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Ethics and Group Conflict

Ethics and Group Conflict:

Between Marxism and
Carl Hedman

Consider the following case: As Jones is driving home
from a union meeting, he sees an injured motorist lyirYg in
the ditch. He stops to help, but as he steps into the ditch
he realizes that the person he is about the help is Smith,
the owner who has been waging a bitter and protracted
campaign to break Jones’s union. How should Jones
respond? Should he be moved by an obligation to do what
will advance the interests of workers or should he be
moved by an antagonism-blind obligation to help another
person in distress? In what follows I will argue that
Jones will be attracted, at least initially, by both of
these answers and the radically different views of ethics
they express. But I will also argue that he will see
serious problems with both views. Thus, the last sections
of this paper will be concerned with sketching a third
view of ethics, one that promises to incorporate the
attractive features of the first two answers while avoiding
their problems.

It should be noted at the outset that I won’t be trying to
give a fine-grained analysis of the obligation to help
another person in distress. Rather, my concern is to use
Jones’s (admittedly special) case to bring ‘out a deep
tension in our thinking about the role of ethics in the face
of group conflict. Thus, my discussion will move very
quickly to a r~ther global contrast between Marxist and
liberal approaches to ethics. This does not mean,
however, that I will be trying to provide yet another
abstract characterization of the difference between
Marxism and liberalism. Instead, I will be trying to see
how the various moves and counter-moves between and
within these traditions are reflected in the concerns and
deliberations of White male workers such as Jones. In
short, my aim is to use Jones’s real life situation to get
clearer on the theoretical impasse between Marxism and
liberalism and to see if there is any hope of moving beyond
it. One final introductory note – I’ve made Jones a White
male worker rather than, say a Black activist who
discovers that the person he is about to help is the leader
of a local racist group or a woman coordinator of a
women’s health center who discovers that she is about to
help the person who was behind the recent bombing of the
center, for three reasons: first, by making Jones a worker
and Smith an owner we engage directly the Marxian
intuition concerning the primacy of economic domination;
second, by making Jones a White male we set the stage for
a careful examination of the tension between orthodox
Marxism (and liberalism) on the one hand, and the
movements for sexual and racial equality on the other
hand; third, by making Jones a White male worker we will


be grounding our reflections in the daily life of a group
that will surely play a strategic role in any significant
challenge to the status quo.

Consider, first, the following gloss on the case for saying
that Jones should try to become the kind of person who is
moved by an obligation to do what will advance the
interests of workers:

(A) We live in a society where the interests of one
group of people (workers) are sacrificed to the interests of
another group (owners). A key factor in stabilizing such a
social order is the notion that ethics should transcend the
interests people have as members of particular groups.

This view of ethics leads workers to ignore their longterm interests in bringing about a radically different
social order. It also leads workers to downplay the
conflict between the immediate interests they have as
workers (e.g., the interest in defeating automation
proposals that would eliminate their jobs) and the
immediate interests of owners (e.g., in using automation to
gain greater control of production processes).

Furthermore, it leaves the stage open for owners to fill in
abstract moral claims in ways that serve their own
interests (e.g., the call to respect individual autonomy
becomes the call to respect, above all else, individual
property rights). Thus, in a society such as ours the role
of ethics should be to clarify and make historically
effective the interests workers have in creating a
radically different social order. To be sure, workers
yearn for a time when ethics will have the task of
enunciating moral claims that rest on universal interests,
but the fact is that we’ll never get to such a social order
if we attempt to base present obligation on such yearnings.

This doesn’t mean, however, that such yearnings can have
no purchase at all in our daily lives. Indeed, these
yearnings might provide the basis for such things as an
obligation to help strangers in distress. Then we could
say that Jones should try to become the kind of person who
is initially moved by the obligation to help a stranger in
distress (an obligation that prefigures a time when class
antagonisms will no longer exist), but who undergoes a
shift in motivation when he recognizes the person to be
helped is his adversary. At that point he should be moved
by an obligation to advance the interests of workers [1].

Consider, next, the following gloss on the case for
saying that Jones should try to become the kind of person
who is moved by an antagonism-blind obligation to help

another person in distress:

(B) We live in a society where different groups of
people have different interests and different visions of the
good. To be sure, there is always the danger that the
interests of some group will have a disproportionate
influence on the overall direction of the society. But this
doesn’t mean that ethics should take sides. Rather, the
role of ethics should be to enunicate, and make effective,
overarching norms that members of all groups can accept
as setting out a mutually acceptable framework for life
in such a society. Since differing group interests and
visions of the good seem to be enduring features of modern
society, it is unlikely that we will ever achieve a society
where ethical obligations can be based on universal
interests. Thus, even when we incorporate a futurelooking dimension into the role of ethics, we should not
presuppose a social order without differing group
interests. What we need from ethics when we look to the
future is the same as what we need from ethics when we
try to deal with present conflict, viz., overarching norms
that contain conflict within mutually acceptable bounds.

This means that Jones should determine how he should act
by asking what obligations would clarify and make
effective the consensus needed for life together when
groups have different visions of the good. Once he sees
ethics in this way, he will set aside as misguided the
distinction between obligations we have toward strangers
(where one presupposes ignorance of potential conflicts
between group interests) and obligations we have toward
people regardless of whether or not we recognize them as
members of groups whose interests conflict with ours.

Only the latter kind of obligation is relevant to the task
of enunciating the consensus needed in our present society
and in any future modern society. Thus, Jones should try
to become the kind of person who is moved from the
beginning by an antagonism-blind obligation to help
another person in distress. Since such an obligation is not
affected by group differences – recognized or not, it will
lead him not only to go into the ditch in the first place
but to follow-through on the helping mission even though
he recognizes Smith as his adversary.



Here it would be well to pause briefly to show how
both (A) and (B) could have at least some purchase on
Jones. Consider, first, what might attract Jones to (A).

