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Does a Marxian Critical Theory of Society Need a Moral Theory?

Does a Marxian Critical
Theory of Society Need a
Moral Theory?

Kai Nielsen
To show Marx is not a moral philosopher is not to show
that he is not a moralist, i.e., one having or propounding
moral judgements and views .

R. G. Peffer
As the image of actually existing socialism becomes more
and more desperate, more and more mournful, we all
become ‘Communists’ in so far as we are unable finally to
get rid of our concern about public affairs and our horror
at the possibility of catastrophic developments in global
society.

Claus Offe
R. G. Peffer’s Marxism, Morality and Social Justice is a massive
volume. * Of the spate of recent books on Marxism and morality,
it is the most comprehensive and should become a reference point
for discussions of this topic. It is grounded in a thorough grasp of
Marx’s writings as well as the key writers in the Marxist tradition.

It is thoroughly conversant with recent discussions and rational
reconstructions of Marx and Marxist theory, including those of
the analytical Marxists. It is also informed by an extensive
knowledge of contemporary ethical theory. All this places Peffer
in a good position to carry out his project and he has indeed
carried it out well.

Peffer first sets out Marx’ s moral perspective, while defending the claim that he has one. That completed, he critiques
consequentialist and perfectionist readings of Marx, and discusses in great detail various forms of Marxist anti-moralism and
historicist readings of Marx which (if justified) would (or so
Peffer believes) render moral critique nugatory. Peffer also discusses Marxist conceptions of ideology and their relevance to
morality, Marxist conceptions of exploitation and freedom, morality and self-interest, revolutionary motivation, relativism and
moral objectivity and moral methodology. He concludes Marxism, Morality and Social Justice with an extended discussion of
social justice. He argues that Marx has an implicit ethical theory,
including an account of justice. His ethical theory, according to
Peffer, is a form of mixed deontology. That deontology notwithstanding, Marx (pace AlIen Wood) is also an egalitarian and has
an egalitarian theory of social justice. l Peffer reconstructs Marx’ s

* R. G. Peffer, Marxism, Morality and Social Justice, Princeton, NJ:

Princeton University Press, 1990. Page references to Peffer’s book will
be given in the text.

Radical Philosophy 59, Autumn 1991

account of justice but thinks that with the development of moral
theory in the twentieth century, including theories of justice,
Marx’s account of morality is in various ways inadequate. To fill
the gap in moral theory he constructs and argues in some detail
for a more comprehensive Marxist theory of social justice. It is a
theory that is heavily indebted to, but still distinct from, the work
of John Rawls, whose work he extensively examines. Peffer’s
own account is also a form of mixed deontology, which, surprisingly for a Marxist theory, takes rights seriously. (This is one of
the places where he thinks Marx went badly wrong.)
In his attempt to construct a Marxist theory of social justice,
Peffer first argues that Marxists should not abjure rights, taking
them to be mere ideological constructs supporting the status quo.

Instead, Marxists should determine which rights we have (working on the assumption that rights are somehow a social reality) by
reference to a theory of social justice. Rights on his conception
are crucially important but they are still derivative concepts. Our
account of social justice determines what rights we are deemed to
have. We cannot rely on intuition to determine what rights we
have.

Taking, not unreasonably, John Rawls’s theory to be the
leading account of justice in our time and, like Allen Buchanan,
finding large areas of compatibility between Marx and Rawls,
Peffer articulates core elements of Rawls’s theory and argues
against Rawls’s communitarian critics, on the one hand, and his
Marxian and other left-leaning critics, on the other, pointing out
against the latter that many of their criticisms of Raw Is, where not
resting on misinterpretations, are not critiques of his core moral
theory but challenge his empirical claims. What we find are
empirical differences with Rawls over political sociology. It isn’t
that Peffer thinks these differences are unimportant but that they
are not differences in core moral theory. On his view, and for that
matter mine, one could have a Marxian political sociology and
continue to accept Rawls’s core moral theory.2
Arguing, I think correctly, that Marxist and liberal egalitarian
social democratic theory share much in common and that, in this
respect at least, Marxist theory should build on, extend and make
more realistic such liberal theory, he constructs his own Marxian
theory of social justice from an extension of Rawls’s theory; an
extension accounting for lacunae in Rawls’s moral theory and
rooted in what Peffer takes to be a more adequate political
sociology. He also contrasts his theory of justice not only with
Rawls’s but with other rival egalitarian theories (Marx’ s, Ronald
Dworkin’s and my own) as well, and he concludes that if some

