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Wednesday, June 1, 2022


Eric, in response to my post about Raymond Geuss’s book, writes the following:


Geuss in describing his take on Prof Wolff's In Defense of Anarchism put into words what I have been feeling:

"The real question for me was, 'Why be so daft as to start from this quasi-Kantian conception of 'individual autonomy' at all? If you do start from that assumption, you have no one but yourself to blame if you end up nowhere.' Wolff, I took it, found it inconceivable that one might simply not adopt or accept something like the conception of 'individual moral autonomy' which one finds in Kant (and also in liberalism) as absolutely fundamental. That, however, seemed to me wrong. Despite his appropriation of a (kind of) Marxist approach, and his self-characterization as an 'anarchist,' Wolff was in this domain something very much like a liberal.
Unless these two very different forms of anarchism [egoistic libertarian anarchism of Max Stirner vs mutualist communist anarchism of Kropotkin] are clearly distinguished and kept separate, nothing but the greatest confusion will result. While liberals can find some common ground with the libertarian form of anarchism, the communist version would be anathema to them. Looked at from this point, Wolff's libertarian anarchism was just a form of liberalism that got out of control."


In view of the intensely personal character of Geuss’s  book, perhaps my best response should be equally personal. When I wrote In Defense of Anarchism in the summer of 1965, I was still deeply committed to finding a justification for Kant’s claim that there is a fundamental principle of morality that can be established universally and a priori by rational argument. In the course of writing my commentary on the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, I came to the conclusion that Kant had failed to sustain his claim. It seemed to me quite natural to conclude  that if Kant could not find an argument for that claim then there was none to be found. 

Contrary to what one might imagine, I found this failure oddly liberating, not at all dispiriting. It freed me to define my life by my free choice of the comrades with whom I would make common cause in our struggles. I frequently told the story of the radical Columbia undergraduate who, after hearing my lectures on Kant’s ethical theory in the fall of 1968 during which I confessed that I was unable to find the argument I was looking for, asked me why it was so important to me to find such an argument. I replied to him rather condescendingly that if I could not find that argument, then I would not know what to do, to which he responded “first you must decide which side you are on – then you will be able to figure out what you what to do.”  As I have often said, this was the wisest piece of advice anyone ever gave me. Ever since that time, I have experienced the world as a series of barricades in which all that really matters in the end is which side of the barricade I am on.


aaall said...


Michael Llenos said...

“first you must decide which side you are on – then you will be able to figure out what you want to do.”

A very pragmatic approach. Basically realpolitik.

Michael Llenos said...

"I was still deeply committed to finding a justification for Kant’s claim that there is a fundamental principle of morality that can be established universally and a priori by rational argument."

'Morality means to survive by helping yourself & others to survive. This is part of our genetic coding. Experience is not needed to understand & follow this rule.' --Okay I tried.

J. Nicolai said...

I wanted to say thank you so much for your youtube videos which have helped me through the years. I always wondered what you thought of György Lukács given his very different views of his semi-student (Mannheim). Lukács argued for committed intellectuals to a greater extent than Mannheim and his 'free-floating' intellectuals. As some Marxists might say, once you know which side you are on its much easier to work objectively in the world at hand.

charles Lamana said...

If I were that undergrad Colombian student and my interest in philosophy maintained, I should think it would have been a profound honor to have had such a major influence on the life of this heavy weight philosopher of social and political philosophy. It would certainly bring a smile to my face especially in times of sadness and world weariness.

Eric said...

Michael Llenos,

For you and Marc Susselman (and others)—from Frans de Waal in Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (2006):

"Social contract theory, and Western civilization with it, seems saturated with the assumption that we are asocial, even nasty creatures rather than the zoon politikon that Aristotle saw in us. Hobbes explicitly rejected the Aristotelian view by proposing that our ancestors started out autonomous and combative, establishing community life only when the cost of strife became unbearable. According to Hobbes, social life never came naturally to us. He saw it as a step we took reluctantly and 'by covenant only, which is artificial.' More recently, Rawls proposed a milder version of the same....

