the distinction between harmony and discord, freedom and dependence. It is not enough to say merely that these are ‘advocative’ terms; they may have an empirical content, they may point to real ethical distinctions. It would be surprising, at any rate, if these terms had maintained themselves so long without any objective empirical content.
Marx was a determinist. He recognised that there could he no question of distinguishing a realm of ‘freedom’ in the sense of indeterminacy from the realm of ‘physical causation’. Human action and social events were as much determined, and determined in the same way, as all other events. It was primarily on this ground that he rejected the conception that ethics is concerned with ‘guiding’ human behaviour in those realms where human beings are ‘free’ to act in a number of possible ways. It is for this reason that he rejects the notion that morality is concerned with ‘obligation’. A person cannot be ‘obliged’ to act contrary to the course his character and circumstances inevitably determine him to take, and there is no point in obliging him to act in accordance with this course, for he will do so in any case. Nor are the ‘principles’ of obligation themselves ‘freely’ established; their content and the time of their appearance is also strictly determined by human character and social circumstance. Any conflict between moral ‘principles’ and human actions will thus not be a conflict between ‘what ought to be’ and ‘what is’, but a conflict within human nature and social reality between different ways of working and different forms of striving. (The emancipation from moralism in the teeth of a moralistic upbringing and of a moralistic society takes time. In his earliest work, Marx was perhaps still prone to proclaiming the ‘principles’ dictated by rational development and to see Law or the State as ‘enforcing’ them; at the least he seemed to see an irrational reality disintegrating when confronted by the ‘principles’ of reason. But this was even then a confusion — or possibly a concession to his journalistic aims — incompatible with his main view. By the end of 1843 he had certainly expunged this tendency from his work, and it was never to reappear. Few men have been as consistent as Marx in their refusal to attempt the binding of causality by confronting actions and habits with ‘principles’. It is often argued, however, that the mere fact of Marx’s political activism, his proclamation of party programmes and his appeals to the proletariat, themselves constitute a refutation of his thorough-going determinism. This seems to me false. Marx would have conceded that his own activities, his proclamations and his appeals, were as much determined as anyone else’s. It would be as pointless to tell him not to engage in them as it would be to ‘oblige’ him to engage in them. As far as the influence of his appeals went, he would have insisted that they would be taken up only by those whose nature and circumstances determine them to do so. What Marx was inclined to overlook is that his appeals would be part of their circumstances. But while this would certainly raise difficulties for any economic reductionism implicit in Marxism, it raises no difficulties for Marx’s determinism.)
What, then, can a determinist make of freedom? The young Marx, following a line laid down in Spinoza and Hegel, treats freedom as self-determination. To be free is to be determined by one’s own nature. To be unfree is to be determined from without. Marx links this, as we have seen, with harmony and discord, co-operation and conflict. The self-determined activity, governed or determined by the rules of its own being, is necessarily harmonious; dependence is the result of conflict and leads to further conflict.
The difficulty here strikes at the very heart of Marx’s position. The self-determined can have neither history nor environment. The passage from cause A to effect B is not some sort of physical concretisation of direct implication, by which A produces B from out of itself. The production of an effect, the occurrence of change, requires more than a single, preceding cause. It requires causal action, and the cause cannot act on itself. It is only in the action of one thing upon another, in the impact of a cause on a field, that effects can be produced. To speak of the self-determined is to assert that the effect was its own cause; that is, to say that there has been no change. The young Marx and Hegel, in seeing the rational both as the end or ultimate effect of history and as the original and ever-present cause of historical development, run squarely into this difficulty. Marx speaks of reason having always been present but not in ‘a rational form’; it is difficult to see in this anything but an attempt to have it both ways, to assert that reason changes and is yet the same. The same difficulty arises for Marx regarding his conception of an essential human nature. If this nature is the determining cause of all historical development, he cannot show why there should be any development at all. If, on the other hand, history is a series of transactions between this essential human nature and its environment, then both will be affected in the process, then there is nothing more ‘essential’ about the human Wesen than about the occurrences on which it acts and which act upon it. Marx, indeed, in seeking to maintain the distinction between the human essence and empirical human interests, desires and ‘caprices’, is forced to disconnect the two entirely, till there is no significant sense in which the two are part of the same person or of the same development.
