Historical Praxis as the Ground of Morality

Mihailo Marković


Once a humanist rejects the idea of the divine origin of morality he seems to have essentially the following four alternatives:

(1) A static, ahistorical relativism exemplified in any empiricist, pragmatist, or structuralist approach. From this point of view each particular society, each civilization, has a set of rules which regulate human relationships and maintain a necessary level of social cohesion. These sets are different and incommensurable paradigms of morality—like Bachelard's different types of rationalism or Kuhn's scientific paradigms or Levy Strauss's "codes" for the expression of specific social structures. This type of approach allows an objective study of each particular paradigm but rules out the possibility of speaking of a universal human morality. Moral systems cannot be compared, all concepts of morally "good," "right," "ought," or "true" become relative to a specified system and it does not make sense to evaluate one morality as "better" than the other.

(2) If this relativism does not satisfy us, because it tends to devoid general ideas of "human being and history" of any meaning, we may turn to an absolutism of a Kantian or phenomenological kind. There is a transcendental concept of man, and of his practical reason; an ahistorical autonomous good will, a universal moral law—the "categorical imperative"—provides the basis of all morality. Those who, like Schiller, reject the identification of the a priori with the formal and of the a posteriori with the substantial may project moral values into a particular realm of [36/37] validity (Geltung) outside of both spheres of material world and human consciousness.

(3) Those who, in an age of a fast historical progress, do not see much merit in such a static conception of both a formal ethics of duty and of an axiology of values "in themselves" may prefer the historical absolutism of Hegel. Any particular moral order within a family, a nation, a civilization, and morality in itself as a form of consciousness are only objective stages in the development of an absolute spirit. This approach opens the possibility of comparison and critique of various moral systems, of seeing their inner limitations, of evaluating one as merely a particular moment of the other. However the basic assumption of an absolute mind implies the absence of history, of possible creation of new forms of morality in the future. The system had to be closed if it claimed absolute truth: all real development took place in the past.

(4) The legitimate heir of Hegel's thought, Marx left behind an ambiguous body of ideas. Those which constitute nowadays the foundation of official Marxist ideologies offer a historical but relativist conception of morality. According to it there is a true development of morality in history. History—and not only the past but also the future—may be seen objectively, as a process of growth of social productive forces, and a succession of increasingly rich and free socioeconomic formations. But history may also be seen more subjectively as a history of class struggles. Each class has its own morality rooted in objective material life-conditions of that class. An overemphasis of the class character of man, a reluctance to see elements of universal humanity in each individual and class leads back to relativism. This is obvious not only in the Marxist orthodoxy of both the Second and Third Communist International, but also in the Marxist structuralism of an Althusser. Rather than seeing in the future what Hegel established in the past: a process of totalization of man in general, his progressive enrichment and emancipation, both orthodox and structuralist Marxists construe history as a series of modes of production which are separated by social ruptures—revolutions, and cultural ("epistemological") gaps.

While it could be argued that Marx himself is very much responsible for this relativist interpretation (consider Marx's Sixth Thesis of Feuerbach: "Man is ensemble of social relations."), he also made essential contribution to a humanist, truly historical conception of morality that goes beyond the wrong dilemma of absolutism versus relativism.

The view of man as a universal self-consciousness, developed in Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind, was transcended by a conception of man as a practical being, who creates his history, his material life conditions, social forms, and morality beyond any preconceived limit. [37/38]


If we don't wish to give ethics a theological foundation, and if we, furthermore, don't want to build it on the basis of an arbitrary, dogmatically postulated absolute standard, we must look for human history as a possible ground of morality. However if history is taken to be a mere collection of facts or a mere series of several disintegrated, incommensurable systems, we would simply relapse into a relativistic positivism—and that is what happened with official Marxism either in its earlier social-democratic or later Bolshevik version.

One has to ask if human history as a whole is a meaningful process or not. Before answering such a difficult and complex question one could ask a simpler, more general one: What constitutes the meaning of any life process? Jacques Monod's answer was: teleonomy, a unique primary object of preservation and multiplication of the species. One could ask here: What makes this basic project "valuable"? Why is preservation of species better than disappearance? Why is it better to multiply than to simply restore the already achieved quantitative level?

The only answer to such a question is: What is here described as "better" or "worse" is not merely a matter of subjective preference; it refers to a tendency which is a necessary part of the very definition of life. Surely not all individuals and species survive and multiply. But while they do—they are alive. In a similar way one should add that life involves a tendency to maintain and increase order and structural complexity: a process of change in the opposite direction of lesser order and complexity is "bad" for a living organism since it leads to destruction of life; it is therefore being described in negative value terms as a process of degradation.

The comparable question with respect to human history is: What is the primary project of historical development? Which are objective conditions necessary for survival and development of man, not as a mere living organism, but as a distinctly human being? A good deal of things which actually occurred in the course of history do not belong to such conditions: famines, floods, earthquakes, massacres, destruction. What made human history possible and indeed unique—in view of an explosive development during the last few thousand years—was a specifically human activity—praxis. Praxis is purposeful (preceded by a conscious objective), self-determining (choosing autonomously among alternative possibilities), rational (consistently following certain general principles), creative (transcending given forms and introducing novelties into established patterns of behavior), cumulative (storing in symbolic forms ever greater amounts of information and conveying them to coming generations so that they can [38/39] continue to build on the ground already conquered), self-creative (in the sense that young human individuals, after being exposed to an increasing wealth of information and new environmental challenges develop new faculties and new needs). Praxis is a new high-level form of the human species. It retains genetic invariance, self-regulation, teleonomy. But it goes far beyond them. The plastic genetic material will be shaped in countless different ways by social conditioning; self-regulation will become more and more conscious and autonomous, the conservative telos of species—preservation and multiplication will be replaced by an entirely new basic project: creation of a rich, manifold, increasingly complex and beautiful environment, self-creation of men with an increasing wealth of needs. Many human activities are clearly not instances of praxis, nor are they characteristic of human history. Repetitive work of a slave, serf, or modern worker resembles more the building of a beaver's dam than creative work.