Hobbes and Rawls create the illusion of human society as a voluntary arrangement with self-imposed rules assented to be free and equal agents. Yet, there never was a point at which we became social: descended from highly social ancestors—a long line of monkeys and apes—we have been group living forever.... [b]Any zoologist would classify our species as obligatorily gregarious[/b].... [my emphasis]

Although Kropotkin never formulated his theory with the precision and evolutionary logic available to Trivers in his seminal paper on reciprocal altruism, both pondered the origins of a cooperative, and ultimately moral, society without invoking false pretense, Freudian denial schemes, or cultural indoctrination. In this they proved the true followers of Darwin [in contrast to Thomas Huxley].


Darwin firmly believed his theory capable of accommodating the origins of morality and did not see any conflict between the harshness of the evolutionary process and the gentleness of some of its products.


[E]mpathy is a routine involuntary process, as demonstrated by electromyographic studies of invisible muscle contractions in people's faces in response to pictures of human facial expressions. These reactions are fully automated and occur even when people are unaware of what they saw. Accounts of empathy as a higher cognitive process neglect these gut-level reactions, which are far too rapid to be under conscious control.


It should further be noted that the evolutionary pressures responsible for our moral tendencies may not all have been nice and positive. After all, morality is very much an in-group phenomenon. Universally, humans treat outsiders far worse than members of their own community: in fact, moral rules hardly seem to apply to the outside. [my emphasis] True, in modern times, there is a movement to expand the circle of morality, and to include even enemy combatants.... Morality likely evolved as a within-group phenomenon in conjuction with other typical within-group capacities, such as conflict resolution, cooperation, and sharing....

Obviously, the most potent force to bring out a sense of community is enmity toward outsiders.... In our own species, nothing is more obvious than that we band together against adversaries. In the course of human evolution, out-group hostility enhanced in-group solidarity to the point that morality emerged.... And so, the profound irony is that our noblest achievement—morality—has evolutionary ties to our basest behavior—warfare. The sense of community required by the former was provided by the latter....

Following Hume, who saw reason as the slave of the passions, Haidt has called for a thorough reevaluation of the role played by rationality in moral judgment, arguing that most human justification seems to occur post hoc, that is, after moral judgments have been reached on the basis of quick, automated intuitions.... [N]euroimaging shows that moral judgment in fact involves a wide variety of brain areas, some extremely ancient."

Eric said...

In a later chapter, de Waal writes:

"Given how well orientation towards the own group has served humanity for millions of years, and how well it serves us still, a moral system can impossibly give equal consideration to all life on earth. The system has to set priorities. As noted by Pierre-Joseph Prudhon over a century ago: 'If everyone is my brother, I have no brothers.'... Moral systems are inherently biased toward the in-group. [my emphasis] ...

It is not just that we are biased in favor of the innermost circle (ourselves, our family, our community, our species), we ought to be. If I were to come home empty-handed after a day of foraging during a general famine and told my hungry family that I did find bread, yet gave it away, they would be terribly upset. It would be seen as a moral failure, as an injustice, not because the beneficiaries of my behavior did not deserve sustenance, but because of my duty to those close to me. The contrast becomes even starker during war, when solidarity with the own tribe or nation is compulsory: we find treason morally reprehensible."


We are not born with any specific moral norms in mind, but with a learning agenda that tells us which information to imbibe. This allows us to figure out, understand, and eventually internalize the moral fabric of our native society. Because a similar learning agenda underlies language acquisition, I see parallels between the biological foundation of morality and language. In the same way that a child is not born with any particular language, but with the ability to learn any language, we are born to absorb moral rules and weigh moral options, making for a thoroughly flexible system that nevertheless revolves around the same two H's [to help and to (not) hurt] and the same basic loyalties it always has [in evolutionary history]."

Eric said...

"a voluntary arrangement with self-imposed rules assented to *by* free and equal agents"

Matt said...

I don't comment here that much lately (for a variety of reasons, some really trivial) but have been thinking about this post and some others of late, and a bit moved to comment. First, it seems a bit funny to me that there's not more notice of Geuss noting that a big reason why he's not a liberal is that he, as a teenager, fell under the influence of the sort of people who are these days much of the backbone of support for the semi-fascist Viktor Orban. Noting such a background is, we might say, "telling on yourself" more than seems to be noticed. I don't think Geuss shares (all of) the worst elements of the sort of anti-liberal Catholics who make up Orban's base, but it's not exactly getting off to a good start in life.

