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Materialism vs Morality - Part 2
Patrik Schumacher 1997
Lecture delivered at Architectural Association, London as part of the Graduate School Ethics Lecture Series
Kant seems to have given the conclusive formalization of the fundamental principles of bourgois morality,
a morality we still inhabit as might transpire through the edifying force of Kants exposition. What will
also transpire is that certain key moments in his reflection already point beyond the bourgeois order. Those
moments are a reflection of the universalizing logic of the bourgeois ascendance from below and are as such
recuperable for more radically democratizing movements. Other moments of bourgeois liberation have now to be
analysed as moments of containment.
Kants moral discourse is in many ways the culmination of 18th Century philosophical work developing in the
context of the proliferating sciences on the one hand and the emerging capitalist economic and political
relations on the other hand. The very notion of a principled formal investigation of the total system of moral
categories against and above a mere empirical engagement with particular moral tenets is most clearly brought
to bear in Kant's critique.
Such a project significantly suspends all traditional values and precepts and in this respect can become a
force in alignment with the dynamic of emergent capitalism and modernization. In his famous text from 1784
"What is enlightenment ?" Kant takes self-determination as the ultimate a priori of practical life: "The
criterion of everything that can be agreed upon as a law by a people lies in this question: Can a people
impose such a law on itself?" This selfdetermination requires the free use of public reason which is therefore
treated as a priori of any enlightened civil society. At the bottom of it one finds in Kant the notion of
progress. Any specific order is provisional, and any attempt to frieze - even if by contract - any social
order or law is, according to Kant, impossible and in contradiction to the notion of self-determination.
"Such a contract, whose intention is to preclude forever all further enlightenment of the human race, is
absolutly null and void, even if it would be ratified by parliaments. One age cannot bind itself, and thus
conspire, to place a succeeding one in a condition whereby it would be impossible for the later age to expand
its knowledge. That would be a crime against human nature, whose essential destiny lies precisely in such
progress; subsequent generations are thus completely justified in dismissing such agreements as unauthorized
*A radical reading of Kant would construct from this a commiment to permanent revolution, whereby the
only dogma would be the insistence of absolute anti-dogmatism, the only categorial constitutional prerogative
would be defined through the constitutional conditions of further progress, the protection of unrestricted
public reason, the only exclusion from its universalizing thrust would be the exclusion of the excluders, the
only limit of freedom is the logic of freedom itself etc. In the following I want to trace how this
enlightenment as bourgeois enlightenment turns into its opposite. The radical character of the bourgeoisie
pertains to its movement from below. But this movement soon becomes contradictory in as much as it - while
still moving forward against the feudal order and the aristocracy - it already engages in a reargarde
movement of containing the lower orders. This reargarde aspect becomes more pronounced as the bourgeoisie
consolidates its power, also through striking a deal and compromise with sections of the aristocracy.
But let me try to rehearse and historically interpret in detail the logic of morality which Kant articulates
at this historical juncture.
I will reverse the order of Kant's presentation in the "Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals" and start
with what he ends with, namely freedom and free will as the most fundamental premise of morality. Before
elaborating Kants notion I want to pose Marx's reminder to remain in the back of our minds that the freedom
the bourgeoisie stands for has an economic rationale: the freedom of labour from the feudal bond to become
freely hireable and fireable, the freedom to choose one's profession, the freedom to buy or sell anything
including land, free markets and free trade. In a formulation closest to Kants discourse one would say: the
freedom to engage freely in realations by contract.
In the Groundwork Kant analyses a network of related terms - freedom, morality, autonomy, universality and
reciprocity - as dependent upon each other as each others necessary presupposition. Some of Kants
reconstructions seem prima facie counterintuitive but I would second his claim that he adds nothing
that is not already implicit within ordinary moral judgement.
Freedom he claims exists only within and through the rational selfsubjection to a selfimposed universal
moral maxim or law.
Freedom - is the very opposite of that state where we do as we please and fancy. Freedom of the will can
only exist where we are free from empirical and contigent moods, inclinations and desires: "it is just this
freedom from dependence on interested motives, for otherwise we would have to be regarded as subject only to
the law of nature - the law of our own needs."
The free act is thus the act which demonstrates the resistance to natural determination through rational
volition. It is clear that the criterion of such conduct can only be absolute selflessnes and thus points
towards the necessary moral dimension of freedom. Only if I determine my will and action on the basis of a
universal moral law which is essentially defined through the exclusion of any personal or special interest can
I be sure that my actions are free.
And I can test the necessary universality of the unfderlying maxim of my action by posing the question of
the consistency of my will relative to an assumed universal reciprocity. Kant poses this criterion as the
categorical imperative of practical reason:
"Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."