As in the discussion about basic inherent teleonomy of life, it is possible to ask the question: What is the good of all this creation and self-creation? Is it not better to go back to simple organic life in as natural an environment as possible, with a minimum of needs? And as in the earlier case, the answer is: A different telos is possible but it would not be the telos of human history. The emergence of man is this gigantic step from the simple, organic, repetitive, narrow, natural world to the complex, civilized, continuously developing vastly expanded historical world, from a poverty of needs and abilities to an increasing wealth of goals and life manifestations.

A judgment of this kind is still factual. What has been argued so far is that, as a matter of fact, the specific characteristic of man and human history is praxis. A basic normative standpoint is taken when one commits himself to supporting, stopping, or reversing that trend of growing creativity in history. This is the point of a crucial bifurcation in ethics.

To commit oneself to increasing creativity in history, to praxis as the basic axiological principle, means to assert that it ought to be universally accessible, that it ought to become a norm of everybody's life. This again means to encourage discovery of the essential limitation of given social forms, institutions, and patterns of action; it means to try and explore new hidden possibilities of a different, richer, more complex, self-fullfilling life, to express them in the form of ideals, to examine strategies of bringing them about. This type of ethical orientation is clearly critical and emancipatory.

A conformist, status-quo preserving approach involves a tendency to reserve praxis for the elite and to condemn the vast majority of human beings to inferior, not characteristically human forms of activity, offering [40/41] receptivity as a surrogate for creativity, and condemning emancipatory ideals as utopian. It resists further liberation processes but at least tends to retain the level of freedom already achieved.

A retrogressive normative attitude to history involves a commitment to the reversal of the historical trend, to the restoration of already dismantled master-slave social relations. Servility is offered as a substitute for creativity; the glory of conquest and domination on the one hand, the honor of serving and patiently, loyally enduring on the other.

These three basic attitudes to history are mutually incompatible. The dialogue between those who advocate them makes sense only in order to establish whether they have been taken consistently and whether they can be lived in practical life. If this is the case, discrepancy in value judgments cannot be overcome.

Assuming that we accept the universalization and continuation of praxis in history as our fundamental normative standpoint, the question is: What else does it involve, how could it be further analyzed? What is meant by saying that man is and ought to be a being of praxis?

(1) In contrast to traditional materialism and empiricism, man is not merely a reflection of external natural and social forces, a product of education; he is not only a superstructure of a given economic structure, but also a subject who, within the constraints of a given situation, creates himself and reshapes his environment, changes the conditions under which certain laws hold, and educates the educators. On the other hand, in contrast to Hegel, man is not conceived as a self-consciousness only, but as a subject-object who is constrained not only by the quality of existing spiritual culture but also by the level of material production and the nature of social institutions. However, precisely because he has both subjective and objective dimension, both spiritual and material power, he is able not only to understand his limitations but also to overcome them practically.

(2) Man is certainly an actual, empirical being. An ethical theory becomes irrelevant when it merely imposes on him norms which are completely divorced from that empirical reality and have no ground in it. Certainly, using sophisticated means of manipulation and brute force, certain obligations and duties can be forced upon a community, but a true morality cannot be produced in such a way. It has to be autonomous, and only an actual (individual or collective) subject can lay down its own moral laws. On the other hand, moral norms, by the very nature of being norms, are never a mere reflection of actual existence. Morality, like every act of praxis, begins with an awareness of a limitation in actual empirical existence, in the way we habitually, routinely act. Norms may be already present in our customary behavior, but these are either legal norms imposed by force, by the threat of social overt coercion, or customs [40/41] unconsciously accepted in the process of socialization and blindly followed like any conditioned reflex. Morality involves a conscious, free choice among alternatives and that choice transcends the immediate selfish needs of our actual existence—it expresses long-range needs and dispositions of our potential being.

Human potential is not a part of directly observed empirical existence but it belongs to reality of a person or community, and is empirically testable. Far from being a vague metaphysical concept, the notion of a potential capacity or of a disposition can be operationalized by stating explicitly the conditions under which it would be manifested (provided that those conditions can be produced in specified ways, and the reality of dispositions tested).

(3) Both in actuality and potentiality man is in the first place a unique person with quite specific capacities, powers, and gifts. Man is also a particular communal being: only in a community he becomes a human, brings to life his abilities, appropriates accumulated knowledge, skills, and culture created by many preceding generations, develops a number of social needs: to belong, to share, to be recognized and esteemed. The levels of particularity are many: an individual belongs to a family, to a professional group, class, nation, race, generation, civilization.

