Two Topics in Marxist-Leninist-Maoist Ethics:
The Origin of Morality, and the
Morality of Revolutionary Violence
[This is a slightly edited version of a letter I sent to a correspondent who inquired if two further portions of my manuscript in progress on MLM ethics were available yet, regarding:
1) The origin of morality, and
2) The justification of revolution and revolutionary violence.
While the more-or-less completed portion of my manuscript does not yet cover these issues, this letter was meant to serve as a rough summary of some of the main points that I hope to eventually include in those sections. —S.H.]
Subject: Re: The M-L-M Class Interest Theory of Ethics
Date: Wednesday, December 17, 2008 3:31:29 PM
Thanks for your comments about my website! But, alas, as much as I have finished and posted, there is so much more that I haven’t yet finished.
In particular, most of the parts of my ethics book in progress which are not posted are either just a jumble of notes and disjointed paragraphs, or else sections which are not even started at all.
Chapter 3, in particular, which is on the origin of morality and its nature and development before the advent of social classes, is still in a great state of disarray. Mostly this is due to just my own lack of industriousness. But partly it is also because there has been a lot of very relevant developments in both neurophysiology and in cultural and physical anthropology since I first started writing this book way back in the 1970s. I am struggling to catch up with all the relevant developments since then!
I don’t think these recent developments change the basic picture, however. In brief my argument is that human beings, and even our hominid ancestors, were social animals that needed strong social cooperation in order to survive at all. This led early on to a culture of cooperation similar to (but eventually much more sophisticated than) that which is found in other social animals, such as wolves which live and hunt cooperatively in packs. (Another example of animal social cooperation is found in herd animals like muskoxen, who cooperate as a defense against wolves and other predators by forming a ring with the bulls on the outside edge and the young animals safely inside the ring.)
But with the evolutionary development of modern human beings (Homo sapiens) capable of genuine language and conceptualization, things took another great leap. Now there was the possibility of creating and using ideology to reinforce this necessary social cooperation. This is the most essential point about the development of morality. In other words, morality arose to reinforce the cooperative social existence that our remote ancestors had long before already developed, but which can always benefit from further reinforcement. (There is always the tension between individual interests and collective interests.)
So I am arguing that pretty much as soon as the development of our ancestor’s brains reached the point where language and concepts such as sharing vs. selfishness were possible, the ideology also arose of collective morality for the group (or tribe) of people sharing an existence which depended on cooperation. This is the beginning of morality, properly so called.
Later yet, however, a further very fascinating development occurred. Our brain/mind evolution did not stop. Instead an agency of the mind (what we call the “conscience”) was developed which allowed the physical internalization of key aspects of ideology, and morality specifically.
The location in the brain of the seat of the conscience is the prefrontal cortex. If this area of the brain is damaged, a person loses their conscience. One famous example of this is the nineteenth century railroad builder Phineas Gage who had an accident while tamping down dynamite in a drill hole with a huge metal rod. A spark set off the dynamite and rod was propelled up through Gage’s head, from under his chin and out through his forehead. This destroyed part of his prefrontal cortex, but somehow Gage survived and recovered. Except that he was from then on “a different man” who no longer much cared about other people.
There is some evidence (such as of the behavior of human babies) which suggests that tendencies toward empathy and cooperation are built into us even at birth, though this is still somewhat controversial. People such as the animal behaviorist Marc Hauser have been strongly arguing for this view. My own tentative opinion is that there is probably some truth to this theory, but that it is being grossly exaggerated by those inclined toward genetic or other forms of biological determinism. (This is a powerful trend in contemporary bourgeois academia.) I accept that there are these biological predispositions built into us, but I also want to emphasize that all such predispositions can be overridden and changed, and that such limited, initial “hardwired” morality by no means fully explicates what morality is.
The conscience is possibly only one of several agencies of the brain which relates to morality, but it is a key one. The fascinating thing about the conscience is that it is not hardwired for all time. Instead it is programmable. It is initially programmed for us by our parents and/or those who bring us up when we are very young children. The conscience associates emotional attitudes with specific actions, or even with the idea that we might form about carrying out a specific action. Thus the very thought of poking a playmate’s eye out with a stick soon becomes utterly emotionally repulsive to (most of) us.
But not only is the conscience programmed for us when we are young, it can also be reprogrammed later on (though it is more difficult to do so). We can even reprogram our own consciences. Thus when we are young we may be programmed to believe that lying is always wrong. But as we grow older we first intellectually learn that lying is sometimes necessary and even justified. At first this leads to a conflict within us, between our emotional repulsion against lying (regardless of the situation) that is in our conscience and our intellect which now knows better. But over time our conscience gets adjusted in the direction of what we strongly believe intellectually.
This explains why most adults (other than idiots like Kant!) have no pangs of conscience about necessary lies, and also why capitalist-imperialists have no pangs of conscience about ordering their airplanes to drop napalm on Vietnamese peasants. Their bourgeois ideology has turned them into immoral monsters.
However, understanding that consciences can be reprogrammed also explains how very bad people can sometimes become very good people! And it is part of the counter-argument that we Marxists have against those who argue for the permanence of capitalism because of “human nature”. (There is such a thing as human nature, but it is capable of being quite different in different societies. Even in modern bourgeois society there are very few people with the “human nature” of Attila the Hun and his buddies!)
In addition to issues like this, Chapter 3 discusses (or will discuss!) morality in primitive communal society, before social classes first arose with the advent of agriculture and settled life somewhere around 10,000 years ago.