The attempt to establish the self-determined does not only imply that it can have no history. It also implies that it can have no environment. It must become, as Spinoza saw, the single, all-embracing substance. It is no accident that Marx is forced to take all social institutions, even non-human objects, into man himself, forced to reconcile Subject and Object by obliterating the distinction between them. But the distinction will not be obliterated and in his view that man will ‘appropriate’ nature, will determine it instead of being determined by it, Marx clearly reveals the anti-empirical, anti-deterministic, character of the belief in self-determination. His anthropology, his human reductionism, is the inescapable outcome of his metaphysical assumptions. In the name of determinism, of the continuity of human and non-human events, Marx has reduced everything to Man.
For the sake of self-determination, Marx had to destroy the distinction between the human and the non-human. For the sake of self-determination, lie has also to destroy the distinction between one man and another. If man is to be truly self-determined, he cannot be determined by Nature, he also cannot be determined by other men. Marx requires a human community in which not only conflict, but even the very distinction, between one man and another has disappeared. This is the significance of his insistence that in the truly human society each man represents every other, that every activity carried out in this society is my activity. He bases this, as we have seen, on a seemingly metaphysical notion of the human essence as truly universal in a qualitative, intensional sense and not in a merely distributive sense.
As metaphysical doctrines, the belief in self-determination and in a universal which is yet not particular and resolves all particular differences will not do. But are we simply to dismiss them as Hegelian confusions that make the whole of the young Marx’s position quite valueless, or can we find in them an empirical content, the significance of which can survive the rejection of Marx’s false logical presuppositions?
There is a great deal of material in Marx’s early work pointing to the conclusion that Marx’s distinction between goods and evils, the self-determined and the dependent, the ‘universal’ and the ‘particular’ is connected with concrete distinctions in ways of working. Thus he argues that the free press is free, its activity is internally coherent, while censorship is necessarily incoherent and unstable, parasitic upon the press and unable to develop its presuppositions without inconsistency. Similarly, his whole distinction between the political spirit and civil society rests on this conception of goods as being able to work and co-operate coherently, while evils conflict not only with goods, but with each other. Now, this is a distinction which ethical theorists have repeatedly stumbled upon. We find traces of it in the great psychological studies underlying the theological imperativisrn of the Old Testament. We find it clearly suggested — though subsequently obscured — by Socrates in Book I of the Republic. There are traces of it in the moral psychology of Aquinas; it emerges as the only empirical content of Kant’s principle of universalisability and of Rousseau’s universal and universalisable general will. We find it again in Schopenhauer’s early, not very thorough-going, attempt to create a scientific ethics — his Grundprobleme der Ethik, where co-operating motives, however, are confused with motives that aim at co-operation, where love, for instance, is merged with altruism.
The divisiveness, the internal incoherence, of evils is vividly portrayed in Marx’s analysis of the ‘rights’ of civil society and in his exposure of the ‘contradictions’ of political economy in the Paris Manuscripts. But his reductionism, his concern to treat divisiveness as temporary, prevents him from connecting it with the positive characters of the processes involved. He wants to see conflict as the result of ‘external’ determination. From this, as we have seen, nothing can escape. Alternatively, as in the Paris Manuscripts, he treats conflict and division as the result of ‘abstraction’, that is, of the fact that things have their own characters and are not all ‘expressions’ of a single underlying whole. But such ‘abstraction’ cannot be overcome; the reality of differences and distinctions cannot be made to disappear. But however much Marx’s account of the reasons for incoherence may suffer from metaphysical confusions, the incoherence remains.