That is where all relativists stop: as a particular being man invariably has a particular morality; there can be no universal standard of evaluation. Philosophers who developed such universal criteria had either to eliminate history—like Kant in his transcendental ethics, or like Hegel to construe history as the process of actualization of a potential universal spirit—both lead to absolutism. The problem becomes solvable only when the absolute spirit is replaced by the idea of a universal human species-being. As we saw, that universal is not only spiritual but also practical, it does not exist in abstracto but only as the basic potential of concrete living individuals. The descriptive concept of this universal human nature is constituted by a set of conflicting general dispositions; some supporting development, creation, and social harmony, some causing conflicts and destruction. From the standpoint of historical praxis the former are evaluated as "good" and enter into a normative concept of human nature. This concept is not fixed since history is, in contrast to Hegel, an open-ended process. This point of view is not absolutist as Hegel's: man continues to develop and in the future ever new forms of morality may be expected to evolve. And yet one need not relapse into relativism. Development in history is continuous; a translation and incorporation of former practical products and experiences into the latter remains possible and there are transepochal invariants. Therefore there are good reasons to argue that, in spite of all discontinuities between particular epochs and civilizations, there is one [41/42] universal human knowledge, there is one material and spiritual culture that grows, one human species-being that evolves through the life of all various individuals and particular communal beings.

At a given moment of history there may be one theory that expresses this accumulated knowledge, that already achieved wealth of human being better than other preceding or coexisting theories. In the future this theory will also need revision, but at the present its author could have sufficiently good reasons to hold that his views are more true than those of his opponents. He may be wrong, but that must be shown by superior arguments. In the same sense an ethics may be regarded as a superior expression of a historically already achieved possibility of the good life, of social harmony and solidarity, in other words: of moral praxis. While refusing to claim its absolute validity, such an ethics may indeed demonstrate that it transcends the limitations of all preceding ethical theories and thus incorporates them as its special cases.


Once we have established what constitutes the specific nature of human being and his history our next step will be to project an ideal community in which praxis would be a universal principle, that is, in which each individual would have equal opportunities to act in a purposeful, self-determining, rational, creative way.

Here we have a different theoretical context than the one in the preceding section. There we considered actual history but abstracted from it only those intervals and communities where decisive acts of creativity took place—whether in the sphere of material production, or building institutions, or in the realm of culture. It was made clear that most of historical space and time was filled by dull, repetitive work, unproductive conflict, or mindless leisure. However, those moments of free creation are distinctive of man and human history.

Now we turn to another context: what kind of social situation, what kind of human relationships are implied by maximalization of conditions for praxis of each individual. We have to bear in mind three basic considerations:

First, belonging to a community is, on the one hand, a necessary condition for any self-development and realization of one's potential; on the other hand, it poses certain limitations for the praxis of each individual. In order to protect the rights of each individual there must be some democratically established rules of communal life. It is true that it is in the very nature of praxis that one acts not only in order to bring to life his capacities and affirm oneself but also to satisfy the needs of others. And yet [42/ 43] there is a minimum of basic needs that society must recognize and protect independently of individual initiatives. These rules are neither legal (because they are not supported by state violence) nor moral (since they are external and no matter how much the expression of a general will, they may be to some extent heteronomous with respect to an individual will).

In order to meet basic needs of the whole community a certain amount of work is necessary. Surely at a very high level of productivity the amount of socially necessary work will be substantially reduced. It will also be so enriched and humanized that it will tend to coincide with praxis. And yet there is a clear conceptual difference between work and praxis. The former inevitably involves a degree of external order and hierarchical organization which is alien to praxis.

Another limitation is scarcity of those goods which may be necessary for creative activity. Top quality material products, cultural performances, space, time, and healthy environment will be scarce in any conceivable community. Too much self-affirmation limits others; on the other hand, too much self-restraint limits and cripples oneself.

Second, the very idea of universality of praxis (and since Kant it is hardly controversial that only those norms are ethical which can be universalized) implies that in some important respect all members of the community must be equal. The concept of equality needed is neither equality of personal property and income nor mere equality of opportunity. If individuals with a different genetic endowment were equally treated (offered equal amount of parents' and teachers' time, expected to do equal kinds and amounts of work), initial inequalities would only be fixed or even increased.

This is why in an ideal community of praxis social measures for achieving true equality must be undertaken right after birth and not much later, in the sphere of formal education and work. Supplementing whatever parents may themselves offer, society must provide optimal conditions, for discovery and realization of most creative dispositions of each child. In contrast to a society based on uniformity of thought and life-style, in which one becomes identical with others by destroying his self-identity, here all equally create their self-identity while staying different from each other.

Only when it comes to limitations to praxis these are distributed in a way that is alien to praxis, that is, treating all adult members as identical. Rules of communal life hold equally for all and when it comes to decide on them by vote, each person must have neither more nor less than one vote. Socially necessary work is obligatory for all, although allowing the choice of work that best suits one's capacities, interests, and skills. Unwanted, unattractive roles may have to be shared by all, in turn. Analogously, [43/44] concerning scarce goods, the starting point for trade off or any comparable arrangement must be equal right of each member of the community.

Third, within the framework of those indispensable social constraints, an ideal community offers at any stage of life maximally favorable conditions for praxis of each individual.

This presupposes accessibility of an ongoing education, the purpose of which is less to convey technical knowledge and skills for socially necessary work, and more to bring forth potential talent, to generate a wealth of needs and a concern with the well-being of others.

Reduction of socially obligatory work allows increasing emphasis on unstructured, innovative, spontaneous activities.

Abolition of any monopoly of economic or political power opens room for universal participation in social decision-making.


