Moral concepts are not arbitrary concepts made up by or imposed on individuals. They are social products. They assert a view of what human beings should do if a society is to continue functioning so as to satisfy the needs of its members. To be ‘good’ is to behave socially in certain ways (or at least not to ‘misbehave’).In a stable, cohesive society which provides clear benefits to all its participants, what is involved is unproblematic. [...]
But things change with the move from such primitive communist societies to class societies. Then contradictory notions of what is ‘good’ arise. People are torn between contradictory moral codes. This, for instance, is where the power of the ancient Greek tragedy comes from—to abide by an old code is to infringe a new one. In the process moral codes of any sort can come to seem arbitrary as different social groups counterpose their codes to each other. Yet the very fact that they can argue over what is ‘good’ means that they all recognise, implicitly, that some code is necessary for social living to continue. Arguments over what is ‘good’ rest on arguments about reality, even if they seem not too. ‘Ought’ does rely on arguments about what ‘is’.
The central parameters within which these arguments take place are class ones. A class which fights to preserve existing society has one set of notions about what is necessary to keep society going, and attempts to impose on people the moral notions that correspond to this. It has to portray the values it propagates as the values necessary for society as a whole, what is good for itself as absolutely ‘good’. By contrast, a class which feels its needs are not met and presses for society to be reconstituted on a different basis necessarily begins to advance different interpretations of moral notions. The contradictory interpretations become most intense when society enters deep economic and social crises, in which ‘things cannot continue in the old way.’
13 January 2007
More on the relation between ethics and reality
James Curcio, meet Chris Harman: