Moral : Steven Lukes

artist / title
Mary Mattingly / Frontier

Moral / Steven Lukes

Is the concept moral a political concept and, if so, in what ways? To address this as yet opaque question we must first recognize that the meanings of both ‘moral’ and ‘political’ are multiple and controversial. Some initial semantic underlaboring is therefore necessary to clear the way forward and this will inevitably involve stipulating, albeit provisionally, definitions of terms, the adequacy of which will be tested as our discussion proceeds.

The concepts of moral and political

The adjective ‘moral’ is typically applied to a wide range of objects: to judgments, sentiments, claims, principles, rules, obligations, duties, standards, codes, dilemmas, issues, character, behavior and philosophy, not to mention moral entrepreneurs, crusades, scandals, and panics. Can we identify features by virtue of which they will count as moral? To get things going, let us jump-start the argument and say that when talk of what is moral arises, the suggestion is that, first, what is in question is: what is the right or better or best way to act, and, conversely, what is wrong and immoral? And that, second, the answer will be binding and desire-independent—that is, that it is not up to the individual to decide or choose: that what is evaluated as good or bad and judged right or wrong is independent of, external to, constraining upon and a guide to an individual’s desires or preferences. This feature is what philosophers have come to call “normativity,” namely:

a crucial feature of norms, whether formal or non-formal, [is] that they have some kind of grip on us that makes them importantly different from, say, mere commands backed by brute force. They have some kind of normativity in the eyes of ordinary members of the group in which they are norms; they make demands that in some sense the members recognize as such.1

The moral domain may not, as some claim, be unified2 and it may be conceived narrowly or broadly, but let us agree that it encompasses binding ways of constraining and guiding actions towards what is right and good and away from what is wrong and bad.  And to get things moving further along, let us agree that, third, identifying moral phenomena will require versions of at least some of the following repertoire of concepts: good and evil, obligation, virtue and vice, justice and injustice, praise, blame and responsibility, and purity and impurity.

How is the domain of politics to be conceived? Among the many answers to this, we can here summarily indicate three. One, which Bernard Williams has labeled “political moralism,”3 views politics from the standpoint of morality. The moral is prior to the political. The clearest example is Kant’s position that “All politics must bend its knee before the right,”4 but utilitarianism and modern social contract theory, as exemplified by John Rawls’s theory of justice, likewise present political actors with principles offered as guides to the design of the best institutions and the selection of the best or the right policies. A certain kind of utopianism inhabits such views, for they judge the failures and injustices of the real world in the light of a counterfactual idealized world whose imagined citizens are united in fully living up to the principles they advocate. A second answer is a view of politics that involves idealization in a different way: it conceives of politics as the achievement and sustenance of an unforced consensus and the political sphere as a public space of deliberation and implementation, resulting in authoritative, or legitimated, policies applicable to an entire community or society. Thus for Hannah Arendt the political denotes an artificially created institutional space of freedom and equality, distinct from the “social” world of economic necessities, that “gathers us together and yet prevents us falling over each other,” where there is “the simultaneous presence of innumerable perspectives”5 and citizens act in concert through speech and persuasion establishing relations of reciprocity and solidarity. And for Sheldon Wolin, it is through political decisions “taken and enforced by public officials” that “scattered activities are brought together, endowed with a new coherence and their future course shaped according to ‘public’ considerations.” Political institutions thus serve to “define, so to speak, ‘political space’ or the locus wherein the tensional forces of society are related, as in a courtroom, a legislature, an administrative hearing, or the convention of a ‘political party’ and ‘political time’ or the temporal period within which decision, resolution or compromise occurs.”6

In what follows I shall deploy a third answer, often given the label of ‘political realism,’7 which conceives of politics as agonistic, involving domination, conflict and resistance and focusing on what Chantal Mouffe calls “the dimension of antagonism which I take to be constitutive of human societies.”8 In this vein Bernard Williams writes that “the idea of the political is to an important degree focused in the idea of political disagreement . . . [and] political difference is of the essence of politics , and political difference is a relation of political opposition, rather than, in itself, a relation of intellectual or interpretative disagreement.”9 The gist of this view is captured by Stephen Elkin, who defines the “circumstances of politics” as a

state of affairs in which there is a large aggregation of people who (1) have conflicting purposes that engender more or less serious conflict; (2) are given to attempts to use political power to further their own purposes and those of people with whom they identify; (3) are inclined to use political power to subordinate others; and (4) are sometimes given to words and actions that suggest that they value limiting the use of political power by law and harnessing it to public purposes.10

At its starkest this answer can be summarized more briefly still as denoting a domain in which the exercise of power and the pursuit of interests prevail and the powerful seek domination by defeating or shaping the interests of those they dominate. Adopting this austere, pared-down picture of politics, which separates the pursuit of interests from the impact of moral considerations, should help to sharpen the issues raised by our initial question.

Unmasking and Debunking

Starting from this picture we can recognize a familiar position in the history of moral and political thought: a view that denies that ‘moral’ denotes considerations that are independent of politics. The view is a version of moral skepticism. The moral skeptic (in the sense in which I am using the term) is skeptical, not about some particular moral claim or set of claims, but about the very category of the moral: about moral thinking and acting as such. Such a skeptic holds that moral thought and action derive from and express what is not moral: in the political version that they derive from and express the exercise and relations of power and that all moral talk involves, in particular, the illusion that moral considerations have some independent justification or authority. Such a skeptic is in the business of unmasking morality—by revealing what really underlies it and debunking it—by showing it to be illusory, a fiction or a myth.11 The view is, in short, both reductionist and discrediting. Here are some examples.