The vision of such an ideal community of praxis, which tends to fully realize all that is distinctly human in history, constitutes the ethical ground in our present alienated society.

In this ethics the idea of summum bonum, the highest good, is more distant from actual reality than in other nonreligious ethical systems. Most of these systems coincide with an already existing morality and are compatible with given social arrangements, no matter how unjust. For example, utilitarianism from Aristippus to Epicurus and from there to Bentham, Mill, Sidgwick, and Moore did not really challenge the established society, whatever it was. Seeking pleasure and calculating how to achieve it is an invariant in customary human behavior and even when it is a maximum amount of it, or highest quality of it and for a maximum number of individuals, it remains a morality within a given social framework. The same holds for ethics of duty, whether one of Kant or of Ross and Pritchard. The sense of duty is formal and it could direct different people in divergent ways. The apologist of an oppressive system may be prepared to will that the maxims of his actions should become universal law.

Dewey's pragmatic ethics, with its emphasis on continued growth, in the sense of an increasing variety of needs and harmony in their satisfaction, clashes with traditional static morality but expresses quite well the ideological needs of any modern industrial society.

Examples of ethical theories that involve rebellious elements but in a harmless individualistic form are Stoic and existentialist ethics. They offer moral solutions to individuals in unbearable external conditions. One [45/46] expresses the ideal of spiritual independence, and serenity that can be achieved by reduction of desires and withdrawal from the world's competition and conflict. The other commits one to absolute freedom, disregard of all bonds and imposed constraints, involving even the risk of death. These two retain their validity for individuals in exceptional situations but are essentially escapist.

Humanist ethics based on the notion of praxis projects an idea of eudaemonia, of good life, which requires radical social transformation. That each human individual should be able to live as a being of praxis involves a very revolutionary moral demand of economic, political and cultural liberation, of maximum possible creativity, of social solidarity. Most of what various ethical theories praised as basic virtues and ultimate ends finds its place and a new meaning within this context. Plato's virtues—wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice—are no longer related to a contemplative reason but to a rational activity of shaping the world according to human capacities and needs. As Butler noticed in theory and John Stuart Mill in his own life, very little pleasure can be achieved when it becomes an end in itself, it is only a byproduct that attends attainment of ends other than pleasure. Stoic peace of soul and spiritual independence is of limited value when it goes with a poor life emptied of almost any content; it becomes an entirely different value at a much higher level of material and cultural development and of social emancipation. Then it will be attained by renouncing dominating power and accumulation of material wealth, by aspiring to a free, productive life in a healthy harmonious social environment. In this context freedom is much more than mere freedom of thought or a desperate act of choice of an uprooted, isolated existence; it is a way of life that recognizes needs and interests of other individuals and society as a whole, that within such inevitable constraints creates ever new possibilities, chooses autonomously among them and brings the chosen project practically to being.

The idea of a natural moral law, in the sense given it by Hugo Grotius, as a set of rules based on the universal nature of man, plays an important role in each humanist ethics; however, it requires a dynamic reinterpretation. Since human nature evolves in history and is exemplified in a different unique way in each individual, moral goodness is not an abstract static concept. Dynamic concepts of traditional ethics such as self-realization and self-perfection are therefore indispensable, although they get a new meaning. The self is not an isolated selfish individual but essentially a communal being, therefore "self-realization" means bringing to life those potential capacities which do not only affirm its individual interests but also promote social good. Self-perfection means development of rational, creative capacities rather than spiritual ascent to God, as in medieval [45/46] ethics. However there is one great idea in Christian tradition which is superior to the abstract and uniform treatment of man by many subsequent rationalist and humanist ethicians. This is the idea that moral goodness is in doing one's best with one's specific natural endowments and in given circumstances. This principle of individuation or of personalism has rarely been respected in traditional ethics which in a rather formal way emphasized general principles, rules, and duties. Even Hegel, who in his critique of Kant's formalism required a concern about the content of ethical judgments, thought that content came from the customs, norms, and laws of the particular society in which the agent lived. This obviously leads to moral conformism—that is why Hegel saw the highest expression of morality in the state.

Here we have a dilemma between an extreme subjectivist conception of morality resting on self-interest and self-preservation of the individual agent, and an opposite objectivist view of morality as subordinated to God, or to the state (which itself is an objective form of Absolute Spirit), or to an abstraction of social good. In order to resolve that dilemma we must assume that man is both a unique person and a social being, that he feels genuinely concerned about certain general needs, without ever surrendering his personal autonomy and integrity. As a result of socialization an individual internalizes the values of this community; unless he grows together, communicates, and interacts with other members, one never develops any moral consciousness. However, as a being of praxis man has a unique capacity of critical self-consciousness. Therefore, he can come to believe that there are certain general limitations in the prevailing morality and that he should not always conform to its norms. He may be wrong and become a social outcast. But he may also be right and contribute by his deviant moral behavior to the emergence of a new superior morality.

New morality lives for some time only in the praxis of the most developed individuals or in the form of ethical theory. It prevails and begins to be lived by large masses of people in the times of profound social crisis when the whole social fabric and the official ideology of the ruling elites collapses and the need for social restructuring is felt irresistibly.

