Final response to Miller

Robert Peter Burns rburns at
Tue Nov 14 09:56:22 MST 1995

 I very much appreciate the calm tone accompanying
 Jim's thoughtful remarks about motivation under
 the heading of his last post, "Religion".  Obviously
 there are points of basic disagreement between us,
 and while it would be possible to go on at great
 length debating these, I'll make this my last
 contribution on the subject for now. 
 But I think one issue that needs to be looked at by
 marxists with some care is what, for one want of
 a better term, I'll call "the moral dimension" of
 human action.  It does seem to me that people can 
 and do have moral motives, motives, that is, that 
 are derived directly from moral considerations.
 Many people refrain from killing or harming people
 out of respect for these considerations.  Many people
 are concerned with social justice, etc. precisely
 as a moral category.  I think it would be unwise for
 marxists to think of moral motives simply as preferences
 derived from biology, culture, and class struggle since I 
 think that that way lies the road to a relativism that marxists
 should not be comfortable with.  It is very important to
 distinguish the use of class analysis to *explain* the genesis
 of moral beliefs and motives, from the further question of
 whether those beliefs and motives are normatively *justified*.
 Killing and torturing trade unionists in Guatemala may be 
 explained in terms of the ruling class's self-interest, but
 we don't want to say it's justified, do we?  Nor, I think, should 
 we say that the question of justification doesn't apply, or
 that justification is simply relative to class, despite the
 tendency of some <not all> marxists to say this sort of thing.  
 Saying either of these things robs us of any real grounds for 
 condemning the Guatemalan ruling class's actions.  We may believe
 that the Guatemalan workers and peasants have an interest in
 overthrowing the ruling class tyranny.  But we also believe that
 it would be good if they did so, and saying it would be good
 and justified cannot IMO be reduced to saying it would be in 
 their interest.  Now one might take the utilitarian line, and
 say that "good" and "right" are simply terms referring to what's in
 the interests of a majority of humanity, and since the workers 
 and peasants are the majority, their rule is justified, while 
 the oligarchy's rule is unjustified.  I don't think this will do, 
 because it might well be in the interests of humanity to enslave a 
 significant minority <remember this discussion started with abolitionism>. 
 But marxists are against *all* oppression and exploitation, are they
 not?  Why are they in favor of a classless society after the revolution,
 rather than one in which the capitalists are turned into a slave-class
 for the benefit of the proletariat?  <I'll return briefly to the 
 question of morality below>.

 Now Jim, in describing the situation in revolutionary 
 Nicaragua, says that many people there thought
 about their actions in religious terms.  And indeed,
 I think there can be little doubt that people there often
 acted in ways that supported the revolution **because** they
 understood these ways of acting as *required* by the teaching
 of Christ and the Biblical prophets like Amos, etc.  To me,
 this just *means* that those *were* their motives.  Jim says that
 this is an erroneous, unscientific way of interpreting 
 their action and its motivation.  But it is quite possible that 
 *only* by describing what they were doing in these religious terms 
 *could* these people have actually been motivated to act as they did.  
 Citing Marx or Lenin could well have been **motivationally impotent** for
 many people in the Nicaraguan context.  This leads me to reiterate
 that the motives many people actually had and acted from were
 indeed religious, and ditto in the case of abolitionism.  What
 motives people actually **had and acted from** is a *different* question
 from whether their <*actual*, *real*> motives were based on false 
 or unscientific beliefs.  
 Now I have already debated this question on this
 list as far as *religious* beliefs are concerned, and so won't
 get into that here.  But is Jim also prepared to say that
 *moral* beliefs are also to be disqualified as false and unscientific,
 and that therefore people are not "really" motivated by moral
 beliefs?  This seems a more contentious claim, even for marxists.
 I believe that morality cannot be given a "scientific" reduction,
 because normative claims cannot be reduced to factual claims.
 Marxism is not and should not attempt to be a value-free science.
 But I do not believe that Marx himself was committed to thinking
 that it is, or that basic marxist values can be reduced to factual
 claims about what interests people happen to have.  I know this is 
 a very big topic, with a very big literature, and I know it's 
 controversial.  The place I would recommend Jim and others to start
 Princeton University Press, 1990, which argues *very* capably on the
 basis of Marx's texts for the view that Marx himself, though he rejected 
 the *word* "morality", was nevertheless very much committed to irreducibly 
 normative and moral evaluation and judgment, and that much of his, one 
 might say, *real* motivation was fundamentally moral in a way that 
 cannot be reduced to the categories of natural or social sciences.  
 <I should add that Peffer is a friend of mine, who very much considers 
 himself a Marxist, and as being faithful to Marx's true meaning and 
 intentions.>  I'd also like to ask Jim this question: what indeed
 *does* motivate *non*proletarian advocates of socialism, such as
 Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Che Guevara, etc, who by definition
 lack proletarian class interests?  Scientific belief, or
 substantive moral beliefs?  Is intellectual acceptance of a scientific 
 analysis of capitalism *sufficient to motivate* one to
 class struggle in practice, especially when it may cost one
 one's life <as with Che>?
 Peter Burns SJ
 rburns at

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