Marxism, the Taliban, and Plato

Recently Simon Blackburn, the well known British philosopher, reviewed Knowing Right from Wrong, the new book by Kieran Setiya, in the TLS ["Taliban and Plato" TLS July 19, 2013]. The essay deals with Setiya’s attempt to defend ethical realism (objective moral knowledge is possible) which Blackburn rejects in favor of ethical pragmatism (useful moral knowledge is possible). I think neither of these positions are tenable and the best way to approach ethics is from a Marxist perspective.

Blackburn begins with Plato’s position in the Republic: the Good can only be understood by those intellectually elite philosophers who rule Plato’s ideal state in the interests of the people. After their basic studies and military training the elite undergo ten years of mathematical training followed by five years of philosophy and begin to take part in ruling at the age of 55. This puts ethical knowledge out of the way of most people who must take on faith that their rulers have actually attained such knowledge.

We need something a little more accessible, Blackburn thinks, and the virtue ethics of Aristotle based on common sense, empiricism and “scientific” method provided a practical alternative to Plato’s views in the Republic (the Republic does not exhaust Plato’s views on this subject.)

Setiya”s book deals with, and Blackburn quotes him, “a tension between two things: the need to explain our reliability so that the truth of our beliefs can be no accident, and the need to leave room for communities that are not at all reliable.”

Blackburn tells us that for Plato knowledge was different from true belief– you might have a true belief that you picked up by accident, or a  guess, but this does not qualify as knowledge. Plato demands a “logos” for knowledge claims, “meaning,” Blackburn says, “something like reason, justification or some kind of method — and reliability seems a good yardstick for soundness.”  But how do we test for “reliability?”

Here is the problem. Blackburn, for example, believes (1) in equal educational opportunities for men and women and (2) this is a reliable belief (i.e., true) based on “cultural and historical forces” operant on Blackburn. Using the Afghan Taliban as a foil, Blackburn says they deny (1) and therefore (2) as well. “We need,” he says, “a view from outside: an independent stamp of the reliability of our progress.”

Where to find it? An appeal to Reason won’t work. Just to claim we are “reasonable” and the Taliban are not is not  an independent outside view. What move does Setiya make that could uphold Blackburn’s belief as reliable? He makes an appeal to “human nature.” Setiya says “how human beings by nature live is not the measure of how they should.” He uses the term “life form” for “human nature” and thinks, according to Blackburn, “in a proper environment, free from neglect or hunger or abuse” their true life form will emerge “and then they naturally gravitate towards the moral truth.” This implies an objective moral truth out there (or in us) waiting for the proper environment.

Blackburn seems to contradict himself by saying this view is not meant to be “universally true” but more like natural history statements such as “dogs bark” or “finches lay eggs in the spring” which certainly seem to be, in the proper environment, “universally true.”  Blackburn says: “So, the idea is that as a species, in the kind of circumstance in which we naturally live, we tend to believe what is morally and ethically true.”  But this is just asserting the conclusion.  There is no argument here. The Taliban could say “Fine, where we naturally live women should not have equal educational opportunities as they have different roles to play in society and this is morally and ethically true.”  Blackburn’s belief is not upheld. But, I think the Taliban would reject the relativism implied here and think their attitude toward education is universally true.

Blackburn sees problems with Setiya’s position. When we look at history and other societies we see all sorts of, to us, strange and wicked goings on. Bertrand Russell put it this way: “When we study in the works of anthropologists the moral precepts  which men have considered binding in different times and places we find the most bewildering variety” [Styles in Ethics, 1924].

Blackburn says this leads to “a contemporary form of moral skepticism, which argues that a capacity for ethical truth would have given no selective advantage to anybody, so that it would be a miracle if it came to predominate  as a trait of our species.” But this is nonsense as it assumes that the skeptic knows what ethical truth is and that nobody ever got a selective advantage from this knowledge — neither of which the skeptic is in a reliable position to claim to know.