21

canonical and relatively untendentious Marxian empirical claims
are true or approximately true then he is justified in claiming that
his Marxist theory of justice is superior to its best rivals. If that is
so, he further claims that he can give us a sound basis for
concluding that social justice favours appropriate forms of democratic socialism over even the most progressive forms of capitalism. He ends his book by arguing that we have good grounds for
believing that there is a cluster of theoretically unencumbered
Marxian empirical claims which can plausibly be taken to be true
and that, given their truth, we should conclude that justice
requires a commitment to democratic socialism.

I

I am puzzled about how I should proceed in an examination of
Peffer’s book. I am deeply in sympathy with it as a reading of
Marx, in its rejection of Marxist anti-moralism, in its substantive
egalitarian account of social justice, and its use of wide reflective
equilibrium as a basic moral methodology (including its appeal to
considered judgements), in its rather extensive sorting out of
what is canonical in Marxian empirical theory, and in the way
Peffer uses that account in the construction of a moral and social
theory – of what I would rather call a critical theory of society. I
have tried to do rather similar things myself in Equality and
Liberty and Marxism and the Moral Point ofView. 3 Peffer both
generously acknowledges his indebtedness to me and trenchantly
criticizes me, though he makes it clear that our accounts of social
justice are fundamentally similar. As I make plain in my article
‘Liberal and Socialist Egalitarianism’ , I recognize the soundness
of some of Peffer’s criticisms and have altered my account
accordingly, though, not unsurprisingly, not quite enough to
Peffer’s taste. 4 Still, our views are so close that in this context at
least it would be a boring scholastic exercise for me to try to sort
out who (if either) is more nearly right and why. For me this is
particularly pointless for I am just beginning to systematically
reexamine what I think about social justice, about what a just
society would look like and about what to think concerning the
scope and place of philosophical theory in such an endeavour.

What I want to argue here, though not without ambivalence
and misgivings, is that Peffer, and for that matter the Kai Nielsen
of Equality and Liberty and the essays surrounding it, think they
can get more out of a moral theory, including most theories of
justice, than it is reasonable to expect and, even more importantly, though less controversially, than what is needed for sound
social critique. Constructing and examining such theories can be
good fun, for those who like that sort of thing, but as instruments
for the examining and assessing of issues of social policy or for
evaluating institutions or for use in deciding such humanly vital
issues as the choice between socialism and capitalism or for the
justification of socialist revolution and the like, such moral
theories, even when intricately and soundly argued and carefully
nuanced, do very little indeed to provide guidance or justification. They do little in the way of providing us with such a critical
skyhook. They may perhaps provide us with a perspicuous way
of talking about what we have justified on other grounds – that is,
of articulating our beliefs – but they will not justify such momentous hard moral choices or yield critical assessments of institutions or whole social structures. But if that is so, then the
construction of both substantive ethical theories and metaethical
theories becomes a rather pointless affair, or at least its importance is much reduced. It can hardly meet anything like the
traditional expectations of moral and social philosophy. Instead
all we need in trying to resolve the normative political problems
Peffer concerns himself with are (a) firm considered moral
judgments rooted in functioning social practices; (b) a good

22

empirical political sociology with the power not only to describe
but to predict and explain; and (c) the methodology of wide
reflective equilibrium. Philosophical theories of ethics at best
might give us a perspicuous vocabulary in which to talk about
morality and normative political problems. However, in point of
fact, they are more likely to get in the way of effective critique.

What we need instead is an empirically informed critical social
theory with normative commitments but without philosophical
foundations, including foundations in moral theory. This account
is philosophically sceptical about the scope of reason (though not
about the fact that we can sometimes be reasonable) but it is not
relativist, morally sceptical or more generally sceptical. As a
sceptic about religion need not, and typically will not, be more
globally sceptical, so a sceptic about the normative import of
philosophical theories of ethics need not, and typically will not,
be more generally sceptical. She will not, that is, be sceptical

about the very possibility of knowing anything. Think here of
Bertrand Russell or Noam Chomsky.