This imperative obviously avoids any specific moral tenet. It neither defines the moral act through its
results. It furnishes a formal criterion for moral qualifications: the possible universality of its principle.
The most convincing and recurring example Kant gives relates to the capitalist institution of credit:
He demonstrates that any maxim that would allow me (in moments of existential need) to resort to the
borrowing of money without the full ability and commitment to the promise of paying back is selfcontradictory
since such an allowance - if universalised - would dissolve the very institution of borrowing I want to
rely on. "it would make promising , and the very purpose of promising itself impossible, since no one would
believe he was being promised anything, but laugh at utterances of this kind as empty shams."(p.85)
Abstract universality is the form social rules of intercourse have to take in the anonymous mass society of
capitalism. Personal relations no longer stretch far enough. In this light one might read the following
statement which relates morality to abstract rational beings and excludes reference to any notion of allegiance
to specific human, cultural or national qualities of character. "The practically good is that which
determines the will by concepts of reason, and therefore not by subjective causes, but objectively - that
is on grounds valid for every rational being as such." (p.77)
This reflects the need of capitalist anonymous mass society where personal relations have ben replaced by
abstract money relations, where strangers enter the market of exchange and contractual obligation, without
personal loyalty, bondage or means of coercion. The universality of bourgeois morality depends historicaly
of the universality of money relations superceding feudal loyalty. The freedom presupposed by bourgeois
morality is the freedom of the capitalist market again superceding feudal bondage. In bourgeois morality and
law freedom of will is and free choice of action is a precondition for being guilty and accountable. The only
good (or evil) is the good (or evil) will, rather than the results of action. This is what Kant starts with.
Such a sophisticated practise of validation and sanction which inquires into underlying intentions operates
as a more productive mode of social regulation, approriate for a more complex social organisation, but also
presupposing a relatively generalised regularity of law, knowledge of and adherence to it.
What these remarks should hint at is the possibility to explain notions of morality as modes of social
regulation relative to historically attained relations of production. But so far my remarks set the bourgeois
morality off against the older feudal order.
So far those priniples of bourgeois morality seem now uncontentious and recuperable in a socialist
society: Universality, reciprocity and the presupposition of freedom.
The first thing one would have to say here that capitalist class society and imperialism consistently
and substantially fall short of delivering even the explicitly bourgeois ideals of justice: universal
recirocity, universal rule of law, exposed through the universal and free use of public deliberation,
equality before the law, equality of rights and opportunity etc. My claim here is that capitalist class
society -i.e. the system of private property of the means of production and the private appropriation of
the results of combined and integrated production - is a systemic obstacle to the realization of those
rational ideals. This was already clearly understood by Trotsky and Lenin, who realised that the bourgeoisie
under imperialism could no longer universalise its own revolution. That the bourgeoisie outside the advanced
imperialist core , i.e. also the russian bourgeoisie, could no longer fulfill the historical tasks of the
classical bourgeois revolutions. They themselves had to take over and move through this stage.
On a politcal level theories of economic liberalism of perfect and purely economic that is productive
competion have to be exposed as ideological in as much as they consistently fail to analyse to acknowledge
the systematic drive towards monopoly and the systematic instrumentalization of the national state against
the principle of a universally regulated world market for capital, goods and labour, against true economic
competition, replacing it with diplomatic coercion and military regulation. The ideological nature of
neo-liberal discourse is exposed in its hypocrisy aligning themselves and systematically failing to indict the
very forces of imperialism, exemplified by Thatcher and Reagan and their heirs, actively utilizing all the
possibilities of diplomatic and military competion, which crucially includes the restriction of movement and
imigration through the establishment of policed national borders.
The second thing one would have to say is that marxism also proposes a substantial critique of the essence of
bourgeois morality and justice.
The abstractness and formal character of universal bourgeois right allows for and legitimizes substantial
material inequalities. Bourgeois equality of treatment is understood as equality of treatment of people in
equal positions allowing for extreme material differences and differences in the power of decision making
as long as in abstract principle no one is excluded from access to any of those positions. For each according
to his or her due relates to the principle of private economic exchange, where any contribution to the
integrated production processs has to individually negotiate and extract its renumeration. At a certain
stage of developement it might be worth while to speculate about the rationality or overall efficiency of
this process of production distribution where every productive effort engenders a sand universal scramble
for preveledge and perrennial efforts to secure, legally protect, and police the always precarious means of
private survival. And the more under post-fordism economic relations become fluid the more time and energy
has to be spend on reestablishing and renegotiating the various differential private
claims upon the results of production. The capitalist system is forced by threat of total stoppage to
relentlessly and unambiguously determine the private ownership for any economic move and particle within
the complex and long since global web of interdependend productive activities. The resources going into this
unproductive effort, this shadoe economy of differential distribution, might be counted as costs imposed by
the social system of capitalism. This unproductive economy comprises large parts of the state administration,
foreign office, the judiciary, the whole legal profession, the police , the penal system, tax administration,
the banking system, the whole military, all private security services and systems. The percentage of total
labour of those activities must be substantial. This is the light in which materialism asks us to evaluate the
communist proposal to replace the capitalist - for each according to his due - with the principle: from each
according to ability to each according to need. The fetishistic notion of justice is thrown out of court here
in this argument , although the new regulatory principal will also attain the status of justice as an
The more and more irrational capitalist insistence and obsession with rightful property derives its
legitimacy from the originally rational and plausible but long since gone economy of individual or
family producers exchnging their products in the market.
