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Two Examples of Humanist Ethics
In the last chapter I argued that a particular view of ethics fits quite well with what social scientists actually do.
There is an awkwardness about the Weber’s approach to ethics (and Hume’s view of ethics) when they are applied to the social sciences. Social scientists keep getting tempted to break the rules that they seem to have agreed to follow. From a student’s point of view it must be very confusing to realize that social science has to appear to be “objective” and “neutral” while at the same time you are often being told that political commitment is a virtue in a social scientist. You are also being told that it is inevitable that social science will be influenced by “values” – yet these values are said to be arbitrary and socially constructed. They are not supposed to be based in any findings from social science itself.
On the other hand the kind of view that I have defended so far seems equally mysterious. That value statements can be statements of empirical fact. That social situations can be “good” or “bad” in fact. That all this can be tied to the archaic concept of “human nature”. That “human nature” and ethical facts are ever present in social science writing despite the denials.
What I want to do in this chapter is to actually present two different but related understandings of human nature and show how the authors base an ethics on these understandings. As you will see, the writings of Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher, and Marx, an acknowledged founder of social science, share some key ideas about how these matters can be addressed. But of course we cannot leave matters there. As much as we may like Marx’s writings, he has been dead now for some centuries and surely something new has been said about these topics.
Unfortunately we would look in vain for much on this from social science. The dominant paradigm of the social sciences has meant that it has been possible to believe that these are topics best handled by biologists, philosophers, theologists or psychologists! In fact a lot of the best social science writing on this topic has been largely in the negative. For example feminist scholars have argued that supposed innate gender differences (in other words, differences of human nature between the sexes) do not exist. They have attacked the arguments of biologists and psychologists that they do exist; whether by cross cultural analysis or by refuting the arguments and evidence presented. Similarly, social scientists opposing “sociobiological” defences of hierarchy have critiqued the view that social class is an inevitable outcome of our evolutionary history as apes; questioning the logic of the evolutionary argument and pointing to very obvious cross cultural evidence that “class” is socially constructed. All this negative argument has masked the daily claims about human nature and ethics which are made in the social sciences.
Marx and Aristotle share, with many other European writers, a view that “the good state”, or the utopian political condition and “the good”, or what is good for humans, can be defined in relation to human nature. In addition, Marx and Aristotle both divide human nature into two parts, which may be called “drives” and “capacities” respectively.
I am going to define “human nature” as that which is common to all people and is also central to their behaviour. This means that, given enough information and perseverance, one can explain the large bulk of people’s actions by looking at the way a combination of human nature and the environment have produced the behaviour. Human nature consists of what philosophers have called “powers”. A power is a causal property which tends to make something behave in a certain way. A power is always named or defined in terms of this tendency. For instance it is generally agreed that human beings have a drive to eat. Hunger, then, is a power that is part of human nature.
Given a particular view of human nature, certain powers in people are taken as basic and others seen as derivative.
For instance a view that sees a drive to violent aggressive behaviour as basic will expect to look around the world through ethnography and across time through history and find evidence of this propensity everywhere. It would be argued that this evidence suggests aggression as a basic drive of human nature. To further back up the argument, you would try to show that people are frustrated and stressed if they are not permitted to behave aggressively. You would not be surprised to find authoritarian institutions set up to repress aggression in any society where it is not an everyday occurrence.
But in another theory of human nature, it might be argued that the evidence is not so compelling and that aggression is better seen as a derivative aspect of human nature. It would be argued that people who do not act in a violent and aggressive way are reasonably common, and that societies differ quite markedly in the extent to which they encourage and culturally construct aggression and violence. It would be argued that there is no evidence of a supposed “aggressive” drive being repressed to produce amicable conduct. You would look for other explanations of violent aggression. You could say it is how people behave to get their own way when they are trying to meet other needs (for food, for social approval) or when society encourages aggression. In other words, aggression and aggressive personality types come about for particular contingent reasons and aggressive behaviour can be understood as something which is derived from more basic aspects of human nature.
In this second story you would have to agree that violent aggressive behaviour is a potential in humans; violent aggression is certainly something that we have available to us. In that sense, aggression is a part of the tool kit of what we have given to us in our nature as means to pursue our basic desires. Accordingly, you would see it as a derivative rather than a basic characteristic of human nature; as something brought into play to realize other, more fundamental, aims. It is these fundamental drives that would be considered to be the bedrock which ultimately explains conduct.
I partly present this discussion in order to indicate to the reader that the mere fact that some kind of behaviour is common to a number of societies does not necessarily make it “human nature” or “inevitable”. Human nature is theorised as a set of powers that can together explain behaviour but these powers are not just a summary of the behaviour we see around us. The ideal of such theories is to explain behaviour by postulating a number of basic factors of human nature and showing how a particular social situation has produced the behaviour we see – out of these powers.
In theories of human nature and ethics of the kind developed by Marx and Aristotle, what is good for people is defined in terms of its relation to human nature. A thing is “good” if it is aimed at by one of the basic and fundamental powers which compose human nature. Put another way, it is one of the things that satisfies the drives or exercises the capacities which compose human nature. So to be fed when you are hungry is good, because being hungry is part of human nature and it has eating as its aim. I am calling this general position “humanism” though what the actual contents of this ethics may be depends on what you think human nature is actually like.
As will be obvious to the reader, suppositions about the “innate violence” of human nature are one of the key reasons for many to reject a linking of human nature and ethics. In theory, within a humanist ethics, if it is true that a desire for violence is a basic and foundational drive of human nature, then the expression of this desire must be reckoned as at least part of the “good life”. This is not a completely strange idea and clearly some cultures have believed this. But it is certainly not one that most social scientists find attractive today.
A concern with these implications can lead people to believe that what is truly “the good” must be defined as something higher than our human nature. We need to define the good as some kind of moral system which can restrain the baser elements of human nature. This is a common view within religious teachings. Or another way to look at it is to say that the “good” is defined in a totally arbitrary process of social construction of values, different in every society. So some societies construct violence as a good, but thankfully our society has a different (and equally indefensible) view of morality. In the last chapter I suggested that this is what Flyvbjerg’s position comes down to, and it is a very common view in social sciences.
The humanist ethical position is immediately complicated by the fact that any event may be relevant to the satisfaction of more than one drive in a person – for example food may be consumed to satisfy hunger or to enjoy a social connection to another person. So how can we decide what is the best outcome when a number of aspects of human nature could be relevant to a situation? Moreover, if we are to say what is good for a group of people it is necessary to realize that what may be satisfactory for some people in the group may not be any good for others. In this framework, we can never say that certain events are good or bad full stop; things are only good or bad in relation to the members of a specified group. Some kind of rough calculation of benefits is required to decide what specific action would be best in a specific situation and for whom.