New morality rejects some traditional norms or weakens them in the sense that they lose their former high place in the hierarchy of values. Humanist ethics that emphasizes being rather than having will no longer give a high priority to the protection of property or of other characteristically bourgeois institutions. It will no longer be considered right to kill in the defense of property, to compel one to pay debts, even when these are unjust and when it involves leaving his children hungry, to keep promises even when they have been forced by manipulation and repression, to stay [46/47] married without love, to get wealthy without work, to discriminate against certain people because they belong to a different class, sex, race, or church.

Traditionally socialist elements in this new morality are demands that each member of the community ought to contribute his share of socially needed work, and that all social goods should be distributed according to the amount and quality of this contribution but also according to the specific nature of individual needs. Such norms exclude any kind of exploitation and privilege on the one hand, and any distribution according to inherited social status or property, on the other. Socialist ethics has also always with good reasons insisted on a principle of solidarity, mutual support, and aid to the weak, poor, old, ill. However there is a void in traditional socialist ethics which must be filled: neglect of moral issues concerning personal self-determination, integrity, and inner harmony. Since society cannot be really emancipated without emancipation of the individual, socialist morality must allow the possibility that an individual or a particular community may be morally right against any existing organization, institution, or society as a whole. Praxis transcends any established order, whenever this order becomes too narrow for creative novelties. Therefore, moral self-determination is more than a mere freedom of will: it involves the moral right of the individual to go beyond social constraints and create new possibilities, also it involves not only an autonomous act of choice but also action according to choice.

From such an ethical standpoint personal integrity is placed very highly at the scale of moral values—in contrast to duplicity of bourgeois morality which divorces thought, will, and action. An obvious example may be found in ethics of Hobbes who adopts Christian moral rules but considers it a folly to act according to those rules, since all people are selfish, therefore not likely to keep them. The possibility of such morality depends, then, on the state authority and the law which must guarantee keeping the rules. Once Hobbes's assumption of the antisocial nature of man is abandoned, there is no need to split oneself into a beast during the weekdays and a saint on Sundays, and to support a coercive state machinery in order to force people into observing an indispensable minimum of morality. An individual must take the risk and live his moral philosophy only then will he satisfy his genuine need for harmony between his beliefs, verbal utterances, and overt acts.

Obviously one could resolve inner conflicts and restore integrity in different ways within a continuum between egoism and altruism. The optimal solution is such a self-affirmation which also involves a concern for the well being of other persons. This principle analytically follows from the very concept of praxis; it excludes both the giving away of one's life, [47/48] and abuse and disregard of others. It does not impose love for everybody but recognizes a basic respect and sympathy for another human being and awareness of his needs.


Moore distinguished between two basic problems in ethics: What states of affairs are good? What actions are right? He tended to identify "right" with "ought" and having a "duty." Ross made an important point when he noticed that there may be special claims on a person (keeping promises, supporting parents) such that special duties will arise that outweigh the general duty of producing the greatest possible good.

When we reconsider those concepts from the philosophical standpoint of praxis we may notice in the first place that the concept of the morally good is no more undefinable as in Moore. Praxis is the highest intrinsic good. Consequently all those states of affairs are good which maximally bring to life human potentialities for free creative, rational activity in a given historical situation.

Concepts of "good," "right," and "ought" (duty) overlap. In most cases what one "ought" to do is "good," and when we evaluate such action we shall call it "right." However, in calling it "right" we emphasize conformity with the rules of the accepted moral "code," and since the rules in principle can never cover all phenomena and never do full justice to development, there may be cases where the right action according to moral rules is not the best one, if good at all. For example, in the Yugoslav partisan struggle it was considered right to assign women somewhat less dangerous and physically difficult tasks, but in cases of some strong, gifted women it diminished their chance of reaching more responsible roles, which eventually had undesirable social consequences.

On the other hand, there are situations where one "ought" to act according to his subjective moral conviction although an objective analysis would show that the act turned out to be neither "good" nor "right." This is not only the case of special obligations Ross speaks about, but also all those cases where one is deeply convinced that certain moral principles do not apply, where he has an immediate moral insight that it would be wrong to apply them. This discrepancy between "ought" and "good" may be reduced when "ought" is interpreted in an objective way—as what everyone "ought" to do in a type of situation. Since the preservation of personal integrity is also one of objective duties and social goods, it may override other considerations and make an otherwise wrong action the right one. However the basic source of discrepancy is one between subjective and objective evaluation; what an agent believes he ought to do need not [48/49] coincide with what is really good. This discrepancy cannot be always removed, although in ethics based on the idea of praxis the distinction between the subjective and the objective is not so sharp as in other philosophical trends.

It is true, morality is an objective social phenomenon, a set of rules governing behavior, which can be expressed in symbolic form and studied scientifically. But this is not the objectivity of a divine order, nor of an Absolute spirit. The rules are products of human historical praxis. They are applied to a specific situation as it is known to us and not in itself. From what we believe about the situation, not from the situation as it is, it will depend what our moral duty is. We cannot know all the consequences of an action although they are accessible to empirical study. Even less can we be sure about all the motives and intentions of the agent. And practical reasoning by which we derive specific moral judgments from ethical premises is fallible—as we know ever since Aristotle.

And yet moral evaluation is not an entirely subjective matter—just an ejaculation of emotions, or an authentic individual choice totally unrelated to reason and any moral principle. An individual invariably makes a moral judgment as a member of community in which he was socialized. Therefore he can give reasons for his judgment and he will use objective logical rules for deriving it from certain general moral norms. Even when it comes to examining motives—the most subjective factors of an action—one may approach a reliable estimate of motivation by communicating with the agent, checking his reports against other reliable data from his life history and his conduct, comparing them with reports of other agents in comparable situations.