Suppose that as the strike drags on, some union members
are beginning to consider giving up and moving to another
town where there seem to be more jobs. Others are
thinking of pursuing an early retirement strategy. Old
personal quarrels are beginning to show themselves when
union meetings take up difficult questions such as how to
distr ibute shrinking strike benefits. Younger workers are
starting to argue with older workers on how long-term a
view the union should take. (‘Should we settle in a way
that might get us in trouble in ten years?’). Most
important of all, perhaps, Jones himself is beginning to
feel that a union defeat is possible, especially in view of
the current teChnological and political climate
(Reaganism/Thatcherism, deskilling due to automation,
etc.). Perhaps all these problems could be met without
(A)’s appeal to ethics. (Indeed, Jones yearns for the time
when co-workers lived in the same part of town, went to
the same churches, etc., and didn’t need ethics to promote
solidarity at the plant.) Perhaps new forms of solidarity
will emerge if things get bad enough, but this strikes
Jones as a risky bet. What worries him most is the
possibility that if workers don’t find a basis for unity now,
it may soon be too late for any effective resistance [2].

For all these reasons, then, Jones will be attracted to
(A), with its call for each worker to put group interests
above private interests. Such an ethic would help people
stick out the struggle rather than leave town, greatly
reduce petty squabbles, and give hope to individual

How about (B)? What might attract Jones to it? Here
we need to consider other parts of Jones’s life, say, his
work with the local veterans group (which brings together
people of different classes, religions) and his family life.

Suppose that in these other aspects of his life Jones tends
to adopt a ‘live and let live’ approach. (As he says at
veterans’ meetings, ‘Though we might not agree on
religion, we simply have to find a way to get along
together .’) Suppose Jones has gone even further with this
kind of thinking. Suppose, e.g., he’s come to think that
contemporary ‘religious wars’ between Catholics and
Protestants, between various branches of Islam, etc., are
simply crazy, that these groups have got to begin to get
along just as he and his cronies learned many years ago to
get along with soldiers of different backgrounds. Suppose
that this kind of thinking sometimes seeps into his views of
owners. (Try as he might to resist it, he finds himself
thinking ‘They’re people too – just trying to do well by
their family, etc.’) Add to all this the growing feeling on
Jones’s part that it’s just possible that the union might
lose this struggle. Maybe, then, it’s time to hold out the
olive branch a bit. When thinking along these lines, Jones
will be attracted to (B) because it makes ethics a matter
of consensus around mutually acceptable norms rather
than a matter of one point of view winning out. This pull
toward (B) would also be supported by Jones’s life as a
parent if, say, he’d been trying of late to be fairer to his
teenage son on things like what kind of music gets played
in the house. (He’s been allowing punk music on the
record player at certain agreed times even though he hates
it with a passion.)

Suppose it is granted that both (A) and (B) would have at
least some purchase on Jones’s deliberations. How might
Jones begin to deal with the obvious tension this creates?

He might well, I now want to suggest, try to strengthen
the case for (A) by fixing on a problem with (B), or vice

versa. So that important questions aren’t begged, he might
begin to focusing on internal objections to (A) and (B),
objections that require only that one take seriously the
basic ideas of (A) and (B).

Consider, first, the followng objection to our ini Hal
case for saying that Jones should try to become the kind of
person who is moved by an obligation to do what will
advance the interests of workers: (A) assumes that ethics
can play a progressive role only if workers see ethics as
grounded in the interests they have as workers. But if
ethics is to be made relative to worker interests, there can
be no objection to other groups doing the same. Now this
may not worry proponents of (A) when they are considering
the case of owners. Here they might say: ‘Let them have
their own obligations, etc. If that’s the price we pay for
workers beginning to focus on their own interests, so be it.



Nothing wiH change without class struggle and this
struggle can only be aided by a view of ethics that
clarifies the class basis of aH ethics. (A bit of ‘truth in
advertising’ won’t hurt in this case!)’ But such a
manouevre won’t work for another, much more disturbing
possibility, viz., that a group-relativist approach to ethics
will create conflicts between workers and other nonowner groups. Suppose that in some important contexts the
interests people have as women point in different
directions than interests people have as workers. Now
group relativism begins to look problematic, at least
when it’s justified by reference to its ability to unify the
historical forces needed to radicaHy change the social
order. To say obligation should be based on interests once
has as a member of a group how begins to look like a
recipe for conflict between various non-owner groups and
within individuals who are members of several such
groups. (E.g., how should a woman respond to her union’s
position on an issue when it is not clear that the interests
of women and workers coincide?) It seems, in short, that
(A)’s group-relativist approach to ethics wiH subvert
rather than promote the unity needed for an effective
struggle against the status quo.

Consider, next, the following objection to our gloss on
the case for saying that Jones should try to become the
kind of person who is moved by an antagonism-blind
obligation to help another person in distress: (B)
presupposes that people can distance themselves from the
interests they have as members of certain groups. It
assumes that they can step back from such interests and
critically endorse ethical norms that do not presuppose
any particular vision of the good. Furthermore, this
answer presupposes that people can actually be moved by
such norms once they are intellectually endorsed – even
when those norms require behaviour that goes against the
interests they have as members of particular groups. In
short, this answer presupposes what has been called a
‘Kantian’ theory of the self. But such a metaphysical
view of the self cannot serve the purposes for which it is
introduced: first, such a self is too bare a self to be able
to produce determinate, non-arbitrary norms; and second,
even if it could produce such norms, it would be a mystery
as to how they could move real people when the interests
they ha ve as members of particular groups pull them in
conflicting directions. Thus, the seemingly liberatory
vision of a morality based on critical choices of
‘unencumbered selves’ flounders on an unacceptable
metaphysical theory of persons [3].

Let me try, in the spirit of this paper, to summarize how
these objections might take hold in Jones’s deliberations.

Suppose, first, that Jones has picked up signs from his
sister, who also works at the plant, that she might not go
along with more militant union tactics if they were likely
to lead the general populace to repeal the recentlypassed program for free child care for all families.

