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Marx and morality and whatnot

I thought I’d write up some thoughts I have periodically about Marx and morality. I’ve occasionally gotten into arguments with friends and comrades about some of this stuff, which usually surprises me as all of this seems obvious to me (which is also part of why I’ve not bothered to try to write it up before). Much of this is really a matter of my assumptions about morality more generally, which I happen to think are generally true and as part of that are true for Marx as well. I’m going to start with those general assumptions.

It seems to me that most people tend to have what I’ll here call a moral sensibility. I’m not committed to the term and am committed to the observation. Most people have some sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice, good and bad, etc, such that they can get upset over a moral issue in a way that is in some important respect different from getting upset over stubbing our toe or something. A stubbed toe sucks and can be very painful, while a moral wrong is outrageous, is a matter of conscience, something like that. This is vague, I know.

In addition, a moral sensibility is not just a matter of something most people tend to have. It’s also baked in to conceptions of what it is to be a human people. Most people might be right handed, say, but a concept or account or depiction of humanity that leaves out right handedness could still be a good one - omitting right handedness is not likely to be a consequential omission, despite right handedness’s numerical prevalence. If that depiction, concept, etc, of humanity left out moral sensibility, however, that would be a consequential omission. This is prescriptive on my part, and fair enough, I’ll own that. I also think what I’ve said so far is something most people would agree with, because, to this limited extent anyway, most people are reasonable.

My impression (and I fully admit this is not one with a lot of evidence or experience to back it up, my knowledge here is pretty thin and also pretty old, not having taking a philosophy class since graduating college in 2000; if I’m wrong then I’d welcome corrections) is that moral philosophy has generally tended to focus more on what the content of what I’m calling moral sensibility ought to be, often relative to specific issues or activities, than on defining what moral sensibility per se is. My impression is also that when most people live out or dwell in or practice their moral sensibility, they do something that is pretty different from what moral philosophers tend to do in philosophizing. That is, whether or better or worse, most people’s moral lives are not lived out in keeping with the procedures of thought that moral philosophers practice when they are doing moral philosophy. My further impression is that most people’s moral sensibilities are implicit rather than explicit, felt more than argued rationally, and at least at a surface level they are as much or more similar to what people do when they partake of or discuss at least some artistic/literary forms than they are to the procedures of thought undertaken by moral philosophers doing moral philosophy.

I will add that while I don’t think the implicitness of people’s moral sensibility is a good thing, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing (I think it can be either), and more importantly to my mind when people practice or live out or dwell in their moral sensibility the implicit activity they are partaking in is one that is pretty complex and sophisticated, analogous to how catching a ball or writing a sentence or drawing a picture is complex and sophisticated, regardless of whether or not it’s experience as so by the person partaking. I assume that complexity is part of makes moral philosophy challenging and potentially interesting (analogous to how the complexity of language is what makes philosophy of language challenging and potentially interesting). This is to say, when I say much of people’s moral lives is implicit, I don’t mean people are stupid, far from it. I will add as well that I think people’s moral lives are to an important degree fundamentally collective, being conducted with received materials created by others, being largely about interactions with others, often being conducted in immediate interaction with other people of some sort via conversation or writing, and probably always conducted via indirect interaction with other people via texts, stories, artworks, etc, even if people happen to be alone with their thoughts about all of this.

In the above I’ve made a picture of people having a moral sensibility as part of their lives, with various qualities that I’ve asserted. I’m going to call that picture one of a person who is ‘morally ordinary.’ That has a bit of a normative implication along the lines of ‘if you’re not like this, then you’re a weirdo’ and I guess I do believe that but to be fair, I’m a weirdo myself (this text being just one of many cases in point). My main point is not to press this account of moral life - limited, partial, not fully fleshed out, etc etc, I know! - as normative though. Instead my main point is really that I think none of this is particular noteworthy, I’m just describing something, well, ordinary.

It may sound like I’m contradicting myself, but I don’t think I am. I know I said an account of humanity that omits right-handedness is fine while an account that omits moral sensibility is not. It would be fair for someone to say ‘surely this means moral sensibility is noteworthy’ and I suppose that’s right but the context matters a great deal. What I mean to say is that there are important depictions of actual people that are not ‘accounts of humanity’ in the way I meant the latter term: a novel can be very good artistically as well as morally laudable without ever explicitly giving an account of humanity: we don’t generally expect novelists to flesh out a moral theory.

