Moral Relativism and the Concrete Universal

by Chris Horner

Photograph taken by author
                                                                                                                                    

There are some notions, ideas and arguments, that no matter how often they are exposed as fallacious, are rebutted and refuted, seem to recur again and again. Moral relativism is one of them.[1] Put simply, this is the view that one’s moral judgments are delimited by the culture or period in which one lives, so that it is impossible to make meaningful moral judgments about other times and places, since they had or have criteria for what is good or bad that may be quite different from one’s own. It seems to be stuck on ‘repeat’. The perennial nature of such ideas ought itself to make us pause before we repeat the ritual of refutation. We need to ask, what, exactly, the attraction is  – what is it about the idea that seems to make it so irresistibly attractive and inevitable? Rather than an error to be corrected by better reasoning, it looks more like a symptom. Moral relativism never seems to go away, no matter how often philosophers try to swat it. The same is true of a related notion – ethical subjectivism (the view that  moral judgments rest on personal taste, or emotions and nothing more). So rather than just show for the umpteenth time why the arguments for moral relativism are flawed, it would be better to go on to ask why they have this quality of eternal recurrence. There is an insight at the bottom of the idea that has got twisted, and its ‘symptomatic’ aspect has something to do with the nature of alienation in modern society. Read more »

A Shift In The Ethical Ground

by Chris Horner

The statue of  Edward Colston, 17th century slave trader, is dumped into Bristol Harbour.

There are times when customary evils become outlandish and intolerable. Then there is a call for irreversible ethical change, a transformation of more than the way we judge this or that, times in which which old laws are struck down and new ones framed. I want to suggest that a change in the structure of feeling occurs, when the ethical substance of our lives is transformed. This can happen at a glacial pace, or – as now -very quickly indeed. In Lenin’s famous remark ‘There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen’. 

In such a time as this, people are mobilised in new ways; symbols like statues and flags that might once have been barely registered take on the significance of exemplars. And an act of cruelty that might once have been part of the drab monotony of unchangeable oppression takes on a paradigmatic, mobilising force. Then everything seems to be moving. Of course, one can see change as merely exchanging one kind of ethical outlook for another, with no way of choosing which is best, the view of the moral relativist. ’They thought X was OK back then, and we don’t. Whose to say who is right?’  This is quite mistaken. For a start there were people ‘back then’ who condemned slavery, the subordination of women, empire and much more. The society of the past, as now, did not speak with one voice: it had dissidents, reformers and heretics. Nor is the past hermetically sealed off from the present: we are what they became.  Read more »

Politics and the Beautiful Soul

by Christopher Horner

If you want to deserve Hell, you need only stay in bed. The world is iniquity; if you accept it, you are an accomplice, if you change it you are an executioner. —Jean-Paul Sartre

We need to learn, or re-learn, how to build comradeship and solidarity instead of doing capitals work for it by condemning and abusing each other. —Mark Fisher

Hell is other people —Jean Paul Sartre

Politics is difficult. Doing politics, that is. The boring meetings, the leafleting, the marching in the wind and rain (if you can leave your house), the arguments, the confrontations and the blank incomprehension, the ad hominem attacks and much more. But the largest problem by far is other people. Some are the unconvinced, some are the apathetic and then there are the hostile, those you are opposing. More problematic, though, can be those who are supposed to be on your side. They can be difficult to endure. How many of them would you want to meet if you had the choice? Too often, in my experience, it is only a few, as the sheer hard work of trying to arrive at something like a collective will wears everyone out and tries everyone’s patience. Not all politics is like that of course:  there can be the sense of comradeship from working with others one wouldn’t otherwise get to know. The experience of making a difference and working for a meaningful goal can be a wonderful thing.

This is hard to sustain though, when we experience defeat and frustration. The bitter moment in which one realises that for now (for how long?) the other side has the day. This has been a recent and bitter experience for the UK  Labour Party supporters of Jeremy Corbyn in 2019, and of the many in the USA who marched and canvassed for Bernie Sanders in 2020, only to see him him stopped in the primaries. And quite apart from one’s official enemies, there have been real battles within those parties. With failure comes the temptation to have done, to walk away, either into inaction or in order find another, and inevitably smaller, group of like-minded activists. This latter has been a reliable feature of left politics for as long as anyone can remember: an addiction to splitting.  After all, if the others aren’t part of the solution, they must be part of the problem, right? Read more »

Morbid Symptoms: COVID-19 and Pathologies in the Body Politic

by Chris Horner

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. —Gramsci

Frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651)

Does a crisis show us what we are ‘really like’? Whether it does or not, it has already been instructive to experience this one, in which our institutions are being stress tested, perhaps to destruction. As many have noted, COVID-19 is a political and economic crisis as well as a medical one. Its size and complexity can leave us groping around for the right interpretive and predictive tools. There are a number of models that we can turn to to help us understand how we react, or might react, and these often rest on assumptions about ‘human nature’. The problem is that they don’t agree on some basics, and thus can’t all be right. So which is the best one to turn to in a crisis?

Two Views of Human Nature

The view of humans and their social arrangements associated with Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is a bleak one: the human animal in the ‘state of nature’ – that is, without government or law – is in a state of constant war, or preparation for war, since no one can be sure of their own security. In the state of nature, life is ‘continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ (Leviathan, chapter XIII, 1651).  Only a strong sovereign power can ensure peace by imposing it through force, or the threat of force. If the civil and political bonds of such a peace are broken, we can expect people to revert to type as self interested individuals, with “war of all against all” (bellum omnium contra omnes ): a return to the state of nature triggered by the breakdown of the central authority, driven by fear of the other and only restored by force or the threat of force. Read more »

Karl Marx’s Guiding Idea

by Emrys Westacott

Imgres

“Nothing human is alien to me.” This was Karl Marx's favourite maxim, taken from the Roman writer, Terrence. But I think that if Marx had lived a century later, he might have added as a second choice the famous phrase sung by Sportin' Life in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess: “It ain't necessarily so.” For together these two sayings capture a good deal of what I think of as Marx's Guiding Idea, the idea at the heart of his philosophy that remains as valuable and as relevant today as in his own time. Let me explain.

Human beings have been around for a few million years, and for most of that time most people's material and social circumstances have been quite stable. The experiences of one generation were pretty much the same as the experiences of their forbears. In this respect the lives of humans were like those of other animals. Unlike other animals, however, human beings reflect on their lives and circumstances; moreover they communicate these reflections to one another. The result is religion, mythology, philosophy, history, literature, and the performing arts (all of which can arise within a purely oral culture), and eventually the natural sciences, and social studies of various kinds, such as psychology, sociology, economics, and political theory.

These diverse forms of reflection on the human condition perform various functions. One function is to explain why things are the way they are. For instance, the bible explains why the Israelites lived in Israel (God made a promise to Abraham, and kept it, enabling Joshua's army to conquer the land); the theory of the four humours purported to explain personality differences between individuals. Another function is to justify a certain order of things. Thus, the doctrine of the divine right of kings sought to justify the institution of a powerful executive who stands above the law. The doctrine that individuals have a right to freedom of thought and expression is often cited to justify a policy of religious tolerance.

These two functions are sometimes hard to disentangle. For example, the alleged cultural inferiority of a people might be taken both to explain why they have been conquered and to justify that conquest as legitimate or even desirable. The “laws” of market competition provide an explanation of why some individuals and businesses do better than others, and these same laws are appealed to by those inclined to endorse the the outcome of the competition.

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