I'd also been thinking of Bob's "what side are you on?" line of thought, in relation to some of Geuss's discussion of liberalism in his often very interesting (and often frustrating, in a way that is very typical of him) book _History and Illusion in Politics_. The section I'm thinking of most particularly doesn't lend itself well to quotation, as it reaches back to things said some pages earlier, but involves a comparison of "liberalism" and "Jacobism". "Jacobism" is the view that what matters is getting the right people in charge and the right form of government, and then there is no reason to limit its reach - in fact, any attempt to limit its reach is itself suspect, as people who are morally upright have nothing to fear form the properly working government. Liberalism, as Geuss notes, has something like the opposite view - that it's important to limit the power of the state, and not depend on the righteousness of those in power. (It's clear from the book that Geuss thinks liberalism is wrong in this sense, though I'm less sure that he fully identifies with what he terms "Jacobism" here.)

How does this fit with the "what side are you on?" approach? If you take that as your fundamental question, you'll not have what I think of as proper doubt about the actions of "your side". You'll tend to think that, since "your side" is the right one, what it does is itself right, and necessary so as to prevent the "wrong side" from winning. (This view is, of course, symmetrical for "sides". It's not far from "my country, right or wrong".) I hope it's clear already why this isn't a very appealing approach - with it, there are few options except combat or fighting, and trying to crush the other "side". And, we can see how it's lead to people going in for Stalinism and similar such things. There has been a lot of support here for the view that this is the fundamental political question, but I'll admit that it seems to me to be almost exactly wrong, and to lead, in every case we know of, to very bad outcomes.

LFC said...

I haven't read very much of Geuss's work, but I bought a paperback copy of _Politics and the Imagination_ a few years ago, and I wasn't esp. impressed by a couple of the more "political" essays that I read. However, I realize this is not a solid enough basis on which to judge someone's output. As far as the most recent book goes, I haven't done more than look at the opening pp via Amazon 'look inside'.

s. wallerstein said...


Interesting your comment, but I might note that the "which side are you on?" question might be answered (probably not by Geuss, but by me at least) "on the side of those who believe in and support human rights, including such human rights as the right to healthcare and women's reproduction rights".

Anonymous said...

LFC et al., you might find this essay of Geuss's interesting:

LFC said...

s.w.'s comment suggests -- and I wd agree w this -- that the basic question shd *not* be "which side are you on?" but rather "what principles do I believe in?" (or some similar question). Only after answering that question can you know which "side" you're on.

RPW apparently concluded that if there is no "fundamental principle of morality that can be established rational argument" then you just have to pick a side. But that doesn't follow. There are various, istm, non-fundamental, non-universal principles of morality that cd pt you to one side or the other. And you can't really decide which side you're on until you decide, via reflection or some other means, which (non-universal) principles you believe in.

Anonymous said...

Also, in relation to some of the comments here respecting the role of morality in politics etc., including s. w.'s last one, see Geuss's "Outside Ethics" accessible at

s. wallerstein said...

I've been reading a lot of Constanza Michelson, Chilean psychoanalyst and general social critic, brillant.

She distinguishes between "tomar partido" y "tomar una postura".

"Tomar partido" is to take a side, while "tomar una postura" is to take a stand.

For example, I can take a stand in favor of women's right to choose and that can lead me to take a side, that of the feminist movement.

However, I may find that at times my other stands, against censorship for example, may lead me into contradiction with feminists who want to censor Nabokov's Lolita, which I consider to be a masterpiece.

There are many dangers in taking a side, besides the one I mention above, including that which Matt mentions, "my movement or my party right or wrong" and that of losing a sense of self, of becoming one's political identity.

Eric said...


I think that is why de Waal's perspective is so valuable, particularly his analogy with our capacity as humans to learn language. We are born with the genetically-encoded capacity to learn moral principles, and in our early life we "eventually internalize the moral fabric of our native society," which is to say, the moral fabric of our in-group. It is with those principles that we are able to identify which side we are on.

Metaphorically speaking, our hardware that we are born with inclines us to seek to practice the principle of being helpful to those whom we consider part of our in-group. Our software that we acquire over our lifetimes, refines our views of who it is that we regard as our kin/in-group and of how the application of the fundamental moral principles should be applied in individual cases.