Let me put what I am trying to say somewhat differently.

Peffer argues, as I do as well, for a feasible socialism, by which
we mean not only a socialism that is on the historical agenda as a
plausible possibility, but also a socialism concerning which it
would be a good thing were it to come into existence; a socialism
which, in terms ofthe quality of human life and the fairness ofthe
relations between people, would afford a better life for people
generally than the life available in the best of capitalisms. Here
there are at least three crucial considerations. (I) It is likely that
a socialism of the requisite sort, i.e. a democratic, rights-respecting socialism, can be brought about within the lifetime of at least
some individuals living now, and that it would be sufficiently
widespread and strong to not fall prey to capitalist undermining?

Radical Philosophy 59, Autumn 1991

In fine, is democratic socialism a genuine historical possibility?

(2) Can we have a socialism which is sufficiently efficient and
otherwise economically viable that it can sustain people at a level
of economic well-being that is at least equal to that of the best of
capitalisms (say, Sweden)? Here arguments about market socialism are crucially relevant such as those between Alec Nove and
his capitalist critics, on the one hand, and between him and rather
traditional Marxists such as Ernest Mandel on the other.s (3)
Morally speaking, are the best of feasibly possible socialist social
orders superior to the best of feasibly possible capitalist orders?

Peffer, reasonably accepting an intellectual division of labour, as I have and O. A. Cohen has, concerns himself principally
with the third question. That is fair enough, but it should also be
recognized – and Peffer is keenly aware of this – that the answer
to the third question is not independent of the answers to the first
two questions.

The following considerations should make this evident, if it is
not just intuitively evident. Ought implies can. If socialism is not
a feasible possibility, it is not something which could be morally
superior to capitalism. And if socialism is so inescapably economically inefficient that it, even more than capitalism, is incapable of providing the material conditions for human well-being,
then it could not be a morally superior social system to capitalism. The hard empirical issues embedded in the first two questions are crucially relevant to how we answer the third.

So far there is common ground between Peffer and myself.

But, reflecting on these three questions and their relations, I will
make a stronger claim, a claim with which Peffer will not concur.

My claim is that for people who accept a cluster of moral truisms
or moral commonplaces, as do almost all people in modernizing
societies, truisms or commonplaces we can be more confident of
than any abstract substantive moral principle, the answer they
will give to the third question is effectively settled by the answers
they give to the first two. If they concluded that socialism is not
on the historical agenda for any foreseeable future, they will,
even with their egalitarianism (in some rather indeterminate
sense of ‘egalitarianism’), seek to forge conceptions and practices of justice that are in accord with certain capitalists possibilities, i.e. social democratic capitalist possibilities. Anything else
would be a bad utopianism. Furthermore, if they conclude that
any possible socialism will be economically very inefficient and
in being so make for extensive poverty, considerable resultant
corruption, and in reaction to that corruption and poverty, authoritarian domination, they will conclude that morally speaking
a socialist order is inferior to at least Welfare State capitalism, say
a Swedenized capitalism. On the contrary, if they think democratic socialism is on the agenda and will be either more economically efficient, or at least as efficient, or not so much more
inefficient as to more than marginally lower the productivity of
the society in question, then they will judge socialism to be
morally speaking superior.

My argument should not be misconstrued here. It is not that I
am claiming that without reference to values we can make such
choices on purely factual grounds: that we can derive in any
significant sense an ought from an is. 6 We need in making such
political assessments to presuppose certain unproblematic moral
beliefs, widely assented to in modernizing societies. With them
in place as at least provisional fixed points in our moral firmament, we can, depending on the facts of the case (both facts about
what is the case and about empirical possibilities), determine in
such domains what is to be done. The only thing that we need to
add is reflective equilibrium, for we need the moral truisms to be
in a consistent set and to be consistent with the empirical actualities and probable possibilities. 7 That is why I said all we need is
moral truisms, a good political sociology and reflective equilib-

Radical Philosophy 59, Autumn 1991

rium. Moral theory – including the articulation of philosophical
principles of justice – simply drops out or becomes at best a rather
ancillary activity. Theories of the type that Peffer provides, that I
have provided, that Rawls, Dworkin, O. A. Cohen, Amartya Sen
and Brian Barry provide, however interesting in themselves, are
of little practical normative relevance. They will hardly furnish
secure guidance on how we are to react to our social practices and
institutions. What we need is not a Marxian moral and social
theory – a philosophically grounded critical morality – but, if
Marx’s theoretical empirical canon is sound or can be made so by
some judicious fiddling, a Marxian critical social theory, nonwertfrei but without foundations in moral theory.