Setiya seeks to avoid moral skepticism, according to Blackburn, by adopting a position he calls NATURAL CONSTRUCTIVISM and defines as follows: “for a trait to be a virtue is for creatures of one’s life form to believe that it is a virtue.” This will not do at all. The Taliban, creature’s of our life form, believe  it to be a virtue to deny equal educational opportunities to females (they may even feel it a virtue to throw acid in young girl’s faces or shoot them for going to school) but really, should we think it is a virtue just because they have these beliefs. Mind you, Setiya wants to avoid both skepticism and RELATIVISM.

Well, we don’t think it a virtue because our values differ from those of the Taliban and we share the same life form (we are the same species with the same nature). But this begs the question. Blackburn has accepted female education due to the operant conditions of his culture and the Taliban reject it due to theirs. How do we escape relativism?

Setiya seems to be aware that you can’t just define virtue the way he has done but he does so because he has “a certain faith in human nature.” This implies the Taliban are wrong because they don’t live the way our species (life form) is naturally programmed to live so, unlike us, they have not arrived at the proper ethical and moral conclusions. If you didn’t already agree with the conclusion, you would never accept this argument– if argument it be rather than just assertion.

Setiya warns us, says Blackburn, that his argument is the only way to defend moral knowledge or to have justified moral beliefs. It is “natural constructivism” based on reason and a universal human nature or, as Blackwell puts it, we may end up with “a soggy relativism” with one “truth” for the Taliban and another for those of us sharing Blackburn’s operant conditioning.

Blackburn doesn’t like this outcome, it “seems intolerable.” He wants some justification for female educational equality, and it seems, for also thinking ill of the Taliban. If Setiya’s moral realism won’t work (i.e., no objective rules) he recommends a form of moral pragmatism. Blackburn’s morals are more suited to our culture and useful and we (readers of the TLS and members of the culture that produced it) would shudder to live under the Taliban system– so we definitely are going to favor female educational equality and, in fact, maintain it is the morally right thing.

Blackburn is modest, though, and admits there is a slight possibility he is wrong about this — but this is only a theoretical possibility.  He even admits he doesn’t have “the dialectical weaponry with which to topple the Taliban” and that he remains under the morality that the operant conditioning of his culture has created. He has hopes that the Taliban will change because their culture is “not hermetically sealed from ours” (the expected change appears to be one way), there will be “dissident voices”  and “stirrings of modernity” and half the population “has the burning desire to change.” Cultural conditioning doesn’t seem to take place among Taliban females. Can it be possible that Pashtun women are completely alienated from their men folk and none of them accept the traditional culture of their people?

Blackburn tells us the difference between realism ad pragmatism is that realism is interested in metaphysical problems regarding the nature of the “truths” of morality and seeks reliable claims as to this nature, while pragmatism does not believe this to be possible and there is no “foundation outside our ethics for our ethics to stand on.”

What would a Marxist position be on these issues. I would propose a synthesis of ethical realism (there are objective ethical principals that should be followed if you want to create a particular type of society just as there are mathematical and physical laws you must follow if you want to fly to the Moon) and these laws also have a pragmatic dimension. Marxists do not believe in abstract metaphysical entities not rooted in the material world. They do not look for universal ethical principles applicable to all times and places.

The main motivating force of Marxism is to empower the working class, abolish capitalist exploitation of working people by the appropriation of the surplus value they create, and establish socialism and a world without one class or group of humans living off the exploitation of another. So there is a foundation to our ethics outside of our ethics which it can stand on. Whatever actions objectively further the interests of working people, which are determined by an objective scientific analysis of the social, political and economic forces in a given society, are morally and ethically correct. This is a materialist ethics based on forces objectively at work in a given historical period and has nothing to do with an idea such as “to be a virtue it is only necessary for members of your life form to believe it is a virtue” or a virtue is what readers of the TLS would think useful.

The class struggle is an objective fact of life and the sociological and economic laws that produce it are independent of the subjective desires or will of the people involved. Understanding these laws, such as the law of value, is possible and actions can be initiated in the real world to overcome this struggle and end it and the ethics and morals involved in this struggle rest on an objective materialist foundation independent of the human subject. This view point I think is much more realistic than that of either Setiya or Blackburn.

Thomas Riggins is currently the associate editor of Political Affairs online. Read other articles by Thomas.