Thus subjectivity and objectivity of ethical judgments constitute a continuum without extreme poles and without a hard and fast line between two categories.

There is an analogous blurring of the distinctions between the analytical and synthetic and the a priori and a posteriori. The concepts retain their validity but they can be made very sharp only at the price of unacceptable simplification.

All moral judgments are synthetic in the sense that they inform us about certain characteristics of real human actions. Even basic ethical principles do not only state explicitly the meaning of ethical terms but describe the distinctly human properties of historical praxis. And yet once those properties have been selected and a normative concept of praxis constituted, certain rules follow analytically.

In a sense all such rules are a priori: they logically precede ethical analysis and evaluation. But this is neither the sense of a priori in Kant nor in modern analytical philosophy. Moral rules are not independent of any [49/50] experience, a set of timeless, necessary postulates that determine the will, or a set of arbitrarily laid down premises of a language designed for moral discourse. In a historical conception of morality there cannot be any norm or principle which did not emerge out of practical experience, by formulating those habits and customs which over a long period of time succeeded in preserving social cohesion, in harmonizing human relations, and in liberating human energies for great creative efforts. In that sense, moral rules may be considered a posteriori. And yet at each historical moment the very possibility of moral thought and experience is determined by the existence of those rules and principles; in that sense, they are a priori.

Now if one rejects a priorism which tends to make ethical judgments absolute and a posteriorism which usually leads to relativism, the problem arises whether it is possible to resolve conflicts among ethical judgments which belong to different ethical systems. Is there anything comparable to truth in empirical theories?

The answer is: There is.

But, first of all, one has to clearly distinguish a value conflict from disagreement in relevant facts, incompatibility of theoretical framework used to describe the situation, and incongruity among alternative languages. Before there is consensus about relevant empirical evidence, use of theoretical paradigms (or at least the way of translating from one to the other), and the implicit logic of the given language, any debate on conflicting ethical issues is a waste of time.

Two strategies are at our disposal for the actual resolution of ethical conflicts. One consists in exploring the foundations of conflicting judgments, the other in testing them against direct moral experience.

The method of theoretical examination consists in asking the opponent to justify his judgment and in challenging the reasons given until one of the three things happen: (1) A logical mistake in practical reasoning may be discovered, which means that one of the judgments is wrong from the very standpoint of the system to which it belongs. (2) Both judgments have been correctly derived from their premises but the premises express totally incompatible attitudes to history. Continuation of a rational dialogue is not possible between those who try to reverse history and revoke an already attained level of emancipation, and those who support further historical development and a continuing human emancipation. The conflict stays unresolved in this case. (3) The dialogue between those opponents who share, at least incompletely, some basic common needs, same cultural heritage, same interest against third parties, may lead either to the establishment that one theory is more general and contains the other as its special case, or to the discovery of a synthesis of the two, of new, more general value principles which incorporate rational kernels of both conflicting values. [50/51]

The method of testing ethical judgments is analogous to testing factual theories. In both cases all kinds of consequences will be derived and checked against experience, ordinary empirical experience in one case, value-experience in the other. (Dewey was right in taking an experience of harmonious satisfaction to be the test of right conduct. An experience of disgust and horror usually accompanies an evil action). In the absence of practical testing, acting roles that follow from the ethical judgments at issue may be simulated. Even in a purely verbal discourse, imagining and describing various situations in which one would have to act according to his judgment helps to spell out and more fully understand the meaning of that judgment. The conflict would be resolved if at least one of the opponents, having to practically apply his abstract judgment in unexpected and unusual circumstances, is not ready to accept its implications and decides to give it up.

The basic assumption on which a belief in the possibility of rational resolution of ethical judgments rests has been very well formulated by Ross. He admitted great variety of moral rules and evaluations in various civilizations but believed that these were media axiomata rather than ultimate rules. If circumstances are different and knowledge of relevant facts in various ways limited, ethical evaluations will have to be different even if fundamental needs and interests are the same.

And indeed a vast majority of people would agree that—other conditions being equal—life is preferable to death, creativity to destructivity, freedom to slavery, communal solidarity to brute egoism, material wellbeing to poverty, development to stagnation, independence to being dominated, dignity to humiliation, autonomy to heteronomy, justice to abuse, peace to war. Disagreements arise about hierarchy of such universal values and especially because other conditions are really not equal. Life need not be preferable to death when the price for it is loss of dignity, peace need not be preferable to war when it leads to loss of freedom.

Humanist ethics of this kind does full justice to historical variety without any support of relativism. And it secures a satisfactory degree of objectivity while rejecting any form of dogmatism and absolutism.