11

I shall now consider this issue with more specific reference to
Peffer’s text. Peffer clearly states the aims of his work in the first
two paragraphs of his introduction. It also shows where he would
collide with what I have argued above.

The ultimate goal of this work is to develop at least the
outlines of an adequate Marxist moral and social theory.

Bya ‘moral and social theory’ I mean one that provides a
set of moral principles or standards by which to judge
social arrangements and, by so doing, provides criteria to
decide between competing sets of historically possible
social arrangements. Such a theory must contain enough
of an empirical, social-scientific theory to determine which
sets of social arrangements are real historical possibilities
and – of those that are possible – which best conform to
the moral principles or standards propounded by an adequate moral theory.

By an ‘adequate’ moral and social theory I mean one
that is based on a correct set of empirical, social-scientific
theories and on an adequate (i.e. correct) moral theory. By
an ‘adequate’ or ‘correct’ moral theory I mean one that is
most in wide reflective equilibrium with our considered
moral judgments (p.3).

My reservations about this passage, and they are also reservations about an important strand of his book, concern his claim to
have provided’ a set of moral principles or standards by which to
judge social arrangements and by so doing provide criteria to
decide between competing sets of historically possible social
arrangements’ (p. 3). I think we should be very sceptical about
our ability to establish the correctness of such grand philosophical principles. We should be sceptical, that is, of our ability to
show that any principles here are principles that all rational
agents, on pain of a falling off from rationality, must accept. But
in saying this I am not taking a nihilist or sceptical turn about
morality, for I also think that we can articulate criteria – though
not very general criteria – that will help us to decide between
competing sets of historically possible social arrangements and
that we have good grounds for Marx’ s basic normative political
positions: to wit (1) that a democratic, self-managing socialism is
‘morally preferable to any form of capitalism as well as to any
other form of society possible under the conditions of modem
scarcity and moderate egoism and with something like our present
development of the productive forces,’ and (2) ‘that social and/or
political revolution, if necessary (and sufficient) to effect the
appropriate transfonnations, is prima facie morally justified.’

We are agreed on that. But I think a cluster of consistent moral
truisms, widely held in our societies, together with the canonical
empirical claims of Marxist social theory and social description,
if generally true, where these two features together are forged

23

into a reflective equilibrium, are sufficient for that task of social
critique. We need not, and indeed should not, complicate matters
by adding the complex consensus-elusive constructions of moral
theories. We do need wide reflective equilibrium and moral
convictions (considered judgements), but what we do not need is
moral theory to philosophically back up our normative political
beliefs. In obtaining wide reflective equilibrium, we do not need
to bring in moral theories or philosophical moral principles of
high abstraction.

Peffer could well respond that my own use of wide reflective
equilibrium involves the appeal to moral theories and moral
principles. Some of them, in my own theory, as much as in
. Rawls’s, are part of a package that wide reflective equilibrium
tries to forge with its coherentist method of justification. Using
the method of wide reflective equilibrium, we consider various
moral theories and accept those that are compatible with each
other (if we accept more than one) and which cohere best with the
other considerations we are trying to forge into the coherent
pattern that wide reflective equilibrium seeks to achieve. Such a
response is in place, for in my own account I was trying to forge
a moral and social theory with the same scope and generality as
Peffer’s and with the same methods as Peffer uses. But here I am
raising sceptical considerations that apply to both of our accounts
and I am suggesting a way that wide reflective equilibrium can be
usefully construed with somewhat different, less contentious
elements to be forged into an equilibrium (elements free of
philosophical theories and principles).