At the same time, novelists and other artists do tend to have implicit moral sensibilities - most people do, as I said - and we don’t tend to have problems with the implicitness unless two things happen: we seem to differ from the moral sensibility implicit in the work, and the text is ambiguous about what that moral sensibility is so that we can’t tell quite what the difference is. My impression is that often artists presume the general content of their moral sensibility as part of who their art is for. In some cases, artists may presume that general content but apply it to some particular about which they think some of their audience (or, their object of criticism) is inconsistent. In doing so, they’re not making moral philosophy arguments so much as they’re doing some artist-specific version of whatever it is people generally do when we collectively, dialogically dwell within our moral sensibility. Having written this I also think a lot of people do that dwelling in more conscious ways when we encounter out of the ordinary things - something particularly fucked up or particularly admirable, so to speak - which, I think, means I believe people tend to experience their moral sensibilities through particular cases rather than general principles (or, tend to have particulars as their entry point to consideration or awareness or assertion of the content of their moral sensibility in general). I think really all I’ve said just now is a wordy repetition of ‘people’s moral sensibilities are often implicit’ but I’m unsure. I’ll include everything I just said about writers and other artists and their audiences under ‘moral ordinary’ (that old backpack is bulging, not sure I can zip it shut...).

Okay, assumptions stated. Now onto Marx.

I think Marx was morally ordinary in the sense I used the term above. The content of his moral sensibility may have been atypical, that seems likely, and his depth of feeling and commitment - the degree to which he lived his life according to at least some elements of his moral sensibility - seems likewise relatively atypical, though in both I think he was still not extremely atypical relative to many relatively serious leftists. Marx’s moral ordinariness manifests in his writing in that he didn’t present an account of the content of his moral sensibility or an argument as to why people should hold his moral sensibility. Instead, he wrote for people with the general moral sensibility he had and hoped to get that sensibility to apply in new ways to some particulars - ‘fellow lovers of humanity, be outraged by deaths in cotton mills’ kind of thing - and he further hoped to that sensibility to connect to his broad account of how capitalism operated.

That is to say, Marx wanted his readers to understand their society differently, and as part of that to understand some of the ideologues of that society differently, and he assumed that people with such an understanding would find this society outrageous and want it to be abolished. Some of his audience were already outraged and committed to that abolition and some weren’t. For both, Marx enriched their understanding of this society and, in my view, he simply assumed the general moral sensibility he held and assumed his intended audience(s) held too. In this, Marx was as I said morally ordinary and that’s not particularly noteworthy except that some Marxists seem to think Marx was amoral, or at least talk like they do. I’ve rarely if ever seen this argued explicitly in finished writing, but I’ve heard it said many times in conversations over the years, enough times that I think it’s (to my mind, astonishingly) part of some vernacular versions of Marxism that circulate in activist left circles and academic marxist circles sometimes.

I’ve often heard Marxists say piously - and sometimes in devout anger to me! - things like “Marx was no moralist!” I never know what “moralist” means. It’s always in a context where it sounds obviously wrong to me and it doesn’t fit with the textual evidence so I struggle to find a charitable reading and I’ve never gotten a clear definition of “moralist” from people who say this. Trying to be charitable here, I think the rational kernel of “Marx wasn’t a moralist” is that Marx didn’t write moral philosophy, didn’t mean for his works to enroll into his moral sensibility those not already enrolled, and didn’t think that social change came about via the voicing of moral judgments (or, for that matter, critical theoretical accounts of society) but rather though that society was changed by a mix of behind-the-back social processes of the kind he spent a lot of time detailing and large scale collective action in conflict with the powers that be. That all seems right to me and pretty important, yet at the same time this could be said of other writers who were deeply morally outraged by their societies and spent a lot of time saying so - abolitionists, for instance - and Marx himself was outraged and expressed that outrage clearly, and it seems pretty reasonable to say those other writers were “moralists” in at least one sense of the term. To draw a bright clean line between Marx and those other writers seems forced and unwarranted to me, and if anything the better but still inadequate move would be to say that not being a moralist is a quality on Marx’s part that was pretty unremarkable.