Views of human nature and ethics like this have been used to draw conclusions about what the best type of “state” or social organization would be. What is the most “utopian” kind of social organization for people to live in? This is a special case in the analysis of what is best in a specific situation. Given the earth as we know it, and people as they are according to human nature, how could the desires that compose human nature be best satisfied, for the greatest advantage of most people?
Marx and Aristotle write within this general framework of ideas about human nature, ethics and utopia. They share a further interesting idea about the way in which the powers composing human nature are divided up. Some powers of human nature are causally active in all people, regardless of culture or situation. Using an appropriate term from Freud we can call such powers of human nature “drives”. People are always hungry when they have not eaten for some time, they feel uncomfortable when cold and so on. If a drive is not active in producing action to satisfy it, we can explain this failure of the drive by talking about impediments to the action of the drive – it is suppressed by some countervailing force. For example we might argue that certain people are starving themselves to conform to some religious principle - then the religious principle is named as a countervailing force.
By contrast, other powers which make up human nature are only active in favourable social situations. They are nurtured by a society. When they are inactive one merely says that these desires and abilities have remained undeveloped. I shall call these powers “capacities”. Like drives, they are part of human nature because all humans share them. Actions produced by them need no further explanation in terms of other more basic elements of human nature. Aristotle thinks “rational thought” is a capacity. Not every person develops it; social circumstances must be favourable. Yet it is its own reward. It develops with practice and, once developed, becomes an active influence on a person’s behaviour. The activities associated with capacities are enjoyed for their own sake. So “capacities” in the sense I am using it here, are basic to human nature, rather than being tools to realize some other more basic desires. If the pleasure of music is a joy in itself, then it is not something that people develop merely to realize other more basic desires, for sex, social contact and the like.
How Aristotle defines human nature and discovers the “good”
In “The Nicomachean Ethics”, Aristotle is interested in discovering what “the good” is. He begins by saying that the good is a telos: it has “rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim” (Aristotle 1969:1). This being the case, it must be that the good for humans is a telos, something at which the human person is aimed. Aristotle gives various examples of things which aim at something and so have a telos. Another way of putting this is to say that these things have a function; the function of an object is to bring about that at which it aims. Aristotle gives the examples of a flute player, sculptor or any artist as things that have a function. The function or aim of the flute player is to play the flute. He also mentions parts of the body; the eye, hand and foot as things that have a function - the function of seeing and so on. Aristotle argues that “for all things that have a function or activity, the ‘good’ and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function” (Aristotle 1969, 13). The function of a knife is to cut so a good knife is one that cuts well. So, he goes on, if we can discover the function of people we will have discovered “the good” for humans.
The statements I have quoted above do not directly show us that Aristotle assumes that a telos can only be present if there is some causal power or tendency working toward that telos. In these examples of Aristotle’s the only thing mentioned is the telos (function) itself. However in other works of Aristotle the association between explanation by powers (things that push towards a telos) and teleological explanation is suggested. In “The Physics” Aristotle maintains that those things are natural “which by a continuous movement originate from an internal principle arrive at some completion; the same completion is not reached from every principle; nor any chance completion but always the tendency in each is towards the same end, if there is no impediment” (Aristotle 1941, 251). In other words, what he talks about here as an “internal principle” is what I am calling a “power”; it is something that pushes towards the “telos” or goal of the power – to complete itself. He says later that nature is a cause which operates for a purpose. Aristotle is claiming here that when natural things can be explained teleologically, they are caused by an internal power. So if we say that a flower opens to receive the bee, we must assume that there is an internal power in the flower that drives the flower to fertilisation. We make an analogy between these kinds of teleological explanations and the explanation of human actions in relation to purposes. Just as the intention to play the flute (an internal power) causes the flute player to act, so a power of perception in animals causes the eye to see. In seeking the function of the human being Aristotle is interested in discovering the aims of the powers which are basic to people’s activities.
Aristotle goes on to consider various possible functions of people:
Life seems to belong even to plants, but we are seeking what is peculiar to man. Let us exclude, therefore, the life of nutrition and growth. Next there would be a life of perception, but it also seems to be shared even by the horse, the ox and every animal. There remains then an active life of the element that has a rational principle. (Aristotle 1969: 13)
So, he concludes that the function of humans “is an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle” and human good is therefore “an activity or activities of the soul that are in accord with a rational principle” (Aristotle 1969: 13-14).
In this passage, Aristotle makes a distinction between different powers that are present in people. On the one hand there are those which people share with animals and on the other hand there are those unique to people. It is only the powers that are unique to people that are allowed to take a place in his definition of what is good for people. Why this should be so is not really explained by Aristotle and I will later argue that it does not make a lot of sense.
We can understand it if we look at where he wants to end up with this discussion. He is setting up the framework in which he will claim that men, and especially male citizens, are the only humans who truly embody that which is distinctively human. Therefore because it is only the distinctively human which is “the good” it makes sense, he argues, that rational male citizens are the ones who are uniquely fitted to control women, slaves and animals - all of whom are regarded as dominated by their animal needs. This is the only way, he says, in which we can be sure that the “good” will be pursued!
This focus on rationality as the singular power that defines human nature also fits Aristotle’s intention to discover the one good. If he allowed that the animal drives which are included in human nature should also be used to define “the good”, it would be clear that saying what is good in a particular situation would depend on weighing up different human (and animal) needs for the people involved. Because he excludes animal nature altogether he seems to end up with a much simpler calculation of the good - we just have to find out what is the most rational activity.
Despite this, other parts of the Ethics indicate quite clearly that the good life actually depends on the satisfaction of one’s animal nature, as well as on the satisfaction of what Aristotle is pleased to define as purely human nature: “he is happy who is active in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods” (Aristotle 1969, 22). In this quote it seems likely that he means that “external goods” are those things which are necessary to satisfy one’s animal nature – the life of “nutrition and growth” and so on.
Clearly, one reason that Aristotle has for separating out our “animal” nature from our “human” nature is his belief that animals do not have the capacity for rational thought that is supposedly unique to the human species. This seems more than a bit debatable at the present time, with the human species being accurately described by Jared Diamond as “the third chimpanzee” (1992).
However another issue is his belief that our animal nature is made up of drives that need no particular social experience to become manifest. By contrast, the uniquely human nature which defines “the good” is only developed in a favourable social context. He writes that “intellectual virtue ... in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit” (Aristotle 1969: 28). He goes on to clarify; “neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit” (Aristotle 1969: 28). So uniquely human nature according to Aristotle is composed of the “powers” that we can aptly call “capacities”.
