from morality to economics: some stuff about Marx for Tapan Parikh
by Sebastian Benthall
I work on a toolkit for heterogeneous agent structural modeling in Economics, Econ-ARK. In this capacity, I work with the project’s creators, who are economists Chris Carroll and Matt White. I think this project has a lot of promise and am each day more excited about its potential.
I am also often in academic circles where it’s considered normal to just insult the entire project of economics out of hand. I hear some empty, shallow snarking economists about once every two weeks. I find this kind of professional politics boring and distracting. It’d also often ignorant. I wanted to connect a few dots to try to remedy the situation, while also noting some substantive points that I think fill out some historical context.
Tracking back to this discussion of morality in the Western philosophical tradition and what challenges it today, the focal character there was Immanuel Kant, who for the sake of argument espoused a model of morality based on universal properties of a moral agent.
Tapan Parikh has argued (in personal communications) that I am “a dumb ass” for using Kant in this way, because Kant is on the record for writing some very racist things. I feel I have to address this point. No, I’m not going to stop working with the ideas from the Western philosophical canon just because so many of them were racist. I’m not a cancel culturist in any sense. I agree with Dave Chappelle on the subject of Louis C.K., for example.
However, it is actually essential to know whether or not racism is a substantive, logical problem with Kant’s philosophy. I’ll defer to others on this point. A quick Googling of the topic seems to indicate that either: Kant was inconsistent, and was a racist while also espousing universalist morality, and that tells us more about Kant the person than it does about universalist morality–the universalist morality transcending Kant’s human failings in this case (Allais, 2016) or Kant actually became less racist during the period in which he was most philosophically productive, which was late in his life (Kleingeld, 2007). I like this latter story better: Kant, being an 18th century German, was racist as hell; then he thought about it a bit harder, developed a universalist moral system, and because, as a consequence, less racist. That seems to be a positive endorsement of what we now call Kantian morality, which is a product of that later period and not the earlier virulently racist period.
Having hopefully settled that question, or at least smoothed it over sufficiently to move on, we can build in more context. Everybody knows this sequence:
Kant -> Hegel -> Marx
Kant starts a transcendent dialectic as a universalist moral project. Hegel historicizes that dialectic, in the process taking into serious consideration the Haitian rebellion, which inspires his account of the Master/Slave dialectic, which is quite literally about slavery and how it is undone by its internal contradictions. The problem, to make a long story short, is that the Master winds up being psychologically dependent on the Slave, and this gives the Slave power over the Master. The Slave’s rebellion is successful, as has happened in history many times. This line of thinking results in, if my notes are right (they might not be) Hegel’s endorsement of something that looks vaguely like a Republic as the end-of-history.
He dies in 1831, and Marx picks up this thread, but famously thinks the historical dialectic is material, not ideal. The Master/Slave dialectic is transposed onto the relationship between Capital and the Proletariat. Capital exploits the Proletariat, but needs the Proletariat. This is what enables the Proletariat to rebel. Once the Proletariat rebel, says Marx, everybody will be on the same level and there will be world peace. I.e., communism is the material manifestation of a universalist morality. This is what Marx inherits from Kant.
But wait, you say. Kant and Hegel were both German Idealists. Where did Marx get this materialist innovation? It was probably his own genius head, you say.
Wrong! Because there’s a thread missing here.
Recall that it was David Hume, a Scotsman, whose provocative skeptical ideas roused Kant from his “dogmatic slumber”. (Historical question: Was it Hume who made Kant “woke” in his old age?) Hume was in the line of Anglophone empiricism, which was getting very bourgey after the Whigs and Locke and all that. Buddies with Hume is Adam Smith who was, let’s not forget, a moral philosopher.
So while Kant is getting very transcendental, Smith is realizing that in order to do any serious moral work you have to start looking at material reality, and so he starts Economics in England.
This next part I didn’t really realize the significance of until digging into it. Smith dies in 1790, just around when Kant is completing the moral project he’s famous for. At that time, the next major figure is 18, coming of age. It’s David Ricardo: a Sephardic Jew turned Unitarian, a Whig, a businessman who makes a fortune speculating on the Battle of Waterloo, who winds up buying a seat in Parliament because you could do that then, and also winds up doing a lot of the best foundational work on economics including inventing the labor theory of value. He was also, incidentally, an abolitionist.
Which means that to complete one’s understanding of Marx, you have to also be thinking:
Hume -> Smith -> Ricardo -> Marx
In other words, Marx is the unlikely marriage of German Idealism, with its continued commitment to universalist ethics, with British empiricism which is–and I keep having to bring this up–weak on ethics. Empiricism is a bad way of building an ethical theory and it’s why the U.S. has bad privacy laws. But it’s a good way to build up an economic materialist view of history. Hence all of Marx’s time looking at factories.
It’s worth noting that Ricardo was also the one who came up with the idea of Land Value Taxation (LVT), which later Henry George popularized as the Single Tax in the late 19th/early 20th century. So Ricardo really is the pivotal figure here in a lot of ways.
In future posts, I hope to be working out more of the background of economics and its connection to moral philosophy. In addition to trying to make the connections to my work on Econ-ARK, there’s also resonances coming up in the policy space. For example, the Law and Political Economy community has been rather explicitly trying to bring back “political economy”–in the sense of Smith, Ricardo, and Marx–into legal scholarship, with a particular aim at regulating the Internet. These threads are braiding together.
Allais, L. (2016). Kant’s racism. Philosophical papers, 45(1-2), 1-36.
Kleingeld, P. (2007). Kant’s second thoughts on race. The Philosophical Quarterly, 57(229), 573-592.