Re: [xmca] Perceptions, Moral Judgements and Dialectics

From: Andy Blunden (
Date: Sat Dec 09 2006 - 01:41:08 PST

David, in sorting out our notions of priority perhaps we can agree that the
paradigmatic case is given by Marx when he says in Capital:

"The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour
are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in
general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has
already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice. This, however, is
possible only in a society in which the great mass of the produce of labour
takes the form of commodities, in which, consequently, the dominant
relation between man and man, is that of owners of commodities."

So political life and ethics both have their origins in labour process. I
do not regard identity and the good life as individual questions any more
than any other ethical problem or for that matter any economic or political
problem are individual questions. A certain ethos sustains a society of
commodity production, and such an ethos is somehow internalised by those
who live in such a society and act out its market relations. Exchange of
commodities *is* an ethos, yes?

I like your notion of "bathetic evil." When I first came across the secular
usage of "evil" (in Agnes Heller) I was at first a little taken aback, but
I have come to incorporate the word into my vocabulary too. And surely it
is not surprising that it is only a handful of world-historic figures that
we see as worthy of the title. I wonder what you would think if you were to
meet a serial murderer (like the Englishman who had dozens of bodies buried
in his suburban backyard, or Ivan Milat who routinely murdered backpackers
and collected their clothing as trophies)? But on the whole, I reserve it
for world-historic creatures like Bush, too. The real problem though is how
Evil characters like Bush get away with it, isn't it?

At 01:47 PM 9/12/2006 +0900, you wrote:
>Dear Andy:
>Well, there were a lot of things wrong with the last stuff I wrote. The
>bit at the beginning on "technical means" is obscure and stylistically
>ugly. And of course there was the usual atrocious grammar mistake ("my
>moral decisions are far more subjection to reason") at the end.
>Also, I should have made it clear that when I say that I don't think
>questions of identity and "the good life" are logically prior to social
>questions I really mean developmentally prior and not in some absolute
>sense superior. Instead, I muddied the waters by saying that "even if" I
>granted that questions of identity were in some sense more profound (I
>don't really understand what this means) I would not give them logical
>priority, which sort of looks like I am giving away importance with one
>hand and taking it back with the other.
>I should have said that just as with the interiorization of word meaning,
>"who am I" and "what is the good life" are products, not developmental
>processes. The same thing is probably true of the development of an
>ethical system from a political one.
>Furthermore, I now think that political violence is a bad example to use
>to illustrate the way in which my political decisions developmentally lag
>behind my ethical ones. The reason I (today) think it is a bad example is
>precisely because violence is endemic in human history (as in animal
>evolution), and in our own time it is simply an expression of the
>inability of the human animal to rationally command his own social
>That a Vygotskyan system of morality would appear to predict ethical
>development in the social sphere preceding and forming ethical development
>in the personal sphere is simply a reflection of his belief that he was
>living in an epoch where humans would indeed be able to resolve social and
>political conflicts in a rational (and nonviolent) manner. Once again, he
>was overoptimistic, but not necessarily wrong.
>Let me offer a better example of this over-optimism, an example that has
>the advantage of being clearly linked to the idea that moral concepts are
>mediated through verbal artworks. I find that in my personal morality, the
>concept of "evil" is almost completely useless. It has a quaint fairy tale
>ring to it, and it never offers any empathy or insight into what motivates
>the people around me (students who complain about their grades, colleagues
>who design qualifying exams around theoretically unmotivated ideas of
>proficiency, etc). Even in the works of Dostoevsky, I find that the
>concept of "evil", although it persists for religious reasons, is entirely
>stripped of its fairy tale kernel; Raskolnikov's murder is not an "evil"
>one in the usual sense of the word, and it is absurd to summarize The
>Brothers Karamazov as a struggle between good and evil.
>Yet in politics I find no such difficulty. I conclude that the war of
>criminal aggression against the Iraqi people was an act of almost pure
>evil, and in fact I'm rather hard put to explain it any other way.
>Whatever else we can say about the accounts offered by those who deceived
>and manipulated the American people in order to launch the war, they are
>hardly novelistic or even very literary; indeed the fairy tale concept of
>"evil" seems to loom rather large, both in the production of and in the
>consumption of the myths surrounding the war. The true motives of the war
>are probably even less susceptible to a novelistic treatment than the
>mythical accounts of its genesis. "Crime and Punishment" or "War and
>Peace" are possible novels, but "How We Won the 2002 Congressional
>Elections and Lost in 2004" or "No-bid Contracts and the World's Second
>Largest Oil Reserves" are bathetic; they would not even rate as
>supermarket novel titles.
>In fact the narrative of war only "worked" for the American people when it
>was part of a rather crass and racially inspired revenge fantasy; the
>chief problem of the war's architects is that this particular narrative is
>no longer credible with the audience; it has turned out rather bloodier
>than a satisfying revenge fantasy, and it is rather more like a Jacobean
>Revenge Tragedy than the American attention span can stand.
>Just as we move the result of an action to the beginning of the action
>when we achieve self-regulation, it is normal, when we speak, to move the
>reaction of the audience to the front of our articulation. This
>foreknowledge of the audience reaction pre-empts certain narratives and
>inspires others. This is why we can easily detect the rejection of the
>revenge fantasy in the fact that Bush no longer directly invokes 9-11. It
>is precisely this that lends Bush's intonation its irritating petulance
>and its annoying shrillness. It is this which explains the whiny
>insistence with which he pronounces the three word slogans that his
>handlers come up with (exeunt "stay the course", enter "the way forward")
>and the number of times he has to shoot his tongue out to lick his lips
>when he delivers a speech. It is exactly the kind of speaking mannerism I
>would associate with banal evil.
>So I think that while the concept of "evil" reflects a fairly low level of
>moral development, more or less completely devoid of empathy and useless
>for understanding what motivates the actions of others in personal life,
>it is still a serviceable concept in understanding the motivations and
>actions of the American ruling class. This suggests to me that politics
>lies at a rather lower level of development than ethics, more or less
>beyond the reach of mediation through verbal art. The ruling class is
>simply, banally, bathetically evil, or as near to evil as makes no
>difference. I admit, this is hardly a Dostoevskyan view.
>In closing, I want to take issue with something you said two postings ago.
>You argued that Greens have an advantage over Reds in that they have
>realized that it is essential to involve people personally; it is not
>enough to change the government, we also have to change the way we sort
>egg shells from cucumber peelings. Here in Korea, where the entire economy
>was designed around the concept of selling so many cars that people would
>have nowhere to drive them, the elementary school textbooks (especially
>the moral education ones) more or less revolve around the idea that the
>environment is a personal responsibility. The message from the older
>generation is clear: it is all YOUR fault.
>David Kellogg
>Seoul National University of
>xmca mailing list

  Andy Blunden : tel (H) +61 3 9380 9435, AIM
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