So it is entirely possible that there are in fact universal moral rules (help, do not hurt, your in-group) that we and our most closely-related primate kin are born with; but also that the expression of those rules is highly variable, being shaped by experiences over the course of our lives, and especially during our formative years.

LFC said...


I think there's a difference between (1) principles -- if any - that we have some kind of innate or evolutionarily acquired disposition to accept or act on; and (2) principles that we decide, based on what we've read, heard, thought about etc, to accept.

Because, as the old saying has it, you can't drive an "ought" from an "is" (not straightforwardly at any rate), there's not necessarily a close connection between (1) and (2).

So the fact -- if it is a fact -- that all primates are hardwired from birth to favor their in-group is not a moral rule of any kind, rather it's a fact (or an alleged fact) of biology or genetics, and as such it has no necessary connection w rules or principles of morality that philosophers or ordinary people might choose to argue for or endorse. (To be more specific, for ex, if humans can learn to expand the range of their "in-group", then the "hardware" becomes more or less irrelevant.)

As a practical matter, people obvs have differently strong attachments to family members, friends, maybe compatriots vs "others", but I don't think one shd confuse sociological or biological description w moral prescription.

That said, some political theorists and philosophers do argue that their theories of morality or justice etc jibe with facts of human psychology and "development," but that's a bit different. I haven't read de Waal so I don't know exactly what he's doing, but a primatologist is prob not the first person I'd look to for guidance on moral philosophy, though for all I know he might have more interesting things to say than a lot of philosophers.

You have noted probably D Zimmerman's reference to attitudes "purified" by among other things requirements of objectivity and impartiality. Humans can "purify" their attitudes in this way, or try to, whereas chimpanzees presumably can't.

Anonymous said...

Hans Sluga has a lengthy critical discussion of the (ir)relevance of chimpanzee behavior in relation to human poitics in his book "Politics and the Search for the Common Good."

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zane said...

Here is another quote from Rocker saying the same thing: "Only when the feeling of solidarity is joined to the inner urge for social justice does freedom become a tie uniting all; only under this condition does the freedom of fellowmen become, not a limitation, but a confirmation and guarantee of individual freedom."

Zane said...

Why does Geuss oppose the "libertarian" with the "communistic" form of anarchism? That is certainly not an opposition that most people who thought of themselves as anarchists would have made. Quite to the contrary. A non-libertarian anarchism is practically a contradiction in terms. The difference between the kind of individualistic anarchism professed by those who described themselves as followers of Max Stirner and communist anarchists was not that the former thought individual autonomy more important than the latter, necessarily. Rather it is that the former thought that community life placed so many fetters on the life of the individual whereas the latter thought that community life, imbued with a proper respect for individual freedom, was an essential precondition of autonomy.

Rudolf Rocker, for example, a communitarian anarchist if not a communistic one, wrote that under the vision of anarchism he endorses: "Society becomes a league of free communities which arrange their affairs according to need. by themselves or in association with others, and in which man's freedom is the equal freedom of others not its limitation, but its security and confirmation."

Elsewhere, he writes: "Only when the feeling of solidarity is joined to the inner urge for social justice does freedom become a tie uniting all; only under this condition does the freedom of fellowmen become, not a limitation, but a confirmation and guarantee of individual freedom."

One finds the same thought expressed almost verbatim in the writings of Bakunin and Malatesta.

Marc Susselman said...

s. wallerstein and LFC,

I must say I find your comments above in response to Prof. Wolff’s position that “one must choose what side one is on” quite paradoxical, particularly given your responses to my position, stated in previous threads, that there exist objective moral precepts, a position you have both rejected.

Prof. Wolff concluded that one must simply decide what side one is on when he abandoned his aspiration of proving that particular valid moral precepts existed. S. wallerstein, you criticize this position on the basis that one cannot choose what side they are on unless and until they have determined what principles they believe in. You state, in response to Matt, for example:

“Interesting your comment, but I might note that the "which side are you on?" question might be answered (probably not by Geuss, but by me at least) "on the side of those who believe in and support human rights, including such human rights as the right to healthcare and women's reproduction rights.”

So, s. wallerstein, I ask you, “Have you proven that healthcare is a human right? If so, what is your proof? And what is your proof that a woman has a reproductive right?” If you cannot provide a proof, on what basis do you believe it?”

