Monday, May 08, 2006

Relativism and Revolution pt.1

A few ideas about Moral Relativism, probably the first of several. Comments welcome.

Moral Relativism is the denial of Moral Objectivity. It is a powerful tool for rejecting traditional morality, which is often rooted in superstition and conservatism. It also inspires a great deal of disquiet from all quarters. It is accused of leading to Nihilism, or to Cultural Relativism, leaving us impotent to criticise those acts that we wish to condemn and prevent. A standard criticism of Marx is that he formally accepts relativism, but in fact bases his critique of capitalism on deeply moral convictions about suffering and exploitation. The question follows, then, can Moral Relativism provide the necessary framework for a radical criticism of the status quo, and a promotion of radical social change? Relativism offers a compelling explanation of our moral behaviour, and a mechanism for critiquing absolutist moral claims, but can it help us offer a positive programme and, importantly, give us the motivation to enact it?

It seems the place to begin is with the most extreme claims entailed by Relativism. Gilbert Harman, a prominent defender of Relativism from a logical perspective, has (in)famously claimed that Hitler had no reason not to order the extermination of the Jews. What are we to make of this sort of claim? Harman believes that the only sort of judgements we can appropriately make are ‘inner judgements’, related to an individual agent’s beliefs and desires. We cannot claim that there were reasons for Hitler to act a certain way without reference to his motivations and desires, since those are the only reasons for action. Thus, on Harman’s reading, it is in fact not only true that Hitler had no reason to not order the extermination of the Jews; he had reasons to do so. This claim about reason statements is contestable, but plausible to some extent and has some notable supporters.

I think, however, that Marxists shouldn’t be overly concerned with this claim. Clearly we must oppose and prevent genocide, but accepting Harman’s claim doesn’t necessarily prevent us. Consider another example, the capitalist. Far fewer people would claim that there is anything troublesome about claiming that the capitalist has no reason not to employ wage labour at market price. I want to suggest that, despite the conviction that the alienation and exploitation that arise from capitalist productive relations are negative, things to be prevented and resisted, it does not make sense for a socialist to tell a factory owner that she has reason not to employ waged labour. By almost all standards, she has a reason to. It is certainly in her individual and class interests to do so. It is the rationale of capitalism that she does so. The entire logic of the system is driving her to do it. If there are any external reasons that affect her (remember if we accept Harman there are not), they surely are reasons to fit in with the system, not perversely reject it.

This, it seems, is entirely consistent with standard Marxist Theory and Practice, and indeed informs it. We challenge the logic that creates the reasons for the capitalist to behave in the way she does. We encourage those in whose interests the system is not to challenge those in whose it is. We do not futilely tell the capitalist that she has reasons to avoid it, and it is unclear how we could. To this extent Harman’s Relativism can be accepted. It rules out merely our ability to condemn on the basis of objective reasons for action. It, potentially at least, leaves room for us to condemn exploitation, oppression and war as states of affairs. However, how we might do this is as yet unclear.


At 12:58 pm, Blogger DanS said...

This is a bit higgledy piggledy and my thoughts on this are still very raw. I'll hopefully add more with a stronger exposition of Harman's position and the role of a revolutionary within it, and also on the connection between relativism and materialism, especially to what extent they entail or preclude each other.

At 6:41 pm, Blogger Rob said...

Have you ever explored the possibilities for a 'moral' perspective put forward by people like Eagleton and Marcuse. Essentially they are able to take an 'objective' view of morlaity by focusing on history qua process. Briefly, Marcuse, in Repressive Tolerance, says that we can describe an action as good if it tends towards increasingly material wealth and decreasing toil on the part of humanity [or something along those lines] - I reckon this perspective is ok. Eagelton's perspective starts from the communust condition where the 'free development of one is of all'. Thus for Eagleton our criteria for morality is whether something allows us free development and doesn't impinge upon someone else's. Now frankly I've always thought this sounded disturbingly liberal - but Eagleton puts forward a fairly interesting case, here:

I personally appreciate these approaches but at the same time reject them. For me a Marxist approach is properly meta-ethical; we basically take the position of explaning morality historically rather than putting forward 'moral judgments'. But actually our position kind of transcends relativism/absolutism and subjectivism/objectivism; although we see morality as something posited by a set of material relations [e.g. contingent or relative] we simultaneously see them as very valid for a given epoch [kind of like Sean Sayer's conception of 'human nature'] - so whilst it is relative to a particular epoch it is still endemic to that epoch. Same with subjective - although morality isn't a logically reasoned 'process' it is nonetheless a result of a particular socialisation etc. [see e.g. Pashukanis'/Engels' discussions of the relationship between morality and the commodity form].

But that doesn't mean we can't make tentative moral judgements. If you look at the Marcusian process above then maybe we kind of have a way of judging competing moralities. If we acknowledge that 'history' is intelligible or has a Gestalt then we can certainly say that there are 'progressive' historical movements. So I suppose you can tie in 'good' morality with history as a totality of social movement [or something I'm thinking primarily of Lukacs here]. So essentially this is a defence of the prima facie crude equation of 'socialism' with 'good'. But as socialists I don't see why we shouldn't make that equation.

However, these are scattershot thoughts, essentially serving as revision procrastination...heh...

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