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September 04, 2008


Will Davies

Perhaps, but all of this disregards Max Weber's question (recently taken up by Luc Boltanski) of the part played by various moralities in strengthening or defending capitalism. We tend to think that capitalism can either be viewed as ammoral (and more or less efficient) or immoral. But not only is there the Weberian issue of a work ethic to consider, but its worth noting that figures such as Hayek and Friedman defended capitalism on normative grounds as well as efficiency grounds, even if Friedman insisted that the two had nothing to do with each other. Take the issue of the housing market right now. Clearly there are unfortunate moral consequences of negative equity; but there are also significant moral causes, in the form of an ethical-cultural order in which home ownership, personal capital accumulation and privacy were so prized in the first place.


"..“what do you mean by fair?” We can all bat the arguments backwards and forwards. But no-one on either side will be convinced."

Actually the difference between the two sides - excluding the amoral and the hysterical - is not that great. Marxism's weakness in ethics is that it doesn't recognise Natural Law theory: the innate moral knowledge that all human beings uniquely possess, which allows us to have a standard by which to judge fair.vs.unfair, right.vs.wrong, even as we fail to hold ourselves to it.

In any case Norm seems to be repeating what John Birger had to say to Bryan Appleyard last weekend.



Does anybody talk like you outside of a university? Reading your comment was like being transported back 30 years to the Sociology department of Essex University.


"Morality .............contributes little of substance to social or economic questions."

As they say, 'to a man with a hammer the world looks like a nail'. There actually is more to the sum of human life than economics and what is meant here by society.


What is your evidence that abolition of slavery was not a result of morality - specifically, of British evangelical Christians, and like-minded people in Denmark and elsewhere?

Will Davies

Recusant - Well done - I'm a sociology doctoral student. The blog posting in question is written by a philosophically-minded economist, in response to a Marxist academic. I've chipped in with a contribution from economic sociology. This isn't a national newspaper. What's your problem with my comment?


Norm's right. While some of your criticisms are reasonable, what you are talking about is moralism, rather than moral reasoning. Moreover, I think you're missing the force of the argument behind this. You do this because by focusing on the shortcomings of moral reasoning, you're avoiding the problem that classic 'scientific' Marxism had - and still does in some dark caves of the British blogosphere. It's perhaps not the best way to sum it up but it's all I can think of at short notice and it was Berstein's response to those in the SDP who argued that since the collapse of capitalism was inevitable, questions of morality were irrelevant. He said - and I paraphrase from memory - just because something is inevitable, this doesn't mean it's desirable. You need, therefore, some kind of moral reasoning to fill the gap here.

I have to say I'm surprised at you taking this line because one of the things you said that has stayed with me had to do with the idea that old 'tankies' derived their morality from a sense of being on the right side of History. You did not mean this in a complimentary sense. It was for me the best kind of writing - the kind that gives a form of words that gives expression to one's own inarticulate thoughts of the heart. You may or may not have noticed that I've stolen this as used it on several occasions. But the spirit of this post is in contradiction to that.

There's something else as well: Marx and his vulgar followers may have *claimed* to have dispensed with "bourgeois morality" but I think there's every reason to question their self-assessment. Again, one of the virtues of Bernstein's thought was that he applied the historical method to Marx himself. And why shouldn't it be? Only a cultist could object. *Why* is exploitation, the expropriation of surplus value, inequality etc. something to be condemned? Here Marx's thunderings have exactly nothing to do with science - I'd suggest rather that Marx's understanding of these, *feelings* about these, was drawn directly from his Judeo-Christian background (more than a whiff of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Malachi, Hosea in the Communist manifesto) and also the values of the "bourgeois" French Revolution. Morality is difficult certainly - but do dismiss all attempts at moral philosophy as moralism, which you are implicitly doing here, is just plain lazy.


"The Christian right think they are superior as they have God on their side; the liberal left think they are superior as they have rationality on their side . Yawn."

Sorry but there's something else: *certain sections* of the liberal left think they've got rationality on their side. (You might want to talk to your friends at LC about this. And I hope you won't be too offended if I suggest that perhaps in your own case you might want to take on board the old saying about throwing stones, glasshouses etc?) But classic liberalism has at least something to do with *scepticism* surely? Not, as it is often unfairly caricatured, as a moral uncertainty about what is right and wrong but rather the simple idea - one which appears frequently on this space - that rulers are marked with the human stain just as the rest of us are, so if we need restraint - which we do - how much more can this be said of these who have power over us?


I enjoyed the essay.

"Morality says crime happens because people are bad."

And Marx says the same thing. He just names a different set of people and the economic system they maintain.

When Marx ventured away from study and observations about history or economics he became a moralist. i.e. a phrase monger of less value than a fish monger.

It is better to forget the word "morality". It tells us nothing. People readily understand that "fair" is nebulous. Yet they continue to insist that morality has some meaning outside one's own preferences.

The problem is that we confuse the meaningless "morality" with the concrete "moral code".

Moral codes are laws. They define what is criminal. Law is enforced by priests or tyrants or elected governments. They are not called moral codes anymore but that is what they are.


