Well, I seem to have lit a brush fire on this blog with my off-hand remarks about Alan Wood. Let me repeat: I have not read Wood on Marx, and I am sorry for having mouthed off as I did. But a larger question has been raised, namely how we are to understand Marx’s judgments about capitalism, and beyond that, what relation conventional ethical theory bears to his way of talking about society. I have some well thought out and strongly held opinions on those questions, and perhaps this is a good time to try to spell them out. I am quite sure Alan Wood can defend himself, if he is even aware of this kerfuffle, so I shall say no more about him, at least not until and unless I actually read what he has written.
This will take a while, so settle down. Oh, and by the way, not to worry about the poll just released showing Trump and Clinton in a dead heat in three battleground states. The polling organization that released those figures has an awful record of accuracy, and it selected a sample somewhat whiter than the states being polled. Be patient. It is early days.
Speaking very broadly, two quite different approaches to ethical theory have dominated the Western philosophical tradition. The first is to seek some objective, trans-historical standpoint from which to articulate normative principles grounded in reason alone. Plato’s appeal to a rational intuition of the Form of the Good is usefully understood in this way, as is Kant’s search for a Fundamental Moral Principle whose validity can be established by an argument that would be accepted by all rational agents as such. The early twentieth century school of British moral philosophers known as intuitionists – Moore, Ross, Pritchard et al. – adopted a variant of this approach. The second approach is to seek to ground our moral judgments in some way or other on common understandings or our “moral intuitions” about specific choices. In an earlier time, this was referred to as an appeal to the consensus gentium, or agreement of the people. The vast preponderance of contemporary ethical writing by philosophers in the Anglo-American world is of this sort, it is my informal impression. John Rawls interestingly embraces both of these approaches in his writings. He began with the claim that his Two Principles were the solution to a problem in Bargaining Theory, and despite the fact that the theorem he claimed to be able to prove is in fact invalid, he clung to that claim in A Theory of Justice. But as his work developed, he transitioned to a version of the consensus gentium which he called “Reflective Equilibrium.”
Both of these approaches, I believe, rest on a simple, not to say simplistic, understanding of the nature of human personality, and on a correspondingly simple conception of the language appropriate for expressing our moral beliefs. And Marx, I am quite convinced, rejects both this conception of human nature and this style of language. Let me try to explain what I mean.
If I think that the mind is essentially accessible to itself, that what I think and feel and experience is apprehensible to me through reflection or introspection, that my self is, as it were, one-dimensional [to use a term made popular half a century ago by my old friend Herbert Marcuse,] then I will likely conclude that a clear, spare uninflected language is adequate to voice my beliefs, my moral intuitions, the premises and conclusions of the arguments I consider compelling. Believing that, I will strive for a transparent prose, and though I may employ literary tropes, they will be decorations, enhancements meant to give pleasure, rather than essential elements of a successful articulation of my thoughts. Hence, I will write like Plato or like Kant, if I am truly gifted, or like Rawls, if I am somewhat less gifted.
But suppose I think that the mind is complex, and that its several layers or aspects or dimensions are only imperfectly accessible to one another. Suppose that, with Freud [and many others before him, of course], I think there are shadows and recesses of the mind, repressed contents, unconscious thoughts, and a contest among these several parts of the mind for supremacy. Suppose I believe that self-understanding is not the beginning of thought but a prize hard-won, the achievement of which requires a difficult struggle that leaves scars and evidences of the battles fought. Suppose I believe [with Marx] that the society into which I am born, and more particularly the system of social relations of production of that society, so powerfully shape my deepest self-understandings that even after I have fought my way to some measure of self-awareness, I still remain in the grip of the ruling normative presuppositions of my era.
If all of that is how I understand my situation in the world, then two things will follow: First, simple reflection or introspection – a consideration of rational premises or settled moral beliefs – will be utterly inadequate as the basis for an understanding of my world and my moral relationship to it. Rather, I shall need to engage in a detailed study both of my society and its mystifications and of the echo of those mystifications in my complex many-layered self; and Second, in voicing the conclusions to which I have come in my study, I shall need to find a language whose syntactic and other linguistic resources are complex enough to capture the objective complexity of my world and my relationship to it.
This, I believe, is what Marx did in Capital and many of his other writings, and it is why I resist viewing him as a moralist in either of the two traditions – of a priori reasoning or consensus gentium – sketched above. Indeed, my forty year-long engagement with thought of Marx has as one of its central purposes to demonstrate the truth of this claim about Marx.
Is Marx a moralist? Not if by that you mean someone doing what Plato or Kant did. Is Marx a moralist? Not if by that you mean someone doing what Rawls attempted, or what any number of less distinguished contemporary ethical theorists do. Is Marx a moralist? Say rather that he is an Old Testament prophet. Say rather, as Edmund Wilson did, that he is one of the great ironists of the Western tradition, seeking [as Wilson did not grasp] to find a voice in which he could anatomize in a rigorously mathematical way the structure of capitalist exploitation while also and in the very same phrases capture his complex psychodynamic relationship, and ours, to the religion, philosophy, and economic theory that seeks to conceal and rationalize that exploitation.
Well, sufficient unto the day.