Reply to Levi on Marx and Normativity

Levi posted a series of responses (1, 2, 3) to my post on Marx and Normativity, to which I owe a long overdue reply. I regret that it has come long after the discussion has grown cold, but finishing my dissertation and moving have consumed all my spare time. Nonetheless, its an interesting discussion and I hope its rekindling will be welcome.

1) Here, Levi claims that my post is premised on a misunderstanding of his position, itself based on a terminological misunderstanding.

My claim [that Marx says little about normativity] makes sense if we work on the premise that discourses of normativity refer to something highly specific: Kant’s deontological moral theory, and those deeply influenced by Kant’s deontological moral theory such as Habermas and Brandom. If normativity is understood as a synonym for this style of thought, I think my claim is perfectly valid. […] By contrast, Reid’s rejoinder to my claim makes sense if Reid is not using the term “normativity” to refer specifically to value theories coming out of Kant, but to any discussions of value whatsoever. If this is what “normativity” means, then Reid is quite right to be shocked when I say that Marx does not have much to say about normativity precisely because Marx talks about values all over the the place. Over at Cogburn’s blog I explicitly stated (a couple of times) that I had been taking normativity to be synonymous with Kant style deontological ethics, so I’m somewhat surprised that Reid is attempting to demonstrate to me that Marx has an important place for values within his thought. But perhaps I’m misconstruing what Reid is arguing, as he also seems to be claiming that Marx advocates a deontological moral theory in his thought.

There are a series of problems with these remarks, and I’ll work backwards through them:

1.1) I was not trying to demonstrate that Marx “has an important place for values”, as this point would be a triviality. I was trying to demonstrate that Marx’s materialism is not a reductivism about values, in which values are thoroughly relative to the material situations in which they are produced, and can be exhaustively explained in causal/material terms. (I know Levi does not read Marx this way, but an overwhelming number of his readers do.) Rather, Marx gives an account of the material basis of socially valid ‘entities’ like values in which the former constrains and distorts the latter, but in which the latter has a relative practical autonomy from the former.

1.2) I do not claim that Marx “advocates a deontological moral theory”. This accusation condenses three big problems with Levi’s response:

1.2.1) While Levi admits that he had be confusing talk about the importance of normativity with advocacy of Kantian moral philosophy, he doesn’t seem to understand that he is still conflating what Pete has called ‘fundamental deontology’, which involves explicating a certain set of norms to which we are necessarily bound insofar as we count as rational, with Kantian moral philosophy. While both Pete and I think that there are some important ethical implications to be worked out from these fundamental norms, neither of us think this even comes close to exhausting moral philosophy. At best, it provides a very spare and basic latticework that requires far more fleshing out in relation to concrete ethical and political situations and problems.

1.2.2) While Kantian moral philosophy is far more formalist, roughly claiming that ethical maxims should be derived solely from that which we are in principle obligated to do insofar as we are rational (in other words, that which all rational agents should will to be done), Levi has been characterizing it as somehow tyrannical and oppressive, instructing people what they must do in all situations. This completely elides the absolute centrality of the autonomy of the agent’s will from all forms of coercion, and the principled equality of every agent’s will. Agents should only act on maxims that they can freely decide upon, on the condition that they respect the equal freedom of all other agents. This account has severe limitations, which show up very clearly in its political-philosophical consequences, but how these could be interpreted as oppressive is beyond me. Marx by no means advocates a Kantian moral theory, but that is because he places primacy on collective rational determination over individual rational determination (a move indebted to Hegel), and thus on political over moral questions. In that regard, the Kantian emphasis on autonomy and equality is preserved and strengthened in Marx’s work.