By the way, I looked up “moralist” in the Oxford English Dictionary and it said that the term has for hundreds of years had one usage that is a negative one, where the bad thing about moralizing is either that it’s inappropriate or that making moral points is itself a bad thing (in that sense then, to some extent, to say ‘moralist’ in its depreciative usage is to moralize - at least momentarily - against the supposed wrong of moralizing, which is a little funny). I suspect that moralist in this sense just means ‘person who uses, relates to, or talks about morality in a way I don’t like’ and isn’t so much a good term for thinking with as it’s a rhetorical term for stopping certain kinds of thinking or conversing (which isn’t itself a bad thing in all context, really). The OED also says one usage of ‘moralist’ is ‘person who makes moral judgments,’ which as I’ve said above is most people at some times, in my view, and is also Marx in his writing much of the time - his writing is lousy with moral judgments! Marx was a judgy guy! And rightly so. (The OED also included this cool quote from 1928: "Seventeen villagers of Lincolnshire have been fined for ‘rantanning’ ... Rantanning is the ‘rough music’ of kettle and pan, in which the rustic moralist conveys his sense of outraged propriety." Observer 26 February 17/2.)

It seems to me that the general moral sensibility Marx held himself and assumed on the part of his readers is a necessary condition for the text working as Marx intended (and, more importantly, working in the ways that make it matter). A cartoon villain might read Marx and laugh about the things Marx intended to be outrageous (Stewart Lee quotes a Simon Munnery bit, playing a fascist dictator character. “I was torturing a kitten one day and a woman came along and said ‘don’t you know all God’s creatures can feel pain?’ ‘yes, hence they are all capable of providing amusement to me’), and for such a reader the text doesn’t do the things that make the text an important one, at least not all of those things.

I’m inclined, based on all of this, to say that Marx’s moral ordinariness reflects confidence in his beliefs - no need to argue for positions that are obvious to any reasonable reader - and in this too Marx was relatively ordinary, at least relative to other social critics, whatever forms or genres they worked in. The Grapes of Wrath is a good comparison here: it seems to me, involving a similar moral sensibility to that present in much of Marx’s writing, a similar forcefulness in the criticism of the society it depicted, and a similar implicitness of that moral sensibility.

There’s ample textual evidence for my characterizations of Marx, in my view, and I’m fully convinced by my own argument in light of that evidence so I won’t bother to write any of that evidence down - my mind being made up, laying out the details of that evidence here doesn’t interest me. Very briefly though, Marx refers to capitalists’ coining children’s blood into capital and refers to the capitalized blood of children in chapters 10 and 31 of Capital volume 1 respectively. By the time Marx wrote that book, he had buried four children, so presumably it wasn’t a metaphor used lightly, and was on freighted with both emotional and moral content.

There might be some exceptions in other of Marx’s work - some passages where Marx rejects morality and so on. I doubt it and suspect that in context those passages aren’t a rejection of moral sensibility per se but are doing something else - perhaps noting that moral sensibility alone doesn’t change the world, but only contributes to doing so when it’s an element of collective action, or poking fun at moral philosophy or something. If there are places where Marx rejected moral sensibility as such or claimed he had none, well, then Marx misunderstood his own thought in those places.

That’s also not a big problem for my argument: part of being morally ordinary is not having a fully fleshed out account of one’s moral sensibility and the role of that sensibility in one’s life. Moral sensibility and the role it plays in one’s life are first order matters, so to speak, while any second order account thereof means getting into the terrain of doing moral philosophy, I think. That most people aren’t moral philosophers means in part that most people have order accounts of their moral sensibilities and the role of those sensibilities in their lives that are less robust than those sensibilities and their roles. This also means, I think, that all things being equal people are more likely to make mistakes in giving second order accounts of their moral lives than they are to make mistakes in doing the first order thinking and other activities that constitute our moral lives. So if Marx got his own moral sensibility wrong here or there, this too is morally ordinary and after all Marx isn’t an important figure because of any moral philosophy he wrote.

Two final thoughts for now. One, I think all of this means in part that the moral sensibilities of the left and labor movement that Marx participated in was part of context of reception for Marx’s work and furthermore it’s limited to say ‘context of reception’ and stop there because Marx wrote active efforts at political intervention. As such, his work was already in dialog with and shaped by the context he wrote in, for, against, which is to say, Marx’s work was in part a product of those collective actions and networks that Marx was a node within - that’s not to minimize Marx’s individuality and individual effort, but to contextualize it.

