Thursday, January 31, 2013

Marx is not a utilitarian.

Once again it is evident that even between major crises, ‘the market’ has no answer to the major problem confronting the twenty-first century: that unlimited and increasingly high-tech growth in the pursuit of unsustainable profit produces global wealth, but at the cost of an increasingly dispensable factor of production, human labour, and, one might add, of global natural resources. Economic and political liberalism, singly or in combination, cannot provide the solution to the problems of the twenty-first century. Once again the time has come to take Marx seriously.—Eric Hobsbawm

At a PrawfsBlawg “Book Club “symposium on Robert P. Merges’ book, Justifying Intellectual Property (Harvard University Press, 2011), Merges concludes the series of exchanges with fellow experts in intellectual property law with a response to a post by John Duffy. The latter contrasts the author’s reliance on a line of ideas that runs through Locke, Kant, and Rawls with an alternative one (an ‘intellectual lineage’) that likewise begins with Kant but then proceeds through Hegel to Marx. Merges writes:

“One final point: to connect Kant with Hegel with Marx, as John does, is a legitimate move philosophically. But I have to add that for many interpreters of Marx, he is the ultimate utilitarian. What is materialism, as in Marxist historical materialism, but a system that makes radically egalitarian economic outcomes the paramount concern of the state? The famous suppression of individual differences and individual rights under much of applied Marxist theory represents the full working out of the utilitarian program under which all individuals can be reduced to their economic needs, and all government can be reduced to a mechanistic system for meeting those needs (as equally as possible)? If we are going to worry about where our preferred theories might lead if they get into the wrong hands, I’ll take Locke and Kant and Rawls any day. In at least one form, radical utilitarian-materialism has already caused enough trouble.” [emphasis added]

Whatever might be said about the claims of “many interpreters,” I do not think it is true that Marx is “the ultimate utilitarian,” or even a utilitarian simpliciter (that this is at all relevant is owing largely to the fact that Merges is concerned to point out the fatal flaw of relying on utilitarianism generally or law and economics in particular as a philosophical justification—if only by default—of intellectual property law). In support of my belief, I quote from one of the better interpreters of (at least some facets of) Marx’s work, Allen Wood, who writes that while “it is true that Marx’s thoughts about morality have more in common with utilitarianism than with any other familiar position in moral philosophy,” “Marx is not a utilitarian.” Why? One reason is that Marx’s conception of the nonmoral good is not hedonic. A second reason is that “Marx appears disinclined to regard the nonmoral good as quantitatively measurable and summable in the ways required by utilitarian theories.” But more vividly, even if less plausibly, Marx often spoke of moral norms as largely determined by correspondence with the prevailing mode of production (one needs to reconcile this with Marx’s characterization of capitalism as a profoundly unjust system and his clear use of explicit [early writings] and implicit moral judgments [later works] not so determined). Moreover, the Marxist conception of the “good life” does not seem amenable to utilitarianism insofar as it grounded in a notion of self-actualization or self-realization (about which see Jon Elster’s writings on Marx, especially his essay, ‘Self-realisation in work and politics: the Marxist conception of the good life’).

R.G. Peffer, yet another interpreter of Marx, likewise endorses the proposition that Marx’s thinking is not fairly described as a “utilitarian:” “Marx implicitly espouses a principle requiring egalitarian (or relatively egalitarian) distribution…of goods [like freedom (as self-determination), self-realization, and community], especially the good of freedom.” The values and principles by which we might understand, say, exploitation and alienation, are not reducible to notions of utility, preference satisfaction, or the satisfaction of desires, indeed, they appear to be ultimately grounded in the idea of “human dignity [or inherent worth] and the good of self-respect.” Although Marx was not a moral philosopher, his moral beliefs at bottom have more of a (mixed?) “deontological” ring than not. Peffer’s book, Marxism, Morality, and Social Justice (Princeton University Press, 1990), is one of the better treatments of this topic (in particular: 80-114) and I highly recommend it (he also discusses, more broadly, consequentialist readings).

Wood, Elster, and Peffer may not be representative of the Marxist tradition as such, but they are among the more reliable and sophisticated analysts (along with G.A. Cohen) of the Marxian corpus, and thus whatever the differences among them in the exposition of Marx’s ideas, they all agree: Marx is not a utilitarian.

It’s also worth pointing out that while Merges would like to stay far clear of Marx, the Rawls that inspires and animates the main argument of his book does not imbibe this dismissive sentiment, as evidenced in his rather sympathetic and appreciative discussion of Marx in his Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007): 319-372.


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