Historically speaking, including our own rather local history,
there has not been much consensus about grand moral and social
theories. I am trying to see whether we can carry out the justificatory job with something less tendentious, at least for the rational
resolution ofthe basic normative political claims of Marxism that
Peffer considers. Instead of seeking to place considered convictions, moral principles, moral theories, empirical claims and
social theories into reflective equilibrium, I am trying to see if we
can get alongjust with commonly held considered judgements of
an uncontentious sort and with empirical judgements and theories. This, if it works, would have the advantage of simplicity and
of sticking on the moral side with what, at least arguably, we in
Western societies have an overlapping consensus about. Where
philosophical moral principles must be invoked and compared
there is a very reduced chance of gaining consensus, by which I
mean not just any de facto consensus but a reflective and informed consensus, rooted in (among other things) the concern for
consistency that goes with the method of wide reflective equilibrium. Without all that philosophical baggage of moral principles
and moral theories, we just might succeed in Westernized, industrially developed societies, living under what Max Weber called
the conditions of modernity, in attaining such a reasonable consensus. If we haul into consideration philosophical claims our
chances are very much diminished. Indeed I would say in pluralistic societies such as ours they are nil.

III

In the second part of his tenth chapter, Peffer attempts, as he puts
it, ‘to delimit the minimal set of Marxist empirical theses that
must be true, if its basic normative political positions are to be
justified … ‘ (p. 14). I end his sentence there. Peffer does not. He
ends it by adding: ‘on the basis of the theory of social justice put
forward’ (p. 14). I think this addition is unnecessary and undesirable. Unnecessary because if a goodly number of these empirical
theses are true and people (at least in our society) rather generally
have a standard cluster of considered judgements (what I call
moral truisms) that are common and unproblematic, that will,

24

along with wide reflective equilibrium, probably be sufficient to
justify these normative political positions. The likelihood of
these normative political positions being justified is further enhanced if some more theoretical Marxist empirical theses are also
at least approximately true, to wit: Marx’s claims about classes,
class struggle and perhaps historical materialism.

I say Peffer’s addition is undesirable as well as unnecessary
because of the contestability of theories of social justice and
morality. If it is thought that the Marxist normative political
positions rest on them, then the scepticism about them is very
likely to be transferred to the normative political positions themselves. Here, as it is not infrequently the case in philosophy, less
is better than more.

Given these moral truisms, let us see what can be concluded
from some of the key Marxist empirical theses specified by
Peffer. One Marxist claim Peffer considers is that a democratic,
self-managing socialist society is a real historical possibility.

Socialists believe that it is. But it is an empirical claim and it may
indeed be false. We do not yet have any clear examples. Some
will claim, prematurely I believe, that history has already falsified that claim. Of course, state socialism or at least postcapitalist forms of Statism have existed and some continue to
exist. s But it is not evident that they are morally preferable to at
least the best forms of capitalism. However, it is arguable that a
democratic self-managing socialist society, starting with a similar productive capacity to developed capitalism, is morally preferable to any form of capitalism. The grounds for the claim empirical grounds – are that such a socialist society would be
more extensively democratic and would be a freer society: freedom, and particularly freedom as self-determination, would be
both greater and more widely and evenly distributed in such a
society than in capitalism. This presupposes that freedom is a
good thing, that more equal freedom is a good thing and that
democracy is a good thing. It also rests on the belief that such a
socialist society would not be less efficient at meeting the needs
of people than progressive forms of capitalism, and that assumes
that the satisfaction of needs is a good thing. But the value
judgements appealed to here are all plain moral truisms and
moral principles which were not in reflective equilibrium with
them could not be justified, on Peffer’s own grounds. That is, if
we are appealing to considered judgements in wide reflective
equilibrium, we would revise a moral theory until it was in
accordance with these truisms. A moral theory which failed here
would be rejected, and correctly SO.9 The moral truisms do all the
normative work here. Where there is serious argument it is over
whether such a socialism is possible and, if possible, would more
fully realize freedom and would better meet the needs of more
people. Again, these are empirical questions.

Marxists also believe that ‘capitalism is the chief cause of the
world’s social and economic problems and .” that capitalism
must be eliminated on a world-wide scale to solve these problems … ‘ (p. 440). This is a rather theoretically ramified empirical
claim, but if it can be shown to be true it would give us at least
prima facie good grounds for seeking the demise of capitalism.