Start with Thrasymachus, for whom, Plato tells us, “‘just’ or ‘right’ means nothing but what is to the interest of the stronger party.”12 Bernard de Mandeville, in his Enquiry into the Origins of Moral Virtue, tells a genealogical story about morality, writing that “the first rudiments of morality, broach’d by skillful politicians, to render men useful to each other, as well as tractable, were chiefly contrived that the ambitious might reap the more benefit from, and govern vast numbers of them with greater ease and security.” Moral virtues, he wrote, were “the political offspring which flattery begot upon pride.”13 When asked what he thought about morality, Marx, according to a visitor, would roar with laughter. To the proletarian, according to The Communist Manifesto, morality, law and religion, are “so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.” It is true that Marx helped to draft the General Rules of the International Working Men’s Association in 1864, in which its members are enjoined to acknowledge “truth, justice and morality, as the basis of their conduct towards each other and towards all men, without regard to color, creed or nationality” and the principle of “no rights without duties, no duties without rights,” while the struggle for the emancipation of the working classes is described as a struggle for “equal rights and duties, and the abolition of all class rule.”14 But he subsequently wrote to Engels: “I was obliged to insert two phrases about ‘duty’ and ‘right’ in the Preamble to the Rules, ditto ‘truth, morality and justice,’ but these are placed in such a way that they can do no harm.”15 And in his late pamphlet, The Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx denounced talk of “equal right” and “fair distribution” as “obsolete verbal rubbish” and as “ideological nonsense.” Nietzsche, morality’s most corrosive modern denouncer, viewed morality as the choice weapon of the weak enabling the slaves, aided by the priests, to vanquish the strong, preaching “‘equal rights’ and ‘sympathy with all that suffers’” and taking “suffering itself as something which absolutely must be abolished.” In The Will to Power Nietzsche wrote that

men of great creativity, the really great men according to my understanding, will be sought in vain today . . . nothing stands more malignantly in the way of their rise and evolution . . . than what in Europe today is called simply ‘morality’. . .16

And, in our own time, Bernard Williams, much influenced by Nietzsche (he once said he wished he could quote him every twenty minutes), described morality in his book Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy as “a peculiar institution” that “we should treat with a special skepticism.” This “morality system,” Williams writes, with its “intimidating structure made out of the idea of obligation” and its emphasis on the “purely moral” and on personal sentiments of guilt and self-reproach and “the institution of blame,” is something we would be much better off without.17

It is worth asking some questions about these and similar skeptical denunciations of morality. What do they have in their sights? Is it a unitary phenomenon: does ‘morality’ name a unified field or domain? And how total, or all-embracing are these critiques and from what standpoint are they made? Can one speak of morality as a coherent whole and judge it from a standpoint outside of it?

To address these questions it is illuminating to compare ‘morality’ (as Marx and Engels did) with ‘religion.’ Should we, for instance, view morality as Talal Asad views religion? Asad writes that religion’s “constituent elements and relationships are historically specific” and thus its “definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes.” Thus “socially identifiable forms, preconditions and effects of what was regarded as religion in the medieval Christian epoch were quite different from those so considered in modern society.” Hence the concept of religion as a “trans-historical essence” is illusory for “different kinds of practice and discourse are intrinsic to the field in which religious representations (like any representations) acquire their identity and their truthfulness.” He suggests that we should therefore deconstruct what we call “religion” into “heterogeneous elements according to its historical character.”18

Is morality like this? (Is religion?) Clearly, what we “in modern society” call morality is “the historical product of discursive processes” and the “forms, preconditions and effects” of what was regarded as moral in the medieval Christian epoch and in countless others, past and present, were and are significantly different. We can, moreover, reinforce this thought by noting that in ancient eudaimonistic ethics there is no term corresponding to our ‘moral.’ Furthermore, the literature of social and cultural anthropology is rich enough in countless ethnographic portrayals of the diversity of morals to reinforce that suggestion. Indeed, everyday observation within our own ever more multicultural societies should be sufficient to convince us that plural and mutually conflicting views of what constitutes ‘morality’ arise from within diverse and conflicting moral frameworks.

It is true that moral philosophers have a sort of built-in resistance to being so convinced, since they are engaged in an unending series of debates in search of the right or best way to define what morality is and what it is not. As David Wong writes, the “commitment to defending the existence of a single true morality often takes the status of a fundamental commitment in philosophy.”19 This is the presupposition of what they do disagree about. Sometimes they distinguish between broader and narrower conceptions of morality. In particular, ever since Elizabeth Anscombe’s denunciation of “modern moral philosophy,”20 some have developed neo-Aristotelian versions of virtue ethics, others have elaborated variants of so-called ‘perfectionist’ theories, alongside the two prevalent alternatives: utilitarianism, in all its variants, which was for a long time dominant, and a range of deontological views deriving from Kant: the view in which universally applicable obligations are seen as categorical and unconditional and binding upon free and responsible agents—the vision of morality denounced by Williams.