In addition to rationality, Aristotle includes as a capacity a person’s ability to love others and enjoy social life. He maintains that the human being is a political animal and that “it is our love of others that causes us to prefer life in a society” (Aristotle 1969: 28). Consequently social activities are seen as part of “the good”.
So taken together, it is these two capacities (rationality and sociability) which make up uniquely human nature and it is their realization which is being defined as “the good” or “the good life”.
Aristotle sums up his view of the good life and of human nature in a sentence in the seventh book of The Politics:
Certainly no one will dispute one thing: that there are three ingredients which must all be present to make up a happy life – our bodily existence, our intellectual and moral qualities, and all that is external to these. (Aristotle 1966: 256)
By things “external to these” I think he means things which externally contribute to these internal goods. In this broad definition Aristotle includes more specifically “animal” nature along with what he takes to be uniquely “human” – to make human nature a composite of animal drives and intellectual and social capacities.
Aristotle on the perfect “state”
Given these various aspects of human nature, Aristotle goes about the question of determining what would be the best “state”; what we would now call the best kind of social organization. He argues in “The Politics” that the state should be directed to achieving the supreme good:
... our own observation tells us that every state is an association of persons formed with a view to some good purpose. I say ‘good’ because in their action all men do in fact aim at what they think good. Clearly then, as all associations aim at some good, that one which is supreme and embraces all others will have also as its aim the supreme good. That is the association which we call the State. (Aristotle 1966: 25)
An obvious answer to the question – what is the best state? – might be that the best state is one in which the three aspects of human nature that Aristotle talks about were developed to the highest degree possible in every person. All people would express their love of others, would develop their rational capacity and be adequately supplied with material necessities. An egalitarian utopia. It seems to me that Aristotle really does consider this as a possible utopia and gives various reasons for rejecting it.
His consideration of this matter comes in his discussion of the “good man” and the “good citizen”. In the best state these would be one and the same, otherwise the good citizen would be a bad person. To take an extreme example, if it was the function of some citizens in the state to be treacherous and murderous, then those citizens would be good citizens (being necessary to the functioning of the good state) but bad people. Putting the argument another way, if what is good depends on human nature and if human nature is, as it is by definition, something common to all people, then all must attain good in ways that are at least similar. Consequently all citizens must have similar roles in society and all people must be citizens. Society must be egalitarian with similar roles implying similar power and authority.
Aristotle accepts this reasoning saying that “in cases where all are by nature equal ... it becomes a positive right that all should share in the task of ruling” (Aristotle 1966: 57). Elsewhere he makes a similar point, saying, “it is impossible for all to have the goodness of the good man, unless it be an essential condition for a good city that all its citizens be good men” (Aristotle 1966: 108) This would imply that all be similar since “we do say that the good man is good in virtue of one single perfect goodness” (Aristotle 1966: 107).
Nevertheless, in the end, Aristotle finds this line of argument unacceptable because the conclusion is an impossibility: “Since it is impossible for all citizens to be alike, there cannot even then be one goodness of citizen and good man alike” (Aristotle 1966: 107).
Aristotle’s defence of social inequality
The type of social organization Aristotle in fact recommends as the best is the one in which one class develops fully the capacities of human nature while another provides the necessities by which all can live and satisfy their animal nature. So there is a social and intellectual body in the state and a productive body. Aristotle claims that the essentials in a state are food, handicrafts, arms, wealth, religion and decision - making:
This enumeration of classes being furnished it remains to consider whether they shall all take part in all these activities, everybody being as occasion requires, farmer and craftsman, councillor and judge (for this is not impossible) or shall we postulate a different set of persons for each task? (Aristotle 1966: 273)
He goes on to argue for the second arrangement, saying that in the best constitution the citizen must not lead a basic, working or commercial life. Nor will citizens lead an agricultural life. The citizens are a group concerned with defence and making decisions for the whole of society. They must own property, so that they can be sure that they have their animal needs satisfied by the work of others. The citizens are also the priests of society. (Aristotle 1966: 274). In this way Aristotle divides the people of the state into two groups. One contains agricultural workers, craft workers and paid labourers while the other, citizen class, contains people engaged in military, religious and political affairs. This then, represents a departure from an egalitarian ideal in that only some persons in a society engage in political and intellectual activities while the rest, since they do not, cannot become “good”, as Aristotle defines it.
Aristotle presents two sets of argument for this utopia, and for rejecting the egalitarian utopia. The first set of arguments retains the premise that people are, in the most important respects, similar. The differences in roles and power between people are, then, an unfortunate necessity. I shall refer to this as the “functionalist” position as it is similar to functionalist arguments for inequality put by modern American writers such as Davis and Moore or Jared Diamond (refs). In other words, it claims that inequality is necessary for the smooth functioning of society. Aristotle’s second set of arguments for inequality claims that people are different by nature. Within today’s language, we would put his argument by saying that people are biologically different.
The functionalist arguments
Aristotle gives various reasons for believing that some roles in a society should be separated and allocated to different persons; that someone doing the job of a citizen cannot also be a farmer or worker. Firstly, to be a good person and develop one’s political and intellectual talents leaves no time for making the food and material goods necessary to satisfy animal nature. Conversely, working as a farmer gives one no time to develop the understanding of society necessary to engage in political activities and no time to develop one’s intellectual capacities. In a state with the best constitution:
The citizen must not live a banausic working or commercial life. Such life is not noble and not conducive to virtue. Nor will those who are to be citizens live an agricultural life; for they must have leisure to cultivate their virtue and talents, time for the activities of a citizen. (Aristotle 1966: 273)
Another argument is that there is something impossible about being a servant in one’s occupation and yet a citizen or master in the state. Work of a manual kind is servile because it is under the control of a master; consequently it “is not work which either good man or statesman or good citizen needs to learn” (Aristotle 1966: 109). The psychological attributes of citizenship, the necessary fearlessness and independence of mind are only possible in people who are not motivated by greed or excessive poverty. Financial independence is essential to the good life. These arguments deal with the particular incompatibilities of citizenship and the banausic or working life. They take it for granted that there will always be poor people whose occupations imply that they are under the command of the rich.
At a more general level Aristotle agrees with Plato in thinking that a reasonable degree of competence can only be attained by people who work at the one job continually. People are like tools and “every instrument will perform its work best when it is made to serve not many purposes but one” (Aristotle 1966: 26). This is the essence of the functionalist defence of inequality. It divides the necessities of social life into a set of unequal roles – basically making decisions is one role and carrying them out is the other role! This division of labour is said to be the most efficient for the smooth functioning of society as a whole, because no one can be good at everything.
