Morality is not, as High Court Judges and Humanists would have us believe, a firm base of fixed, immutable rules of behaviour, by which all decent men should lead their lives. Rather it is a quicksand of changing shape, colour and size. Yesterday’s moral precept becomes today’s flouted rule, and yesterday’s music-hall joke can become today’s unwritten law. To look upon moral and ethical rules as constants is to ignore social change, which itself changes the content, and sometimes the form, of these rules.
The doctrine ” Thou shalt not kill,” for instance, is not an eternal ideal thought up by some good holy man. It is the application of a common sense rule of behaviour made necessary by man’s very social existence. Even then it is a rule which is subject to numerous qualifications, and in time of war it is almost wholly ignored. Even so, it is an ethic which arises from man’s collaboration for social production, and in the absence of this and similar rules, social organisation would be impossible.
To understand why morality and ethics change, we must look at the social organisation which forms their background. For instance, in primitive societies where simple agriculture forms the basis of production and where there is no competition with other tribes for the means of subsistence, one is likely to find that murder and the slaughter of war are almost unknown. On the other hand, in hunting communities where there was population pressure on the hunting grounds available, it was usual to find warlike tendencies in evidence, and also to find that the ability to kill members of rival tribes was a highly respected attribute.
Morality then, is no more than a set of rules, established during the course of time and designed to protect and preserve the productive relationships in operation at any one period. Under capitalism, with its class ownership of the productive forces, one finds a corresponding class morality, with its sacred Ark, private property.
Christians will object that the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount provide ethics that are timeless, and which existed long before capitalism. The fact is, however, that these Christian principles do not represent the current moral standards, and as Bernard Shaw pointed out, the literal following of such principles would lead to the collapse of capitalism. What use does a competitive society have for the injunction “Love thy neighbour”? The practical ethics of capitalism are” get on,” “keep up with the Joneses” or “may the best man win.” Where would capitalism be if people followed Jesus’s injunction to share their worldly goods? In actual fact, of course, such ethics have no practical application in modem society at all, and have no chance of becoming generally held in a property society.
Modern society, with its morality, prevents human nature from fulfillment, in the sense that it chains the mind and body with economic and mental fetters. The practical ethics of the modem world are the real fetters, and not the professed morality of the Christian or the traditional ” good man.”
Take a look at the way in which these practical ethics depart from the so-called fixed moral codes. The prohibition against taking life, as already mentioned, is important in the prevention of civil disobedience and the maintenance of capitalist law and order, but does not extend far enough to prevent the execution of certain classes of murderers, or the slaughter of the troops and civilians of an enemy state. “Thou shalt not steal ” is perhaps the most important of the ideal ethics and the one with which the powers of the law are most concerned. The meaning of this one is distorted so as to prevent people taking property from the ruling class (who have the only property worth stealing), but on the other hand, allows the exploitation in the factory and office by which the ruling class acquires its property. It also sanctioned the annexation of land and property from the Colonial native populations. by which the great Christian British Empire was created.
If, then, the form and content of morality is twisted and distorted to fit the social pattern of a particular society, why should its form remain at all? To answer this, one has to look into the basis and origin of morality itself.
Morality is as old as human social organisation. Its origin is in co-operation. The members of a tribe who depended upon each other for their survival, obeyed the social injunction to defend the tribe and to perform their social tasks. The imperative “protect your kin” arose out of the necessity of the situation, and certainly not from idealism or abstract thought. In a situation such as this. members of a tribe recognised their dependence on each other. Thus to perform one’s social tasks promptly and efficiently had merit, and to fail to perform them was bad, because it threatened the tribe. In time, injunctions such as these formed the basis of an organised morality.
So society passed from primitive tribal culture with its primitive ethics, through the Judaic tribes and the elaborate rules and doctrines of the Talmud, down to Christianity with its slave ethics of humility and love of one’s neighbour. Then, after 1500 years of Christianity, industrial society appeared, and made nonsense of Christian doctrine. Society became a jungle, where the fiercest survived and the weaker perished. Thus terms like ” blessed are the meek” were mocked by the reality of the situation. Efforts of well-meaning people to stem the tide were akin to the traveller who tries to placate a tiger by reading biblical texts to it. However, the Churches themselves didn’t try too hard to alter the pattern of capitalism, for they were practical people, and they knew that to compromise was the only way to survive.
The Catholic Church, for example, which was the original Christian church, has a mass of impressive dogma which urges the holy to be good, kind, peaceable and so on. Nevertheless, the Church itself was not so foolish as to take these injunctions too literally, and followed the same practical morality as the world outside. This is the explanation of the apparent contradictions between Christian teaching and the Inquisition, and between the ten commandments and the “holy” wars.
Basically, it is the division of mankind in to classes which today creates the split between the kind of morality which most people would consider desirable, and the day-to-day activities of a competitive world. After all, morality is only the form of expected behaviour within the framework of a particular social system. Therefore, morality has relevance only to the practical possibilities of a social situation, and not to ideals. Where the possibilities are, as today, limited by economic circumstances, it is inevitable that morality also becomes limited and one-sided.
In other words, because there is a ruling class, today’s morality is of a kind dictated by, and in favour of, that ruling class. This does not mean that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. It merely means that today’s morality favours the privileged, and is designed to preserve that privilege. Some examples of this one-sided morality have been given. Another example is that of the tax-dodgers, bilkers, people who avoid paying their fare and so on. This is something that government spokesmen say is undesirable, and yet is, to a considerable extent, regarded as fair game. The man who pays five pence for a sevenpenny fare feels be is gaining a victory at the expense of a vast impersonal organisation, but his gain is hardly worth the trouble involved. On the other hand, practically all business-men conduct a ceaseless war with the Inspector of Taxes, in order to avoid payment of tax, and a vast complicated machinery of Inspectors, Collectors, Commissioners, Accountants, clerks and so on, exists because of this. As everyone else does this, the business-man does not feel that he is doing anything immoral, although it is impossible to reconcile his behaviour with those moral principles that be probably believes in.
Thus, although mankind is neither “naturally” good or evil, the prevailing social circumstances determine to a large extent the way in which they will conduct their lives. It is because man is organised in a social way and because his survival depends on co-operation with others, that most people recognise perfectly well what is the right course in a particular situation and what is the wrong course. The trouble is that the practical circumstances of modem society make it almost impossible for people to behave in away that is to the common good.
In other words, a truly human morality cannot exist in a world where people’s bodies and minds are imprisoned by the amoral “morality” of a sick society. Neither can the social circumstances be made more favourable by trying to convert people to a selfless and more human morality, for this is like trying to uproot a tree while resting in the top branches.
First, man must free himself from economic domination. Then, and only then, will he be able to take the tremendous strides in morality necessary for him to achieve full stature as truly human man.