The key question is whether that empirical claim is true. The only
value judgement directly involved is that it is a bad thing for the
world – that is, great masses of people – to suffer unnecessarily
from social and economic problems. What this comes to is
readily translatable into the concrete. The general moral claim is
another moral truism (an abstract moral platitude) and requires
no appeal to moral theory. It plainly is utterly unproblematic. The
serious questions here are to specify more particularly, again in
empirical terms, what is being claimed, to determine whether the
general claim is true and to determine whether there are historically feasible alternatives to socialism which would not be the

Radical Philosophy 59, Autumn 1991

source of as great or greater social and economic problems.

Again, these issues, with a few moral truisms as background
beliefs, need to be argued on empirical grounds. Moral theory,
though not morality, drops out.

Thirdly, there is the Marxist thesis that capitalist societies are
divided into antagonistic classes, that over time class struggle
will break out in capitalist societies and that when this happens
the capitalist class will, to protect its interests against rising
worker militancy, abandon democracy and develop an authoritarian, essentially Fascist, state apparatus in which human freedom will be crushed and mass killings, torture and imprisonment
will obtain. This will be resorted to only if the use of various
ideological devices will not dampen things down. But sometimes
ideology will not work that well. In such circumstances there is a
need to resort to the Fascist state. But with a Fascist state human
degradation will be very widespread; there will be a massive
increase in suffering in the society whereas there would be much
less if a democratic socialist society could be forged. Similar
things would obtain about freedom. Again, if these rather contentious Marxist empirical theses are true and a revolution is possible that would not generate even more suffering and loss of
freedom over a foreseeable length of time than with sticking with
the Fascist state, then socialism would be the morally preferable
outcome. We will, that is, opt for socialism, if we accept a few
moral truisms, such as suffering is bad and freedom is good.

Again, moral theory is at best redundant.

LARAMIE 6.0

Finally, there is the Marxist empirical thesis that capitalist
societies are imperialist and that they are the source of the
‘starvation, malnutrition and abject poverty and misery of hundreds of millions of people’ . It is claimed that with the creation of
a democratic socialist alternative this would be brought to an end.

If these things are true then we have a good reason – a good moral
reason – for opting for socialism. Again in so arguing, we would
on the moral side of things only be invoking a few evident moral
truisms. Moral theory, once more, is a free spinning wheel that
turns no machinery. All we need is truisms such as it is a bad thing
to suffer unnecessarily, to be malnourished, to live in abject
poverty, to be starving and the like. A society which causes or
even allows such misery where it can be prevented without
bringing in its train still greater misery is quite plainly an evil
society. We do not need to back up such moral judgements with
a fancy moral theory or even an unfancy moral theory. We only
need a rather rudimentary moral sensibility or what Engels once
called a sense of human decency. Any moral theory which was
incompatible with these moral truisms would be rejected by

Radical Philosophy 59, Autumn 1991

anyone who used the method of reflective equilibrium. If capitalism causes such things and a socialist society would not, and
would not create still greater ills or ills of the same magnitude,
then such a socialist society is preferable to capitalist society.

Given the plainness of these evils, and their extent, they would, if
the Marxian empirical claims are true, justify the belief that
socialism, at least of a certain type, was morally speaking preferable. Again we need morality but not moral theory.

In an extensive and well documented discussion (pp. 435-52,
summarized on page 452), Peffer sets forth a number of further
Marxist or more generally left-wing empirical claims which, if
true, would give us good moral grounds for favouring democratic socialist societies and not a few – though by no means all
– post-capitalist Third World societies over capitalist societies,
First World, Second World or Third. (See also pp. 458-59.) He
talks about this, sometimes usefully, in terms of his distinctive
theory of social justice, but it is plain for those cases as well that
rather more mundane moral beliefs, such as the ones I have
invoked in the previous cases, are sufficient to morally support
those claims if these empirical claims are true or approximately
true. The main issue is their truth.

I do not want to give to understand that such Marxist empirical claims would not be important elements in justifying an
egalitarian theory of social justice such as Peffer’s or perhaps
even my own. I am only saying that such philosophical creatures
are chancy conceptions and in the above contexts are not needed.