(Suppose people are beginning to pay more attention to
those who say that women shouldn’t be in the factory or on
picket lines – that they belong at home with their
children.) This worries Jones in a way that the views of
his male cousin, who’s an officer at the local bank, do
not. Not only is his sister a co-worker, but she is part of a
group (women) that Jones realizes must be taken seriously
in this day and age. If workers do not take the interests of
women seriously, there’s a real danger that the bosses
will win by playing the groups off against one another.

(Knowing his sister, Jones places little hope in getting
women to simply give up their struggle for sexual
equality and return to being ‘good wives, good mothers’.)
All this would give the above objection – which stresses
the divisive potential of an ethics that focuses on group
interests, at least some purchase in Jones’s thinking.

Would the above objection to (B) also have at least
some purchase on Jones’s deliberations? Suppose Jones
has also picked up signs – again from his sister but also
from his wife and her woman friends, that they don’t think


that questions about what is the right thing to do can be
separated from questions about what it is to be a woman in
this day and age. He knows that women ‘get their backs
up’ when male union members say ‘Let’s leave family
matters out of this discussion, they will only confuse
issues.’ Plus, he’s noticed that there is a special kind of
solidarity that women share when they talk about their
children on the picket line. He senses that the kind of
unity women and male workers are going to need if they
are to succeed can’t be got in the way the army used to get
‘unity’ between, say, Jewish and Protestant soldiers when
he was in the army. In fact, when thinking about. these
issues, Jones is inclined to think the latter ‘unity’ was
forced and superficial. What (B) needs, but doesn’t seem
able to deliver, is a unity between women and male
workers that does not require women to downgrade ‘the
women’s point of view’.

So far I have resisted the temptation to make Jones either
a Marxist or a liberal. My concern has been to try to
show that regardless of any theorietical orientation he
would, first, be attracted to both (A) and (B); and second,
see the internal problems with both. I now want to
consider how contemporary Marxist and liberal theorists
have tried to deal with the issues we’ve raised so far.

Once these refined versions of (A) and (B) are in hand, I’ll
go on in the next section to consider the feminist critique
of both these refined positions. In the final section I’ll
try to relate these theoretical moves and counter-moves
to Jones’s situation as a White male worker.

The Marxist tradition has an answer to the above
objection to (A). It goes as follows: Class conflict is not
just one form of conflict existing alongside others. Class
conflict is primary in the sense that it is the basis for all
other forms of conflict. Milton Fisk puts this as follows:

The centrality of class polarity does not mean
merely that class domination is a reason, but that it
is the reason for other forms
domination. Hence,
theSexist attitudes of men are not themselves
sufficient to sustain women’s oppression. Attitudes
exist and change only in relation to a social context.

Thus, in a capitalist context, sexist attitudes are
intermediate factors in getting at the reason for
women’s oppression [4].

So we can set aside the worry that grounding ethics in
interests persons have as members of particular groups
will lead to irresolvable and damaging conflicts between
non-owner groups and within individuals who belong to
several such groups:

Class domination is the linchpin of the entire present
system of domination. Implicit in the aim of
liberation of any non-class group must then be the
aim of doing away with the current form of class
domination. The ethical codes valid relative to nonclass oppressed groups will be consistent with the
interests of those groups themselves only if they are
consistent with the interests, and hence the ethical
codes of dominated classes. Without implying that
there is a genuine conflict, one can then say that in
ethics class has precedence over other groups [5].

The liberal tradition also has a reply to the objection
we raised against (B). It goes as follows: A consensus
around overarching norms doesn’t require a ‘Kantian’

theory of persons, where one’s core identity is independent
of interests one has as a member of a particular group.

Indeed such a consensus needn’t presuppose any
metaphysical theory of the self at all because we don’t
have to view a political system as expressing some ideal
of the person. As Charles Larmore has recently noted, we
can look at the consensus needed in a pluralistic society
as a ‘modus vivendi among people having different
ultimate commitments (often at home in different subenvironments), a system of mutual advantage, to which we


primarily adher.e, not because it represents our deepest
self-understandIngs, but rather for the more prudential
reason that it serves our other values’ [6]. So it’s just
false that such a consensus rules out a ‘constitutive role
for the interests we have as members of particular groups.

All that is ~equired that in the public realm we abstract
frm those Interests that constitute our identity in the
prIvate realm. Once we set aside the notion that a
political order must express some ideal of the person, we
can see why deep differences in such ideals don’t subvert
the project of enunciating and making effective a
consensus for a society such as ours.

Rawls makes just this point when he says that the
‘ori~inal position’ – his favoured device for enunciating a
public consensus about justice, no more ‘commits us to a
metaphysical doctrine about the nature of the self than
our playing a game like monopoly commits us to thinking
t~at we are landlords engaged in a disparate rivalry,
Winner take all’ [7]. All that his approach presupposes,
Rawls now argues, is that as citizens we can step back
from those loyalties that are constitutive of our identity
in our private lives:

It is essential to stress that citizens in their personal
affairs, or in the internal life of associations to
which they belong, may regard their final ends and
attachments in a way very different from the way the
political conception involves. Citizens may have,
and n~rmally do have at any given time, affections,
devotions, and loyalties that they believe they
would not, and indeed could and should not, stand
apar~ from and. objectively evaluate from the point
of View of their purely rational good. They may
regard it as simply unthinkable to view themselves
apart from certain religious, philosophical, and
moral convictions, or from certain enduring
attachments and loyalties. These convictions and
attachments are part of what we may call their
‘nonpublic identity’. These convictions and
attachments help to organize and give shape to a
person’~ way of life, ~ha~ one sees oneself as doing
and trYing to accomplish In one’s social world. We
think that if we were suddenly without these
particular convictions and attachments we would be
disoriented and unable to carry on. In fact, there
would be, we might think, no point in carrying on.

But our conceptions of the good may and often do
change over time, usually slowly but sometimes
rather s~ddenly. When these changes are sudden, we
are partIcularly likely to say that we are no longer
the same person. We know what this means: we refer
to a profound and pervasive shift or reversal in our
final ends and character; we refer to our dtt’ferent
nonpublic, and possibly moral or religious, identity.