Here I simply want to make the more general point that all these present-day views of morality, narrow and broad, Kantian and neo-Aristotelian or neo-whatever, are present-day, modern, neo views, incorporating background and foreground assumptions absent in other times and places.  R. G. Collingwood wrote about the Oxford philosophers of his time that they

knew that different peoples, and the same peoples at different times, held different views, and were quite entitled to hold different views, about how a man ought to behave; but they thought that the phrase ‘ought to behave’ had a meaning which was one, unchanging and eternal. They were wrong. The literature of European moral philosophy, from the Greeks onwards, was in their hands and on their shelves to tell them so, but they evaded the lesson by systematically mistranslating the passages from which they might have learnt it.21

Nietzsche wrote similarly about moral philosophers and we may reasonably ask whether what he wrote might not still be true, that

precisely because moral philosophers knew the facts of morality only somewhat vaguely in an arbitrary extract or as a chance abridgement, as morality of their environment, their class, their church, the spirit of their times, their climate and zone of the earth, for instance—it was precisely because they were ill informed and not even very inquisitive about other peoples, ages and former times, that they did not so much as catch sight of the real problems of morality—for these come into view only if we compare many moralities.22

This suggestion of Nietzsche’s, however, raises an objection to applying Asad’s approach to morality. For, if we are to follow Nietzsche’s suggestion, how are we to determine what to compare? What counts as a ‘morality’? Are there no context-transcending criteria? And indeed, returning to the unmaskers and debunkers, it becomes evident that they all assumed that there are: for each of them, it turns out, there was a single best way to understand what is moral, from which each of their critiques gains its sense and its force.

What Plato meant in presenting Thrasymachus’s view is notoriously controversial, but it was clearly in service of revealing its inadequacy as a guide to conduct and the need, as Socrates gets him to admit, of a standard of wise rule and thus of justice extending beyond the advantage of the stronger. Mandeville, great satirist that he was, had, like all great satirists, a moral purpose in mind, exposing hypocrisy and illusions about the goodwill and public-spiritedness of politicians and optimistic theories of human nature in early eighteenth-century thought. Moreover, as both Hume and Hutcheson remarked, Mandeville’s idea that politicians created the desire for virtue by appealing to our pride assumes that we take pride in being praised for our character.23 Marx and Engels were also driven by moral impulses. Thus Engels contemplated a future “really human morality which stands above class antagonisms and above any recollection of them” and Marx wrote of a higher form of “human society” to which he saw humanity as imminently progressing.  The tenth “Thesis on Feuerbach” asserts that the standpoint of the new materialism is “human society, or socialized humanity”: his idea was that “we must first try to discover the new world from a criticism of the old one.” He never devoted any serious attention, however, to spelling out its features: the most he provided was at a very general level, such as the thought in the Grundrisse that history would bring about

[u]niversally developed individuals, whose social relations, as their own communal (geminschaftlich) relations, are hence also subordinated to their own communal control

and the vision of increasing “the surplus labor time of the mass by all the means of arts and science” and

creating the means of social disposable time, in order to reduce labor time for the whole society to a diminishing minimum, and thus to free everyone’s time for their own development.24

Nietzsche also embraces the notion of a “higher morality,” a morality which “desires to train men for the heights, not for comfort and mediocrity, a morality with the intention of training a ruling caste—the future masters of the earth.” Thus he writes in the Preface to Daybreak:

in this book faith in morality [Moral] is withdrawn — but why? Out of morality [Moralität]! Or what else should we call that which informs it — and us? . . . [T]here is no doubt that a ‘thou shalt’ [du sollst] speaks to us too.25

As Brian Leiter has observed, this means “that (on pain of inconsistency) morality as the object of Nietzsche’s critique must be distinguishable from the sense of ‘morality’ he retains and employs.”26 Williams, it is true, draws a linguistic distinction between the narrowly “moral” and the broadly “ethical,” observing, acutely, that the original Latin term “emphasizes rather the more the sense of social expectation, whereas the Greek favors that of individual character.”27 He is, plainly, embracing the latter when distinguishing the “morality system,” focused narrowly and systematically on obligations, conflicts between which can always be resolved without surviving regret, and on voluntariness and blame, which he criticizes, from what he chooses to call “ethics,” stemming from Socrates’s question “how should one live?” that focuses on character and the virtues, allows for irreconcilably conflicting values and “moral luck” and employs “thick concepts” that are both evaluative and descriptive (such as courage and truthfulness).

The Bootstrapping Argument

The foregoing observations suggest a further ground for distinguishing ‘religion’ from ‘morality.’  We can, after all, opt out of religion from a standpoint external to it. According to Charles Taylor, this option is just what characterizes our “secular age.”28 Is the equivalent possible in the case of morality? Is morality inescapable in a way that religion is not? Perhaps, as John Kekes writes,

any specification of the content of moral rules seems to beg the question by assuming a particular kind of morality. If a person rejects altruistic morality in favor of Egoism or Social Darwinism, he may be immoral. But he is still participating in the moral institution of life. It is arbitrary to disqualify radical challenges of one’s moral convictions by defining moral rules so as to exclude challenges of them from the realm of morality.29

Here the idea seems to be that anyone can always take up an egoistic or cynical or nihilistic or aesthetic attitude but this does not amount to an escape from morality. Everyone—except perhaps for the figure the philosopher Henry Frankfurt calls “the wanton”30—is, perforce, engaged in the practice or the institution of morality. The moral is an irreducible and ineliminable aspect or institution of life and every attempt to reject or escape its demands is just another instance or expression of it. In the same vein, Webb Keane writes that

even those people, acts and institutions that are called evil involve evaluative dispositions—a sadist would probably be unmotivated and unreflective without them. But participation in ethical life (even for the sadist is not a choice one could opt out of, short of true pathology.31

Ronald Dworkin made a different argument for the same position, asserting that morality

is a distinct, independent dimension of our experience, and it exercises its own sovereignty. We cannot argue ourselves free of it except by its own leave. . .[in ways that] must make moral sense as well as every other kind of sense.

