The Ethical Impulse in the Work of Karl Marx

  • Eugene Kamenka
Part of the New Studies in Ethics book series (NSE)


Until recently, the important implications of classical Marxism for moral philosophy have been taken to lie in its critique of objectivism in ethics, in its ‘exposure’ of the pretended impartiality and universality of moral injunctions and codes. ‘Reason’, Hume had said, ‘is the slave of the passions’; morality, Marx and Engels appeared to be claiming, is the slave of interest. Marx’s ‘materialist’ conception of history, according to his disciples, showed that moral codes and beliefs were man-dependent, born of man’s social situation and varying as that situation varied. Since there was no ‘man in general’, since there were only specific men belonging to this or that specific social class, there was no morality in general. There were only specific moralities, reflecting the specific interests, demands and situations of specific classes, conflicting as these classes conflict. Moral codes or beliefs could therefore not be treated as true or false, valid or invalid, in themselves. They belonged to a particular historical time and expressed the concerns of a particular historical group; only in this context could they be understood and appraised. It was possible to speak in the name of the slave-owning morality or the slave morality, in the name of feudal morality, or bourgeois morality, or proletarian morality. It was not possible to speak in the name of morality as such; to do so was to utter nothing but empty sounds, to assert a common interest where there was no common interest, to speak in the name of a consensus when there simply was no consensus.


Political Economy Moral Code Moral Demand German Ideology Empty Talk 
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Copyright information

© Eugene Kamenka 1969

Authors and Affiliations

  • Eugene Kamenka
    • 1
  1. 1.Australian National UniversityAustralia

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