On the road to Damascus Saul of Tarsus becomes
Paul the Apostle. There is no change in our public
or political identity, nor in our personal identity as
this concept is understood by some writers in the
philosophy of mind [8].

Are these replies adequate? I think not; for both confront
serious external objections, objections put forward most
forcefully by feminists and spokespersons for the various
movements for racial equality. Although I will
concentrate on showing how the women’s movement
~hallenges the refined versions of (A) and (B), it is
Important to note that parallel challenges are implicit in
the various movements for racial equality. (As we shall
see in the final section, the various movements for racial
equality not only offer confirmation of the feminist
critique of the refined versions of (A) and (B), they also
express a point of view which, like that of women must be
taken into account by people like Jones if a third’

approach to ethics is to take hold in history.)
There is at present a serious debate within the women’s
movement as to how the struggle for sexual equality
relates to workers’ struggle for economic equality. Both
sides in this debate agree that women’s struggle for sexual
equal~ty must be se~n as autonomous, that the goal of
equality for women is to be pursued for its own sake and
not just as a means to ending economic inequality. But
feminists differ as to what this means for the orthodox
Marxist claim concerning the primacy of economic
conflict. Some argue that honouring the autonomy of the
struggle for sexual equality demands nothing short of a
total rejection of the Marxian claim and its replacement
by the claim that patriarchal forces are primary [9].

Others argue for a ‘dual systems’ approach, granting equal
force to economic and patriarchal factors. It is this last
position that brings out most clearly the feminist
challenge to (A) as we have developed it so far. The
problem cannot be glossed as follows: On the one hand,
It seems that one cannot preserve the autonomy of the
struggle for sexual equality if one makes it an aspect of a
~arger struggle for economic equality; on the other hand,
it seems that the struggle for sexual equality can’t be a
historically effective struggle unless it is seen as part of
a larger economic struggle. Granted, writers such as
Jul~e~ Mitchell have tried to soften this tension. by.

claImmg that ‘the social conditions of work under
capitalism potentially contain the overthrow of the
exploitative conditions into which they are harnessed and
it is these same social conditions that make potentially
redundant the laws of patriarchal culture’ [10]. But it is
unclear whether her political point – that ‘There is no
~uestion ~f eith~r political movement taking precedence,’

is compatIble WIth her theoretical point that ‘the social
condition~ of work under capitalism’ hold the key to
progress In the struggle for sexual equality [11]. Indeed
just this worry is behind Iris Young’s critique of the du;l
systems approach. She therefore calls for a view of
historic?l materialism that employs new categories,
categorIes that don’t assign primacy to either economic or
patriarchal forces but which instead capture the dynamics
of ‘capitalist patriarchy’. To be sure, the Marxian
feminist would at this point reassert the intuition that
f~minists can’t a~ford to blur Marx’s insights by trying to
fmd new categorIes for understanding ‘capitalist
patriarchy’ [12]. But my aim here is not to try to say who
h~s ~on this particular debate within feminist theory.

aIm is ~uch ~~re modest, viz., to show that an important
strand m femmIst throught presents a serious challenge to
(A) as we’ve developed it so far [l3]. Suppose it turns out
that the best explanation of sexual inequality does not
presuppose the primacy of underlying economic structures.

Then the interests people have as workers may not point in
the same direction as the interests women have due to
their sex/gender position.

Certain features of feminist theory also cast doubt on
the refined version of (B) we considered above. To set the
stage for this part of my argument I want to consider
briefly Charles Taylor’s analysis of what is involved in
critical agency. To Taylor, such agency must build on,
rather than transcend, certain ‘horizons’ or ‘fundamental


evaluations’ of the person:

Our identity is ••• defined by certain evaluations
which are inseparable from ourselves as agents.

Shorn of these we would cease to be ourselves, by
which we do not mean trivally that we would be
different in the sense of having some properties other
than those we not have – this would indeed be the
case after any change however minor – but that shorn
of these we would lose the very possibility of being
an agent who evaluates; that our existence as
persons, and henc our ability to adhere as persons to
certain evaluations, would be impossible outside the
horizon of these essential evaluations, what we
would break down is persons, be incapable of being
persons in the full sense.

The notio.n of identity refers us to certain
evaluations which are essential because these are
the indispensable horizon or foundation out of which
we reflect and evaluate as persons. To lose this
horizon, or not to have found it, is indeed a terrifying
experience of disaggregation and loss. This is why
we can speak of an ‘identity-crisis’ when we have
lost our grip on who we are. A self decides and acts
out of certain fundamental evaluations [14].

Sandel makes a similar point when he says: ‘While the
notion of constitutive attachments may at first seem an
obstacle to agency – the self, now encumbered, is no
longer strictly prior – some relative fixity of character
appears essential to prevent the lapse into arbitrariness’

[15]. But Sandel does not stop with Taylor’s general
claim that a reflective agent must build on his or her
constitutive attachments. He goes on to make the more
specific claim that such an agent must build on her or his
group loyalties. Sandel acknowledges the need to ground
critical agency in group loyalties in his discussion of what
is involved in having character or moral depth:

To imagine a person incapable of constitutive
attachments ••• is not to conceive an ideally free and
rational agent, but to imagine a person wholly
without character, without moral depth. For to have
character is to know that I move in a history I neither
summon nor command, which carries consequences
none the less for my choices and conduct. It draws
me closer to some and more distant to others; it
makes some aims more appropriate, others less so.

As a self-interpreting being, I am able to reflect on
my history and in this sense to distance myself from
it, but the distance is always precarious and
provisional, the point of reflection never finally
secured outside the history itself. A person with
character thus knows that he is implicated in various
ways even as he reflects, and feels the moral weight
of what he knows [16].