Thus we cannot

climb outside of morality to judge it from some external archimedean tribunal, any more than we can climb out of reason itself to see it from above.32

Dworkin here does exactly what Kekes criticizes for begging the question and calls arbitrary, for he assumes moral rules to have a particular content (in his case, that of egalitarian liberalism). Such an assumption is typical of philosophers who embrace ‘moral realism’ (which is quite distinct from the political realism, the view of politics from which we began): assuming there to be one true morality, they therefore assume that the judgments it delivers define both the content and the boundaries of what is to count as moral. Dworkin too maintains that those (he has in mind meta-ethicists) who purport to remain neutral on first-order moral questions (such as whether terrorism is immoral or not) and who purport to rely on non-moral arguments to claim objectivity for their moral judgments by abstaining from taking moral positions can only fail. There is no “outside” from which to explain, characterize and criticize morality. There is no “view from nowhere”33 or “the viewpoint of no-one in particular;”34 and everyone has a moral viewpoint and, implicitly or more or less explicitly, an understanding, from within that viewpoint, of what morality is.

Let us call this argument—the argument that any attempt to evade morality is just another instance of it—“the bootstrapping argument.”35 On this view the moral skeptic’s attempt to unmask and debunk morality cannot succeed: as our few examples suggest, it always turns out to be advanced from a moral perspective, from within “the moral institution of life.” But does this mean that one can never study moral life empirically—that is, pursue Nietzsche’s suggestion of comparing many moralities—except from within one moral perspective or another?

In order to get to grips with this question, we need to see the significance of the fact that ‘moral’ has two antonyms, ‘immoral’ and ‘amoral,’ yielding two senses of ‘moral’—two senses that are all too often elided. The first is judgmental, expressing from a first-person perspective, the difference, from within morality, between what is moral and what is immoral; the second is categorial, like ‘temperature’, made from a third-person or observer’s perspective, differentiating the moral dimension of social life (within which judgments of what is moral and immoral are made) from other dimensions. Moral skepticism can never be accepted from a first person perspective: as Christine Korsgaard remarked concerning a view such as Mandeville’s, it is “not that it is not a reasonable explanation of how moral practices came about, but rather that our commitment to these practices would not survive our belief that it was true.”36

The Social Science of Morality

But what of the observer’s perspective and empirical inquiry into such practices? How do moralities function and what effects do they have? Can observers and analysts—social scientists and historians—not deploy the category of ‘moral’ in an objective spirit in their inquiries into them? What are they seeking to explain and interpret? What is the moral institution of life? What distinguishes the moral dimension of our experience from the non-moral? Can this question be answered? How should such inquirers proceed? How are they to follow Nietzsche’s advice?

That advice was, in effect, to explore the variety and “the diversity of morals,”37 (how wide is the variety and how deep the diversity?) which, in turn, means avoiding, for the purposes of inquiry, the temptation to elide the judgmental and categorial senses of ‘moral:’ the former must not predetermine what the latter identifies. As Webb Keane remarks, “[e]mpirical researchers cannot simply exclude by fiat ethical worlds in which abortion is murder, members of different clans have different essential beings, and humans are subordinate to divinities.”38 For the purposes of inquiry, the inquirer’s morality should be treated as one among others and what counts as moral and what immoral varies across moralities.

How then are we to conceive of what is moral and of moralities? Our provisional initial proposal was that the moral involves normativity, that is binding ways of constraining and guiding actions towards what is right and good and away from what is wrong and bad, and that identifying moral phenomena will require versions of at least some, perhaps all, of the concepts of good and evil, obligation, virtue and vice, justice and injustice, praise, blame and responsibility, purity and impurity. I now propose to advance somewhat further by following Webb Keane, who follows, but modifies, Bernard Williams’s distinction between ethics and morality. Keane proposes to use “moral” not, as we have hitherto used it, as a general term, but as marking out a special case within the more encompassing category of ethics.

Humans, on Keane’s account, summarizing the findings of the latest research, are from the beginning of life predisposed for ethics. They exhibit

a range of capacities and propensities that seem to appear in one way or another in children across all societies and are important elements of mature adulthood. Among them are gut feelings of disgust and attraction, empathic impulses, propensities to evaluate other persons and discriminate among them, spontaneous sharing and cooperation, notions of fairness, intention-seeking, reciprocity of perspectives, self-distancing and a tendency to seek out, conform to, and enforce norms.39

Ethics picks out those aspects of the lives of the evaluative creatures that human beings are that are oriented to “values and ends that are not in turn defined as the means to further ends.”40 Thus ethics centers on

the question of how one should live and what kind of person one should be. This encompasses both one’s relations to others and decisions about right and wrong acts. The sense of ‘should’ directs attention to values, meaning things that are taken by the actor to be good in their own right rather than as means to some other ends. This refers to the point where the justifications for actions or ways of living stop, having run up against what seems self-evident—or just inexplicable gut feeling.41

Studies within ethics “focus on virtues, values and ways of life.” Within ethics morality occupies

the space within which people find themselves giving accounts, justifying, excusing, accusing, explaining, denying, praising, blaming, and all the other activities in which ethical categories and stances are made explicit.42

Moralities then, are “more or less context-free, more of less explicit, systems of obligations” which “draw on features of interaction. The ethics of interaction in turn respond to the precepts made available by morality systems.”43