Two, I think it’s weird that some Marxists seem to think Marx was in some way amoral. I’m not sure where that comes from. I wonder if it has something to do with the notion of scientificity in so-called scientific socialism. I know EP Thompson argued (I think in his early essay on socialist humanism and also in Poverty of Theory, my notes on the latter here that Stalinism had rendered Stalinized Marxism amoral in its contents - though arguably its amoral sensibility was a bad moral sensibility - and made Stalinists tend to roll their eyes at any explicit invocations of morality. Maybe the idea of Marx as amoral is a hangover of that. And maybe it’s something generated sociologically by something about who becomes a Marxist and what it means to be a Marxist and do Marxism. I’m unsure. I’ve often felt that these sorts of ‘Marxism is amoral’ gestures tend to involve convoluted reinventing of the wheel of moral sensibility - overwrought things that amount to cryptomorality or silly gestures that are little more than ‘morality is bourgeois, we proletarian Marxists have schmorality, it’s completely different.’ That stuff sounds goofy to me and like a compensatory gesture to shore up a kind of missing moral confidence, in effect going ‘we don’t feel comfortable just saying we think this is wrong, we crave something harder and more solid that we can stand on or grab onto.’ That’s uncharitable on my part, of course. It may also be a way to express contempt for this society, something like ‘this society has morality and we HATE this society, we want NOTHING to do with it, we are not and will not be creatures of this society, therefore we insist we do not have morality!’ I’m unsure, could be some other mistake.

I lied, a third final thought, sparked by my remembering I once had the idea to try to write up a proper paper on this stuff, something I’m not sure if I’ll do - I think a lot of what I’d have to read to do it well would be annoying, and having my mind made up already I’m not sure I see the point. Part of what’s tempting to be totally honest is that I like the title I came up with for it, which is Marx, Normative Obviousness, and Moral Confidence. Basically, I think Marx thought his moral sensibility was straightforwardly obvious to any person who was both reasonable and socially situated so as to be worth talking with. There might be some ideologues of capitalism who are reasonable, but not worth talking with given their social position; as such, they’re not interlocutors but objects of criticism. That obviousness to Marx and loud subtext in Marx’s writing along the lines of ‘I know who I’m talking with and who I’m talking about and I don’t confuse the two’ (a laudable subtext, in my view) reflects a kind of confidence. I think he’d respond to “but why is it wrong to coin the blood of children, what’s your value system?” with scorn as that’s just not the right question, not a reasonable question in any context Marx was concerned with and intervening in - ‘that’s a you problem!’ he’d say, basically, hence no need for Marx to pose it, let alone answer it. This is all to say, I think Marx moralized confidently and at least relative to his project there weren’t any worthwhile questions of moral philosophy.

And some quotes. Simon Clarke, in his Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology:

“"the bulk of the third [of Marx's Paris Manuscripts] (...) is made up of (...) a polemical discussion of the dehumanisation of alienated labour, the division of labour and money. This discussion brings out the powerful moral dimension of Marx’s critique of political economy (...) Political economy offers a theory of capitalist society that rests on a resolutely naturalistic materialism for which the human being is reduced to an animal stripped of all human qualities (...) These are the moral laws of the society that it describes (...) The critique of political economy, which shows that it is on the basis of the particular social form of alienated labour, and not of an impoverished human nature, that this dehumanising society arises, is therefore at the same time a moral critique of capitalist society." and: “Engels could not get beyond a moral critique that condemned bourgeois property for its inhuman consequences. Although Marx’s critique retained this strong moral thrust, it also went beyond it to establish the socio-historical foundations of bourgeois property (...) Thus Marx’s critique of political economy is a moral critique, but it is much more.”

Tony Smith: “Marx holds a central place in the great tradition of normative social philosophy.” ( His Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism has a good discussion of Marx is a normative individualist, meaning “individuals are ultimate units of moral concern” (as distinct from taking individuals as the basic conceptual or methodological unit for social analysis, which Marx rightly rejected). Some of my notes on and riffing in response to Smith here:

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