Anti-Dühring Part 12:Chapter 9: MORALITY AND LAW. ETERNAL TRUTHS (1)

The book is here.

This is a long chapter, and, furthermore, I have several metric fucktons of things to say about, so I’ll be splitting it up. Here’s the first part, which goes as far as the claim that there is or ought to be a universal morality, and before we get into universal truths in general.

Engels first quotes Dühring: “He who can think only by means of language has never yet learnt what is meant by abstract and pure thought” and then goes on to say: “On this basis animals are the most abstract and purest thinkers, because their thought is never obscured by the officious intrusion of language. In any case one can see from the Dühringian thoughts and the language in which they are couched how little suited these thoughts are to any language, and how little suited the German language is to these thoughts.”


Engels dismisses this rapidly with a gold-medal level snark, but I’m spending a little time on it, because it’s something that I had given thought to before I first read this (a writer, thinking about thought and language? Naw!). I suspect this will generate a lot of disagreement, which I’ll probably ignore. I’ll try to be brief.

I believe thinking–cognition–occurs in symbol systems, of which the most nuanced, organized, and complex are the ones we call language (music and mathematics certainly fall into this category) . While other arts, sciences, crafts, and techniques in general may not be fully languages insofar as they lack a grammar and a syntax, they are, at least, systems of symbols and mastery of technique means mastering the manipulation of those symbols. That is how thought takes place, in my opinion, and other things are not thinking, or at least, not cognition. Those who attempt to weaken a language by making it less flexible, less capable of making fine distinctions, less precise and nuanced, are working to harm that culture’s ability to think. This is my opinion, not Engels; but I suspect he’d agree.

This also ties into the Political Correctness issue that we’ve discussed before: Many of the changes proposed by it weaken language, which thus weakens thought: our most potent weapon.  I recognize that “sanitation workers” are paid and treated better than “garbagemen;” that “custodians” are paid and treated better than “janitors;” that “laborers” are paid and treated better than “micks” and “wetbacks.” And these are all good things.  But can you imagine, in the great labor battles of history, if some outside group had come in crying, “Demand that the word they use to describe you changes” the rank-and-file would have said, “Fuck off, we’re busy here,” and management would have said, “Sure, you got it, see how cooperative we are?”*  When in the normal course of a language’s development a term becomes an excuse for poor treatment, a forward-thinking person ought not to use it. But none of these changes in language represent the most effective way to fight for better pay and treatment for those groups, efforts to change language often distract from the fight, and attempts to direct and control language for political ends are objectionable on so many levels I can’t being to describe them.  I will repeat for emphasis and clarity: someone who attempts to make a  change in language in such a way that it becomes less nuanced and elegant, is working against progress.

Okay, onward:

Engels treats with well-deserved contempt the concept of morals that stand “above history and also above present differences in national characteristics.” This should be no surprise to anyone who has had any of these conversations with me, or, indeed, is acquainted with my work. It is a key element in the latter. To the old chestnut of a question: Are morals absolute or situational, I come down on the side that says: No.

When we speak of morality, we speak of a set of thoughts and beliefs; but all thoughts and beliefs are products of being, of social Man; of Man in conflict with nature, and with himself; more particularly of Man in a given place at a given stage of development. The notion that Man five thousand or five hundred years ago should have invented the perfect morality if only he’d thought of it is as absurd as to suggest he ought to have produced the large Hadron supercolider if only he’d thought of it. And to suggest that we have now achieved the perfect set of moral codes that will not be overturned, negated, and improved upon in the future is as pessimistic as to believe humankind will not survive into the next decades; exactly as pessimistic, because one necessitates the other.

In my opinion (not Engels’, and god knows not Dühring’s) the key to morality, like any other type of thinking, is 1) to try to be as advanced, as progressive, as it is possible to be; to be in the advance of moral thinking as in any other form of scientific thinking, 2) to never forget that morality is tied into economics and politics the way chemistry is tied into physics and mathematics: they can be separated in our minds for purposes of analysis; but never in the real world, and our analysis will be flawed if we forget this.


*Which, in fact, is exactly what happened in several cases, most notably with the Teamsters and the sanitation workers.