A better way of justifying the Marxian normative political positions will be by noting and relying on the relevant moral truisms
in tandem with certain empirical beliefs, with care being taken for
the justification of the latter. (It would, of course, be important
that the moral truisms form a consistent set.) The Marxist normative political positions will be justified if these truisms and moral
beliefs we believe we should stick with, and if most of the
Marxist empirical theses Peffer appeals to, are at least approximately true. Moreover, we should keep in mind that we can be
more confident of the acceptability – the normative force – of
these moral truisms, and thus ofthe rightness of our sticking with
them, than we can of any philosophical moral principle or theory
which might direct us to be sceptical about them or, alternatively,
that is being appealed to in an attempt to justify them, to back
them up. We should also add, as Peffer remarks himself, that if
these sets of empirical claims are not tenable then ‘in all probability neither are the Marxist basic normative claims’. The truisms
by themselves, of course, will not even begin to take up the slack.

But it seems to me that most of these Marxist empirical theses are
tenable and with them, given the moral truisms, the Marxist’s
basic normative political positions are tenable as well. The
importance of this is that we can justify these normative political
positions directly without entangling ourselves in the complexities, ambiguities and extensive contestedness of moral theory.

IV
Finally, I want to consider an objection not to my lines of
argument about not needing moral theory, or to the distinct
argument that such theory may even be a hindrance to arguing for
these Marxian normative political positions, but to the far stronger
claims I made initially about moral theory, namely, that moral
theory will afford us little in the way of a critical hook for social
critique or social commitment. That we don’t need moral theory
in the cases where Peffer thinks we do does not, of course,
establish that we will never need it for the normative critique of
our basic institutions. One swallow doesn’t make a spring or one ‘

fine day. Moreover, that it is not necessary even in Peffer’s case
does not mean it could not function as a supplementary justifica-

25

tion. However, such a supplementary justification, if that is all
that is, is of minor significance and is likely to distract us from the
hard job of doing the necessary empirical work needed to justify
critical but not normatively neutral theories of society. What we
really need to know is what our societies are like, what changes
we can reasonably expect in them, and, among those possibilities, which to struggle to achieve. to The last question is, of course,
in part a normative one but the norms we need for answering it are
just a few moral truisms.

As to my wider, if you will iconoclastic, remarks about the
normative pointlessness of moral theories, including substantive
theories of social justice, that was thrown out as a suggestion here
and is only weakly (if at all) confirmed by my subsequent
argument. Like many grand and shocking metaphilosophical
theses, it may very well turn out to be at best false. Not
unsurprisingly, since I propounded it, I think not and I think the
way philosophy is developing, principally from the work of
Ludwig Wittgenstein and later from Donald Davidson and Richard
Rorty, will confirm that. I I But surely not everyone will see it that
way. I merely commend this grand metaphilosophical claim to
you for your reflective consideration, through I hope to argue it
elsewhere. 12 I think pushing through these issues will lead us to a
very deep scepticism not only about the point of ethical theories,
at least as standardly conceived, but even about the very point of
philosophy itself.13 Being in such perplexities, standing where we
stand now, seems to me a very good thing and not something to
be lamented. That I mentioned Richard Rorty in this connection
should not have the knee-jerk reaction that it often gets from
many of us on the Left. We should not let his love affair with
America and his relative complacency about American social life
and American institutions blind us to the probing things he says
about the philosophical enterprise itself and the role of social and
political theory, or to his specific criticisms of the Cultural Left as
over against the Old Left in his own attempt to defend a social
democratic vision of society. 14 If he had substituted the
Scandinavian countries or Holland for America, things would
have been less disturbing and we could face what really needs to
be faced, namely, the head-on theoretical, practical and political
collision between more social democratic conceptions of society
(progressive bourgeois democracies if you will) and more radically socialist conceptions of society such as some feminist ones
or Marxian ones, such as Peffer and I (among many others) in the
Marxian tradition seek to articulate and justify. That is a replay in
a very new context of an old battle. It is a bit like setting Marx
against Dewey or Luxemburg against Bernstein, but it is not deja
vu, for the issues need to be rethought and, as far as possible,
thought through in light of the way the world has turned. Complacency or intellectual arrogance on either side is through and
through wrongheaded. Nobody is in a position to be parti pris or
self-congratulatory now or, for that matter, either particularly
hopeful or full of despair.ls