These two arguments are compatible with the view that it is an unfortunate necessity that only some citizens can be good people. Citizens are the lucky few: “It is clear then that all men desire to have happiness and the good life, but some men are in a position to get it, others are not” (Aristotle 1966: 283)
These arguments of Aristotle’s could be considered in more detail but a few brief comments will be made here. Aristotle may be right in thinking that servile occupational roles make it difficult for a person to be independent and a free political agent. For one thing a large part of such a person’s life is controlled by their master in the occupational sphere. In so far as politics is to do with power in interpersonal relations, then this is a large area of political life in which one has no control. Secondly, the control of a master at work will be extended to other areas of the servant’s life. As Marx argues, control over the “means of production” confers control over the political processes of a state in various ways. For example, the servile psychology established at the work place is extended to other situations, making the citizens more amenable to authoritarian state control. However, Aristotle’s solution to this, to deprive the workers of a political role, is not the only possible one. Another solution would be to base political democracy in egalitarian democratic control of work places.
Aristotle also maintains that freedom from financial dependence is essential if a person is to be politically independent and feel free to cultivate intellectual interests. Again, this is true in that economic sanctions can be used to pull economically dependent people into line. In this case, as well, egalitarian community-based ownership of the means of production could mean that all individuals had a roughly equal degree of economic power, and an equivalent amount of leisure in which to cultivate intellectual pursuits.
Aristotle only considers solutions to these problems that already presuppose an economic structure based on inequalities of economic power.
Aristotle’s most effective argument, and one very widely accepted nowadays, is that people need to specialise in a type of work exclusively if they are to attain a sufficient degree of competence at it to be socially useful. Consequently, he and his many followers up till today, argue that the ruling group in society must be relieved of menial work in order to concentrate on matters of the mind – so as to enable them to make wise decisions.
This is debatable. Even if a certain period of time is necessary to become competent at one thing, an organization of roles other than the one Aristotle suggests is possible. People could be rotated into different sorts of jobs, menial, intellectual and political so that they got a chance to specialise in a number of different fields. Aristotle assumes that hierarchical specialisation is essential. The few must specialise in the control of the many. This corresponds to the social reality of class societies. In today’s hospitals, for example, there is a class of doctors, a group of leading nurses and managers, various grades of nurses and below that cleaners and other menials. Each of these specialisations have specific roles in controlling the labour of others or submitting to directions from another group, as well as having specific kinds of work content specialized into their role. We can see these as horizontal strata that mirror the horizontal stratification of the society as a whole.
However a hospital could also be organized in a different way – so that specialisations were not so much horizontal but vertical. Medical staff might specialize in particular types of medical conditions, as well as doing the menial and the decision making work associated with those particular conditions. In addition a general medical education would equip all staff to ask the right questions and find the right expertise for a particular issue. In such an organization, cooperation would have to be organised by groups of equals.
Another aspect of this argument against egalitarianism is the suggestion in Aristotle that the equal distribution of menial, political and intellectual roles would spread the available time for political and intellectual roles so thinly as to make enjoyment of these activities impossible for anybody. Either, for example, thousands of Egyptians peasants support the intellectual work of one priest, or thousands of Egyptian peasants have sufficient leisure in which to learn to write their own name. Yet peasants might well support the latter alternative. They might not attain heights of intellectual glory but they would not have their daily life commanded by people who merely wanted to exploit their labour. It is impossible to decide which alternative is preferable, and for whom, without looking closely at a particular productive set up. In current society much more is produced than is necessary for subsistence and overproduction is an environmental disaster. It is easy today to envisage us all doing less work and having more time for artistic, political and intellectual pursuits. As well, a large part of the work of current society is certainly devoted to controlling the resistance that hierarchies always engender.
A whole new light is thrown on this question if people have a capacity to enjoy that which Aristotle calls menial work. Then an elite of political intellectuals of the kind he favours would be deprived of the joy of production. It might then seem preferable that all partook equally of the various enjoyable activities open to people; the production of the necessities of life would be something valued as highly as other enjoyments. I think that this, basically, is the position that Marx adopts.
Aristotle’s argument from biological difference
In addition to the argument I have discussed so far, Aristotle also puts forward the view that people are different by nature. This, of course, is to renege on his theory that human nature has a specific general character common to all people. So long as Aristotle maintains the view that all have a similar human nature, he must see inequality and social differences as an unfortunate necessity. However, as soon as he argues that human beings are by nature different, he can argue that different natures require different satisfactions. This line of argument is the second stock in trade of conservatives. Perhaps it is not too unfair to label it as fascist conservatism. Most cases of it would not seem fascist in any extreme way. The most common line of argument in modern society is that people have important innate differences in intelligence and consequently more skilled work, and more powerful positions, suit the more intelligent. Many modern writers present a version of fascist conservatism in justifying sex roles. They say that men and women are innately different by intellect and temperament and so should take different roles in society.
Aristotle, then, is arguing that some people do not have the capacity to be intellectuals, rulers and decision makers and consequently it is best for them that they be in positions where they can make full use of their capacity for taking orders. Aristotle puts this position in his discussion of slavery when he writes that “the deliberative faculty in the soul is not present at all in a slave” (Aristotle 1966: 52). Consequently people with a deliberative faculty should rule over slaves just as mind should rule body in the individual:
He that can by his intelligence foresee things needed is by nature ruler and master, while he whose bodily strength enables him to perform them is by nature a slave. (Aristotle 1966: 26)
Any person who by nature belongs to someone else is by nature a slave. (Aristotle 1966: 32)
Aristotle also lumps women and children with slaves saying that the deliberative faculty is inoperative in women and undeveloped in children (Aristotle 1966: 25). So it turns out that an elite of male citizens are the only representatives of “real” human nature and are fitted to rule by this fact, since their human rationality is well exercised by making decisions for others, who are incapable of making rational decisions themselves. As he puts it:
.. it is clear that it is both natural and expedient for the body to be ruled by the mind, and for the emotional part of our natures to be ruled by that part which possesses reason, our intelligence … This is also true as between man and other animals; for tame animals are by nature better than wild, and it is better forthem to be ruled by men; for one thiing, it secures their safety. Again, as between male and female the former is by nature superior and ruler, the latter inferior and subject. And this must hold good of mankind in general. We may therefore say that wherever there is the same wide discrepancy between two sets of human beings as there is between mind and body or between man and beast, then the inferior of the two sets, those whose condition is such that their function is the use of the bodies and nothing better can be expected of them, those, I say, are slaves by nature. It is better for them, just as in the analogous cases mentioned, to be thus ruled and subject. (Aristotle 1966: 33-34)
Aristotle is not entirely happy with his own arguments on slavery. There are places in “The Politics” where he considers the problems that his view leaves unsolved. Even if the reader accepts that some people are by nature slaves and some by nature intellectuals, how can we be sure that the right people get the right jobs? This problem is also a worry to Plato. It is clear, Aristotle points out, that the citizens of one state are often captured in war and become the slaves of another state (Aristotle 1996: 35). That is, in such cases, the distinction between slave and citizen is merely a matter of social convention. In other words the reality of social life shows us that there is in fact no difference in human nature between the occupants of different positions in the class hierarchy. Similar difficulties beset modern proponents of fascist conservatism. Members of the working class may seem to be incapable of some of the tasks allocated to the more powerful members of society but any real incapacity is the result of life experience rather than any innate differences.
