What it means to say that morality is determined by human nature.
Whenever Marx evaluates the moral status of an economic formation, a political system, the role of a group or collective, or the specific actions of one individual person, he does so within the context of this more abstract and universal conception of human social existence (which is in turn based on the concrete totality of human social being)20. Throughout this dissertation, I emphasize the fact that in determining what is morally required in a specific historical situation, Marx asks whether or not the action, principle, political movement, etc. in question is such as to promote or to inhibit the expansion of human powers and the satisfaction of human needs. Put differently, in order to know the moral status of a thing, one must know whether or not it is such as to help human beings to realize their nature as natural and social beings who satisfy their needs and transform their existence consciously through the labor process. However, this is no mean feat. I do not intend to make it sound obvious or apparent, simply from a knowledge of this abstraction of human essence, which human actions will fit the bill.
I believe it is a virtue of Marx's theory that his conception of human nature is quite thin. He does not think that human beings are essentially selfish, essentially altruistic, essentially competitive, fallen, vicious, or any other of a whole host of characterizations that other theories have attributed to essential human nature. But then it is fair to ask, Now that one has ascended “from earth to heaven,” as Marx puts it in The German Ideology, and abstracted a human essence out of a concrete totality of determinate appearances, how do we get back down again?
The move downward is mediated by different levels of abstraction between essential human nature that is universal to all human beings and a particular, concrete historical situation and the agents who are in it21. We approach historical questions proceeding from the fact that human beings are always at least indirectly producing their own conditions of existence when they produce in order to satisfy their needs22. However, that is quite general. This human production can take on a variety of forms, and so in evaluating a concrete historical situation it is not enough to know merely that human beings produce their existence through the labor process. Although of course no human being acts in conditions of absolute knowledge, in seeking to determine what is morally right or wrong in a given situation, we must gather as much information as possible regarding moments of the concrete totality of social existence in which one acts. In short, a scientific materialist knowledge of human social existence is a prerequisite for accurate normative judgements. Here is a non-exhaustive description of some of the most important aspects of reality which we must investigate in order to determine what is morally required at a particular historical moment.
In addition to knowing that human beings produce their existence, we must also determine how that production is carried out. We must know what the mode of production of a given society is, whether there is a division of labor and if so, how labor is divided, and furthermore, at what stage of development a society is within that mode of production. This is an empirical question about the economic organization of a society. To answer it, we have to investigate such matters as who is taking part in production, and whether society is still at the stage of consuming what is found ready in nature, as in a hunter-gatherer society, or human beings are actively intervening into nature to direct its processes, as in an agricultural society, or whether production has become rationalized and socialized, and its efficiency increased, to the massive extent that it has in industrial production. We need to examine how goods are distributed once they are produced, and whether a surplus is created and if so, how large a surplus and who controls it.
We also need to know what material resources society has at its disposal, and whether these are such as to allow a transition to a higher stage of society—that is, one that is more amenable to the realization of human nature. It is Utopian, Marx argues, to advocate a new type of society without properly identifying exactly which forces within the old society make such a transition and development possible, and how those forces can be directed at such a transition. A social transformation can only be genuinely moral at a point at which it is historically possible to realize.
We need to know what if any classes exist in the society and what the balance of forces are among them. The notion of economic class is itself an abstraction out of a totality of individual human actors within an economic system. In the case of capitalism, we often see this economic system depicted as one in which autonomous individuals interact with one another as equals, bringing different wares to market—sometimes corn, sometimes their own labor-power. However, when we evaluate the dynamics of this system we see that in fact, these individuals relate to the market in different ways, so that these “free” and “equal” individuals tend to belong, by virtue of their relation to the capitalist market, in one of two broad categories: those who buy labor-power, and those who sell it. And whether you are the capitalist who buys labor-power in order to produce commodities which she can then sell to increase her profit, or the worker who has nothing to sell but his labor-power in order to satisfy his private needs, your actions are not so “free,” but rather determined in significant ways by the economic laws which govern the movement of commodities in such a society. And these actors are not so “equal,” because those who live by buying labor-power and amassing profit tend to have the upper hand over those who live by selling their labor-power daily, thereby contributing to the store of dead labor in the hands of the capitalist.
So in determining what an actor ought morally to do within a given historical situation, we must determine the class membership of the particular historical actor in question, how and whether her actions promote the interests of her class, and furthermore how those class interests stand in relation to the interests of society or of humanity taken as a whole. We need to know the level of organization of that class, whether it has become conscious of its interests and whether it has developed a political leadership capable of advancing those interests.
We need to know the nature and breadth of the individual person's scope for action, and therefore it is important to understand the historical factors which have led up to the moment in which she acts, as well as knowing the individual's own personal qualities and capacities.
The investigation into each of these questions, according to Marx, will proceed from an understanding that each of these aspects of social being have arisen out of a long process of human beings producing their own existence through their active adaptation to the world in which they live. However, in order to derive specific, concrete moral claims out of this abstract and general principle, we must understand the particular manner in which this essence is realized, and also the manner in which it is distorted, frustrated, or limited, in the various historical formations that have arisen during this process. It may sound as though it is an awfully tall order, to need to know so much about the historical context in which an agent acts. But the point is that in order to say with a high degree of accuracy what is morally required in a given historical situation, we need to know as much of this context as possible and we need to understand it in a manner informed by categories such as class and mode of production, so that we can understand how all the parts of this totality interact with one another and form a developing whole into which human beings can consciously and rationally intervene. With regard to morality, what it means to say, as Marx does, that “When reality is depicted, philosophy as an independent branch of knowledge loses its medium of existence” (The German Ideology, MECW 5:37), is to say that we cannot make accurate moral claims without investigating the concrete historical situation as thoroughly and systematically as possible.
Philosophy continues to exist as part of our knowledge, but there is no longer a hard and fast border between philosophical knowledge and the scientific knowledge of society and nature23. The question, What is to be done? is answered by determining what, in a particular situation, is most likely to promote the realization of human nature, and this is something that can be determined empirically via the method I have sketched here.