Is morality a barrier to understanding?

Despite his tendency to ultra-leftism, rabid anti-Americanism and incandescent anti-Zionism, I have some residual respect for the art critic and marxist-humanist polymath John Berger. His 1972 television series “Ways of seeing” and later book of the same name had a profound effect on me during the early 1980s when I first began delving into philosophy and aesthetics as an intellectually-starved, post-school youth.

Berger was recently interviewed for the Sunday Times by Brian Appleyard, and interesting reading it is too.

Norman Geras quotes approvingly from Berger’s utterances on Marxism, ethics and matters transcendental:

“He remains a Marxist, but with a crucial note of dissent. ‘The problem with Marxism is there is no real space for ethics. Okay, there is plenty of space in it for the struggle of justice against injustice, but the notion that an act is good or bad in itself – there is no space for that. There is no space for that which is outside time or, if you wish, for the eternal… There is the possibility of it being combined with another philosophical view which is not simply materialist.’”

The economist Chris Dillow, on the other hand, is dismissive of morality and ethics in social analysis. Dillow raises a number of pertinent points, but I think he doth go a little too far in his strictly materialist Weltanschauung.

Morality in public discourse is, as Dillow says, often no more than a projection of ego (and, I would add, herd mentality). While I agree that a fixation on such poorly-defined notions as goodness and badness can be a barrier to understanding, the following is, I feel, a little too strong:

“Morality is like woolly underwear. It might keep you warm, but it’s not interesting. It contributes little of substance to social or economic questions.”

Sociality arises from the many complex interactions between the individual elements of society, and I don’t think one can brush aside the individual’s willingness or unwillingness to be a social, considerate and empathic human being. (That, by the way, is just a long-winded way of referring to “goodness or badness” without recourse to the emotional ickiness of everyday human language.) The causes of crime and anti-social behaviour in general are many and various, and you cannot reduce these to material social and economic questions in the abstract.

As Norm says, Marxism was never an all-encompassing system, despite the naïve and sometimes malicious efforts of some to use it as such. That said, it does have a limited predictive potential, and therefore provides a useful theoretical framework for social analysis. But like any “science”, hard or soft, Marxism is incomplete. It is in particular deficient in the ethics department, but there is to me no conceivable reason why this cannot be remedied.