I have now discussed the arguments used by Aristotle to rescue himself from the egalitarian utopia that his view of human nature lays him open to. As we can see, there is much in his position that is quite contemporary and the stock in trade of ideologies of class society.
In Marx’s writing in 1843 and 1844 (often referred to as the “Paris Manuscripts”) a structure of ideas about human nature is put forward which is quite similar to that of Aristotle, and Marx also links his view of human nature to a description of the present society (capitalism) and a plan for a utopian society (communism).
Marx’s ethics and the description of capitalism
Throughout these writings Marx takes it for granted that the full development of human nature is “the good”. Things are good in so far as they satisfy the drives and capacities which go to make up human nature. His perjorative description of the externalisation of labour is typical of the way in which this connection is assumed. In externalised labour:
... labour is external to the labourer – that is, it is not part of his nature – and ... the worker does not affirm himself in his work but denies himself, feels miserable and unhappy, develops no free physical and mental energy but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind. (Marx 1967: 292).
One’s nature is to express oneself through labour, developing free physical and mental energy. However within a capitalist society, labour does not come from this inner natural drive but is imposed and hence “external” to the labourer.
Like Aristotle, Marx makes a distinction between basic drives and natural capacities – my terms not Marx’s. Like Aristotle he refers to drives as “animal nature” and capacities as “human nature”. Also, like Aristotle, he elevates the latter and feels that to be activated by mere animal nature is to be degraded. In capitalist society, people are motivated by basic drives, by animal nature:
The result, therefore, is that man (the worker) [sic] feels that he is acting freely only in his animal functions – eating, drinking and procreating, or at most in his shelter and finery – while in his human functions he feels only an animal ... To be sure, eating and drinking and procreation are genuine human functions. In abstraction however, and separated from the remaining sphere of human activities and turned into final and sole ends, they are animal functions. (Marx 1967: 292)
In a capitalist society, he claims, people are free to pursue their animal nature. He means that when people eat, drink and procreate, they are directly expressing their inner animal nature. They are eating because they want to eat. What he means when he says that in his human functions, the worker “feels only an animal” is this. People naturally like to express themselves through production, so this is a “human function”. However in capitalism, when people work, their work does not come out of this inner desire, but instead is carried out in order to satisfy basic animal needs. People work under the compulsion of a boss rather than as an expression of their own joy in work. They do this in order to get money. They have to have money so that they can eat. So their work is merely to satisfy animal needs. They are not working because they want to work, but because they want to eat.
Marx is seeing eating, drinking, procreating and taking shelter as animal functions. This list is fairly similar to Aristotle’s “life of nutrition and growth”.
It is Marx’s view of human capacities which is different from Aristotle’s. He mentions at least three. People have a capacity to see other people as ends and not just as means. People can enjoy productive work. People can enjoy “free conscious activity” (Marx 1967: 294). The last of these is very similar to Aristotle’s “activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle.” However the first two are quite different since Aristotle’s utopia implies that it is the proper role of the citizens to treat other humans as mere means and Aristotle also sees productive activity as beneath the dignity of the citizens and as a merely animal activity.
When Marx is talking about production in the imagined communist utopia he implies that people have a capacity that is part of their human nature to give things to other people and take satisfaction in other people’s pleasure in these gifts. In doing this, he says, the individual becomes a “species - being” (Marx 1967: 241). This curious phrase could mean two things. In treating others as like yourself, as ends, one realises that one is a member of a species and thus realises one’s species-being. Alternatively it may refer to the fact that seeing other people as ends is a capacity that is shared with other members of the species.
At any rate, there is no doubt that Marx thinks that cooperative behaviour can spring directly from people’s nature:
Authentic common life comes about from the need and egoism of individuals, that is, immediately from the activation of their very existence.(Marx 1967: 272)
The exchange of human activity in production and the exchange of products “is equivalent to the generic activity and generic spirit” (Marx 1967: 272). Here the term “generic” refers to the idea that it is common or generic to humans as a species. In the utopian condition of an imagined communist society in which there is no alienation, the producer satisfies his own need in producing for another:
In your satisfaction and your use of my product I would have had the direct and conscious satisfaction that my work satisfied human need, that it objectified human nature, and that it created an object appropriate to the need of another human being. I would have been affirmed in your thought as well as your love. (Marx 1967: 281)
Here Marx indicates that a desire for the love and good regard of other people is part of human nature as is a desire to express love towards other people.
In Aristotle’s Politics there is an emphasis on the fact that humans have a sociable nature so there some similarity here between these two authors. What is really startling in Marx’s writing is his assertion that the enjoyment of productive work is a capacity that is part of human nature. This is very clearly expressed in another part of his description of labour in the communist utopia:
In my production I would have objectified my individuality and its particularity, and in the course of the activity I would have enjoyed an individual life; viewing the object I would have experienced the individual joy of knowing my personality as an objective, sensuously perceptible and indubitable power. (Marx 1967: 281)
Here, Marx indicates that he thinks that productive labour can be an expression of human nature when we exercise the capacity to express ourselves through creating material objects. In un-alienated production labour is a “free manifestation of life” (Marx 1967: 281) while in alienated production it is carried out to satisfy other (merely animal) goals. That the enjoyment of labour is a capacity rather than a drive is indicated by the fact that labour is not always something that is enjoyed. It is only enjoyed as a manifestation of the capacity to creatively produce things; it is not enjoyed when done solely as a means to satisfy animal needs and under the orders of someone else.
Consciousness is the distinguishing character of humans as a species for Marx as rationality is the distinguishing character of humans for Aristotle. However Marx implies that consciousness is expressed in any free conscious activity, not just in the decision making and purely intellectual pursuits that Aristotle sees as the expression of rationality. He claims:
In the mode of life activity lies the entire character of a species, its species - character; and free conscious activity is the species character of man. (Marx 1967: 294)
People are only expressing their human nature fully if they themselves make the conscious decisions which govern their actions. Production is itself an exemplification of this free conscious activity.
