Final response to Miller
Robert Peter Burns
rburns at chaph.usc.edu
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
from is: Rodney G. Peffer, MARXISM, MORALITY, AND SOCIAL JUSTICE,
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 scf.usc.edu
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