LFC, you have similarly written above:
“RPW apparently concluded that if there is no ‘fundamental principle of morality that can be established rational argument" then you just have to pick a side.’ But that doesn't follow. There are various, istm, non-fundamental, non-universal principles of morality that cd pt you to one side or the other. And you can't really decide which side you're on until you decide, via reflection or some other means, which (non-universal) principles you believe in.”

Why doesn’t it follow? Can you prove any of the principles you believe in? I assume that you believe, for example, that up to a certain point in a woman’s pregnancy, she has a right to decide whether she wants to continue to carry the pregnancy to term, and has the right at some point to terminate the pregnancy, without be criminally prosecuted for doing so. On what basis do you believe this? Can you prove it? Prof. Wolff concedes that he cannot prove it, and just chooses to be on the side of a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy, at least up to a certain point in the pregnancy. You assert that Prof. Wolf’s stance does not “follow,” unless he can articulate a valid basis for choosing that side. But can you articulate a valid basis for your believing that principle?

This is all logical gobbly-gook. I repeat what I have written ad nauseum in my previous comments. Many of the commenters on this blog are closet moral objectivists, but refuse to acknowledge it. Why they refuse to acknowledge it would be an interesting subject for psychological analysis. I suspect part of their resistance to the notion that there are objective moral principles, which are true without proof, is their subconscious commitment to the adage, “Judge not, lest you be judged.” As long as they insist that there are no objective moral precepts, which are true and valid without proof, they cannot be judged for their own closet skeletons, which, of course, we all have. In the absence of moral objectivity, they can always reject any criticism of their own conduct as, “Well, that’s just your opinion.” Unfortunately, Justices Alito, Thomas, Kavanaugh, and Barrett can play the same game. In response to their critics’ claim that a woman has a right to have an abortion up to the end of the second trimester, they can respond, “Well, that’s just your opinion. Where’s your proof?”

LFC said...

The difference between us, I think, is that I think there are moral principles that are persuasive without proof, whereas you think there are moral principles that are true without proof. I prefer the language of persuasion, rooted say in what DZ has called a "purified" set of inclinations, whereas you prefer the language of truth.

Your approach makes moral arguments largely (though not entirely) pointless, since there are, on your view, true precepts that one either accepts or rejects. My position by contrast suggests that it's possible, at least occasionally, to change people's minds by moral argument.

I might concede that there may be some starting point that one is very convinced of, and if you want to call that starting point "objective" there's likely no harm in doing so. But when you go further and say that there are a whole bunch of moral precepts that are objectively true, you relieve yourself of the burden of persuading anyone by argument. If all moral precepts are objective, why bother making moral arguments? After all, you can't persuade anyone who denies it that 2 + 2= 4. But you might be able to persuade someone that a woman has a right to an abortion at least in the early stages of pregnancy.

By maintaining that all moral precepts are objective truths, you conveniently avoid having to make arguments about a lot of things. You could still make arguments about certain specific applications of moral principles, but you avoid having to make arguments about the principles themselves -- any of them. You just say "that's an objective truth, not susceptible of proof," and the conversation is over. It's very convenient. Again, I don't deny the need for some starting points, but your position goes way beyond that.

Marc Susselman said...


You are distorting my position. I have never asserted that all moral precepts are objective truths. Some moral precepts are subjective, like, it is a mortal sin for Jews, or Muslims, to eat pork. Only those moral precepts which are objectively valid are objective moral precepts. A tautology, you say? Your alternative of relying on the persuasiveness of your position is, frankly, no different. On what basis do you claim that a woman has the right to decide to have an abortion at some stage in her pregnancy. Judge Alito asks you, why? You assert, I assume, because a woman, like every human being has a right to control her own body, as long as it is only her body she is controlling. On what are you basing the persuasiveness of this proposition.? You are basing it on your belief that the propositions is self-evident, i.e., true without proof, like 2 + 2 = 4. Your claim of persuasiveness is no more than my claim of the proposition being objectively true. If J. Alito says, I do not agree with that proposition, what can you possible say to “persuade” him otherwise. Bottom line is that your position is no different than mine – you are a moral objectivist who does not know it.

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