Beyond the mounting of directly professionalised unproductive labour the capitalist imposition of the
scramble for preveledge potentially distracts and distorts all of productive efforts from the productive
rational that makes work effective only as integrated work. Under capitalism producers are always induced
to keep knowledge in reserve, and the need to continously hedge in productive capacity and information acts
as barrier of communication and scientific progress.
The materialist question of socialism or communism concerns the conditions and prospects of radical
egalitarian democracy and its potential ability to sustain and propell the next stage in the developement
of global industrial civilization. And to pose this question ultimately on the level of the world economic
system is not hybris but the inevitable and really real context for any practical reflection.
In the last section of the lecture I want to make the distinction between historically arguable and
materialistacally questionable moralities and the always aldeady practical - and if you like the 'moral'
or I prefer to it the political principle, which is the precondition and implicit presupposition of
materialism or marxism, and can not be questioned within marxist discourse, or any other discourse for
that matter. This principle which is already contained in Kants discourse and is historical achievement
of the enlightenment - is the principle of undiscriminatory access to public reason and exposure of any
practical or truth-claim to public critique. This principles reflects and poses the practical and political
condition of the very institution of discourse and science. That is the essence of discourse ethics which was
the central target of Chantal Mouffe's critique here.
However much the ideological abuses of this aproach might merit critique, Chantal Mouffe failed to
allow us to understand the fundamental hrust of this insight which for me becomes one more and may be
the fundamental element of the necessary and urgent critique of capitalism.
The very institution of science and rationality already embodies and implies a whole series of historically
battled moral positions:
- the rejection of authority and hierarchy in the establishment of thruth and knowledge. - the n
on-discriminatory and universal access to discourse, which is embodied in the scientific requirement of the
universal reproducability of a scientific effect, as its precondition to enter the body of scientific
- the absence of involvement of any vested or special interest in the scientific inquiry. any
suspicion here suspends the results of any inquiry until impartial procedures are insured
Any suspicion of power-relations existing between the participants of a discussion a priori devalues and
annulls any outcome of the discussion. Even those in power would not know if their argument really is
valid or just succeeds through intimidation. Under such conditions nobody gains knowledge. (This is by
the way a serious problem for corporate as well as bourgeois academic rationality where power presides
and the neccessary drift has been towards dehierachisation and democratisation, always compromised by
what is possible under the capitalist class system, which is an inherent obstacle to science. This is not
so much evident in the politically largely uncontentious natural sciences, but all the more obvious in the
social sciences of psychology, history, economics and politics.
Under capitalism which continously cuts the already materially fully integrated and existentially
interdependent world population into opposed vested interests the evident question of the shared interest
of an efficient world production - which is of course no zero sum game - can not even be theoretically
posed never mind comprehensively discussed, even less of course are there means of implementing any possible
recommendation of such deliberation. All decisions arec atomized and have to reckon with to total
agglomeration of decisions as an alien and unconcious force. As Marx put it mankind has not yet
attained selfconsciousness, is slave of its own blind social processes, has not yet moved from
prehistory to history, that is the active and conscoius making of history. The transition to history
in this sense is the most profound promise of world communism and what the hypothesis that real take
off towatrds unheard of productive, scientific and cultural developement lies beyond the treshold socialist
The fundamental problem is that capitalism does not even allow and sytematically prevnts the full theoretical elaboration of socio-economic and political possibilities. All research is funded and aimed towards the calculation of vested and partial interests which never allow their preveledged position to be questioned and therefore always take the class-system and imperialist world sys tem unquestioned for granted as absolute as if naturally given limits of speculation. The labour party as any other political party in this world institutionalises only the wholly arbritrary level of the intersts of the citizens of this island as an a priori of any calculation of its intersts. As if the intersts of us here are only definable as british interests. Even the level of entering into an institutional acknowledgement of interests we might have as Europeans is put under the strictly shortterm precondition that the entering of the new alignment saveguards british preveledges. Therefore the new game never gets off the ground and acts as treshold denying the take off of the non zero sum game.
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