1.2.3) While I think that Marx’s presentation of these concerns remains either implicit or unsystematic, I by no means think he is advocating in an implicit or unfocused way either straightforward Kantian deontological ethics (which I don’t advocate either), or a moral and political philosophy that draws upon a ‘fundamental deontology’ (the latter being what I take Levi to be accusing me of in saying I seem to be reading “a deontological moral theory” into Marx). My point was rather 1) that Marx’s philosophy, specifically his account of fetishism, does not exclude the possibility of fundamental deontology, as Levi implies it does, and 2) that it may turn out a consistent reconstruction of Marx’s philosophy might benefit from, or even require something like ‘fundamental norms of rationality’. I do think that Marx advocates a political philosophy that is influenced by the Kantian emphasis on rational autonomy and equality (by way of Hegel), but this is certainly not to say that he advocates a broadly Kantian moral philosophy, or even the importance of fundamental norms of rationality.

1.3) I don’t have the time to develop this point in detail, but I did want to say that I don’t think Levi is right to characterize Brandom and Habermas as straightforwardly advocating Kantian moral theory. Both are heavily indebted to the Kantian deontological approach to normativity (and to a certain pragmatism this entails), but Brandom to my knowledge does not have much to say about moral philosophy, and even if he did he would certainly be more Hegelian than Kantian about it; and Habermas’s discourse ethics, while perhaps closer to Kant, are a substantial innovation over his work. I’d like to see Levi back up this characterization with some evidence, because he seems to be lumping thinkers together so he can easily dismiss them in a single stroke, and in particular, doing so by assimilating them to the sense of normativity he finds instinctively offensive (Kantian morality). Yet normativity in Kant is not reducible to his moral philosophy, nor is the debt Brandom and Habermas owe to Kant primarily on the moral account. Finally, as I said above, I don’t even recognize Levi’s dismissal of Kantian morality as justified, resting instead on a particularly bizarre mischaracterization, and so even if Brandom and Habermas straightforwardly advocated Kant’s moral philosophy, I wouldn’t see this as adequate grounds for dismissing them either.

1.4) Concluding here, I’ll address a this remark by Levi, which seems to summarize things nicely:

When I refer to deontological models of normative thought, I am referring to something akin to Kant’s categorical imperative. Those familiar with Kant will recall that the categorical imperative states “that we must will the maxim of our action such that we can will it as a universal law of nature.” Kant argues that the categorical imperative is a truth of reason alone, and that in formulating the categorical imperative we must make no reference to either circumstances or whatever personal motivations we might have. Working on this premise, this led me to argue that deontological normative theories risk falling into a form of ideological fetishism.

I am likewise critical of Kantian morality for its neglect of concrete situatedness. Nonetheless, I think two things are being conflated here. Kant is claiming that we should strive to act on the basis of maxims that are justified solely in rational terms, and not through appeal to ‘pathological’ reasons, or what I’ve been calling ‘material interests’. Yet the point of this is that one should act according to maxims one is capable of deciding upon in absence of the influence of things like threats of violence or promises of material gain (bribes, etc). One should be capable of acting because that action is the right thing to do, and not because one will be penalized or rewarded for doing so. The latter are not considered morally good reasons. Similarly, Marx’s political philosophy is focused on the possibility of collective actions that are determined not on the basis of the material interests of a certain group (class), but on what is good or right in general. (Whether this latter point means ‘for rational agents as a whole’, or ‘for rational agency itself’, is another question, but I tend to think Marx leans toward the latter.) The point of Marx’s critique of fetishism is precisely that it takes what are in fact the material interests of a certain group to be in the rational interests of all groups. (The twist Marx’s gives to this error is that it leads to a situation in which the material interests of a certain group, the proletariat, really do overlap with general rational interests, and thus their victory would entail the dissolution of social organization based on the primacy of material interests (class). I should also clarify a potential ambiguity: in using the term ‘rational interests’, I do not mean ‘interests that are rationally defensible’, but ‘interests one has insofar as one is a rational agent’.) I think that the Kantian account of morality is vulnerable to such fetishism in that it does not adequately emphasize the possibility of mistaking material for rational interests in this way, and insofar as it neglects the social (and hence political) character of rational determination (and thus in a sense the primacy of the political over the moral), but this vulnerability does not mean the Kantian account is based on fetishistic distortions in the way that classical political economy is. In short, the Marxian critique of fetishism is based on the same sort of separation of rational interests from material or ‘pathological’ interests as the Kantian account, and differs in emphasizing the more insidious forms in which the latter can infect the former, and on the primacy of collective over individual rational determination. While Kant is very much at risk of ‘falling into ideological fetishism’, specifically insofar as his account of the relation between material and rational interests in insufficiently nuanced, Levi’s approach has already fallen into the ideological trap insofar as he tries to collapse the distinction. I’ll come back to this point later when discussing the nature/culture question.