It is important to note that Taylor and Sandel are not
making metaphysical claims about what it is to be a
person. Rather, they are bringing to the fore certain
psychological facts about reflective agency. Thus, it
won’t do to say that their points only cut against those
views of ethics that presuppose a ‘Kantian’ self. They are
psychological claims that have implications for any
theory that takes ethical norms to be the result of
critical reflection. To be sure, they would have no
purchase against a view that is so bold as to say that it
doesn’t matter how individuals come to accept societal
norms. But I take it that even on a ‘modus vivendi’ account
of a liberal consensus, we don’t want this consensus to be
a result of indoctrination or just a consequence of passive,
unthinking acquienscence. Rawls himself wants a
consensus around ‘justice as fairness’ to be result of an
affirmation by critical agents:

••• justice as fairness tries to present a conception of
political justice rooted in the basic intuitive ideas
found in the public CUlture of a constitutional
democracy. We conjecture that these ideas are
likely to be affirmed by each of the opposing


comprehensive moral doctrines influential in a
reasonably just democratic society [17].

It is significant that Rawls does not contrast the
consensus he seeks with an unthinking acceptance of
overarching norms. The latter is not for him a serious
contender. Instead, Rawls contrasts his consensus with
one that is based on agreement as to the good. Rawlsian
citizens affirm similar norms, but do not do so on the basis
of a shared vision of the good:

In justice as fairness, a social unity is understood by
starting with the conception of society as a system of
cooperation between free and equal persons. Social
unity and the allegiance of citizens to their common
institutions are not founded on their all affirming
the same conception of the good, but on their
publicly accepting a political conception of justice
to regulate the basic structure of society [1&].

Different groups will affirm justice as fairness for
different reasons – but none simply go along with it for no
reason at all. Indeed, what stability there will be will
rest on the fact that there are various bases of

–As for the question of whether this unity is stable,
this importantly depends on the content of the
religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines
available to constitute an overlapping consensus.

For example, assuming the public political
conception to be justice as fairness, imagine citizens
to affirm one of three views: the first view affirms
justice as fairness because its religious beliefs and
understanding of faith lead to a principle of
toleration and underwrite the fundamental idea of
society as a scheme of social cooperation between
free and equal persons; the second view affirms it as
a consequence of a comprehensive liberal moral
conception such as those of Kant and Mill; while the
third affirms justice as fairness not as a consequence
of any wider doctrine but as in itself sufficient to
express values that normally outweigh whatever
other values might oppose them, at least under
reasonably favorable conditions. This overlapping
consensus appears far more stable than one founded
on views that express skepticism and indifference to
religious, philosophical, and moral values, or that
regard the acceptance of the principles of justice
simply as a prudent modus vivendi given the existing
balance of social forces. Of course, there are many
other possibilities [19].

Rawls’s last remark, where he rejects a modus vivendi
approach to justice, seems to suggest that Rawls wants to
take a middle position between what Sandel calls
‘deontological liberalism’ (which makes critical agency
problematic) and a purely prudential liberalism (which
leaves no room for non-prudential commitments).

Larmore, by the way, suggests such a middle ground when
he says that the modus vivendi approach can find room for
values that do not themselves have a prudential basis: ‘In
the midst of disagreement about the good life it not only
preserves civil peace, but also protests our own particular
view of the good and, because of the variety it permits,
enriches our sense of its value. (These other values need
not themselves have a prudential basis.)’ [20]. The
question remains, however, as to whether such a manoeuvre
can succeed: does such a middle ground provide arguments
for the greater stability of the liberal consensus as Rawls
suggests; or does it undercut such a consensus by
smuggling-in the notion that one’s own view of the good is
after all the best view of the good? But again, my aim is
not to show that we have a knock-down external objection
to our refined version of (B). My aim is simply to show
that there is a serious challenge here. That challenge, to
summarize the above, goes as follows: Taylor and
Sandel’s point that critical agency must build on group
loyalties seems to generate a conflict between the
Rawlsian requirement that we transcend such loyalties

and the Rawlsian requirement that we affirm (as critical
agents) the norms constituting the consensi:i’S around
‘justice as fairness’. It seems, then, that either the
defender of (B) must give up the notion of a consensus
between people with different constitutive ties or she
must give up the claim that such a consensus is affirmed as
the result of critical reflection. Lest all this strike the
reader as a bit of philosophic slight-of-hand, I want once
more to suggest that this challenge is implicit in
contemporary feminist theory. Feminists make Sandel’s
point about the importance of ‘constitutive attachments’

wh~n they argue that the struggle for sexual equality
requires a ‘feminist standpoint’ [21]. Thus, despite their
differences feminists seem to agree with Nancy Hartsock
when she says that ‘consciousness raising groups’ are
important because they teach women to ‘build their
analysis from the ground up, beginning with their own
experience’ [22], and with Naomi Scheman who says that
‘Rather than claim the right ••• to transcend our
experiences as women, I would urge us to speak out of that
experience, as part of a way of changing it, but also out of
a recogni tion of what there is to learn from the
perspectives on human life that have been distinctively
ours’ [23]. None of this should be taken as suggesting that
feminists argue that affirming the ‘constitutive
attachments’ one has as a woman is all that there is to
becoming a critical agent. As Jane Flax has argued, it
only a necessary component in such a process:

It is necessary to develop an autonomous feminist
viewpoint ••• But women’s experience, which has
been excluded from the realm of the known, of the
rational, is not in itself an adequate ground for
theory. As the other pole of the dualities it must be
incorporated and transcended… Feminist theory and
practice must thus include a therapeutic aspect, with
consciousness raising as a model and an emphasis on
process as political [24].