Moralities, in short, are systems of ethical norms that are relatively explicit and apply across contexts, guiding actions, discourse and thinking. We can take a step further by adding what ‘naturalist’ approaches to morality have suggested namely a functional criterion. Thus the “ethical project,” according to Philip Kitcher, is the human practice of articulating, respecting and enforcing norms (he does not distinguish between moral, religious and customary norms)—a “social technology” that has the function of allowing a smoother, more peaceful, and more cooperative social life, through “remedying disruptive altruism failures.”44 And David Wong proposes a “material conception of morality” that allows for “the diversity that anthropologists have observed,” in which the “content of morality is identified through the functions that it performs—namely, values and norms that foster interpersonal and intrapersonal coordination.”45

Yet the empirical researcher into moralities still lacks something crucial: an interpretive key that will enable us to demarcate moral from other social norms. Ruth Benedict once wrote that “morality differs in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits.”46 What we still need is a way of understanding what is it that (in our cultures) differentiates norms against rape, torture and murder and in favor of truth-telling and promise-keeping from norms against littering and against nudity in public places, norms of gift-giving and norms of etiquette and politeness. On what basis can such a researcher conclude that soldiers raping women violates a moral and not just a social norm? The need to make such a differentiation and draw such a conclusion, I shall suggest, indicates the ineliminable role of the researcher’s moral point of view. The science of morality must satisfy two conditions. The first condition is that it must allow for the maximum scope for discovery of variation across moralities within and across societies. The second is that it must acknowledge the fact that the researcher comes to the task of understanding from within her own moral perspective, involving values and norms. Such research cannot be undertaken from the viewpoint of no-one in particular.

As for the first condition, there is, of course, considerable variation of a judgmental kind over first-order questions, sometimes involving ontological differences. Often such variation involves moral disagreement about innumerable issues, from, say, same sex marriage to the right to religious freedom, over what social justice entails and over the scope of moral concern (from local to universal) between outlooks that coexist within the same society. Consider, for example, Norbert Elias’s contrast of the aristocratic code of honor in late nineteenth-century Germany with bourgeois morality. The former rested on “a strict hierarchization of human relationships, a clear order of command and obedience, whereas the latter, the middle-class code of morality, seems explicitly to advance a claim to be valid universally, and thus implicitly to express the postulate of the equality of all people,” requiring and representing “a higher degree of individualization, and greater relative autonomy of individual self-controls.” Indeed, Elias argued, “large parts of the middle class . . . adopted the upper-class code of honor as their own,” so that

in the rank order of values represented by this code, especially in its Prussian version, cultural achievements and everything the German middle class had held dear in the second half of the eighteenth century, including humanity and a generalized morality, were ranked lower, if not positively despised.

In consequence, problems “of humanity and mutual identification between people disappeared from view, and these earlier ideals were by and large despised as weaknesses of socially lower classes.”47

There is, however, also considerable variation in categorial assumptions about what counts as moral, rather than conventional (etiquette), or customary, or legal, or prudential or just a matter of personal preference. As Gabriel Abend has observed,

In some places and times, moral considerations aren’t taken to apply to an artist’s work; humor; market transactions (‘business is business’, anything can be bought and sold; there is not such thing as ‘profiteering’); whether you work hard or not; what and how much you eat or smoke; what shoes you wear; whether you brush your teeth twice a day; or what you do with your garbage or your hat.48

Some, for example, have argued that the line between what is moral and what is conventional is universally recognized. Thus the social psychologist Eliot Turiel has claimed that small children in all societies can recognize the distinction between conventional requirements, on the one hand, and moral prescriptions concerning harm to others or their welfare, on the other. The latter, it would seem, have a normative force independent of ‘conventional’ agreement and of being required or endorsed by an authoritative individual or institution (they know that it is wrong to hit Jonny, even if the teacher were to allow it). Perhaps Charles Taylor is right in suggesting that in all cultures there is a complex recognizable as morality that involves three axes: “our sense of respect for and obligations to others . . . our understandings of what makes a full life . . . [and] the range of notions connected with dignity.”49 But, even if there is a core, there is no trans-contextual agreement about where the line is drawn: what is conventional in one time and place can be or become moral in another. Consider the moralization of vegetarianism and the rise of animal rights, and the newly moral status of care for the environment. And, as Richard Shweder and his colleagues report, “among orthodox Brahmans and Untouchables in India, eating, clothing and naming practices, and various ritual events are viewed in moral, rather than conventional, terms.”50 Similarly, Stephen Caton reports that in tense and dangerous circumstances in Yemen an act of greeting carries enormous ethical weight, amounting to “engaging a religious act, calling on God to bestow his favor on the addressee.”51 Shweder and colleagues draw the conclusion that it is unlikely “that there exists a universal class of inherently nonmoral events . . . Any event can be made moral by appropriately linking it to a deep moral principle.”

These last examples show that local understandings of what counts as moral, and thus a “deep moral principle,” needs to be identified by means of a demarcation criterion: that is, we need to be able to recognize when any such local understanding is to count as moral. This recalls an old worry voiced by the philosopher Philippa Foot. Her concern was to avoid what she called the radical subjectivism of “allowing the possibility even of bizarre so-called ‘moral judgments’ about the wrongness of running round trees right-handed or looking at hedgehogs in the light of the moon.”52 But, as the ethnographic examples above also show, the empirical researcher into morality must be open to surprise, even to the astonishment at the bizarre. As Foot also wrote, there must be “some content restriction on what can intelligibly be said to be a system of morality.” But the horizon of what is ‘intelligible’ should be seen not as a given but as a hermeneutic challenge, familiar to anthropologists. Another two imaginary examples from Foot illustrate what is involved. Suppose, she wrote,

for instance that someone said, ‘One should never step on the lines on a pavement; it is important to walk inside the squares,’ or ‘It is not right to wear brightly coloured clothes,’ and suppose that in either case we saw him most conscientiously following his principle, trying to get other people to do the same, thinking that he should be blamed if he failed, and refusing to allow that he could escape from the rule by giving up some aim such as not straining his heart, or being well dressed. This is not enough to make these principles into moral principles; they seem too queer, and, still more, too isolated to play this role.