Comment by Paul Kurtz on Marković Article

There is much that I find sensible and can agree with in Mihailo Marković's rich and provocative essay. I find many of his comments responsible and humane. It is his basic ethical postulate and what he intends us to do [51/52] with it in building the "good society" that concerns me. I am dubious of any attempt to locate in history an ultimate ground for ethics, and hence I find his concept of "historical praxis" somewhat troubling, for there are many tendencies and directions in history and different social and value systems. Accordingly, to attempt to read a progressive development or a higher standard of value into history is open to any number of skeptical questions. I fear that the reasoning is circular. History is used by Marković as a mask for his values—many of them I share and are humanistic and democratic—but is he not selecting those features that he finds preferable from his moral vantage point? Why cannot a Christian do the same, by reading some Divine plan into history and interpreting events as they relate to the Second Coming of Christ. A Muslim will no doubt view history as the fulfillment (or lack of it) of Mohammed's word, always using that as a criterion for evaluating social systems. A liberal democrat might consider from his vantage point the so-called existing socialist societies in the world as totalitarian and retrogressive. A devotee of the space age might argue that the whole of human history and the destiny of man is focused on our effort to escape from the solar system and populate the universe beyond. Marković seems to be committing one form of the naturalistic fallacy by defining as intrinsically "good" one aspect of human history ("praxis") and then reading that into the process as a ground for his preferences. All moral judgments, he says, are "synthetic," and basic ethical principles (in part) "describe the distinctively human properties of historical praxis." But we may ask, why should we accept this definition of Marković as binding?

I believe that Marković and the praxis school of Marxist Humanism that he represents have made important modifications of Marxist theory, but have they gone far enough? Or is the ontological Dialectic (which is no more than a guide for analysis) still lurking? For I do not know what it means to say that history as a whole is a "meaningful process." This seems to me to be substituting one theology for another.

Marković focuses on a set of ethical values that he relates to praxis. By "praxis," Marković means "creativity." He wishes to expand this concept and to make it universally accessible as a norm of everyone's life. His standard apparently is the continuation and universalization of praxis in history. "In spite of all discontinuities," he argues, ". . . there is one material and spiritual culture that grows, one human species." He goes on to say that "at a given moment of history there may be one theory that expresses this accumulated knowledge . . ." But again this may be viewed as an expression of Marković's own value bias.

Not that I do not agree with him about the value of "creative praxis," or the need to be concerned with humanity and the species as a whole. [52/53] Simply, I do not believe that it can be enshrined in the womb of history or "historical praxis." Human history can go either way, as the recent Gulags of Stalin and Hitler tragically testify. Various forms of repression have existed in the world at different epochs: feudal, monarchial, capitalist, and communist societies. The recent totalitarian horrors are in many ways more reprehensible than anything that appeared earlier. Clearly there are progressive developments in human history: the elimination of illiteracy, the increase of knowledge and education, the overcoming of poverty and disease, the improvement of the standard of living for the average person, the advance of modern technology and science, the development of freedom, the opening up of many societies to mobility and reform. But I am apprehensive of any mono-historical theories and submit that a pluralistic view of history, in which new and often unexpected changes and trends occur and in which there are many values and norms that emerge, is more accurate.

I am especially worried about Marković's theory when he goes on to develop the concept of "an ideal community in which praxis would be a universal principle." By this he means "each individual would have equal opportunities to act in a purposeful, self-determining, rational, creative way." A liberal democrat might not disagree with this latter principle, but the key question concerns first, the role of freedom and its precise meaning, and second, the kind of "radical social transformation" that it would necessitate. As to freedom, one cannot help but fear that it may be subjected to "equality" and "solidarity." "Self-realization" and "self-perfection" says Marković though indispensable, "get a new meaning." The self is not an isolated selfish individual but essentially a "communal being." Marković talks about a "new morality" that will transform society. What guarantee do we have that new elites will not develop and new repressive systems instituted that will compel individuals to be creative, as defined by someone else? Marković is opposed to bureaucratic elites, but what is the assurance that they will not again emerge? Why should any one group, offering what it believes to be a superior theory, attempt to transform the basis of existing society, religion, science, or ethics in order to bring into being a new one consonant with its vision? Why should any group be allowed to guide or control the destinies and fortunes of the entire human species? I am surely not against social change, even radical change, but the risk of dealing with the totality of human existence in the name of a utopian ideal raises the question: what right does any one group claim to serve as the guardian of all? I have no objection to democratic persuasion, but if the majority never agrees, then what? I have no objection to postulating imaginative images of the future, drawn from the study of history, but I [53/54] demur when there is an effort made to impose them on everyone else. I am not suggesting that Marković would seek to do this, but I am apprehensive of those who in the name of history have.

In the later part of his paper, Marković discusses theoretical questions and he asks how we go about testing ethical judgments: against experience, he says, and by practical means. I agree with this statement fully. I wonder why then we must seek to anchor our judgments and/or give them the sanction of history. Why not deal with them in their own terms without seeking to justify them by the myth of history? Why not recognize that "praxis" is a normative value that if spelled out in concrete terms has meaning and can be illustrated and/or justified without resort to a mystique? Why not have a free society in which those who wish praxis for themselves can have it, but in which those who do not wish it are allowed to go their own ways fulfilling any destiny that they may wish, however disparate it may be from the current utopian ideal defended by the intellectuals?

Reply by Mihailo Marković to Kurtz

I understand Paul Kurtz's worries and share his concern about any repressive power that would try and impose one system of ethics on the entire human species. He seems to believe that either one has to merely assert the fact that there is a plurality of moral values or else one tends to impose a utopian ideal on others. I agree with him that one has to recognize the existence of different moral systems but this recognition is a mere sociological judgment. And even if one recognizes the right of all those different value systems to exist, one is still on the ground of law and not yet of morality. Since Kant, it is clear that the minimal requirement that a norm has to meet in order to be qualified as ethical is its claim to universality. There is indeed a plurality of moral views and each of them is moral if and only if its norms can be formulated as universal rules. Kurtz is surely aware of that when his own moral principles are in question: he surely does not believe that freedom is good for some people and not good for others. It is a moral principle precisely because it is good for all human beings.