The point that emerges from th,js focus on a ‘feminist
viewpoint’ as a necessary starting point is that it may be
difficult to get the critical agents needed for a Rawlsian
consensus if each of us is required to see our constitutive
loyalties as something that we could abandon. While
there is a sense of personal identity in which he who was
called ‘Saul of Tarsus’ is the same person who came to be
called ‘Paul’, the feminist point makes it unclear whether
such a tolerant sense of personal identity promotes
critical agency. It may instead rob potential critical
agents of the necessary starting point for realizing that

What does all this mean for Jones? I want to conclude by
suggesting that Jones will reject the refined versions of
(A) and (B) insofar as the women’s movement has had a
positive impact on his concerns and deliberations. This
last qualification is important. If contemporary history
has passed Jones by – if he simply refuses to acknowledge
the legitimacy of his sister’s concern with day care, if he
stomps out of the house whenever his wife raises the issue
of sharing household chores, if he flies into a rage every

time his teenage daughter talks about getting birth
control pills, the above objections will have no purchase
on his thought. Let’s suppose, then, that while Jones has
not become a thorough-going feminist, he has come to
realize that conflicts between workers’ interests and
women’s interests cannot be resolved by persuading women
to downplay their interests or to abandon the ‘woman’s
point of view’. Does this mean that Jones won’t be able to
salvage anything at all from (A) and (B)? I think not; for
Jones may come to see that there is a way of drawing on
the attractive features of (A) and (B) while avoiding their
problems. Here again I want to separate my argument into
two stages. First, I will abstract from the specifics of
Jones’s situation (who, as we’ve been assuming, has been
exposed to only one of the contemporary movements for
equality, viz., the women’s movement) and sketch a third
approach to ethics that calls for a consensus amongst all
dominated groups (racial minorities as well as women and
workers). Then I will return to Jones’s situation (as we’ve
characterized it so far) and consider whether this third
approach stands any chance of taking hold in the lives of
people like Jones.

Since I’ll be suggesting that there is something to be
salvaged from (A) and (B), it would be helpful to review
briefly what is attractive about them. (A) is attractive
because it is realistic without being pessimistic concerning
the role of ethics. It begins by granting that an appeal to
overarching norms has often been used to stabilize a
social order where the interests of one group are
sacr ificed to those of another. But it goes on to suggest
that if ethics were grounded in the interests of dominated
groups, ethical norms could be used to marshall the
histor ical forces needed to change such a social order.

They could do this by encouraging individuals to put group
interests above the purely private interests that subvert
the group unity needed to challenge existing inequalities.

To be sure, there is a strand in Marxist thought that
rejects any role at all for ethical motivation, but this
claim has never been entirely convincing and to the
degree that it fails to convince, to that degree .we .are
attracted to (A) [25]. The appeal of (B) can also be seen
as resting on a kind of realism. While it conveys a
general optimism regarding what ethics can do, it also
insists that ethics can’t do everything. In particular, it
can’t create a shared vision of the good when, due to the
centrifugal forces of modern society, diverse ways of life
give rise to diverse visions of the good. What ethics ~~ do
is much more modest, viz., help contending groups work
out a mutually acceptable compromise. While the norms
that make up such a consensus will not be the best
possible norms from the point of view of any particular
group, they will be the best that can be got in a modern
society. Granted, some theorists have argued that it is
possible to create a shared vision of the good even under
modern conditions and so it is possible for us to move
beyond ethics as a mutually acceptable compromise [26].

But again this claim has never been entirely convincing
and so (B) has at least some attr.action.

How might these features of (A) and (B) be used to avoid
the problems raised in the previous section? Consider,
first, the sorry that claims about the primacy of economic
domination would subvert the autonomy of other
contemporary struggles against inequality. This worry
could be addressed by drawing on (B)’s notion of ethics as
enunciating a consensus amongst groups that differ as to
their ultimate commitments. This view of ethics would
differ from (B) in that the scope of such a consensus would
be limited to the various groups which, through their
particular struggles for equality, are Challenging the
status quo. It would make no pretence of enunciating
norms that would be acceptable to ~ groups, including
those whose interests are served by existing inequalities.

Such a consensus would still be a compromise, however, in
that no dominated group would take it to be an adequate
expression of their particular vision of the good. But the


point to be stressed is that such a view of ethics would put
the various struggles for equality on an equal footing something a claim about the primacy of economic
domina tion (or sexual or racial) would not do. Consider,
next, the worry that the goal of creating a consensus
around overarching norms would flounder on the fact that
individuals who are asked to transcend their constitutive
loyalties would be incapable of critically affirming any
norms at all. On the modified view we’re now considering,
this worry would be met by drawing on (A)’s notion that
ethics should be grounded in the interest dominated groups
have in ending their domination. On this third view,
members of dominated groups begin by affirming the
constitutive loyalties due to their group memberships and
the idea is that as a result of this first affirmation they
will go on to a second affirmation, viz., of the need to
work together with other dominated groups if ~ struggle
against domination is to succeed. That is, affirming one’s
constitutive ties as a worker, a woman or a member of a
racial minority is a necessary first step toward
participating in the historical process whereby the needed
inter-group solidarity will be created.

Suppose it is granted that this third approach looks
promising at the theoretical level. This would mean
little if it didn’t also look promising at the practical
level, if it didn’t also promise to engage the concerns and
deliberations of people like Jones. I want to conclude,
therefore, with some highly tentative remarks about the
practical prospects for this third approach. Here I think it
is important to resist two temptations. The first has to do
with my suggestion that the women’s movement has had at
least some impact on White male workers like Jones. Our
third approach requires that Jones will be equally
influenced by the movements for racial equality. But it
seems to me tha t our racially segregated society makes
this more problematic than the claim that Jones has been
forced to take more seriously the interests of women. I do
not in any way mean to suggest that racism is ‘deeper’ than
sexism in some abstract sense. Rather, my point is that
existing social arrangements push White male workers
toward acknowledging the ‘woman’s point of view’ in a
way that they do not force them to acknowledge, say, the
‘Black person’s point of view’ [27]. The first temptation to
be resisted, then, is the temptation to ignore crucial
differences between the opportunities for progressive
interactions between men and women on the one hand, and

between Whites and members of racial minorities on the
other hand. Perhaps all this will change as economic
factors force White workers to interact with minorities (in,
say, trips to welfare offices by unemployed White workers
or by the latter being forced to move into low-rent areas
of the city), but for now these differences are serious
obstacles to the third approach taking hold in the li ves of
people like Jones. The second temptation that needs to be
resisted is to argue for the viability of our third approach
(for people like Jones) by pointing to its viability for a
quite different kind of person, viz., a person whose
constitutive ties span all three strategic groups.· Take,
e.g., the case of the Black woman worker. Such a person
has a special reason for adopting the third approach to
ethics: it promises a way of creating a coherent self
without downplaying any of her constitutive loyalties. So
while it is encouraging to see minority women calling for
something very close to this third approach [28], one can’t
simply assume that people like Jones will be attracted to