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26

Notes
Allen Wood, ‘Marx and Equality’ in John Mepham and David
Hillel Ruben, eds., Issues in Marxist Philosophy, Vol. 4, Brighton,
England: Harvester Press, 1982, pp. 195-221. I also criticise
Wood on this in my Marxism and the Moral Point of View,
Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1989, Chapter 9.

2

Allen Buchanan, Marx and Justice, Totowa, NJ: Rowman and
Littlefield, 1982. See also Jeffrey H. Reiman, Justice and
Modern Moral Philosophy, New Haven, CT: Yale University
Press, 1990.

3

Kai Nielsen, Equality and Liberty: A Defense of Radical Egalitarianism, Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allenheld, 1985 and Kai
Nielsen, Marxism and the Moral Point of View.

4

Kai Nielsen, ‘Liberal and Socialist Egalitarianism’ , Journal of
Social Philosophy XX, Nos. 1 and 2 (Spring/Fall 1989), pp.

137-54.

Alec Nove, The Economics of Feasible Socialism, London:

AlIen and Unwin, 1983; Nove, ‘The Role of Central Planning
under Capitalism and Market Socialism’ in Jon Elster and Karl
Ove Moene, eds., Alternatives to Capitalism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 98-112; Ernest Mandel, ‘In
Defence of Socialist Planning’, New Left Review 159 (Sept/Oct
1986), pp. 5-36; Alec Nove, ‘Markets and Socialism’, New Left
Review 161 (Jan-Feb 1987), pp. 98-104; and Ernest Mandel,
‘The Myth of Market Socialism’, New Left Review 169 (1988),
pp. 108-20.

I clarify what is involved here and argue that in no significant
sense can an ought be derived from an is in my Why Be Moral?,
Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1989, pp. 13-38.

5

6

7

See also my ‘Coming to Grips with Marxist Anti-Moralism’,
The Philosophical Forum 19, no. 1 (Fall 1987), pp. 1-22.

8

Ferenc Feher, Agnes Heller and Gyorgy Markus, Dictatorship
over Needs, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983 and Andrew Levine,
Arguing for Socialism, Boston, MA: Routledge and Kegan
Paul, 1984.

9

Kai Nielsen, After the Demise of the Tradition, Boulder, CO:

Westview Press, 1991, last three chapters.

10

Levine, Arguing for Socialism and Nielsen, Marxism and the
Moral Point of View.

11

Richard Rorty gives the right history here in his Objectivity,
Relativism and Truth, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1991.

12

Some of it is gestured at in my After the Demise of the Tradition.

See also my ‘On Needing a Moral Theory: Rationality, Considered Judgments and the Grounding of Morality’ ,Metaphilosophy
No. 12 (1982), pp. 97-116.

13

See the exchange between Thomas McCarthy and Richard
Rorty. Thomas McCarthy, ‘Private Irony and Public Decency:

Richard Rorty’s New Pragmatism’, Critical Inquiry 16 (Winter
1990), pp. 355-70; Richard Rorty, ‘Truth and Freedom: A
Reply to Thomas McCarthy’ ,Critical Inquiry 16 (Spring 1990),
pp. 633-43 and Thomas McCarthy, ‘Ironist Theory as a Vocation: A Response to Rorty’s Reply’, Critical Inquiry 16 (Spring
, 1990, pp. 644-55.

14

Richard Rorty, ‘Two Cheers for the Cultural Left’, The South
Atlantic Quarterly 89, No. 1 (Winter 1990), pp. 227-34 and
Richard Rorty, ‘Thugs and Theorists’, Political Theory 15, No.

4 (November 1987), pp. 564-80.

15

See here J urgen Habermas, ‘What does Socialism Mean Today?

The Rectifying Revolution and the Need for New Thinking on
the Left’, The New Left Review, no. 183 (Sept/Oct 1990), pp. 321.

Radical Philosophy 59, Autumn 1991

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