Kurtz does not see, apparently, the distinction between claiming universal validity of our own moral norms and imposing them by force on others. As to the latter, it is not only equally unacceptable to me as to Kurtz, I even consider it a duty to struggle against that form of repression, [54/55] and this duty is moral since I believe that everybody ought to engage in this kind of struggle. But, on the other hand, there cannot be any tolerant ethical dialogue unless opponents have genuine convictions. There cannot be ethical pluralism without those conflicting claims to universal validity. A situation in which each group would consider its values as bad for others should be described as lack of morality rather than moral pluralism. The latter is the case when various groups or individuals have genuine moral convictions with implicit claims to universal validity—but these convictions are different or even incompatible.

That is where the need for a foundation of ethical values arises. One has to answer the question: What is the ground on which his implicit claim to universal validity rests?

Kurtz says that he is "dubious of any attempt to locate in history an ultimate ground for ethics." Where else? Where else does he believe he can locate his own ground? There are two other possibilities. One is God—that one I shall rather not discuss. The other is cosmic order. Much of ancient ethics was based on a belief in an ideal world order which is to become a prototype for an ideal conduct of human life. Certainly one was able to find in the cosmos as much ethically relevant order as one put it there. It would be somewhat odd if a present day humanist would study galaxies and black holes in order to establish ground for his ethics. Consequently, where else to look for ground of ethics but in human history?

Of course, all kinds of things can be found in history or projected into it. Paul Kurtz misses the whole point if he really believes that anyone can justify anything by referring to a mere multitude of events and tendencies of history. The crucial question is: What made possible the survival and development of man as a distinctly human being? That an impressive development did take place is an indubitable fact. This is not something that I invented and projected into history. This is not an eschatological goal comparable to the second coming of Christ, fulfillment of Mohammed's word, or making a trip to some neighborly star. Not only is the development of knowledge, of power to control natural forces, of a wealth of forms of social life, of political institutions, or arts, of the means of communication an indubitable fact, it is a fact most specific for human history. This manifold development of communicative power, of reason, of creativity is precisely what distinguishes men from animals, plants, and all other objects in the world.

So far we are entirely on factual ground, discussing general features of the past history. What has been asserted and is open to debate is a matter of fact, not of values. The normative dimension in this whole procedure of grounding ethics, the step from is to ought, appears only when we ask the question: Whether this creative development ought to continue—therefore, [55/56] ought to be supported—or ought to be stopped or reversed. Kurtz again misses the point expressing his disbelief that creative praxis can be "enshrined in the womb of history." Surely, history can go in different ways. But history is history of human individuals—no need, Paul, for capital H: I am not Hegel, nor even Lukacz. Whether it will go toward new fascist empires, Gulag and Vietnams, or in some better direction, it will depend on the activity, ideas, commitments, and sense of responsibility of us who live and more or less, in one way or other, determine the course of historical events.

Paul Kurtz finds reasons to worry about my ethical commitment to an ideal community in which "each individual would have equal opportunity to act in a purposeful, self-determining, rational, creative way." What worries me is that a humanist and liberal democrat should worry so much about equality and solidarity. We are certainly not equal persons and for that reason should not be treated equally. Different persons must be treated differently in order to reach most important equality of condition for full development. What makes freedom an ethical concept (in contrast to the "freedom" to oppress and exploit and bore others) is precisely that it involves equal freedom of all to get a decent education, to be able to grow, work according to ability, satisfy basic needs, fulfill one's creative potential. Kurtz is afraid that all these things will be imposed on people, that people will be compelled to be creative. The irony of this argument is that he does not seem to be afraid, or alarmed, or disgusted by the fact that societies in which we live now are dominated by elites which at the one scale prevent people to be creative. But while no guarantee can be offered to Kurtz that new elites will not develop—there are too many variables in any historical process, and morality is only one of them—I may emphasize that from my ethical standpoint no form of repression is admissible. Ethics based on principles of self-determination and creativity implies norms which condemn any self-appointed elite of power and any striving for domination.

At the end of his comment Paul Kurtz raises the question: Why is it necessary to anchor ethical judgments and give them the sanction of History if we can test them and deal with them in their own terms? This is a general issue of justification of any theory—whether factual or normative. If immediate experience suffices to justify a theory, then, judging from what we all observe Ptolemy was always right after Copernicus. Anyway, once we got Kepler's laws why did Newton seek to anchor these in terms of a "mystical" gravitational force?

It is a basic characteristic of rationality to seek to establish connections between all elements of knowledge and to show how they necessarily follow from a minimal possible number of premises. An ethical theory that would merely postulate a number of ethical norms and leave them side by [56/57] side without linking them and showing how they follow from a minimum of ethical principles (which are, on their part linked with the rest of knowledge)—would be a rather primitive theory.

I have tried to show how all ethical values may be grounded on one basic value assumption: Praxis is good. It cannot be derived from any factual judgment (which would constitute the naturalistic fallacy) but it is linked with a basic factual assumption—"Praxis is enente of history," or more clearly: "Praxis is the specific necessary condition of all historical development."

SOURCE: Marković, Mihailo. Humanist Ethics: Dialogue on Basics, edited by Morris B. Storer (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1980), pp. 36-51, 54-57, with comment by Paul Kurtz, pp. 51-54.

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