I had some interesting chat over tea and a snack of baba ganoush with a good friend this week. I always enjoy our thorough yet friendly back-and-forth discussions as we both have very strong political views that compliment one another in many ways but clash in others. A good example of this is that while we are both communists, I am an anarchist while they have a Marxist view of the world. Our thoughts on the organisation of society are similar, however our conceptions of how to get there or what is underpinning it seem to be at odds.
We often jump into conversation at the deep end the second we get the chance, as if every moment sat together is a moment to revel in the joys of debate. I really think that we are both engaged in a way where we feel that either we will change the others mind or they will change ours. Even when this doesn’t happen there is the happiness to have had the opportunity to see the world from another perspective. We always begin, punctuate and end our discussion with humour, broad smiles, laughter and elephants.
Something that has become apparent though our ongoing conversation is that we often use words and terms in common but find that they have very different meanings to each of us. By the time we unravel one another’s conception of a phrase the original discussion fades into the background as we make an effort to see the world from the others perspective. This is no bad thing as it gives me an important mechanism to check my own thoughts against and I hope my friend takes as much out of our time together as I do. While this process often leads to understanding, sometimes it is a Gordian knot that I have to either unravel slowly or slice through to get to the real heart of the matter. One such instance came up that I have been puzzling over, especially in light of my recent comments about morals in the comments section of my last post.
Like the the Ariekei and the Ambassadors of Embassytown (a book I can’t rate highly enough) we sometimes talk past one another in the strangest of ways and this week has been one of the most puzzling for me when we started talking about Morals, Ethics and the State. My own take on these are:
- Morals: Morals are value judgements placed upon actions by individuals, collective groups or the greater society. They can be discussed, reasoned and changed.
- Ethics: Ethics are the notion and practice of moral philosophy by people (ie: deciding individually or as a larger society which morals are “right” and which are “wrong”), either by individuals, collective groups or the greater society.
- The State: An organisation of lawmaking and law-enforcing institutions which claim to have the sole right to sanction and implement violent actions both within and outwith it’s territorial borders. It uses this monopoly on violence to enforce it’s laws. The main function of the state is to protect capital interest as the success of the state is tied to its capital success. States take many forms to fulfil this task.
To me the terms Morals and Ethics are intrinsically linked and can usually be used interchangeably. A brief search also gives me the impression that my three definitions are kinda the standard, however during our conversation I was confronted with some very different takes. I asked my friend to write down their views as I didn’t want to misrepresent them:
- Morals: “Morality is related to the customs, mores and ideology of our times. There may be hegemonic moralities and sub-moralities, but importantly they require an underlying culture, society, tradition and community, real or imagined.”
- Ethics: “So-called “individual morality” is very different from morals in that the individual will claim to have their basis in philosophy (ethics), and so this type of morality is individual.”
- The State: “The state is the realm in which the individual may experience social relations, which is beyond the level of family (or inter-personal relationships) and civil society.”
Further to these definitions they added that “the fact of individuality or collectivism in morality creates a very different entity in each case”, ie: morality is a term you apply to larger groups or cultural mores while ethics relate only to an individual’s choices and personal reasoning. Also their notion of the state is not something necessarily in opposition to communism.
As you can see, our differences in definition are not minor to say the least.
One Foot in Each World
To me morals and ethics are what people do. It is both the moral rights/wrongs as decreed by external forces (other people, traditions, cultures, societies) AND the act of individuals or groups feeding into or deviating from these sources. This is a constant feedback loop that at no point sits entirely in the realm of the individual, the immediate community or society at large.
When I try put myself into the position of splitting morals and ethics as my friend claims them to be I can’t understand how you could have a morality free of ethical decision, or how a society-wide morality is not also a product of individuals input. It simply seems like an artificial divide that has no descriptive benefit.
I find the second definition of a state to be completely at odds with both the practical reality of what the function and actions of a state are, have been, and the outcomes of what happens when assuming the role of the state. As I look at the word through this alternative conception I don’t see what the difference between “the state” and anything that happens beyond your direct contact. Calling it the state is just a confusing definition for what I would simply refer to as greater society. It also makes the notion of smashing the state a very different proposition indeed!
For me the all the people who are part of the connected web that makes up humanity can still have some shared morals and ethics that would be favourable to accept on a near-global sense. This is not (as my friend puts it) “the state” but is the actualisation of a exploitation-free stateless society. While those outwith your direct contact may have different morals, as long as we respect the autonomy of others to have direct input upon any action that impacts them, and everyone has the freedom to associate or disassociate in these matters, then we do not need to share ALL the life values of someone in another part of the world, only those required to maintain anarchist communism (or any free society that develops beyond it).
All told I haven’t been able to grasp the reasoning behind my friends position. When trying to take it on it’s own terms I find it muddled in presentation, disconnected from practical outcomes and behaviour, and of little analytical or descriptive value compared with alternate terms. In fact, as I started to draw on past conversations we had, some concerns started to surface that I doubt my friend has considered…
Be Careful What You Wish For
While thinking through the above I remembered back to an earlier conversation where the same friend claimed that the concept of the individual was a construct of capitalist society and something that was “wrong” (for the record I disagree). This makes me even more concerned as to what their definitions of ethics, morals and state could entail.
If the individual is a bogus notion then any morals individually held but not shared by the greater state are also considered bogus. Given this, what would prevent you advocating that collectively agreed morality of the state is the only acceptable morality? Deviation from this is something to be countered. Far from being communist in nature this is a more horrific and pure form of totalitarianism than we have seen to date. While it could not currently come into being, as it relies on an end to the process of individual thought, humanity has a knack for coming up with solutions to these types of “problems” (see also the concept of work, capitalism, or unjustifiable hierarchies).
I’m looking forward to what my friend makes of this piece, and perhaps they will even commented bellow, but either way these are some points I hope to pick up over tea, a snack and some smiles.
Just to clarify my dystopian ending is not something I think my friend wants or would ever advocate, and my flippant doom-saying was meant to highlight that for me their definitions seem somewhat disconnected from the understood meanings and the realities of life.