Approval and Condemnation: Must they be based on Morality?

Gordon Fitch gcf at
Tue May 15 08:51:18 PDT 2001

Carrol Cox:
>>> ...
>>> This assumption that any word of approbation or approval is necessarily
>>> a moral proposition referring to a "moral order" is merely itself a
>>> manifestation of the power of moralism. But while Gordon (on lbo-talk)
>>> was probably being facetious in his references to god in his response,
>>> he should have been deadly serious. ...

Gordon Fitch:
>> On the contrary, I was quite serious, although possibly not
>> quite deadly (enough).
>> For some reason, human beings, needing God,

Carrol Cox:
> This is simply not true, either as a general statement or as an
> empirical summary of human experience. Most humans (including most of
> those who claim, if asked, to believe in god) get along very well
> without any god.

If that were true, then they wouldn't be so busy making them.

Gordon Fitch:
>> are born into a
>> world in which God is materially absent. Therefore, they must
>> find or create God (or the gods, or Nature, or reality --
>> Nietzche's God-in-the-grammar).

Carrol Cox:
> _You_ seem to need some sort of god. Most humans don't in fact. God is
> no more absent than are three-headed field mice, one-ton blue frogs with
> three eyes, etc. You seem to argue that we need some metaphysical
> absolute in order to ground our approval and disaproval of this or that.
> But none exists, so we'd better learn how to get along without one. But
> as it happens, we never really needed such a support and don't now. We
> are better off without it, since in fact all such supports (as Ollman
> suggests) turn out to be disguised arguments for capitalism.

I don't see any fixed connection between religious beliefs in general and capitalism in particular. It seems to be instead that capitalist processes influence people to select some religious beliefs and reject others; but the godmaking (or godfinding) urge goes on, capitalism or not, and so we find gods before and after and in between capitalism, as well as with it and of it.

Carrol Cox:
> It is no accident that the single greatest argument for some
> metaphysical "Good," the ultimate source perhaps of all such arguments,
> was written originally as a really vicious attack on the legitimacy of
> Athenian peasants interfering in affairs of their betters. Morality (as
> a standard or set of fixed principles or value judgments) is reactionary
> to its core.

It's a fallacy to attribute evil to an idea merely because it has been used by evil persons or in an evil way.

Carrol Cox:
> Here what is your original post:

Gordon Fitch:
> <<It doesn't seem to me that any kind of long-term social
> enterprise could be carried out without some sort of "fixed
> principles" simply as a matter of maintaining sufficient
> coherence to know that what had been done before was connected
> to what was done after;>>

Carrol Cox:
> We need to try not to get mixed up over mere word usage. The kind of
> principles you refer to here, when you speak of the coherence of a
> movement, are what in leninist tradition (and I presume other
> traditions) are called "principles of unity." These have nothing to do
> with approval or disapproval and are irrelevant to the present
> discussion.
> We are talking about "value judgments," not, for example, the principles
> of analytic geometry, or the kind of principle we have in mind when we
> speak of "principled argument," or "explanatory principles," and the
> context is Ollman's suggestion that, had Marx written a work on ethics,
> the question would have been posed as: ""Why are approval and
> condemnation represented in our society as value judgements?" It is a
> historical argument -- the implication is that condemnation and approval
> do _not_ under all historical conditions take the form of value
> judgments, i.e., judgments that refer to a specific realm of "value"
> which exists independently of human practice and thought and which may
> be appealed to.

Analytic geometry and its sisters and cousins can come into being only because some people have a fixed, even obsessive principle of being concerned with -- that is, valuing -- its content. The people who do this generally attribute great ontological status to their concerns and findings -- that is, they regard them as _truth_, something always available to everyone. Yet they don't drop out of the sky by any means -- they must be _made_ -- so it's a curious kind of eternal being. However, most people can't summon the will to deal with analytic geometry without this notion of permanence. No one who cares about gemoetry believes the theorems will all be different tomorrow; they believe in the fixed principles of their form and its validity. We might as well recognize this belief.