None of the above should be taken as indicating that
believe it is unlikely that this third view will take hold
in history. (Indeed, I believe that if the situation of White
male workers continues to worsen, and if the other
movements for equality continue to press their cases,
there will be significant movement toward this third view
of ethics.) Rather, my point is that we have no guarantee
that it will take hold in the lives of enough people to
usher in a new social order. Just here is where one begins
to sense anew the attractions of (A) and (B). (A) now
attracts us because a primary source of domination would
seem to guarantee that sooner or later all dominated
groups will see the need to band together in fighting the
root cause of domination. (B) now tempts us because a
consensus that sets aside the question of who dominates
whom might be easier to achieve than a consensus amongst
dominated groups. (Dominated groups might endorse such a
consensus in the hope that it would take the rough edges
off of existing inequalities and lead sooner. or .later to a
‘withering away’ of domination itself.) In this paper I’ve
tried to get out some reasons why we should resist falling
back on a version of (A) or (B). I am inclined to think that
if the alternative is deep pessimism as to the possibility of
radical social change, then some version of (A) or (B)
would be the lesser of two ev its.





This way of introducing a forward-looking dimension into the first
answer is developed by Milton Fisk in Ethics and ~ociety: ~ ~arxist
Interpretation ~ Value (Harvester Press, Sussex, 1980): ‘HO I am driving
along a deserted street and come across the victim of a hit-and-run
accident who needs immediate medical case; or I am playing baseball
with my son in the park and play expands into a game as we are joined
by a group of strangers. Each of these cases represents a gap in my
class existence. Each provides a foretaste of life apart from the
conflict resulting from the relations of domination. within class
society… The rights and obligations of people during such gaps are
different than they are elsewhere. Though Rockefeller of Exxon is
owed nothing by me, Rockefeller the unidentified hit-and-run victim or
the unidentified second baseman is’ (p. 12).

For a recent discussion of this worry, with particular reference to the
need for active resistance to automation, see David Noble, ‘Present
Tense Technology’, Democracy (Fall 1983). To Noble, ‘the same
technology that has extended capital’s reach and range of control has
also rendered it more dependent upon highly complex, expensive, and
precarious systems and thus more vulnerable to worker resistance and
especially to disruption through direct action.’ But it is ‘becoming
increasingly apparent that this “window of vulnerability” of capital
will not stay open forever. At some point, the situation will become
stabilized, the new systems will be sufficiently debugged and the
opportunities for opposition will be foreclosed. Moreover, in light of
the current trend toward an ever-weaker labor movement, more people
are beginning to understand that, however weak it might be now, labor
is at present more powerful than it is likely to be in the future’ (p.

76). [Note: This essay is part of Noble’s forthcoming book, Smash
~achines, Not People (Singlejack Books, Box 1906, San Pedro, Calif
90733, USI).]
Michael Sandel develops these points in his critique of what he calls
‘deontological liberalism’ (Liberalism and the Limits ~ Justice,


Cambridge University Press, 1983): ‘ ••• the deontological self, being
wholly without character, is incapable of self-knowledge in any
morally serious sense. Where the self is unencumbered and
essentially dispossessed, no person is left for self-reflection to
reflect upon. This is why, on the deontological view, deliberation
about ends can only be an exercise in arbitrariness… When I act out o(
more or less enduring qualities of character, by contrast, my choice of
ends is not arbitrary in the same way… I ask, as I deliberate, not only
what I really want but who I really am, and this last question takes
me beyond an attention to my desires alone to reflect on my identity
itself… Although there may be a certain ultimate contingency in my
having wound up the person I am – only theology can say for sure – it
makes a moral difference none the less tha t, being the person I am, I
affirm these ends rather than those, turn this way rather than that.

While the notion of constitutive attachments may at first seem an
obstacle to agency – the self, now encumbered, is no longer strictly
prior – some relative fixity of character appears essential to prevent
the lapse into arbitrariness which the deontological self is unable to
avoid’ (p. 180).

Fisk, Ethics and Society, p. 50.

Ibid., pp. 51-52.

-Charles Larmore, ‘Liberalism and Limits of Justice’, Journal of
Philosophy, vol. LXXXI, No. 6 (June 1984), p. 338. – – – John Rawls, ‘Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical’,
Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Summer 1985), p. 239. It
should be noted that although Rawls seems to endorse this ‘nonexpressivist’ (in Larmore’s terms) view in ‘Kantian Constructivism in
Moral Theory’, it is not until ‘Justice as Fairness: Political Not
Metaphysical’ that he explicitly sets himself to the task of showing
that ‘Justice as fairness can be understood as political not
metaphysical’ (p. 224). Rawls sets aside Sandel’s critique of his work
by saying: ‘I think Michael Sandel mistaken in supposing that the




original position involves a conception of the seif ” ••• shorn of all its
contingently-given attributes”, a self that “assumes a kind of supraempirical status, ••• and given prior to its ends, a pure subject of
agency and possession, ultimately thin” ••• I cannot discuss these
criticisms in any detail. The essential point (as suggested in the
introductory remarks) is not whether certain passages in Theory call
for such an interpretation (I doubt that they do) but whether the
conception of justice as fairness presented therein can be understood in
the light of the interpretation I sketch in this artIcle and in the
earlier lectures on constructivism, as I believe it can’ (p. 239n).

Ibid., pp. 240-41.

