Could you explain what you mean by truth, science, reason, rationality, & objectivity in the criticism of morality? Ruthless Criticism

Questions from a reader

Could you explain what you mean by truth, science, reason,
rationality, & objectivity in the criticism of morality?


I have some questions concerning the essay entitled “Criticism of Morality”. First, I would like to summarize what I see as the main thrust of the argument. If I get it wrong, please correct me.

The argument seems to go something like this:

1) Most people have values or morals in their heads that influence their actions to a greater or lesser extent.

2) However, the negative experiences in the world seem to contradict these values. This is how I take the statement “this good is not in the world” (though, there is something amiss in this formulation).

3) Therefore, one should admit that an error is taking place and investigate what “the world is really about.”

The next thesis, it seems, is that sticking to a moral ought prohibits one from grasping how the world is. It is then urged that one ought to “make a leap into objectivity” by abandoning morality and studying economics and politics (presumably the Marxist kind). It's unclear what is meant by the term “objectivity.” Though it is not stated, it's clear that we are dealing with the issue of truth here, but what is meant by truth is is not so clear. Could you explain what you mean by the terms truth, science, reason, rationality, & objective?

My second point of confusion is this: the article seems to imply a conception of Marxism that has a number of affinities with Max Weber's conception of social science, but it's unclear – thus it would be helpful to elucidate the meaning of these aforementioned terms explicitly. What affinities am I specifically referring to? Weber, as it is well-known, attempted more than any other German scholar of his generation to save the concept of “objectivity” (i.e. neutrality) in the social science. It was Weber's belief that doing so required that social science be made “value-free.” It was Weber's assumption that moral evaluations are trans-rational or downright irrational. Thus, for Weber “objective social science” entails the value-free study of “empirical facts” and their causes.

However, there seems to be something in this conception of objectivity that might make us pause. The value-free, objective study of “facts” presupposes the selecting of facts, and this selection is necessarily guided by reference to values; this selection of values in reference to the facts are to be selected must themselves be selected. Oddly further in the "Criticism of Morality" article, it is stated “We are not in the interest of the future, the poor people in the labor offices, in the interest of somebody or other, but in the interest of our own freedom.” Is “freedom” here operating as a value or is it something else? How might one respond to, say, the nihilist who says he prefers subjection and suffering over freedom? One may say that, this selection of values, which determines in the last analysis the specific conceptual framework one will be using, is in principle arbitrary; therefore social science that pretends to this sort of “objectivity” is fundamentally irrational or subjectivistic.

However, it may be the case that this is not how you're conceiving of science, truth, objectivity, etc. Would you be able to clarify this point? (As an aside, it seems to me that when Marx makes use of these terms he's following Hegel).

Our Answer


You asked what we mean by truth, objectivity, and science in our critique of morality. In short, we think you are making things more complicated than they are. It’s true that we don't go to any effort to define exactly what we mean by terms like “objectivity,” because what we mean is so simple: When we use the terms “objectivity,” or what is “objectively true” about politics and economics, we mean the dominating, actually valid purposes of the state and the economy.

Two concrete examples just to get the discussion off this needlessly abstract level:

- Many people think that the purpose of the economy is to provide for people’s needs. Companies may be out to compete against others over profits, but “ultimately” profit-making is a means to the end of satisfying people’s needs. But if useful goods are only produced on the condition that their production turns a profit; if people can only consume goods on the condition that they pay the prices that realize that profit; and if people can only earn a livelihood if their work is useful for profit, then we draw the conclusion that the purpose of the economy is not to satisfy people’s needs, but to make a profit. People’s labor, their livelihoods and their needs are not only subordinated to profit, but are there for the sake of profit.

- Many people think that the USA (or most any other nation) is a community of purpose, joined by a common bond, in which each person does his part for the success of the whole. If there is poverty or other such unpleasant things, then this is assumed to be due to a lack of commitment to the common good – either on the part of corrupt politicians, greedy capitalists, lazy underachievers in the lower classes, or all three. But if we look at the reality of the nation, we find a collection of antagonisms – between buyers and sellers, sellers and sellers, workers and capitalists, etc. The only real commonality that people share is entirely abstract and negative: They share a common passport, and are therefore subjects and instruments of one and the same political power. People aren’t failing to contribute to the common good, because that common good simply doesn’t exist.

So as you can see, we don't have any need for any special discourse on terms, nor do we have any special “approach,” method, perspective or “standpoint.” The only thing we do is explain how things are – and how that is often quite different from how people think things are.


Now, obviously we are not alone in pointing out that reality differs greatly from most people’s ideals. This discrepancy between reality and ideal is the starting point for any kind of critique. And it is at this point that one ought to drop one’s assumptions about the purposes of the state and the economy and examine their true aims. If there is so much poverty alongside so much wealth, perhaps it isn’t true that the purpose of the economy is to fulfill people’s needs. If companies lay people off while increasing their profits, perhaps it isn’t true that companies have a “responsibility” to their employees, but simply have a different aim. If politicians are constantly making cuts to social programs, perhaps it isn’t true that their job is to take care – at least a little – of the poor and needy. And if America goes after a dictator for attacking his people in Libya, while supporting the crushing of protests elsewhere, perhaps it isn’t true that wars are there to save people from political suppression.

As you can tell, we don’t think any of these ideals are true, and go to great lengths to prove that when capitalists and politicians do these unpleasant things, they are not deviating from their responsibilities, succumbing to “greed,” or violating their patriotic duties, but fulfilling them. It’s just that the purposes of capital and the state are at odds with the interests and needs of most people. That is what “ruthless” criticism is all about. It doesn’t shrink back from the results of its investigations just because they might undermine what one would like to think about the reality of the nation and the economy.