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16 thoughts on “Anti-Dühring Part 12:Chapter 9: MORALITY AND LAW. ETERNAL TRUTHS (1)”

  1. Re cognition and thought with respect to language.

    Evidently some useful and even rather complex cognition is possible without language. So if you’ve ever seen one of those films of a crow solving a problem by first finding the material for a tool, then constructing the tool, then trying and failing with it, and at last adjusting the tool to work properly, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion. It may be somewhat dangerous to speculate about what such behavior implies, but it looks very much like these birds are engaging in real ratiocination, even though they seem only to have the most primitive of animal languages.

    But on the other hand, high-level self-aware cognitive performance in humans does appear to at least substantially rely on language, which by no coincidence is universal in all known communities, cultures, and races. I have no doubt that (quite apart from the obviously powerful social elements of language) an individual’s private interior use of language improves his or her reasoning capabilities even in tasks that are not taught, spoken aloud of in words, or read about. I’m sure a crow with the language skills of one of Mark Twain’s jays would be a far more adept technician than one that can only squawk about the presence of predators or its desirability as a mate.

  2. Engels again demolishes Duhring. Pretty easily this time as Duhring continues to be fairly ridiculous.
    Engels mentions:
    “But when we see that the three classes of modern society, the feudal aristocracy, the
    bourgeoisie and the proletariat, each have a morality of their own, …”
    I’m hoping he talks about these class divisions more in a later section as I’m not sure that only these three classes still remain in today’s society–and why should class divisions be any more static or universal than any other “truths”?

    I pretty much agree with Steve’s thoughts here. Human’s and the societies they choose to construct are malleable and adapted to exist in the time we find them. Language is a very useful tool for capturing and reasoning about the world around us. We just have to keep in mind that the symbols are not the reality.

  3. Totally and utterly off topic, is there someone at Tor or wherever that I can lobby to have The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars published as an ebook? It is one of my favorite books, and I want it in my pocket library. I will, I dunno, start petitions or something. Just, to whom should I address them?


  4. This is a fascinating, fascinating topic, but the scariest participant in it is the one who thinks discussion can produce an answer.

    Doesn’t mean it isn’t worth discussing; quite the opposite, it means there can never come a time at which it’s no *longer* worth discussing.

    To pick a vector at random; I’ll say an idea in this (the relationship of symbolic language and behavioral morality) that always gives me headaches: language by its nature, I feel, evolved to allow consistency of message and behavior between familiars, whilst morality (and its drunken uncle “ethics”), almost by definition, exists to facilitate interaction among strangers.

    I don’t think they’re at all independent, and yet I’m not sure how they connect.

    Sorry if that was as incoherent as I suspect. The sake is cold and flowing.

  5. fatcarriesflavor: I think you’re looking for the “books” topic. (see top of page) I’m not sure to whom that should be addressed.

  6. Could you expand a bit on this:

    “The key to morality, like any other type of thinking, is 1) to try to be as advanced, as progressive, as it is possible to be; to be in the advance of moral thinking as in any other form of scientific thinking?”

    especially in regard to what makes moral thinking “advanced” or “progressive”?

  7. evergreen: If you mean today, well, everything I argue for is, in my belief, exactly that; I don’t think morality can be pulled from other social and political questions. It’s easier to give examples from the past.

    At the time the New Testament (ETA: That was supposed to be Old Testament. *headdesk*) was being written, it was advanced to divorce women by leaving them homeless and penniless–because before that they were killed out of hand. In days of Charlamagne, it was morally advanced for landlords to care for their serfs; a few hundred years later it was morally advanced for the serfs to rebel.

    In 1776, it was morally advanced to replace “property” with “pursuit of happiness” on the list of “unalienable rights.”

    Okay, here’s one that makes the point clearly: In 1862, it was morally advanced for the US Government to suspend habeus corpus as a means of prosecuting the Civil War; in 2013, it is utterly immoral to do the same thing as a means of prosecuting a “war on terror.”