Marx’s picture of the perfect state - Communism
Like Aristotle, Marx uses his views of human nature to inform his picture of the ideal state. For Marx, the ideal social organization for humans is the Communist Utopia. Also, his description of the current distopia (the “bad” place of capitalism that is to be distinguished from the “good” place of the communist utopia) is structured in terms of this analysis of human nature. The most complete description of Marx’s Utopia in these early writings mentions the following elements in the relations between people.
Concretely, this suggests at least that people decide themselves what to produce and engage in production for the joy of it. Things that are produced are freely given to others that need them. I will call this utopia a “Gift Economy”, a term used by the writers of the French Situationist movement of the sixties. In Marx, this is a rather thinly sketched Utopia. However from what he says elsewhere in these writings it is clear that the Utopia has no private property, no classes and no religion.
Marx proclaims this Utopia of free labour as an efficient way of organising society. We make use of the powers that animate people – their human nature. People are fed and housed as a by-product of labour that is done for its own sake or for the love of other people. People by nature enjoy making things and looking after the needs of others. In doing this we simultaneously satisfy the animal needs that we all have.
By contrast in the distopia a similar outcome in terms of satisfying animal needs is arrived at through a more complicated and less satisfactory route. In the distopia, people are driven by drives. They work, not because work itself is a pleasure, but because they have to work to satisfy other desires; their basic animal drives. Labour “under the presupposition of private property ... is an externalisation of life because I work in order to live and produce for myself the means of living” (Marx 1967: 281). Marx presents this as a complex and clumsy way of attending to our “animal nature”. At the same time this distopia of private property actively prevents the capacities of people from being fulfilled. They can never express their enjoyment in work or their desire to look after other people. So it is a distopia in which a large part of that which is good for humans can never be realized.
Because the capitalist owns the finished product of labour the worker has no reason to want to work – everything they produce will just end up going out of their hands and being controlled by someone else. They are not asked what they want to make or how to go about making it or who will end up by using it. Accordingly, to persuade the worker to work, the capitalist threatens starvation; the frustration of animal drives. Work or you will starve! So work is done, the capitalist distributes the product in return for money and in the long run people are fed and housed. In other words, given the ownership of the means of production by the capitalist, a whole coercive apparatus is necessary to have things produced and distributed. By contrast in the Utopia this chain of events happens without mediation.
Similarly in the distopia of private property, the state political apparatus is necessary to protect people from violence. But this possibility and likelihood of violence itself is a product of a situation in which someone might murder someone else to satisfy an animal need. The egoism which the police force restrains is a product of the private ownership of the means of production. Without private property this state apparatus would be unnecessary.
This idea is suggested in Marx’s description of the “political” state “by its nature the perfected political state is man’s species-life in opposition to his material life” (Marx 1967: 225). When he talks about the “political” state here he is referring to an apparatus of “political” or violent control over people through the police force and army. When there is an opposition between people’s species-life – their social relationship with each other – and their material life – the production of material things – the state becomes necessary to mediate this contradiction. So people have to be selfish in their economic existence in capitalism and the state becomes necessary to constrain this selfish conduct to allow social life to continue. In his utopia he believes that no such “political” organization will be necessary – there will be no need for a coercive state.
In capitalist society, he claims, people lead a double life, as communal beings in the political community but as private individuals in civil society. People’s nature in civil society within the distopia of private property is necessarily egoistic. Yet this is a corruption in that “man is lost and alienated from himself” (Marx 1967: 231). What the political state represents is a means of dealing with human beings who do not express their social capacities in civil society. It is an apparatus which is only necessary because it functions in place of the social behaviour from which the human as a private individual has been alienated. The political state would cease to exist if this capacity was exercised directly:
Only when actual, individual man has taken back into himself the abstract citizen and in his everyday life, his individual work and his individual relationship has become a species-being, only when he has recognised and ordered his own powers as social powers so that social force is no longer separated from him as political power, only then is human emancipation complete. (Marx 1967: 241)
The concept of “alienation”
With all this as a background we are ready to summarize the complex ways in which Marx uses his concept of “alienation”.
Most simply, a person is alienated from a capacity when that capacity is not exercised by them, when their activities do not express that capacity. For example, he writes that the externalisation of labour is constituted firstly by the “fact that labour is external to labourer - that is, it is not part of his nature - and that the worker does not affirm himself in his work” (Marx 1967: 292) So the worker is not expressing his capacity to produce creatively. This capacity is central to human nature and its expression becomes a central part of what Marx is defining as “the good life” for humans.
The idea of alienation, then, is quite directly linked to the distinction between drives and capacities. One could not be alienated from a drive. So long as a drive exists, action will be taken to satisfy that drive. However one can be alienated from a capacity in situations where it is not able to be expressed in activities.
How alienated capacities are reified in authoritarian institutions
Marx also suggests that the types of activities which might spring directly from capacities are, as it were, drawn out of people or alienated from them and established in some external institution which, standing apart from people, controls them. We can call this “reification”. The capacity is sucked out of people and turned into some social object – a thing, which stands against them and controls them. The metaphor is that of the vampire that sucks blood from the living to establish its own pseudo life. For example sociability is a capacity of human nature which is not expressed in capitalist civil society. Instead an oppressive state takes over the function of this capacity and exercises a social control over people’s egoistic behaviour in capitalism. I have some serious doubts about whether this concept makes sense although the particular uses that Marx makes of it may nevertheless be useful in some way or another.
Marx applies this idea to three types of institution: religious, political, industrial.
In religious beliefs, people attribute to the gods the qualities of humanity from which they are themselves alienated: “Christ is the mediator on which man unburdens all his own divinity and all his religious ties” (Marx 1967: 224). Religion is the “fantastic realisation of human essence inasmuch as the human essence possesses no true reality” (Marx 1967: 250). Marx sees religion as an oppressive institution. It helps people to forget that these aspects of divinity are in fact human qualities which the current capitalist order suppresses. So it cuts the ground from struggles to change actual existence by concentrating people’s attentions on the spiritual realm. It is “the opium of the people”. The criticism of religion is “thus in embryo a criticism of the vale of tears whose halo is religion” (Marx 1967: 250). But the strength of religion is that the divinities who are represented realize, in a fantastic way, that which is missing from the lives of their followers – the ability to make things happen, to express love, the power of free will.
In political life, the state is “man’s species-life in opposition to his material life” (Marx 1967: 225). This species-life could be “taken back into the individual man” (Marx 1967: 241). Again, it is suggested that the capacity is taken out of people and objectified in an institution.