Only today I was reading this:


The article suggests to me that Marx was absolutely an old-fashioned moralist. He just used fancy jargon to hide the fact, like a Creationist talking about "Intelligent Design"...

Push Jelly

I'm not going to lie to you. This is just a plug for my own satirical blog. I know. Shameless. Anywhere, here it is:



"Morality says crime happens because people are bad."

No it doesn't. It says that crime is bad because it hurts people. It does not imply causation, merely judgement of the nature of the act.



Are you objecting to the quote which is found in #5 of the article? Or to my response at 8:48?

If you are addressing only the quote disregard this message.

Otherwise we won't get far by discussing it anyway. You are stating your ideas about morality when you say:

"No it doesn't. It says that crime is bad because it hurts people. It does not imply causation, merely judgement of the nature of the act."

And my reply would be that others define morality in other ways.


@Shuggy - I accept that I'm talking about moralism - but in practice this is what morality has largely become. And I agree that Marx and Marxists have never actually succeeded in sloughing off the desire to make moral judgments.
I agree too that many Marxists have regarded inevitability as an excuse to dispense with morality. But it's here that I part company with them. If nothing else, our bounded rationality precludes us from describing any social event as inevitable.
But I regard the amoral revolutionary who appeals to inevitability as less of a problem than the amoral politician or businessman who does the same.


I'm curious as to why your justification for classical Liberalism (from skepticism) only applies to governments and not to concentrations of economy power. Surely that argument is an argument for either left libertarian anarchism, reciprocal accountability (Brin) or for Galbraithian countervailing power not for modern Libertarianism.


Having personlised a couple of arguments, maybe I should personalise the others, Chris can be a standard holder for left libertarianism and Friedman for modern Libertarianism.


I find it hard to understand how intelligent modern people can take Natural Law (the Natural of course is just advertising like a Natural shampoo) seriously. If it really existed, it would be easy to observe and would be defined the same by everyone.


Don't get me wrong - I just think you are taking a normative result, and trying to find axiom's that lead logically to it. Be honest about it.



"I find it hard to understand how intelligent modern people can take Natural Law."

Well forgive me for being stupid. But then it amazes me that some will elevate intelligence over sense and wisdom.

And what, pray, has "modern" got to do with anything? Has human nature evolved? Does it have a different character for those living now than those living 200, 500, 1,000, 5,000 years ago?

"Easy to observe"? The fact that the same moral precepts have been accepted at all times and in all cultures. Will that do?

What moral precepts? Selfishness, cowardice, killing, dishonesty, etc. are wrong. The observable fact that although the vast mass of mankind has always subscribed to them and acknowledged them, and yet fails to live up to them - which they would do if they were merely instincts.

Why are those who worship at the altar of reason so damned unreasonable? Beats me, but then I lack the intellect to compute it.

alanm, no crisps dunked.

Well I act by the maxim that what I do should be the universal law, while treating people as ends in themselves and not means to my ends.

I don't really. I just wanted intellectually phrase-drop and so feel worthy of joining in.

passer by

"Morality is not the driving force of history."

Sorry Chris I only got as far as this.

1, no one said it is
2, but religion is a major driving force of history, and that is built on moral frameworks. our very own legal system is built on christian-Judea foundations for example.
3, Moral judgments are an expression of an ideal (for good or bad) its human beings doing what human beings do, trying to be more than just plain dialectic materialist flesh and bone.


What moral precepts? Selfishness, cowardice, killing, dishonesty, etc. are wrong.

Those are all just words (and the meaning has often changed). Now plug honor killings into that scheme of things. Think of how people were coerced into the lunacy of the first world war by accusations of "cowardice". Are you still sure the picture is so straight forward?


And modern is relevant because people today have a broader cultural perspective than in the past, where most people were much enmeshed in a mono-culture.


And as for elevating intelligence over sense and wisdom:
1. I was implicitly (right there in the sentence) crediting you with intelligence. Sorry if I offended you.
2. What makes you think you are wise? Isn't it a bit arrogant to credit yourself with wisdom - how are you in a position to judge?
3. Surely, wisdom is relative to the understanding of the times. Would Socrates be judged wise today, if he still used the same arguments?

Innocent Abroad

Recusant - human nature may not have changed, but circumstances have.

In World War I, troops were given cigarettes to calm their nerves, i.e. on health grounds. No one suggests that this was wrong, because the link between nicotine and ill-health was unkown at the time.

More generally, before the Enlightenment (and of course this still applies to those cultures which have been little affected by Enlightenment thinking) what mattered was the family, not the individual - any more than we would to-day consider the interests of our arms or legs as being different to our own. Theologians call this the "turn to the subject" and consider it (in my view, correctly) to be a step-change.

chris strange

"I regard the amoral revolutionary who appeals to inevitability as less of a problem than the amoral politician or businessman who does the same."

Why? Amoral revolutionaries appealing to inevitability have a track record of killing far more people than either most politicians (the exception there being former amoral revolutionaries themselves) and all businessmen. Businessmen in particular also have an external force to keep them trying to maximise the benefits they bring, even if they themselves don't care, in the form of the market.

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