MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms


Ethical Politics

Ethical politics is the political terrain in which the right way to live is subject to contest, but there is not necessarily any contest for state power or any attempt to seek office or build organisations.

Ethical politics was first developed in recent times in the Womens Movement and the Green Movement: people who supported the movement exercised their politics by acting according to certain ethical principles, such as re-cycling their own rubbish, or not wearing make-up or whatever, rather than by being members of an organisation, participating in political actions or attempting to remove people from positions of authority.

Ethical politics contrasts with identity politics in that it rejects relativism and insists upon the validity of standards against which ethical behaviour can be measured – that is: “it is not just my choice to recycle rubbish, you should as well.” Ethical politics arises out of alliance politics as groups with different theories and different priorities seek unifying principles and ways of expressing their common aims.

Ethical politics differs from fundamentalism because its aim is to develop principles and imperatives which express new ways of acting and emerging social relations, whereas fundamantalism promotes outmoded ethical principles from the past in order to “turn back the clock” and re-establish old ways of living.




Ethics is the study and practice of how people must live and is concerned with morality and rights. Ethics and Science complement one another, inasmuch as ethics addresses itself to the question “What ought to be?” rather than “What must be?”

Each historical form of society has its own characteristic Ethics – in capitalist society ethics is called economics, manifesting itself as a branch of science, serving one form of Utilitarianism or another. Ethics is always contested: in bourgeois society, ethical practices left over from earlier forms of society or having other traditional roots, as well as the rights and ethics brought forward by the working class, contest the dominant bourgeois ethic of the capitalists.

Ethics can be of two kinds: Ethics of Virtue and Ethics of Duty. The ethics of duty is concerned with what is the right thing to do in this or that situation. Utilitarianism is a classic example of an ethic of duty, and the overwhelming majority of public discussion about ethics in capitalist society is of this kind. On the other hand, the ethics of virtue is concerned with how to be a good person; i.e., instead of asking whether it is right act on your desire, it asks whether a good person has such a desire.

While in capitalist society, the ethics of duty are highly stressed over virtue, socialists endeavour to bring the ethics of duty back into a proper relation with the ethics of virtue – only by ridding the world of poverty and exploitation is ethical action really possible. In Socialism the ethic of virtue is expressed in that the fulfillment of a human is in helping others, a virtue of "From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs!"

Marx described the ethics of bourgeois society in this way:

You must make everything that is yours saleable, i.e., useful. If I ask the political economist: Do I obey economic laws if I extract money by offering my body for sale, by surrendering it to another's lust?... Or am I not acting in keeping with political economy if I sell my friend to the Moroccans? ... Then the political economist replies to me: You do not transgress my laws; but see what Cousin Ethics and Cousin Religion have to say about it. My political economic ethics and religion have nothing to reproach you with, but - But whom am I now to believe, political economy or ethics? - The ethics of political economy is acquisition, work, thrift, sobriety - but political economy promises to satisfy my needs. - The political economy of ethics is the opulence of a good conscience, of virtue, etc.; but how can I live virtuously if I do not live? And how can I have a good conscience if I do not know anything? It stems from the very nature of estrangement that each sphere applies to me a different and opposite yardstick - ethics one and political economy another; for each is a specific estrangement of man and focuses attention on a particular field of estranged essential activity, and each stands in an estranged relation to the other. Thus M. Michel Chevalier reproaches Ricardo with having ignored ethics. But Ricardo is allowing political economy to speak its own language, and if it does not speak ethically, this is not Ricardo's fault. M. Chevalier takes no account of political economy insofar as he moralises, but he really and necessarily ignores ethics insofar as he practises political economy.

The relationship of political economy to ethics, if it is other than an arbitrary, contingent and therefore unfounded and unscientific relationship, if it is not being posited for the sake of appearance but is meant to be essential, can only be the relationship of the laws of political economy to ethics. If there is no such connection, or if the contrary is rather the case, can Ricardo help it? Moreover, the opposition between political economy and ethics is only an apparent opposition and just as much no opposition as it is an opposition. All that happens is that political economy expresses moral laws in its own way.
Human Requirements and Division of Labour Under the Rule of Private Property, Marx 1844

The foundation of right in bourgeois society is property (see Hegel’s Philosophy of Right for a systematic exposition of this view); even if the only property you own is your labour-power, to be a human being in bourgeois society is to be a property-owner. Those rights which are accorded to non-property-owners have arisen exclusively from the struggle of workers and other oppressed people against the rule of bourgeois right.

The need in capitalist society to exploit the labour of others or sell oneself as a labourer in order to live, thus manifests itself in ethics: it becomes a fundamental working class "right" to quit your job whenever you want, and be hired by whoever makes the worker a better offer. It is just the same, a determined ethical "right" to exploit the labour of others, and as this is the practice of the ruling class, this activity is considered ethical. The rights of the capitalists are, on the other hand proportional to their capital; and since property is in general something adhering exclusively to individuals, in bourgeois society it is the rights of individuals that always predominates over those of the community as a whole.

In all pre-capitalist societies, rights were determined by traditional systems of rights and obligations, and in general these rights and duties were acquired through kinship relations. Bourgeois society emerged as a domain “in between” the state and the family in which rights were not determined by any existing traditional system. The appearance of large numbers of people lying outside traditional systems of obligations caused the breakdown of Tribal Society in its day, and so it did with feudalismcivil society ultimately destroyed all forms of traditional relationships and rights.

Socialist Ethics

“in a communist society ... as it emerges from capitalist society ... equal right here is still in principle – bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads ... equal right is still constantly stigmatised by bourgeois limitation. The right of the producers is proportional to the labour they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made by an equal standard, labour.

“But one person is superior to another physically or mentally, and so supplies more labour in the same time, ... This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labour ...It is therefore a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right by its nature can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals ... are measurable only by an equal standard in so far as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only, for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers, and nothing more is seen in them, everything else is ignored .. To avoid all these defects, right instead of being equal would have to be unequal.

“But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and the cultural development conditioned by it.

“In the higher phase of communist society, ... after labour has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased ... only then can the narrow horizons of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: ‘From each according to her ability, to each according to her needs!’ ”

Karl Marx
Critique of the Gotha Program

Further reading: Marxism & Ethics, a collection of articles by Marxists about ethics, and links to relevant quotes from Marx and Engels.