Perhaps the clearest statement of this position is due to Shulamith
Firestone in The Dialectic .Q!. Sex (Bantam, New York, 1970).

Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism (Vintage Books, New
York, 1975), p. 412.

Issac Ualbus develops such a critique of Mitchell in Marxism and
Domination (Princeton University Press, 1982), pp. f78-88. Young develops her position in ‘Socialist Feminism and the Limits of
Dual Systems Theory’, Socialist Review, Nos. 50-51, March/June 1980.

For a Marxian critique of Young’s position see Milton Fisk’s ‘Feminism,
Socialism and Bistorical Materialism’, Praxis International, July 1982.

Fisk calls for an historical materialism that distinguishes between
stimulus causes and the underlying structural causes. On Fisk’s view,
this would allow us to say that ‘Neither economics events nor related
class phenomena have primacy as stimulus causes. But the economic is
primary as a structure within which both patriarchy and racism can act
as stimulus causes’ (p. 124).

Similar debates occur within other liberation movements. E.g., Harold
Cruse sees the orthodox Marxian claim as to the primacy of class
conflict as subverting the autonomy of the movement for equality for
Blacks: ‘ ••• desiring to see the Negro group as an appendage to the main
body of white workers, the Marxists have been unable, theoretically
and practically, to set the Negro off and see him in terms of his own
national minority group existence and identity inclusive of his class,
caste, and ideological stratifications. (Rebellioni and Revolution,
Apollo Editions, New York, 1968, p. 229.)
Charles Taylor, ‘What Is Human Agency’, in The Self: Psychological
and Philosophical Issues, ed. T. Mischel (Blackwell, Oxford, 1977), p.


Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, p. 179.

Ibid, p. 179.

– – – –John Rawls, ‘Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical’, p. 246.

Ibid., p. 249.

Ibid., p. 250.

Larmore, ‘Review of Liberalism and the Limits of Justice’, p. 338.

Ma1colm X makes a similar point when, in explaining why he was

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drawn to Black Nationalism, he says: ‘Well, in competitive American
society, how can there even be any White-Black solidarity before
there is first some Black solidarity? ••• Even when I was a follower of
Elijah Muhammad, I had been strongly aware of how Black Nationalist
political, economic and social philosophies had the ability to instill
within black men the racial dignity, the incentive, and the confidence
that the black race needs today to get up off its knees, and to get on
its feet, and get rid of its scars, and to take a stand for itself’ (The
Autobiography .Q!. ~alcolm ~, Ballatine Books, New York, 1965, p.-374).

Nancy . Hartsock, ‘Feminist Theory and the Development of
Revolutionary Strategies’, in Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for
Socialist Feminism, ed. Z. Eisenstein (Monthly Review, New York,
1978), p. 59. Teresa de Lauretis supports this point when she says: ‘the
fact that today the expression “consciousness raising” has become dated
and more than slightly unpleasant, as any word will that has been
appropriated, diluted, digested and spewed out by the media, does not
diminish the social and subjective impact of a practice – the collective
articulation of one’s experience of sexuality and gender – which has
produced, and continues to elaborate, a radically new mode of
understanding the subject’s relation to social-historical reality’

(Alice Doesn’t, Macmillan, London, 1984, p. 185).

Naomi Scheman, ‘Individualism and the Objects of Psychology’, in
Discovering Reality, ed~ S. Harding and M. B. Hintikka (Reidel, Boston,
1983), p. 242.

Jane Flax, ‘The Patriarchal Unconscious’, in Discovering Reality, ed.

S. Harding and M. B. Hintikka, p. 270.

For a recent interpretation of Marx’s own position on this issue and a
critique of the view that the revolutionary project need not appeal to
ethical motivation, see Alien Buchanan, Marx and Justice: The
Radical Critigue .Q!. Liberalism (Rowman aOdLittlefold~lowa, N.

J., 1982).

Roberto Unger holds out for this possibility in Knowledge and Politics
(Free Press, New York, 1975). Unger warns, however, against using this
possibility as an excuse for downplaying, here and now, the various
struggles for equality. ‘Until ••• the central problem of domination is
resolved, the search for community is condemned to be idolatrous, or
utopian, or both at once’ (p. 252).

This is even more true, I believe, for White academics. Typically we
live in White neighbourhoods and have little opportunity to interact at
a daily level with members of racial minorities as they struggle to
deal with crime, absentee landlords, etc.

For a survey of some recent work in this area, see E. Frances White,
‘Listening to the Voices of Black Feminism’, Radical America, Vol. 18,
No. 2-3; Margarite Fernandez Olmos, ‘Sex, Color, and-Class in
Contemporary Puerto Rican Women Authors’, Heresies, 15, pp. 46-47.


Special Issue on the work of Agnes Helier
(Number 16, to be published April 1987) including
articles by Agnes Helier, Richard Bernstein
Axel Honneth, Sandor Radnoti, David’Cooper,
Amadeo Vigorelli and Gaspar Tamas, plus articles
on labourism in Australia by Frank Castles and
John Murphy

Current Issue, number 15, 1986, includes:

Social Democracy in Austraiia
Stuart Macintyre
Please make
cheques payable to
Thesis Eleven

Arendt’s Political Theory
Ferenc Feher
Praxis and Poesis
Gyorgy Markus
Foucault and Adorno
Axel Honneth
Plus Karl- Werner Brandt on new social movements,
Michael Bittman on Marx and Weber and an
interview with Gayatari Spivak

Send to:

Thesis Eleven,
Dept. of Sociology
and Politics,
Phillip Institute
of Technology,
Bundoora, 3083

Previous Issue, number 14, 1986, includes Juergen
Habermas on Foucault and Kant, Axel Honneth on
Castoriadis, Sean Sayers on leisure and needs, Paul
Redding on Habermas, Lyotard and Wittgenstein,
Liz Gross on Derrida and Mitchell Dean on Foucault
and modernity, plus Chilla Bulbeck and Peter
Beilharz on the ACTU-ALP Accord


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