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Letters

Morality

Dear Editors,
In your response to J. Gleason (Socialist Standard January) you claim “our case against capitalism is not a moral one – morals are constantly changing – but putting the socialist alternative to workers and it being up to them to do something about it”. I believe this to be serious misconception; our case against capitalism is both a moral and an economic one.

What is morality? It is a set of precepts which give rise to rules about how individuals in a community ought to behave and, as such, reflect the underlying values of that community (which are internalised by its members). No human society can exist without some kind of moral code which is the inevitable expression of the values people hold. Social change involves inter alia the supplanting of some values by others and, hence, a change in the dominant moral code of society itself.

Socialism will have a moral code like every social system in history. However, the point you are making is that the case for establishing socialism (or abolishing capitalism) is not in itself a moral one. But you cannot separate the ends and the means. Wanting socialism is, in part, a moral statement because socialism is itself a moral construction. We are saying “this is how society ought to be” and “this is how people ought to behave”, and that is what makes our case for socialism a moral one.

Consider the implications of what you are saying if this were not so. If you argued that the case against capitalism was not a moral one how would you respond to the fact that, for example, millions of people go hungry while food is deliberately destroyed to keep up prices? If you yourself went to bed every night on a full stomach what grounds would you have for complaining? You regard such a fact as an intolerable obscenity – precisely because you empathise with those who are the victims, because it is an affront to your sense of justice. You are, in short, morally outraged by the kind of society that can allow this to happen and that is what prompts one to become a socialist in the end – not just by working out what is in one's “material interests”.

Certainly, socialism would be in the material interests of the vast majority but to suggest that it is this alone is ironically to give succour to a narrow, selfish and atomistic bourgeois view of the world. After all, if morality is essentially the expression of our human solidarity, of our recognition of the needs of others then, if you took way this moral dimension from the case for socialism, all you would effectively be left with is the rational ego calculating what is in the interest of this ego alone. You might just as well become a businessperson, grab all you can while the going is good and be done with socialism!

One final thing. The fact that morals are “constantly changing” is no reason to suppose that morality can just be ignored. What is significant is not that morality is subject to change but that individuals should constantly feel the need to appeal to others on moral grounds, however variable these may be, in order to persuade them to their point of view. Socialists are no exception.

We, too, are human beings and, ipso facto, moral creatures – even if some of us like to pretend otherwise. To talk of morality—and, hence, the values that underpin it - is discomforting to those who delude themselves into thinking their analysis of society is totally “objective” and “value-free”. Such is the pervasive hold, even today, of the nineteenth century's love affair with science as the answer to all our problems.

Moral concerns and economic concerns are not separate but inextricably intertwined. Bourgeois economics, with its quasi-religious belief in the benevolence of the markets' “invisible hand” is what has sought to expel morality from the economic domain, thereby clothing it in the guise of religious “moralising”. It is this that you mistake for morality when you reject the latter. Such moralising does indeed smack of a kind of insidious hypocrisy; its claims to moral rectitude are constantly vitiated by the underlying conflict of interests endemic to capitalism

But take away that conflict of interests, give people a reason to recognise and acknowledge that we all depend upon each other and that our interests are convergent rather than divergent, then you will have the material basis for a truly moral economy in the proper sense of the term – socialism.
ROBIN COX (by email)