Finally, Marx uses this model to consider the alienation of productive capacities. The object which labour produces “stands opposed to it as an alien thing, as a power independent of the producer” (Marx 1967: 289). In other words, the means of production and the products they create are actually made by workers. On the other hand, since these products end up being owned by someone else, they create a situation in which the workers are economically dependent on the capitalist class – the objects become a source of power that can be used against working people. This power can be objectified in money. “Money is the alienated essence of man’s labour and life and this alien essence dominates him as he worships it” (Marx 1967: 246). So, for Marx, money always represents a value and this value is the value of products for which the money can be exchanged. However this value is only the value produced by the work which has been done by the working class. Without work being done by someone, a car would just be pieces of ore in the ground and so on.
Marx extends this idea to argue that the more the worker is alienated, the more powerful is the product which he produces. So the result is an increase in the power that can be turned against the worker. He writes that the realisation of labour is “the diminution of the worker”. (Marx 1967: 289). The worker is alienated from the object produced so that the “more the worker exert himself, the more powerful becomes the alien objective world which he fashioned against himself” (Marx 1967: 289). -
In all these cases, Marx is arguing that the alienated capacity is drawn out of a person and established externally. While this is a powerful image and while each case makes some sense by itself, they are actually a lot more different than the metaphor of alienation suggests. Of religion one could fairly say that it was a fantastic satisfaction of capacities that could not be exercised in reality. People take a vicarious satisfaction in the spontaneous, imaginative activity of divine creatures while these very qualities in themselves are frustrated. There is , then, a sense in which these frustrated capacities fuel religious institutions.
I am not sure whether the metaphor works so well for the political example. Marx wants to argue that political institutions are set up to protect people’s material interests against the ravages of capitalist egoism. The political state may function as Marx says – to create the kind of civil peace that a communist utopia would achieve through the exercise of people’s sociable nature. This is all a coherent position. However the metaphor of alienation implies that the capacities people have for sociability are some way extracted from them and re-constituted externally as political activities. Yet the reality is that these capacities are merely not exercised, whether in civil life or political life.
In speaking of production, Marx makes a point of saying that people do not exercise their capacities. So he cannot go on to say that these creative capacities are mysteriously drawn out of people and established in the objects they create as coerced labourers under capitalism. A person’s alienation from their capacity to take joy in production is not something which can be objectified in an object. Joy in production is merely absent; it does not flow into the object produced in a joyless fashion. This seems to me to be separate from the other quite reasonable point which Marx is making; that the owners of the means of production are in a position to control the workers by disposing of the products which those workers produce. The more that is produced, the more power is given to the capitalist who owns it.
Did Marx go on to abandon a theory of human nature?
Much that Marx and Engels say in the “German Ideology” seems to imply that Marx abandons the “humanism” of his earlier writings and never returns to it. The German Ideology is sometimes considered, because of this, to be the first of Marx’s mature and “sociological” writings while his “Paris Manuscripts” are regarded as early and immature “philosophical” writings by Marx. Accordingly the statements about human nature in The German Ideology have been very important in the social sciences. The arguments that Marx uses here against the concept of human nature have become the stock in trade of social scientists. The denial of the reality of human nature has become a virtual founding moment of social science, establishing it as a discipline in contradistinction to biology, psychology, philosophy and so on. It is worth revisiting these arguments if we want to re-establish the relevance of the concept of human nature for social science.
Marx and Engels write:
The sum of productive forces, capital funds, and social forms of interaction which every individual and every generation finds existing is the real basis of what the philosophers have conceived as “substance” and “essence of Man”. (Marx 1967, 432)
Earlier in this document they explain materialist theory in ways that also seem to express a rejection of human nature theories:
As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with what they produce, and how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions which determine their production. ( Marx 1967, 409)
This sounds pretty definite. Marx has washed his hands of the whole messy theory of human nature and all those foolish philosophers of the past who were taken in by such mystical crap. However I am going to take it that there is a lot of evidence that Marx’s original theory of human nature survives in his later writings.
Like Geras (1983), I am going to say that the above passages should be interpreted to mean that Marx repudiates the particular theories of human nature that have been put forward by conservative philosophers. At the time when Marx was writing a view of human nature as inherently free, as the play of rational conscious thought had led to an understanding of history that Marx was keen to reject. This was the view of history presented in Hegel and coming in part from the enlightenment thought associated with the French Revolution. According to this view, history could be seen as the progressive realization of the free rational spirit that was the core of human nature. Marx wanted to reject this view very definitively. We cannot see history as the progressive unfolding of new and better ideas springing from the unfettered rationality of human thought. Instead, Marx wanted to argue for the centrality of material production and material needs in history’s process.
So here, in writing about these issues, Marx rejects the view that some kind of inner core of “rational thought” directed towards “freedom” runs throughout the variety of historical processes with an unvarying sameness. Instead he wants to claim that the way people behave – their nature in the sense of day to day actions – is indeed determined by the kind of society they live in and its material conditions. So it varies from society to society.
At the same time, when you look at this argument in more detail, you would have to say that he thinks this variation is based in an underlying sameness – a part of human nature that does not change from one society to another. This is the centrality of people’s material interests. Marx argues in the German Ideology that people’s material interests are the key cause of class societies and are also a key to understanding each particular class society. These material interests are in fact exactly what Marx speaks of as people’s “animal nature” in his early writings. It is how these material interests get realized in the social relationships of producing material objects that is central in creating each particular type of society. He and Engels explain this idea very clearly in another passage in the German Ideology, standing between the two quoted above.
... we must begin by stating the first premise of all human existence, namely, that men must be able to live in order to be able ‘to make history’ ... life involves above all eating and drinking, shelter, clothing and many other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs. The production of material life itself. (Marx 1967: 419)
They go on to say that their whole understanding of history is to be based scientifically on this premise. In other words, that the view that human beings have animal drives is a central element in explaining history. And a glance through Marx’s later writings show that his is indeed the case. For instance in the paper “Class Struggles in France”, Marx is discussing the revolution of 1848 and the subsequent counter revolution. The peasants, he writes,
... had to pay the cost of the February Revolution; in them the counter revolution gained its main material. The 45 centime tax was a question of life and death for the French peasant; he made it a life-and-death question for the Republic. (Marx 1951: 141).
It seems to me that a reasonably consistent way of interpreting Marx’s theory of history is as follows.
In egalitarian tribal communities, there was no possibility of a surplus. Material interests dictated an egalitarian and communal way of life as materially the most effective for all.