Things look differently, however, “if we suppose a certain background.” Wearing brightly coloured clothes “begins to look as if it might be a moral principle if we think of a man with a Quaker outlook, or simply of one who sees wearing bright colors as ostentation.” In the stepping-on-lines case, however, it is “hard to know what the background could be.”53
The point is that the demarcation criterion comes from somewhere in particular: it is set by what the researcher and her audience take to be intelligible as an account of values and norms—though this may well be stretched in the course of the research. I suggest that a helpful way to focus on what concerns are intelligible as moral is to think of moralities as systems of norms that mobilize, in different configurations, what Adam Smith called “moral sentiments” and the philosopher Peter Strawson called “reactive attitudes,”54 such as sympathy, compassion, resentment, gratitude, indignation, guilt, shame, pride and the like. These are, it would seem, distinctively human but what renders them appropriate is widely variable across ethical life.


The foregoing discussion has shown how our initial provisional definitions of the concepts of moral and political are both in need of revision. I have suggested that moralities are systems of ethical norms, prioritizing values in different ways; they are relatively explicit and apply across contexts, guiding actions, discourse and thinking, facilitating social co-ordination and co-operation, and mobilizing recognizable moral sentiments. As for the concept of the political with which we began, it should now be clear that how ‘unrealistic’ it is. For, first, it takes the field of politics to be conflictual in essence and purely strategic and tactical in character, occupied by incumbents and challengers in pursuit of their interests, and it assumes that values and ideals cannot directly motivate action and treats justifications in moral terms as rationalizations. Or second (and in some tension with this first conception) it suggests that wherever moral considerations do appear to motivate action, they serve the interests of the powerful and are shaped within relations of power. But third, and most fundamentally, neither conception has room for the agent’s living and acting, as Spinoza put it, “as his own nature and judgment dictate”55—in other words, as we might (not uncontroversially) say, in his “real interests.” And to exclude this is to preclude identifying the operations of what I have called power’s “third dimension”56 on the supposedly realist grounds that such “real” interests cannot exist.

Finally, I want, in the light of this discussion, to propose three broad ways in which we can picture morality in relation to politics. The first two illustrate how morality can serve political interests; the third exemplifies ways in which what is political and what is moral can be hidden from view.

The first picture portrays the powerful as imposing moral norms on those they dominate, norms that serve to justify their continuing power in their own eyes and in the eyes of those subject to their power. This is the picture animating the classical unmaskers and debunkers with whom we began. It represents the idea of hegemony and in its strongest version what James Scott calls “thick” hegemony, where the dominated internalize and embrace the norms that sustain and reproduce their domination (by contrast with “thin” hegemony, where those subject to power only accept and conform because the chance to escape or rebel is lacking).57 There are, of course, many ways of contesting the plausibility of this picture, both empirically and theoretically. The extent to which this picture applies to the objects of social scientific and historical study is notoriously contentious and impossible to establish in ways that do not enlist partisan political positions. Consider, for example, the norms that prioritize the virtues of chastity and fidelity, unequal rights to education that favor males, the beauty myth and, in general, the duty to take care of men. These moral norms have been, and in many places remain, thickly hegemonic, favoring male domination by disfavoring the interests of women. But since that is true, although its truth was self-evident to Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill and is a commonplace among feminists in general, and since not everyone is a feminist, its truth remains politically contentious.

Feminism, indeed, exemplifies the second way in which morality can be seen in relation to politics, as expressing the “power of the weak.”58 Here morally motivated activities and social and political movements are engaged in the politics of resistance: this involves exposing relations of power in society and the justifications that help to reproduce and stabilize them. Moral inspiration and indignation (as recently among the Indignados in Spain) are inseparable from such politics and are probably necessary, alongside resources and opportunities, for the achievement of significant political change, which is not always ‘progressive.’  Sometimes the values that morally fuel resistance expresses are counter-hegemonic, challenging the official legitimating norms of the society, as with the Nazis in the late 1920s and early 1930s in Germany and Austria. Sometimes they are articulated by ‘dissident’ intellectuals ‘living in truth’, speaking ‘Truth to Power,’ advocating ‘anti-politics,’ and expressing ‘the power of the powerless’ in societies where the prevailing system of power has lost its moral legitimacy and is increasingly ‘demoralized,’ as in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union from the mid 1970s until the fall of Communism. Sometimes the morals of resistance involve what has been called an ‘immanent critique’ of prevailing norms and values, as when the ideal of social and political equality is interpreted as implying the moral progress story of an ‘expanding circle,’ advancing from the emancipation of slaves to gay marriage and, indeed, animal rights. Such a progress story is typically assumed by the actors involved. It can also be told as the story of broadening citizenship rights.59 In his book The Art of Moral Protest James Jasper distinguishes between citizenship movements, seeking full inclusion for industrial workers, then women, then racial and ethnic minorities and post-citizenship movements, perceiving injustices, creating their own movement identities and activist networks, responding to and sometimes triggering “moral shocks” and aiming to change their society’s cultural sensibilities. Of both kinds of movements he observes that they are “a good place to look for collective moral visions, with the good and the bad that they entail.”60

