SAYM-2.1.doc - Marx(Key Ethical Thinkers Marx was primarily a social theorist not a moral philosopher he wrote very little specifically about ethics yet

SAYM-2.1.doc - Marx(Key Ethical Thinkers Marx was primarily...

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Marx (Key Ethical Thinkers) Marx was primarily a social theorist, not a moral philosopher, he wrote very little specifically about ethics, yet he has been responsible for some of the most influential ideas about ethics in the modern world. His criticisms of capitalism and of the human impact of capitalism are widely shared even by those who would reject many aspects of his thought; and the social and historical account of ethics which, I shall argue, is fundamental to his thought, raises issues of relativism that are central to the current discussion of ethics. These claims are controversial. Indeed, almost everything about Marx’s thought is controversial, particularly in the field of ethics. There is disagreement even about whether it involves ethical values at all; and, if it does, about what sort of values these are. Marx himself is to blame for much of this confusion. What he says about the place of ethics in his thought is puzzling and apparently contradictory. On the one hand, he maintains that his approach is that of a social scientist. The primary purpose of his work, he insists, is to understand and explain the nature of the social world (and particularly its present – capitalist – form) and the ‘natural laws of its movement’ (Marx, 1961, 10), rather than to judge it in moral terms or put forward ideal conceptions of how a future society ought to be. Indeed, he applies this approach even to ethical ideas and values themselves, treating them as social and historical products – as forms of ‘ideology’ – and analysing them accordingly. He explicitly denies that his account of capitalism and his conception of communism rely on an appeal to ethical principles (Marx, 1978a, 635-6; Lukes, 1985, chapter 2). On the other hand, it is evident that Marx’s writings do not constitute a ‘value free’ or ethically neutral sort of social theory. They quite explicitly espouse a political outlook and involve a
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2 practical commitment to the overcoming of capitalism and creation of an alternative form of society. 1 It is sometimes argued that Marx adopted an ethical perspective only in his youth, and particularly in his writings on alienation, when he was still strongly influenced by Hegel, but that he breaks with this decisively in his later work. That view was influentially advocated by the French philosopher Louis Althusser (1969). However, the idea that there is a radical discontinuity of this kind in Marx’s philosophy has been widely criticized and now has little support. Even Althusser himself came to question it in his final writings and acknowledged that moral ideas are present throughout Marx’s work (Althusser, 2006). In short, Marxism involves both a social theory and an ethical outlook, and it seeks to combine these two aspects within a unified whole. 2 These claims are frequently criticized for being confused and contradictory, particularly by the ‘analytical Marxists’ 3 who have dominated recent discussion of Marxism in the English-speaking world. Marx’s work does involve a critical
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