2) Levi contests my reconstruction of the commodity fetishism argument. Yet in doing so, he doesn’t show why my account of Marx is wrong; he simply restates the positions that I’ve argued are incompatible with Marxism.

2.1) Levi begins by saying the following:

Reid contends that I don’t understand what fetishism is within a Marxist framework. Needless to say, I think he’s mistaken. In the context of his analysis of commodity fetishism, Marx argues that commodity fetishism emerges when social relations between people are expressed as objective relationships between things. For example, rather than seeing value as arising from a particular form of production, we instead treat value as an intrinsic property of the thing itself.

I completely endorse the last two sentences, and my account of fetishism is nothing but a fleshing out of this claim. Marx is arguing that we should sharply distinguish between properties we ascribe to objects that have only social validity from those that have objective validity. Yet Levi follows this assertion with claims that are plainly incompatible with Marx’s argument.

By treating the moral law as preceding social relations rather than as arising from particular types of social relations, these forms of moral thought risk fetishizing norms and obscuring the manner in which norms are reflective of particular forms of social relations.

The first thing to note here is that Levi is using the term ‘preceding’ ambiguously. To say that something is a priori is not to say it is chronologically or temporally prior, but rather to say it is logically prior, or that it is presupposed by something else. In this case, the fundamental norms of rationality are presupposed in all particular forms of rational social relations. Now, in the fifth section of my previous post I sketched an account of how the historical character of historical materialism is irreducible to temporality, and while that account is still problematic and incomplete, Levi does not try to show why it is wrong, but simply ignores it, continuing to treat apriority as equivalent to ahistoricity. This neglects that I have tried to show, be it in a preliminary manner, how a priori norms, while irreducible to any particular historically-specific culture, are historical in the sense that they are relative to rational social relations. Levi is, on the other hand, the one who is at risk of fetishizing norms insofar as he is leaning toward suggesting they are either reducible to the material conditions from which the arose, or that they are objectively embedded in those conditions. Either way, he would thereby attributing objective status to something that has only social validity, and thus fetishizing it.

2.2) Levi goes on to say:

Rather than beginning with an abstract normative framework and analyzing the world in terms of that framework, Marx instead begins with the analysis of social relations and examines how particular normative frameworks emerge from those social relations.

There are two problems here.

2.2.1) The approach I would advocate, and I believe this is true of Pete as well, does not begin from an ‘abstract normative framework’, but from concrete discursive practices, only to show how fundamental norms are implicit in these practices.

2.2.2) While Marx does not directly advocate such a resort to ‘fundamental norms’, and he does indeed try to show how norms emerge from social relations, this is precisely in order to show how those norms have certain social validity. What Marx rejects is not the claim that some norms might have universal social validity (indeed, I have argued that he must implicitly suppose as much), but that social validity can be grounded in appeals to objective validity. (Nicole Pepperell has persuasively argued that in Marx’s analysis, even categories with apparently universal validity are only available as explications of contingent practical forms of relating to the world. Yet while she might not go as far as I want to in this regard, she recognizes that this practical grounding does not amount to the invalidation of these categories, lest historical materialism amount to nothing but historicist relativism. Following the concluding argument in my last post, I’d go on to say there is a universal necessity of theoretical categories that is compatible with their contingent practical genesis, but this will require more argumentative defense than I can give here. I can point to a rather clear instance in which Marx suggests as much, from the Introduction to the Grundrisse:

[I]s Achilles possible with powder and lead? Or the Iliad with the printing press, not to mention the printing machine? Do not the song and the saga and the muse necessarily come to an end with the printer’s bar, hence do not the necessary conditions of epic poetry vanish? But the difficulty lies not in understanding that the Greek arts and epic are bound up with certain forms of social development. The difficulty is that they still afford us artistic pleasure and that in a certain respect they count as a norm and as an unattainable model.

A man cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish. But does he not find joy in the child’s naïvité, and must he himself not strive to reproduce its truth at a higher stage? Does not the true character of each epoch come alive in the nature of its children? Why should not the historic childhood of humanity, its most beautiful unfolding, as a stage never to return, exercise an eternal charm? There are unruly children and precocious children. Many of the old peoples belong in this category. The Greeks were normal children. The charm of their art for us is not in contradiction to the undeveloped stage of society on which it grew. [It] is its result, rather, and is inextricably bound up, rather, with the fact that the unripe social conditions under which it arose, and could alone arise, can never return.

Marx does not want to say, e.g. Greek art is only valid for the ‘specific social system’ from which it arose, but that its validity can transcend this specificity. Understanding the socio-practical basis of this transcendence is at the heart of the Marxist problematic.)

3) Levi criticizes my characterization of Latourian “a-modernism”:

I think Reid simply mischaracterizes both my own understanding of the relationship between nature and culture, as well as Latour’s. The situation is not entirely unambiguous in Latour, but the entire issue revolves are the thesis that there are two entirely distinct domains of being, such that on the one hand we have the domain of culture that consists entirely of meaning, values, freedom, signs, and mind, while on the side of nature we have purely material entities governed by causal laws alone. The key point, is that the modernist vision argues that we should maintain these realms as entirely separate, such that we never discuss the realm of natural objects in when analyzing the cultural and we never discuss the domain of culture when dealing with natural objects. The basic lesson of Latour’s critique of modernity is not that there is no distinction between natural objects and cultural objects, but rather that we live among tangled networks of culture and nature where natural objects play a key and significant role in social formations and where social formations play a key and significant role in how we investigate nature.

The important contribution of modernism, as I understand it, is not some kind of unbridgeable gap between nature and culture, but the insistence that we be capable of talking about ‘culture’, specifically the aspect of culture that includes the activity of talking about…, in non-objective terms. So whether or not Levi and Latour maintain some sort of distinction between the two domains, they fall foul of my particular criticism so long as they undermine the possibility of such a non-objective self-characterization of cultural production. This is precisely what occurs when one understands ontological claims as being explanatorily prior to epistemological ones. Without such a non-objective account of thought/discourse, it becomes impossible to properly distinguish between practical and objective validity; the former at best is regarded as a species of the latter, whereas the reverse is in fact the case. If one cannot draw this distinction, one has automatically fallen prey to fetishization, or the ascription of objective validity where only practical validity holds.

4) Levi has often brought up the issue of what the libidinal motives behind certain positions, such as those that afford particular emphasis to the analysis of normativity, and subsequently accused the latter of arising due to a desire for control, etc. First, I should note, as Pete has, that such considerations are fundamentally irrelevant to considerations of the veracity of a claim. Yet even playing at his game, we can note that a very different desire can, and likely for the most part does, give rise to such positions: the desire to limit the legitimacy of authority to claims rooted in an independently verifiable account of the structure of the world, or more fundamentally (and it may be that the former type requires the latter), in collective social determination equally inclusive of all rational agents.

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One Response to Reply to Levi on Marx and Normativity

  1. Pingback: The Luxemburgist « Deontologistics

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