  8. “When in the normal course of a language’s development a term because an excuse for poor treatment, a forward-thinking person ought not to use it. But none of these changes in language represent the most effective way to fight for better pay and treatment for those groups, efforts to change language often distract from the fight, and attempts to direct and control language for political ends is objectionable on so many levels I can’t being to describe them. I will repeat for emphasis and clarity: someone who attempts to make a change language in such a way that it becomes less nuanced and elegant, is working against progress.”

    This! This is the most significant problem of the modern Left (especially in the USA and Europe).

  9. Jonas, if the most significant problem of the left is that they spend too much time dicking around with language, they are in much better shape than I think.

    I agree with the comment of skzb’s you quoted, but I’d say the left’s problems have a lot more to do with their general failure to convince non-partisans to join with them, not to mention convincing opponents. And I don’t think this failure has to do with language or communication so much as it has to do with corruption, infighting, weakness, and incompetence — of course the right is worse, but that’s beside the point.

    Anyway, returning to the subject, IMO considering morality as inextricably intertwined with historical context and policy is an interesting and a worthwhile activity. However, I think this doesn’t have enough “normative force” on its own to actually define morality. You can come up with extreme counterexamples that seem intuitively to be outrageously immoral, despite apparently forwarding a progressive agenda — for a silly example, genocide of a retrogressive majority in support of a progressive utopia for an elite minority is evidently not worth the price. I don’t say there is necessarily a magical universal ethics that exists in some Platonic world of forms, but there may at least be some basic rules framework that is equally valid regardless of politics and which can be considered superior to any moral guidance provided by ones views on policy.

    So while I think that placing morality in a historical/political context is a very useful thing to do, I’d say that more than that is required to come up with a set of guiding principles to govern personal behavior, which is after all what morality (either consequentialist or deontological) is all about.

  10. Miramon: At some point, we will have That Discussion: the one about, “the problem with the Left is they fight each other instead of uniting.” Not now. I’m biting my tongue. But it is tied in with your comment to Jonas.

    “I don’t say there is necessarily a magical universal ethics that exists in some Platonic world of forms, but there may at least be some basic rules framework that is equally valid regardless of politics…”

    But if the “basic rules framework” isn’t a universal ethics that exists in some Platonic world of forms, then just what is it? In other words, I believe that morality, like any other set of human thoughts, is a product of the development of society; others believe that morality is timeless and exists outside of social Man (ie, from God even if it isn’t put that way) and must be discovered. If there is a third option, I cannot think of what it can be.

    Here’s one random example, just in case it helps: capital punishment. People ask if I’m against it. My answer is, it depends. This usually invokes the question, “for what crimes should the State take a human life?” My answer is, first, tell me what State we’re talking about. This country–the USA–has long ago lost the moral right to take anyone’s life, ever, no matter what. In fact, at this moment, I cannot think of a single State in the world that ought to have that right. But change the State, and then we can discuss the circumstances.

  11. > Just what is it?

    Well, that’s a good question, but it’s got to be pragmatic and not idealistic, based on the common qualities of the human experience throughout history, whether biological or cultural. I speculate that some synthesis of deontological and consequentialist thought might have to be developed, e.g. a set of “basic human rights” for the deontological side, and a set of metrics for moral outcomes — egalitarian, libertarian, and so on or individualistic versus utilitarian — for the consequentialist side.

    I’m not saying, by the way that there is only one such valid moral framework — that would be rather Platonic, indeed — but rather that if we could somehow agree on a one of many possible frameworks, it could provide “normative” or prescriptive guidance for behavior over many generations and across different classes in a society, and across societies as well so long as they share the framework. Of course establishing consensus is always a political problem, but I suggest a consensus is easier on a framework meant to cross boundaries than on a detailed suite of laws or moral guidelines tailored for a particular historical moment and a particular set of political goals.

  12. If this isn’t the right time to have That Discussion, I’m not going to say much either, except to indicate that I think the problems you mention are strongly tied precisely to the focus on language (instead of material conditions).