Goods co-operate and form a harmonious system; evils conflict not only with goods, but with each other. Much, perhaps most, of traditional ethical theory since the seventeenth century has concerned itself with the metaphysical constructions and the logical analysis forced on it by its normative form; but this was not always so. Where positive questions of ethical character have arisen, this distinction between co-operation and conflict, assistance and resistance, has been the leading empirical content of the distinction between goods and evils. An important subsidiary question, of course, has been whether ethical distinctions are to be made between motives or the things that motives aim at; but if we are to take assistance and resistance as central, we will hardly be able to work out a position unless we take as the material of ethical enquiry motives (and the social movements associated with motives) and not objectives or non-mental, non-social occurrences. Taking it that assistance means that a certain motive brings about circumstances in which another will act, and resistance that it brings about circumstances which prevent another from acting, we have the suggestion that assistance is the mark of good motives and resistance the mark of bad motives. With the qualification that Marx makes no reference to motives, but to human activities and social institution, this seems to be the position underlying much of his early work. It is also, as Anderson has pointed out in an article worth citing at length:
Substantially the view put forward by Socrates in Republic, I. He makes it clear, of course, that this distinction is not to be taken as a simple and final criterion, by pointing out that, while goods assist one another, they oppose bads; whereas bads oppose both goods and one another. There is no question then, of founding ethics on abstract attitudes of assistance and resistance (although, as Socrates develops the argument, this point is considerably obscured), any more than on abstract attitudes of altruism and egoism. The position may be expressed by saying that a good motive will always assist another of the same kind, so that that particular good can be communicated to an indefinite extent within the field of human activities. Love of truth, for example, will indefinitely communicate the spirit of discovery, and will assist the development and operation of that spirit wherever it appears and with whatever materials it may deal; a true investigator in any field will always encourage investigation in that or any other field. We do not, of course, define goodness by means of that relation, but if we decide, as I think we may, that it is common and peculiar to goods, then we can employ it as a criterion in particular cases. The same facts will show that a good motive will sustain itself in a particular mind by providing the materials for its continued operation, as one discovery leads on to another and the solution of one problem to the formulation of a new problem.
Bad motives, on the other hand, can never get rid of an element of resistance and repression, and, though they may co-operate to a certain limited extent, will eventually be found in opposition, and will always involve a certain friction. Hate, it may be said, breeds hate; but it also fights with hate and tries to destroy it, and in the individual it exhausts itself. So ignorance, though it may breed ignorance, fights with ignorance, and obscurantism defeats its own end. The degree of co-operation possible to motives which are not good is represented in the State sketched by Glaucon in Republic, II. Here the assistance is of an external or extrinsic sort, the utilization of common means to diverse ends, as contrasted with participation in common activities in which the distinction between means and ends is unimportant. We note in the compromise referred to (which is, of course, a fact of common experience) the absence of a common spirit and the recurrence of friction, and also, as Glaucon points out, the element of repression in that some demands are given up in order that others may have a sure satisfaction ...
We may further illustrate the operation of assistance by reference to the process described by Freud as ‘transference’. Freud is referring primarily to ‘pathological’ cases, but we may consider the matter more broadly. What occurs in transference is that one person, e.g., the patient, makes use of the powers of mind of another person, e.g., the analyst; ‘identifies’ himself with the latter, adopts his views and his ways of dealing with situations. In this way the patient’s previously pent-up motives find outlet. But the same may take place within one person’s mind, when a conflict is resolved and a new type of activity emerges by the aid of certain abiding motives or sentiments. This is the process of ‘sublimation’, where one motive finds for another a means of expression, provides it with a language, puts its own ‘ideas’ before it as objectives. This is also the process of education. It may be argued, then, that all good motives have this power of transference or conversion, whereby from hitherto dissociated material a new motive is formed which can cooperate with the good motive. Goodness is associative, evil is dissociative; goods have a common language, evils have not.
On the basis of suggestions made by Anderson in this and other articles, we can have an account of the distinction between freedom and compulsion — such as Marx requires — which would not come down to an anti-deterministic one, which would not end by putting ethical processes outside causality and the interaction it requires. Following Anderson, we might say that goods are those motives which are free or enterprising, which do not require internal repression or external protection or compulsion. They are activities which are disinterested, which do not fear knowledge or require error. Freedom would thus be seen as an ethical quality, bound up with the way in which goods work. It would not be seen as any metaphysical illusion of being undetermined or ‘self-determined’ or as the ‘freedom from’ external pressures. The point might be illustrated by considering what is a free love. It is not made free by the multiplicity of its objects, by its readiness to embrace every woman, or by the absence of external impediments. The free quality of a love lies in the fact that it does not require external restraints or internal illusions and repressions in order to continue as ‘love’. Similarly, the fact that a man is externally ‘free’ to think, does not make his thinking free. The freedom of thought would lie in the fact that it does not itself strive to protect certain interests or support certain ‘authorities’, in that it does not subordinate itself to other ends. Further, as we have seen, goods communicate themselves with a spontaneity radically distinct from the enforced imitation enjoined by evils. (Compare the communication of knowledge with the inculcation of obedience. In the former case, the appeal is to the same motive, so that communication consists in producing a situation in which that motive is free to act; in the latter case, the appeal is to a different motive and its objective will be different. It is this which distinguishes the alliance, in a common activity, of genuine teacher and genuine pupil from the temporary submission of the pupil to an external ‘authority’.) Goods co-operate with each other and display internal progress and development in a way that evils cannot co-operate and progress. They have a certain ‘universality’, which Feuerbach and the young Marx dimly perceived when they distinguished man from the animal by reference to his ability to take anything for his object, to create consciously in all forms. This is the ability of goods to work under all conditions and take anything as their material: the universality of science, for example, lies in the fact that anything may be investigated scientifically.