These first two ways of conceiving the relation of morality to politics contrast the moral hegemony of the powerful with modes of moral resistance to their power. The third way involves a critique of applying the very category of moral to the world of politics, to seeing it moralistically, through moral lenses. Can moral categories work to limit our vision, occluding the impact of relations of power? Consider, for example, the case of humanitarian discourse. In such discourse humanitarian intervention, sometimes military, is typically seen as altruistic and justified in simple binary terms. Facing oppressive and brutal regimes or a fratricidal war, those intervening are seen as being separate from the conflict—as compassionate “saviors”—and those they are there to save are seen as suffering “victims.” Those offering aid or protection are abstracted from recent history and the causes of the conflict, while the recipients are just instances of suffering humanity, with no attention paid to “their biographical life, the life through which they could, independently, give a meaning to their own existence.”61 The war in Yugoslavia is a case in point. The discourse of intervention became entirely one of a local conflict caused by “ancient hatreds” among the ethnicities of the region having no basis in the more global arena, excluding consideration of the impact of global financial institutions acting as part of the “shock doctrine” in the preceding years, in which the actors intervening in the conflict were heavily involved. Another example of moralistic occlusion is the reduction of complexity that ensues when policy issues are framed in moral terms, in the polemics of normal political debate, as when macroeconomic issues, such as fiscal and monetary policy (comparing the national debt with household or credit card debt, for instance), are interpreted in domestic, interpersonal commonsensical terms writ large. Moral thinking is, in general, inherently interpersonal, focused on what is accessible to the actors, on their obligations and entitlements, commitments and infractions, whereas social science (in which I here include history) at its best delves behind the actors’ perspectives to reach causes and consequences that they often do not and sometimes even cannot perceive.

Conversely, there are familiar ways of thinking that systematically pre-empt, or occlude, moral consideration of the political dimension of social life, of power relations, the role of the powerful and the possibilities of resistance to their power. The most obvious such way is technocratic thinking, expressing the idea of social engineering. Ever since Saint-Simon coined the phrase and the idea of “the government of men giving way to the administration of things” (which was taken up by Engels), the notion that politics is the realm of problem-solving that does not involve moral choices and is therefore best left in the hands of technically qualified experts has never disappeared. It gains a new lease of life in the wake of economic crises, and it has been much in evidence in implementing the current politics of austerity demanded by international economic institutions. But the most potent contemporary form of this kind of occlusion is profoundly anti-Saint-Simonian and critical of the very idea of social engineering: namely the thinking loosely called ‘neoliberal’ which sees the market as a quasi-natural process and political intervention as a threat to its beneficent functioning.62 The master-theoretician of this way of thinking was Friedrich Hayek, the second volume of whose trilogy, Law, Legislation and Liberty is entitled The Mirage of Social Justice. Hayek’s idea that the very concept of social justice is not only inapplicable to market processes but counter-productive endangering liberty has proved to be a powerful ideological antidote to arguments and campaigns against inequality of wealth and income. Instead of defending such inequalities it claims that such campaigns and arguments are as misconceived as it would be to speak of a “moral stone.”63 The state, on this view, can never deliver more social justice, since the market always surpasses the state’s ability to process relevant information; hence the inevitably “fatal conceit” of socialism. This currently influential conception of social justice implies that a moral critique of power relations and inequalities under capitalism is not to be met by justifying them but instead with the disarming claim that it rests on a category mistake.


Steven Lukes is Professor of Sociology at New York University.


Published on May 18, 2017

1. Geoffrey Brennan, Lena Ericksson, Robert E. Goodin, and Nicholas Southwood, Explaining Norms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) 48. See also Christine M. Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996);  Judith Jarvis Thomson, Normativity (Chicago and La Salle, Illinois: 2006); and Stephen P. Turner, Explaining the Normative (Cambridge: Polity, 2010).

2. See Walter Sinnott Armstrong and Thalia Wheatley, “Are Moral Judgments Unified?,” Philosophical Psychology 27, no. 4 (2014): 451-474.

3. Bernard Williams, In the Beginning was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

4. Immanuel Kant, “Perpetual Peace,” Kant’s Political Writings, ed. H. Reiss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

5. Hannah Arendt, The Human Conditon (Chicago and London, 1958) 52, 57.

6. Sheldon S. Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Vision in Wetern Political Thought, xpanded Edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2004), 8.

7. For a useful survey of recent exponents, see William A. Galston, “Realism in Political Theory,” European Journal of Political Theory 9, no. 4 (2010): 385-411.

8. Chantal Mouffe, On the Political (London: Routledge, 2005), 9.

9. Bernard Williams, In the Beginning Was the Deed (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 77-8.

10. Stephen L. Elkin, Reconstructing the Connecticut Republic: Constitutional Design after Madison (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2006), 254-55.

11. See Richard Joyce, The Myth of Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

12. Plato, the Republic of Plato I, 338, trans. Francis Macdonald Cornford (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941), 17.

13. Bernard de Mandeville, Enquiry into the Origins of Moral Virtue, in Mandeville: The Fable of the Bee, or Private Vices, Publick Benefits (London: J. Tonson, 1724).  See the brief discussion of Mandeville’s view in Christine Korsgaard’s The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 8-9.

14. Karl Marx, “General Rules of the International Working Men’s Association,” Marx and Engels, Selected Works (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1962), vol. 1, 386-9.

