Choas/marx -Reply

Justin Schwartz jschwart at
Mon Apr 3 23:19:32 MDT 1995

On Mon, 3 Apr 1995, Lisa Rogers wrote:

> >>> Justin Schwartz <jschwart at>  3/31/95,
> 08:47pm >>>
> I'm a little confused by the discussion of progress and historical
> directionality. The remarks by Paul and Ron appended below address
> whether progress is a good thing. This seems an odd question. Isn't
> progress by definition change for the better? .... There is no
> guarantee that any given group will have the power to oppose its own
> domination successfully, ...
> This is part of the argument of a couple of long papers I have
> written arguing for objectivity about justice on a naturalistic
> basis. ...
> Comments welcome.
> --Justin Schwartz
> I'm willing to define progress as change for the better, but then I
> would ask "better for whom?" (which may be just another way to phrase
> some of Paul's and Ron's remarks.)

As I've been saying myself. But if we are to avoid a relativism which
leaves us unable to say that a change is progressive or regressive period,
we need some way to critique the other side in non-question-begging terms,
terms they should accept given their own premises, even if they won'ta
ccept them in fact.

> As for the "no guarantee" of emancipation, I agree entirely!  In
> fact, it seems to me that inequalities of power have some tendency to
> increase, because the powerless may have the least ability to resist,
> and the powerful are in the best position to further increase their
> power.  Of course, this is not guaranteed either.
The tendency you menbtion exists. But power is based on consent ot
acquiesence--brute force cannot keep a group in power over the long term.
And this means that the harm of domination exercises continual pressure
against the maintenance of that consent and so of the power of the
dominant group. Effective resistance does depend on group capacities. That
is why (I would speculate) class based resistance has been more frequent
and more effective in history than, say gender based resistance. Women as
a group lack the capacity based in common situations and social location
to resist effectively, or they have until recently.

> Naturalistic basis for justice?  Rather than the long papers, would
> you mind giving up a couple of paragraphs just to explain to us
> new-comers what you mean by that?

Well, why naturalistic? The opposite approach, call itr an ideal justice
approach, assumes that we have some sort of access to a transcendental
moral truth which holds for all people apart from their actual
interests, capacities, and situation. Thus some people talk of "natural
rights" or of justice based on the agreement of people in a hypothetical
situation without coercion or of maximization of everyone's good or
welfare. The problem is that these justices cannot motivate people as they
actually are. If some group's interest would be harmed by the demand of an
ideal justice that it must sacrifice its  basic well=being, it will reject
that justice and formulate a new one on which its interests are just. That
does not mean that compromise is impossible. On the contrary, compromise
is necessary for social cooperation, even between masters and slaves. But
compromise is limited by group interest. The bite of this comes if we
grant that a justice which cannot motivate us cannot morally bind us,
since we cannoy be held responsible for doing what we cannot, in some
sense, do. Ideal justices are therefore idle. Justice must be
naturalistic, taking people with their interests and situations as we find

This obviously poses an immediate problem about relativism. Justice
threatens to go rekative to group interests. The dominant groups will
defend and (with luck) the subordinate groups oppose domination, but each
will be right from its own perspective. Slavery therefore is OK--for
slaveowners. Now this is hard to swallow. So, we should seek a
non-question-begging basis for condemning slavery (domination generally)
that applies to slaveowners and does not go transcendental or ideal.

My thought, which prompted my reflections on progress, is that everyone
will accept that justice has to be stable. If it can't be realized, it's
no good for the same reason ideal justice fails. ("Ought implies can," in
philosophical jargon.) But if domination will be resisted and destabilized
in the long term, if history tends to progress towards emancipation, then
dominant groups cannot claim that their justices are adequate in this
sense. If emancipation from domination is stable, and it will be because
it elimates the harm that domination causes, then even dominant groups
have a reason in their own terms to prefer emancipation. They will not act
on this or believe it, but history, the struggle against domination,
refutes them practically. That's the idea in a nutshell. I have two long
and one short papers out seeking publication expounding various parts of
this picture.

--Justin Schwartz

     --- from list marxism at ---


More information about the Marxism mailing list