Evils, on the other hand, though ineradicable, are parasitic upon goods. They conflict not only with goods but also with each other; they are interested as opposed to disinterested, repressive as opposed to free, consumptive as opposed to productive. Goods carry with them a characteristic devotion to movements ‘transcending the individual’, to ways of living in which he is ‘caught up’; evils elevate the particular and produce such egoistic attitudes as hope, guilt and despair. The qualities characteristic of goods are displayed in love and courage, in the scientific, artistic and productive spirit, in the enquirer’s and creator’s honesty, detachment from self and immersion in his work. Goods require no censorship, no punishments, no protection as part of their ways of working. Evils, on the other hand, display their characteristics in obscurantism, superstition, the demand for censorship, luxury, commercialism, tyranny, leading to the ‘sexual entanglements, cross-purposes, dissatisfactions, terrors [that] are an important feature of the hell of bourgeois existence’. They require censorship, suppression, punishment and protection; they seek prior guarantees of security; they display a fundamental instability and incoherence.
Moralism itself, on this view, is the product of evil motives, of that search for security which is the characteristic of unfree activities. The necessary instabilities or moralistic theories which we have noted, and which Marx recognised, are typical of the instability of evils in general. Goods require no protection or commendation and do not seek it as part of their way of working; the question whether any person, movement or activity supports goods is irrelevant to their character. In actual fact, the extent to which men display goods and engage in good activities will depend not on exhortation, but on the goods they already have and their communication with other goods. Their support of goods — in so far as they do support them — is not something that precedes their pursuit of goods, but something that follows from the goods they have and display.
Ethical distinctions, on this view, occur among motives and the social activities with which these motives are connected. They do not occur characteristically among the objectives which motives or activities pursue. Traditional moral theorists have vacillated over the question whether ethical qualities should be ascribed to mental habits or to the things which these habits pursue: to the love of beauty, for example, or to beauty itself, to the love of truth or — whatever that may mean — to ‘truth’ itself. The issue has been much confused by the moralist’s attempt to discover a realm of indeterminacy in order to ‘justify’ praise and blame. But in general, following Anderson again, we might say that it is only through confusion with the goodness of the motives that pursue them that objectives come to be called positively and qualitatively good — a confusion that might often arise from the unjustified assumption that ends are superior to that which strives for these ends, that an objective must be better than the motive that pursues it.
Whatever the logical confusions on the opposing side, this question and that of the nature of ethical distinctions and of the meaning of ‘good’ cannot be resolved by logic alone. It will be an empirical question whether we find distinctions in ways of working, differences in the manner of communication and forming alliances, in mental and social fields that we do not find in non-mental and non-social fields; it will also be an empirical question what these distinctions are and to what extent they provide the basis for a coherent science of ethics, divorced from its normative confusions. What I have striven to show is that certain of the traditional themes of moral philosophy can be given coherence and concrete empirical content if we treat goods in the way I have outlined. We can then also see why one feels a considerable strength in Marx’s youthful doctrines despite the metaphysical confusions with which they are overlaid. But there can be no question of establishing ethical qualities by purely logical argument. At best, they can be exhibited for those who have felt them and seen them operate to recognise and recall, or offered as illuminating developments and distinctions that seemed obscure before. For if ethical qualities do exist, if they account for some of the alliances and discords, for the progress and regression in history and social life, then to neglect these qualities will be to fall seriously short in one’s understanding of human history and social life. Without them, I should argue, we should see fully neither Marx’s strength nor his weakness.