With the inventions of agriculture, it became possible for a surplus to be generated and the first ruling class exercised their material interests to get control of this surplus. They used the power that they gained through this to control the rest of society (see Mandel 1976 for a typical interpretation of Marx’s view of this). This led on through various power struggles between classes and the development of new kinds of technology and class structure to the current capitalist society.
However Capitalist society creates a new and completely different dynamic. It develops productive capacity to the point where material well being for all is a real possibility. Suddenly, people’s animal needs are not best served by trying to become members of a ruling class – a necessarily small minority living in a sea of poverty. Instead, cooperation to produce a classless society is a sensible strategy for all, and especially for the proletariat or working class. This idea is expressed quite clearly in the German Ideology where Marx and Engels talk about how the productivity of capitalism has been necessary to produce the preconditions for communism:
... this development of productive forces ... is an absolutely necessary practical premise because, without it, want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old muck would necessarily be reproduced. (Marx 1967: 427)
In other words, the “old muck” is the struggle to become part of a ruling class and to hold on to that power. This is seen as an absolutely inevitable consequence of people’s animal needs where technology can only produce a small surplus – in other words, for the vast period of history leading up to the present industrial capitalist society with its very different possibilities.
While the above may have established that Marx retained his concept of “animal nature”, is there evidence that he retained the concept of “human nature” from his early writings? Evidence for this is in two sources.
Firstly, much of his critique of capitalist society in later writings such as the “Manifesto”, “Wage Labour and Capital”, and “Capital” depends on ideas about human nature which are very similar to those outlined in the Paris Manuscripts. He attacks factory production because it stifles creativity and subjects people to detailed and resented discipline. A good example is in Capital where he writes:
At the same time that factory work exhausts the nervous system to the uttermost, it does away with the many-sided play of the muscles, and confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and intellectual activity. The lightening of the labour, even, becomes a sort of torture, since the machine does not free the labourer from work, but deprives the work of all interest. (Marx 1978: 409)
All this implies Marx’s original theory of human nature as creative and autonomous productivity. So too does his faith in the association of producers imply the relevance of the sociability that he talks about in his early writings.
The second source of evidence that Marx retains his original theory of people’s “human” nature, as opposed to their merely material or “animal” nature is in his visions of the communist future. In the German Ideology itself there is the renowned passage where he celebrates the idea of a life lived through a variety of pursuits rather than restricted to one narrow specialisation:
In communist society, however, where nobody has an exclusive area of activity and each can train himself in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production, making it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, breed cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I like without ever becoming a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critic. (Marx 1967: 425)
In this passage, he communicates quite clearly the idea that productive labour in communism is undertaken for the pleasure that creative production can bring to people; this capacity is undoubtedly seen as part of human nature. Similarly in his later writings where he specifies a two stage process to communism, he makes it quite clear that the second, fully realized stage of communism is not too different to the Gift Economy vision proposed in his early writings and depends on the same attributes of “human” nature that he specifies in these early writings. In the Manifesto he writes of this higher stage:
In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the precondition for the free development of all. (Marx 1978: 491)
In the “Critique of the Gotha Program” he describes it like this in a famous passage:
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished, after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banner: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs! (Marx 1978: 531)
Clearly, what makes most sense of these passages is to treat them as a way of writing about the same utopia that Marx describes in his early writings. People express their inner capacity for enjoyable work. They retain their freedom to decide what work to do and how to dispose of the product – their free conscious activity. They in fact dispose of what they produce to express another capacity of human beings, their ability to look after other people. In doing this, they are able to satisfy both their human capacities for autonomy, work and sociability – and also to satisfy their animal needs for food, shelter, procreation.
The relevance of this view of ethics
This chapter is not designed to convince the reader of either Aristotle or Marx’s view of ethics, their view of human nature or their view of utopia. I have not been able to avoid making some comments on these arguments and will continue to discuss these particular positions in subsequent chapters. However the main point of this chapter is to show in some detail how a humanist theory of ethics can work. I could have equally drawn an example from Hobbes or from some recent writings in New Age therapy. This view of ethics is actually part of the common sense and tradition of social science writing, which social scientists seem to forget when they approach ethics from the standpoint of Hume or Weber.
In the chapters before this, I have argued that actual writings in the social sciences owe a lot more to this tradition than may appear on the surface. Whether something is good or bad for a particular group of people is a topic that social scientists cannot really avoid. This is because they are constantly talking about situations in terms of the extent to which they satisfy or frustrate basic elements of human nature. Social scientists are in fact always making assumptions which imply the possibility of a scientifically based and shared ethical perspective. It is only this which allows them to make sense of and ethically consider events across widely differing times and places. Debates about ethical issues in fact rest on this same assumption – what is the social context in which this particular ethical perspective makes sense and which interests does it serve? In other words, for whom was this situation good? This is actually the necessary premise for considering ethical differences between societies. What was good about cannibalism? Why did the Greeks engage in pederasty and how did it function? What was the social meaning of Aztec human sacrifice?
Clearly Marx and Aristotle both write in a tradition in which views about human nature and ethics are used in a fairly explicit way to devise a utopia. This is certainly one way to go. What you would have to say now is that such an exercise depends on a suspension of the particular character of human desires as they have been socially constituted in any given society. It is about what is good for humans as such, rather than as they have been conditioned by their experiences. This suspension is to a certain extent problematic in that one of the key desires of humans is to get what they want – for autonomy. The content of this desire must be admitted to be socially constructed and hence particular, even if the desire for autonomy is universal. So it is hard to devise a utopia that would satisfy actual people as they are, without looking at what they in particular define as the good life. Hence to write about a “utopia” in the grand sense is to imagine that one can also specify the social conditions in which all these particular desires are formed. But then again, this kind of thing is in fact done all the time. There are constant suggestions about the ideal kind of upbringing to produce happy children and contented adults. These are minor utopian speculations in which the aim is to constitute particular desires in ways that fit with the possibility of the larger elements of human nature being happily satisfied.
The second thing is that recommendations for a utopia cannot be divorced from an understanding of what is technically possible, given the state of technical knowledge at a particular time. Marx is very aware of this, and in fact bases his communist utopia on the technological possibilities created by capitalist industrialism. For us now, knowledge of the ecological possibilities, along with knowledge of the technological options, is the sharp end for our considerations of utopia.
Despite these reservations, I am going to suggest that some kind of thinking about utopia is inherent in all social science. Social scientists are always considering how things might be improved for a particular group of people or even for the whole global population. When they do this they are using arguments about why things are as they are and making assumptions about what may be possible within human nature. They are also talking about what may be more effective ways of satisfying human nature. So even in the most minor recommendation for social change, one can find a structure of argument not too different from that which is present in grand utopian visioning of the kind engaged by Aristotle and Marx.