  13. Miramon: Um. I’m having a bit of trouble pinning down your comment well enough to get a good look at it. You say, “pragmatic rather than idealistic,” but pragmatism is itself a form of subjective idealism, so I’m not getting what you mean by that. But more, it seems as if you want to know the details before we know the superstructure; by which I mean, you’re discussing (if I understand correctly) what items would be on the lists of Always Right and Always Wrong. But–

    But the list you are discussing must come from one of two places: Thinking, acting, social Man; or God. If it comes from God, the question becomes: How do we learn what it is? If it comes from Man, then how can there be anything fixed and static when we, ourselves, keep changing and reinventing ourselves? It is very well known that, three thousand years ago and ever since, attempts were made (by pragmatists) to come up with such a list, and the development of society has universally overturned them. What makes now different? Are we done? I mean, is this it? Is this all the further society can go? That’s a rather gloomy view. But if we’re not, then attempts to find fixed and permanent morality are as doomed as attempts to find fixed and permanent physics.

    I suppose the exception would be if you remain safely with trivialities. Yes, 2+2=4 is true for all time. And “it is good to try to be good as well as you understand good” is true for all time. And neither of those get us very far.

    Jonas: Well said. When we do have That Discussion I hope you’re around.

  14. Obviously all morality comes from humans; moreover it comes from the realization that all our desires cannot be fulfilled because many are at cross-purposes from one individual to another. In effect, morality is intended to resolve such conflicts (as is its bureaucratic stepchild, law). Because I think that human motivation and desire is quite static over history, I’d suggest that a framework for effecting these resolutions can likewise remain more or less static over a very long time, even as the specifics of particular “implementations” of the moral framework change with time and place, according to history and policy, as suggested in the original post.

    I don’t believe we have reinvented ourselves at all on a fundamental level since the emergence of written language. The Epic of Gilgamesh is still a good read even today, and you can well understand what the hero’s motivations were even though it was composed 4,000 years ago. If we can understand Gilgamesh’s agony over his friend’s death, if we can sympathize with his horror at the very notion of death, can admire his relations with the gods, and can identify with his goals and his quest for immortality and the recovery of Enkidu’s spirit, I think that implies that there are overarching moral principles that could apply just as well to Uruk and Babylon as to New York and Beijing.

    I’m not saying here that the ancient Mesopotamian notion of slavery or of judicial murder or of family relations is consistent with ours, by the way, just because basic human motivations are much the same. But even despite all the obvious differences, I’d say much has remained the same, and the things that have remained the same have been a lot more complicated than analytical or “obvious” truths. Suppose we consider law to be a sort of dried-out technical implementation of morality: if you read the codes of Hammurabi or of Sargon, you will see quite a number of common elements that have gone into modern common law and still hold in the present day across most if not all modern nations.

    I am content to say no more on the subject here, though, as this is going very far afield from Duhring and Engels. Moreover I don’t claim to have any special scholarly knowledge of moral philosophy; my reading in school was all metaphysics and epistemology, and I don’t feel competent to boil down these quite possibly sophomoric thoughts into a sufficiently pithy kernel that is readable in a forum thread.

  15. “Obviously all morality comes from humans…”
    Really? I’m not so sure as all that. Myself, I admit I have a sense that there -is- some sort of ultimate Right and Wrong, either Divinely established or in some sense akin to that Platonic ideal.
    The catch is that anybody who claims to -know- the Divinely established rules instantly earns my suspicion; while as to the Platonic approach, we’re back to looking at shadows on the wall… And that shadow-gazing, in fact, is about the level at which I place all human systems of morality. They’re more useful as starting points, avenues of investigation (in my ever-so-humble opinion), than as viable rule books.
    And -that-, in turn, has something to do with what Our Host observed about just how long it’s been since most of the established codes of morality were composed.
    Now that’s as clear an expression as I can offer of a fairly vague intuition, so don’t expect me to defend it too far. I’m not sure you’re right about the source of all morality; but I’m not sure you’re wrong either. It just goes against my sense of things, is all.

  16. Probably most of us can agree on a few vague generalities, and the more specific we get the less agreement there is. Like, I think almost everybody agrees that it’s better that whatever we do, there ought to be some survivors. If everybody dies off and later alien archeologists come by and wonder what happened, that is not ideal.

    We might disagree about who ought to live and how many ought to live, but almost all of us agree that somebody ought to live, and the few who disagree are crazy and should not be allowed to kill us all.

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