Examples of such primitive communal society (and of course it is the society that is primitive, not the biology of the people in those societies) are either totally extinct or almost so. But they still existed in certain areas even 40 or 50 years ago. One well-studied primitive communal society was that of the !Kung San people of southern Africa. (The “!” at the start of their name stands for a clicking phoneme in their language.) I’ll be describing the extremely strong cooperative and sharing impulses of the !Kung San and other people living in primitive communal society.
* * *
The other area of ethics where you expressed a special interest was with respect to the moral justification of proletarian revolution and revolutionary violence. Again the essence of the situation here is actually quite simple; it is the detailed explication of everything there is to say about it that I have not yet pulled together.
The basic argument is that:
1) The essence of morality is satisfying the common, collective interests of the people as a whole.
2) However, in class society, most of those common, collective interests as a whole no longer exist. Instead we have very different collective interests of different classes (such as the interests of the slaveowners as compared to the very different interests of the slaves; or the very different interests of the capitalist exploiters as compared to those of the workers they exploit and oppress at home and abroad).
3) Thus there are different moral systems and views for different classes in class society, based on their different collective interests.
4) Some of the most central interests of the working class are in getting rid of their own exploitation by the capitalists, and the vicious, rotten, war-prone and economic-crisis-prone capitalist system that cannot even meet the daily needs of most of the people of the world.
5) However, the working class cannot just overthrow the capitalists and take over the same system. If they did so, then some of them (perhaps the leaders of their major party) would become new capitalists, and nothing would really be changed in the long run.
6) Thus it really is necessary to get rid of the capitalist system once and for all. This becomes the most essential point of both proletarian politics and morality.
7) Proletarian morality is better than other class moralities because it strives for a world in which there are no classes or class-exploitation at all. This is ultimately in the interests of all the people of the world, at least for the future—even the descendants of present-day capitalists. (There is a lot more to this specific argument.)
8) But it is a simple fact that the capitalists have a very tight control over society in the world today. They have very strong police and military forces, and they have enormous and elaborate agencies of ideological indoctrination and control. So it will take a prolonged and desperate struggle to get rid of them and their system.
9) Worse yet, in virtually all cases, the present capitalist ruling classes of the world will not leave the stage voluntarily, not even if the great majority of the people demand that they do (as eventually develops in every country). Long experience has taught us that only revolutionary violence will serve to overthrow them, and it is totally foolish to think otherwise.
10) Since satisfying the interests of the workers and the masses demands the overthrow of the capitalist class and their system, and since this can only be done through revolutionary violence on the part of the great majority of the people, that revolutionary violence is itself justified by—and even demanded by—proletarian morality.
11) In advanced capitalist countries (and even many “Third World” ones) the rational revolutionary strategy is basically one of insurrection followed by civil war. The vast majority of the people must be brought to understand this and agree with it before it is rationally possible. And at that time it will be morally correct.
12) At this point in the argument the side issue of “moral absolutes”, such as Kantian notions that killing is “always” wrong have to be specifically addressed. (Anybody with any sense should know that killing is not always wrong; it is not wrong to kill someone in self-defense, for example. But it is amazing how confused people can get because of bourgeois moral obfuscation.)
13) Lenin said that anything that serves to overthrow capitalism and transform society to communism, is morally right as far as the revolutionary proletariat is concerned. This is actually quite true, but with one important proviso: There must not be any preferable course of action that achieves the same morally appropriate and necessary end. This is a specific instance of resolving the notorious ends-versus-means puzzle that bothers so many people. Actually only the ends can justify the means, but even then only if there is not any morally preferable means.
14) Violent revolution is morally justified (and even morally demanded) because:
a) It will allow the world to get to a very important moral result, a world without classes and exploitation, and
b) There is (in almost all situations) no better alternative means available.
15) However, even though violent revolution is necessary and justified, it is not justified to attempt it in any irrational way. Random acts of individual violence by old-style anarchists, for example, of the sort that the Narodniks in Russia committed, are not justified. In fact, they were counter-productive, and therefore wrong, as Lenin said. (I.e., they were wrong primarily because they retarded, rather than advanced, the interests of the working class and the masses, and because there was a better means available—mass insurrection at the appropriate time.)
16) There are some things which might conceivably in some situations promote a few of our subsidiary goals in the short run, but which are almost guaranteed to be counterproductive in the long run with regard to our central revolutionary goal of overthrowing capitalism and achieving communism. This includes things like torture, use of weapons of mass destruction, and genocide. Thus despite our general refusal to accept Kantian absolutes, as a practical matter we should have a general prohibition against a few things like these. (This argument for these few “absolutes” is actually not a Kantian one, but is based on both the short-term and long-term interests of the masses of the people, and the fact that using counter-productive methods towards a good end is itself wrong.)
17) The issue of “terrorism” is different, however. Basically, one class’s “terrorism” is often another class’s “justified violence”. The U.S. dropping bombs on Vietnam, Iraq, and other countries is not considered terrorism by the imperialists, though of course it actually does cause tremendous terror. Similarly, in the course of an insurrection it will probably be necessary to attempt to instill some degree of terror in the imperialist enemy and their lackeys.
* * *
I’m sorry I don’t have the additional parts of my ethics manuscript that you are interested in ready for posting, but I hope that some of the above comments at least give you the flavor of what will be in them when they are finally ready.
I am glad to find others who have a serious interest in MLM ethics! (There seem to be just a few of us, alas!) If you have some more specific issues or questions that you would like to get into, by all means let me know! I’m sure that further discussion can only spur my own efforts!
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