And in this regard, it seems difficult to find any other sort of ground for the composition of, say, _Capital_. There are all kinds of values tied up in such an act of thought and writing that demonstrate a sober and sincere belief -- and profession of belief -- in the enduring value of the work and the validity of what it shows. It is Lenin who is playing word games when he talks about "principles of unity" as if this were anything different. Otherwise we would be unable to distinguish Marx from Baudrillard (or Cantinflas).

Gordon Fitch:
> << if God were not in the grammar (and
> the vocabulary as well) we would have to have invented her if
> only in order to recognize ourselves. The insincerity of
> hiding her will multiply our labors.>>

Carrol Cox:
> Nonsense. This is mere assertion, and I can't make any coherent sense of
> it.

Then you're not trying very hard. In longer form: we create (perhaps illusory) eternal principles so we will know who we are -- so we will recognize ourselves in the past and the future, in the distance as well as at home. We demand social and cultural coherence and insist that it's grounded in something external to ourselves -- this is probably a biological necessity. It's silly to pretend otherwise.

Carrol Cox:
> The immediate impetus for my posting on Ollman was the argument
> (underway on both lists) that "non-violence" was in and of itself a
> _principle_ in terms of which one could judge any and all situations in
> which the question of violence came up. I deny that any such "fixed
> principle" exists in terms of which one can pass a "value judgment" on a
> particular act of "violence," and I denied that there were any "fixed
> principles," any always applicable judgments of the correctness or
> incorrectness of violence in a given instance. I would also argue that
> the practice of advancing arguments against "violence" as such, in terms
> of some such moral principle or "value judgment" is almost always
> politically divisive. And it achieves nothing -- that is, in practice
> violence is never controlled by arguments about violence in the
> abstract. And my principle here is an analytic and historical one, not a
> moral one. Progressive movements are disrupted by debates over the
> morality or immorality of violence. And if you ask why we should "value"
> progressive movements I reply with the proposition that we are here
> talking to each other and your question is as silly as the question of
> does the world really exist. (Incidentally, for later reference, this is
> both where the discussion of Timpanaro on pen-l is relevant and the
> context for making sense of Doyle's post. Timpanaro argues that the only
> serious epistemological questions are questions for neuroscience rather
> than for philosophy.)

I have to point out again that denying that there can be any fixed principle (like non-violence) as a basis for values is itself a fixed principle, indeed, a fixed _metaphysical_ principle. The most that rigorous skeptics and nihilists can say is "I don't see any fixed principle here" and not "there's no such thing." (That is, if we apply the more or less fixed principle of demanding consistency and meaningfulness from our skeptics and nihilists.)

Gordon Fitch:
>> Hence this contradiction: almost everyone says there is a
>> moral order,

Carrol Cox:
> I don't. Ollman doesn't. Marx didn't. No one who is an atheist has any
> basis for claiming that there is a moral order.

An atheist who values atheism (believes it is truth) is already hopelessly entangled with a moral order -- the idea of truth is the idea of a moral order. As for you an Ollman and Marx, you all seem to believe there is some kind of enduring, valuable relationship between phenomena and your theories, indeed, with some _Ding_an_sich_ behind the phenomena. Real nihilists just laugh all this stuff off, if they pay any attention to it at all.

Gordon Fitch:
>> or acts as if one exists,

Carrol Cox:
> Not true. Everyone acts as though they approve or disapprove of various
> features of their world, which is empirically true. The attempt to label
> such acts of approval or disapproval as moral judgments is an
> ideological error. No one really believes in such a moral order. They
> just resort to it when challenged.

Well, I disagree. Until one of us comes up with some extensive sociological evidence about what people really believe, we're stuck on this one. But it's clear that by writing long books and arguing that some ideas are better than others in more than an atomized, ephemeral way, Ollman and Marx are acting as if there are fixed principles even while they deny them. It's a sort of reversed form of three-card monte.

> ...

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