Morality and ethics: a provocative post

Justin Schwartz jschwart at
Tue Jun 6 20:53:14 MDT 1995

>From the following it is evident that Jerry is an ethical relativist. Now
the question is, why? What's your reason for this position?

1. The fact that different acts or policies may be indicated in different
circumstances is no grounds for relativism--any moral positioon with a
hope of success will allow that, e.g., violence may be permissible in some
cases and not in others.

2. The mere fact that different groups differ on which ethical principles
are correct doesn't show they're both right from their own point of view.
Mere disagreement doesn't imply relativism.

3. Jerry is pretty strong on upholding what he takes to be the worker's
perspective. Why? What's so great about that perspective? Could it be that
he thinks it's the correct one? Or is it just the one he likes?

4. Will Jerry allow that exploitation, racism, oppression, etc. are OK for
the ruling class, at least from their point of view?

I don't want to be glib. I think there is a deep and hard problem about
relativism. We've been through my views on this from the angle of the
probability of historical progress, but I'm happy to go around again.
However, I think that relativism is a pretty unattractive position--not
just wrong, but unpalatable.

--Justin Schwartz

On Tue, 6 Jun 1995 glevy at wrote:

> On Tue, 6 Jun 1995, Justin Schwartz wrote:
> > Does Jerry mean, in referring to what is moral in capitalism, to endorse
> > relativism in ethics?
> >
> I'm not sure I understand this question.  Does it ask if I endorse a
> set of ethical and moral values that are viewed as "universal" and
> "absolute"?  If that is the meaning of your question, then I'd have to
> say that I am indeed a ethical relativist.
> I don't accept any ethical belief as "universal" or "absolute."  For
> instance, I don't oppose capital punishment because I view it as morally
> repugnant, but rather because, in the context of capitalism, it is used
> in a discriminatory way by the state.  A practical class-based objection
> rather than an ethical principle.  In other contexts, I might support
> capital punishment.  For instance, I would say that from a proletarian
> perspective the killing of the Czar (and the Czar's family!) was a
> practical necessity.
> What about gun control?  I'd say that question depends on who has the
> guns, how they are being used, and who is planning to take them away and
> for what reasons.  So, I don't support gun control because of a ethical
> belief.
> To shock list members even more I'd have to say that I am not absolutely
> opposed to ... murder ... theft (redistribution; expropriation) ...
> violence (a force which can be used, under certain circumstances, for
> progressive purposes) ... lying (something that can be used to great
> advantage for workers) ... or even coveting my neighbor's wife.  Those
> who are universally opposed to these actions tend towards idealism (in
> the Hegelian sense) or religion  (with religious codes of absolute moral
> and ethical values), or both.
> Of course, I do have ethical values.  For instance, I am opposed to any
> form of state or corporate-sponsored racial, sexual, religious or national
> persecution or discrimination.  I am opposed to murder, theft, lying, and
> violence BY THE RULING CLASS.  If these tools can be used by workers to
> advance their class interests against capitalists, then my main concern is
> practical rather than ethical.  Will they get caught?  What will be the
> consequences for workers of any particular action?
> I read most of the works you suggested, but believe that Trotsky's is the
> most on the mark.  The title of the book is suggestive:  THEIR
> (capitalist; ruling class) morals or OURS (proletarian).  Of course, I am
> very well aware of how proletarian morality can be confused with PARTY
> morality -- but that is another question.
> I would have to say that any absolute or universal morality or ethical
> values are an impediment for revolutionary proletarian actions and
> "justice."  Call me "ruthless" if you will (Lenin, for instance, was
> quite proud of his ruthlessness when applied to his class enemies).  I
> would say that I have TWO sets of moral and ethical values  -- one set
> for my class (and I'll admit, family and friends), and another set for my
> class enemies.
> Now if this post doesn't bring some responses, then nothing will.
> Jerry

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