Contribution to Discussion March 2001

Overview of Ethics

When we reflect on human activity, both our own and that of friends and society at large, there are two aspects under which our reflections may be seen — Science and Ethics.

Science answers many questions, most of which answer questions of the type “What happens if ...?”, but there are questions which science cannot answer. This is not because of the existence of some extra-mundane spirit or something. It is simply because there is no room in Science for questions like “What should I do if ...?” or “What ought I do?”. It can answer questions like “What am I?”, but not “What should I be?”. But while “ought” and “should” are alien to Science, they are very much a part of life.

On the Left there has been for a long time a tendency to limit politics to Science, it being taken for granted that Socialism is a worthy aim, and adherence to Socialism is taken to be the beginning and end of Ethics.

Trotsky’s pamphlet Their Morals and Ours was a brilliant attempt to elaborate a socialist ethic. In refuting the Stalinist maxim of “the End justifies the Means” Trotsky proposed an Ethic which evaluated actions by reference to history.

Addressed to comrades who share a broadly common understanding of history, this approach is enormously useful, and provides basic reference points for political activity. However, Ethics would propose no problem, were it not for the fact that people on the whole do not share a common view of history, do not share common aspirations for a future world and certainly do not share a common theory of history.

There is another aspect to the problem of how to lead an ethical life which needs to taken account of too: whenever we take an action, we cannot totally know the outcome of our action; we may act with good intent, but we may nevertheless bring about disaster — “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions”, as the saying goes. It was out of this consideration that Kant sought to find a rational basis for Ethics in the “categorical imperative” — “Thou shalt ...”.

Bourgeois society solved the problem ethics through political economy, that is through money. By transforming every person into economic agent, separated from every other person by the relation of buyer and seller, mediated by money. Adam Smith described the process first in his 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments, and in 1776 in Enquiry into the Nature and Origins of the Wealth of Nations — as a branch of Science. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill then elevated political economy into a theory of Ethics, under the name of Utilitarianism. Present day political economists analyse economics in terms of various kinds of automatons making more or less rational decisions in an endeavour to maximise their “happiness”.

The following brief historical review may be useful, drawing on Hegel’s Ethics as outlined in his Philosophy of Right, or “Objective Spirit”.

Prior to the emergence of bourgeois society, kinship relations, political relations and production relations were inextricably merged. Ethics was accordingly determined for every person by their station in life. During the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, a domain of life intervened between the State and the Family which can be called Civil Society. Hegel analysed ethics in terms of these three relations. Since Hegel wrote his Philosophy of Right in 1821 however, the State and Family have drastically retracted in their significance alongside a burgeoning Civil Society: the family is disintegrating and the State is increasingly overshadowed by the power of economics, and the “cash nexus”, the relation of client and service-provider is in any case permeating and subverting all those relations which belong to State and Family.

Ethical Life, Hegel saw as the truth or outcome of a Hegelian triad: Right — Morality — Ethics.

Right is the system of property relations that exist in a given society and are generally recognised as right and in one way or another enforced; Right is what you can get away with in a given society, what you are entitled to whether or not is may be good or moral. The foundation of Right is Property (which Hegel calls “abstract right”) but is not limited to property. These relations form the foundation for the cultural and spiritual life of any society, and everyone understands that the progress of any social struggle hinges on the establishment of certain rights — the right to organise, the right to free education, the right to national self-determination, and so on. Right does not necessarily imply legal codification or police enforcement, though these social institutions rest on notions of Right.

Morality is right which has become internal, that is, morality exists where a person regulates their own action according to precepts which have the effect of constituting a right. Morality is what allow ourselves to get away with. A moment’s reflection shows that rights which are not matched by corresponding morality lead to social conflict and repression. Contrariwise, rights which have been constituted perfectly in the moral precepts of all the members of a given society become “second nature” and are hardly seen as rights at all.

There is no perfect world however. Ethics arises because when we live in the world with others, the morality and rights of all the citizens who constantly enter into relations with one another do not correspond: people have conflicting interests, not to mentioned conflicting values and theories. The Family, Civil Society and the State are the institutions which have arisen historically out of people living and working together in the world.

For Hegel, the ‘moments’ of Civil Society are the System of Needs (the market), Justice (all the forms of regulation, mediation, litigation and so on) and Corporations (companies, trade unions, voluntary associations, etc.). The answer of socialists to the inequities and chaos of the market has generally been to turn to the other aspects identified by Hegel with civil (or bourgeois) society: voluntary association for self-defence and state regulation. However, the whole ethical foundation of bourgeois society is the property relations (abstract right) on which it rests and the fundamental fragmentation of civil society enshrined in the market relation. Furthermore, the alienation of value in the money relation, leads to accumulation of value as capital on one hand and the impoverishment of labour on the other, thus building into bourgeois ethics an irreconcilable conflict.

One final remark: there are two kinds of Ethic: the ethic of Being, or Virtue, and the Ethic of Doing, or Duty. Any approach to Ethics is more or less bound to emphasise one or other aspect of ethical life. The Ethic of Virtue answers the question: “What sort of person should I be?”. The Ethic of Duty answers the question: “What must I (not) do?”. The dominant ethic today is very much an ethic of duty. It is generally considered “arrogant” to question whether you should desire this or that, that's “your own business”. The only question is whether or not you are allowed to do anything about your desire.

Likewise the question of socialism can be posed in terms of rights and systems of enforcement which regulate what people may or may not do; or, socialism can be posed in terms of a vision of a “socialist human being” whose desires are such that an ethical life is possible.

The contrast between the Ethics of Virtue and of Duty is also apparent when we look at the paradox of “good intentions”. It appears to be an impossibility to set out a code of duty which does not fall over at the very next move in the game of “Hypotheticals”. An ethic of Virtue however does not need to play the game of Hypotheticals.

These are the fundamental problems of Ethics.

My article Ethical Values develops some of the historical questions above and my article What is the most important problem of social science? challenges some common preconceptions among socialists. George Brenkert’s Marx’s Ethic of Freedom examines some of the questions in relation to Marx’s ideas. Jacques Monod’s Marxism and Ethics has a collection of articles on Ethics.

Andy Blunden
Febraury 2000