And that is the crucial distinction between our criticism and “moral” criticism. When moralists perceive a discrepancy between reality and their ideals, they retain their pretty assumptions about that reality in the face of their daily refutation. And by doing so, they leave untouched the reasons for the various damages that form the starting point of their critique, while implicitly affirming the power of capital and the state – as the ones who are responsible for our well-being, and yet merely fail to live up to that responsibility. In short, it is in this manner that moral criticism, which assumes the unpleasant circumstances so characteristic of capitalist society to be the result of failings on the part of those in charge, takes a decidedly affirmative stance towards the antagonistic relations of domination and subordination in society. Again, our counter-recipe is some ruthless criticism. That is the nature of the “ought” that we assert against the mistaken “ought” of moral criticism.


Of course, we do realize that the bourgeois social sciences make the – methodologically – straightforward task of investigating and explaining the world a much more complicated manner. It is particularly popular in the field of philosophy to question the categories of objective reality and truth. But it isn’t hard to refute such uncertainties, since the doubters confirm the category of truth every time they claim to reject it: Claims such as “There is no such thing as truth” or even “there is no certainty about truth” themselves claim to be true, and thus presuppose the existence of objective truth. And it is only in the upside-down world of philosophy that people think in such absurd terms. Imagine if aeronautical engineers and mechanics responded to a malfunction leading to a plane crash by saying, “Well, that just shows that there is no such thing as objective truth!”

The purpose of casting doubt on the category of truth is to raise unfounded doubts about claims to truth without offering any arguments to prove it. Therefore, nobody can lay claim to the truth – which is a particularly effective and democratic way of suppressing criticism. By forcing everybody to respect the validity of other people’s beliefs and claims as mere opinions, everybody’s beliefs and claims are reduced to mere claims and opinions. The opinion that wins the day in reality, therefore, is not the one that is right, but the one that has the might to assert itself. So, for instance, just try countering Scott Walker’s claim that public sector salaries are far too high by saying, “That’s just your opinion! You can’t know whether that’s true!” He of course would tolerate your dissenting opinion, since opinions don’t matter in the real world anyway. But one thing is for certain: you have to tolerate the measures he enforces with the force of law.

The mistake of moral critique is that instead of finding out what the truly valid purposes of the state and the economy are, one measures reality according to one’s own ideal of it. When the political and economic life of the nation doesn’t correspond to my ideal, I continue to insist that “actually” the purpose of the state and the economy is to correspond to that ideal, but – for whatever reason – is failing to do so.


You ask what is meant in the transcribed and translated lecture when the speaker points out that “we are only interested in our freedom.” It might help to take a closer look at the context of the remark. He is responding to the question as to whether criticizing the sufferings of workers is not eminently moral, since the speaker himself doesn’t stand to gain from it. First, it is a mistake – though very prevalent under democratic rule – to judge criticism not according to the accuracy of the critique, but according to the motive of the critic. What does my background and my motives have to do with whether my explanation of a given issue in the world is right or not? Second, the workers we have dealt with certainly don’t think we are being altruistic and acting for their sake – and in a certain sense they are right. After all, we are criticizing their ideals about the system in which they are forced to play a very unpleasant role, and we criticize their willingness to put up with the harsh consequences of accepting that role. Third, there is nothing altruistic or moralistic about criticizing capitalism just because one isn’t a worker. After all, there is nobody in this society who can escape the necessity of earning money, and not only factory workers depend on wages. Whoever manages to move up in the job hierarchy earns more money and has more agreeable working conditions by performing functions for the exploitation of normal workers. For instance, there are those who prepare workers for their future roles (teachers), those who keep them functionally healthy (doctors and nurses), those who design and redesign factories, offices, and production processes to make them as profitable as possible and reduce the amount of paid labor necessary to run them (engineers), etc. And again, the critique of money and the money economy is no less correct if the critic is well-off!

So the point is not how one is affected by the capitalist system, and how one suffers from it, rather everything depends on how one explains it. And when it comes to that, there is only one proper criterion: The explanation has to be correct. And that is an absolutely necessary and crucial condition for removing the reasons for the discontent that forms the starting point of every critique.

P.S. There are plenty of things one could say about Nietzsche, but the simple answer to your question as to what we would say to the nihilist who prefers subjection over freedom is: He is making a big mistake! But perhaps a few words about where Nietzsche is coming from and what he gets so wrong wouldn’t hurt. On the one hand, Nietzsche correctly recognizes that morality is a way of coming to terms with one’s own subjection to domination: One glorifies it with reference to higher values. But instead of criticizing the domination to which people are subjected, Nietzsche despises the victims’ slavish character. He demands that people really be convinced of what it is they do, not glorify their subordination with high-minded ideals. That this is in no way a critique of domination is made apparent by the example you mention. Subordination to power is fine, as long as you really want it! That is the essence of anti-moralism, which is a far cry from a proper critique of morality and, more importantly, the harmful system about which people entertain moral ideals and cultivate moral critique.

Finally, on your point that our website lacks something about the vanguard party: what we think is simple; we're interested in correcting the above mentioned mistakes and explaining how capitalism and the state really work. The first step to is to correct those false assumptions and ideas, and explain the real causes for people's discontent, their poverty. We don't see ourselves in the role of the vanguard party; we just show how capitalism functions and how the economic purpose that drives capitalism causes suffering. That's it. Of course, we want this to lead somewhere else – but that is something for our audience to take care of once they think it is necessary. And once they think that, they certainly won’t need any leaders.