15. Karl Marx, Letter to Engels, Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, no date), 182.

16. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, ed. by Walter Kaufman, trans. Walter Kaufman and R. J. Hollingsdale (New York: Vintage, 1968), 502-3.

17. Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana Paperbacks), 182, 194.

18. Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 29, 53-4.

19. David B. Wong, “Integrating philosophy with anthropology in an approach to morality,” Anthropological Theory 14 (2014): 337.

20. G. E. M. Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Philosophy 33, no. 124 (1958), 1-19.

21. R. G. Collingwood, An Autobiography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939).

22. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin, 1990), Part 5, Section 186, 108-9.

23. See Christine M. Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity, 9.

24. Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House,1959), 131-2; Karl Marx, Tenth Thesis on Feuerbach, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol 5 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1975), 8; The Letters of Karl Marx, ed. and trans. Saul K. Padover (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979), 30; Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), trans. and ed. Martin Nicolaus (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review, 1979), 162, 706.

25. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, 502; Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, ed. M. Clark & B. Leiter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 4.

26. Brian Leiter, “Nietzsche’s Moral and Political Philosophy,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

27. Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, 6.

28. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age  (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2007).

29. John Kekes, “Morality and Impartiality,” American Philosophical Quarterly 18 (1981): 295.

30. Henry Frankfurt, “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” Journal of Philosophy 68, no. 1 (1971): 5-20.

31. Webb Keane, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 261.

32. Ronald Dworkin, “Objectivity and Truth: You’d Better Believe It,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 25, no. 2 (1996): 87-139, 128.

33. See Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

34. See A. Fine, “The Viewpoint of No-one in Particular,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 77, no. 2 (1998): 9-20.

35. The term “bootstrapping,” which originated in the early nineteenth century in the phrase “to pull oneself over a fence by one’s bootstraps” was meant to indicate an absurdly impossible action—as in the Greek figure of speech, an adynaton.

36. Bernard Williams, In the Beginning Was the Deed.

37. The phrase is Morris Ginsberg’s. See Morris Ginsberg, On the Diversity of Morals (London: Heinemann, 1961).

38. Webb Keane, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories, 260.

39. Webb Keane, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories, 242.

40. Webb Keane, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories, 4.

41. Webb Keane, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories, 20-21.

42. Webb Keane, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories, 233.

43. Webb Keane, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories, 20, 134.

44. Philip Kitcher, The Ethical Project (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011), 7.

45. David B. Wong, “Integrating philosophy with anthropology in an approach to morality,” Anthropological Theory 14, no. 3 (2014): 350. See also David B. Wong, Natural Moralities(New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

46. Ruth Benedict, “Anthropology and the Abnormal,” Journal of General Psychology 10 (1934).

47. Norbert Elias, The Germans (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 96-97, 114-115.

48. Gabriel Abend, “How to Tell the History of Business Ethics,” zfwu 17:1 (2016), 65.

49. See Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), 15.

50. Richard A. Shweder, Manamohan Malapatra, and Joan G. Miller, “Culture and Moral Development” in James W. Stiller, Richard A. Shweder, and Gilbert Herdt (eds.), Cultural Psychology: Essays on Comparative Human Development, 130-204 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990) 159.

51. Steven C. Caton, “Salaam tahijah: Greetings from the Highlands of Yemen,” American Ethnologist 13, no. 2 (1986): 290-308, 294.  For excellent discussions of the relationship between etiquette and ethics, see also Shirley Yeung, “Natural Manners: Etiquette, Ethics and Sincerity in American Conduct Manuals,” in Michael Lambek (ed.), Ordinary Ethics: Anthropology, Language and Action (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010) and Karen Stohr, On Manners (London: Routledge, 2011).

52. Philippa Foot, “Does Moral Subjectivism Rest on a Mistake?” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 15 (1995): 1-14,  2-3.  I am grateful to Gabriel Abend for reminding me of this and the following very interesting and pertinent passages from Philippa Foot and for his own highly illuminating discussion of this issue in his paper “How to tell the history of business ethics,” Zeitschrift für Wissenschafts-und Unternehmensethik 17(1) (2016). 42-76.

53. Philippa Foot and Jonathan Harrison, “Symposium: When is a Principe a Moral Principle?” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volumes 28 (1954): 95-134, 104-5.

54. P. F. Strawson, “Freedom and Resentment,” Proceedings of the British Academy (1962): 187-211, reprinted in Michael McKenna and Paul Russell (eds.), Free Will and Reactive Attitudes: Perspectives on P.F. Strawson’s ‘Freedom and Resentment (Fordham: Ashgate, 2008). See Steven Lukes, “The Social Construction of Morality,” in Steven Hitlin and Stephen Vaizey (eds.), Handbook of the Sociology of Morality (Dordrecht and New York: Springer, 2010).

55. Benedict de Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus (1677) in B. de Spinoza, The Political Works, ed. and trans. A. G. Wernham (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), 273.

56. See Steven Lukes, Power: A Radical View, Second edition (London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

57. James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, Revised edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

58. See Elizabeth Janeway, The Powers of the Weak (New York: Random House, 1988).

59. See T. H. Marshall, Class, Citizenship and Social Development: Essays (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2000).

60. James Jasper, The Art of Moral Protest Culture, Biography and Creativity in Social Movements, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1999).

61. Didier Fassin, Humanitarian Reason A Moral History of the Present (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2011), 254.

62. See the compelling account of “everyday neoliberalism” in Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (London: Verso, 2013).

63. F. A. Hayek, The Mirage of Social Justice (Chicago: Chicago University Pres, 1976), 78.