ETHICS, HISTORICISM AND THE MARXIST TRADITION
The major objective of this essay is to examine, in its various forms, the historicist approach to ethics. My concern is to focus specifically on the status of ethics--issues of objectivity and validity of moral principles and judgments--and to confine the particular historicists I examine to those of the Marxist tradition.
I begin this examination of historicism in ethics by distinguishing between moderate historicism and radical historicism. I understand the former as a reaction against hard objectivism yet an avoidance of moral relativism and its various forms. I hold that the latter presupposes a crucial metaphilosophical move, namely, the rejection of the vision of philosophy as the quest for certainty or search for foundations. Radical historicism in ethics roughly amounts to a moral relativism liberated from the traditional vision of philosophy. I suggest that radical historicism in ethics is promoted and encouraged by anti-foundationalism in epistemology and science.
I try to show that Marx adopts a radical historicist approach to ethics only after a tortuous philosophic journey which leaves him disenchanted and disillusioned with the vision of philosophy as the quest for certainty and search for foundations. I argue that he makes a crucial metaphilosophical move in order to take seriously historical consciousness and the constructionist conventionalism revealed by his political activism. I try to explain this metaphilosophical move in terms of a complex philosophic-theoretic shift in his approach to ethics.
I then critically reconstruct the arguments of three major Marxist thinkers--Engels, Kautsky and Lukacs--who, in their own ways, subscribe to the traditional vision of philosophy. I argue that all three adopt moderate historicism in ethics owing to this subscription, and specifically because of their own particular foundationalist conceptions of epistemology and science. I claim that Engels' teleological quest resembles a Piercian move to preserve the notion of moral objectivity by holding that it amounts roughly to what moral agents will converge to or agree upon in the long run. I claim that Kautsky's naturalistic quest is similar, though less sophisticated, to a Deweyian move that tries to translate norms-talk into needs-talk (or, more specifically instincts-talk) in order to avoid moral relativism. Lastly, I claim that Lukacs' ontological quest is a sophisticated Hegelian move to overcome traditional, especially modern positivisit, foundationalism in epistemology and science only to arrive at a new form of foundationalism--in science and ethics--in ontological garb. I try to show that these three quests for moral objectivity fail.
I conclude this essay with a brief account as to why these three major Marxist thinkers differ philosophically from Marx in their approach to ethics. I suggest that all three attempt to emulate Marx's approach to ethics, but they go astray primarily because they view Marx's rejection of philosophy as the quest for certainty or search for foundations as a rejection of a particular quest or search. This misreading of Marx's crucial metaphilosophical move permits them to embark on new historicist quests and searches. In this way, they remain captive of the traditional vision of philosophy despite their historicist heritage. Therefore they remain only moderate historicists, falling short of Marx's radical historicism.