Anarchist FAQ/What is Anarchism?/2.19

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A.2.19 What ethical views do anarchists hold?

Anarchist viewpoints on ethics vary considerably, although all share a common belief in the need for an individual to develop within themselves their own sense of ethics. All anarchists agree with Max Stirner that an individual must free themselves from the confines of existing morality and question that morality -- "I decide whether it is the right thing for me; there is no right outside me." [The Ego and Its Own, p. 189]

Few anarchists, however, would go so far as Stirner and reject any concept of social ethics at all (saying that, Stirner does value some universal concepts although they are egoistic ones). Such extreme moral relativism is almost as bad as moral absolutism for most anarchists (moral relativism is the view that there is no right or wrong beyond what suits an individual while moral absolutism is that view that what is right and wrong is independent of what individuals think).

It is often claimed that modern society is breaking up because of excessive "egoism" or moral relativism. This is false. As far as moral relativism goes, this is a step forward from the moral absolutism urged upon society by various Moralists and true-believers because it bases itself, however slimly, upon the idea of individual reason. However, as it denies the existence (or desirability) of ethics it is but the mirror image of what it is rebelling against. Neither option empowers the individual or is liberating.

Consequently, both of these attitudes hold enormous attraction to authoritarians, as a populace that is either unable to form an opinion about things (and will tolerate anything) or who blindly follow the commands of the ruling elite are of great value to those in power. Both are rejected by most anarchists in favour of an evolutionary approach to ethics based upon human reason to develop the ethical concepts and interpersonal empathy to generalise these concepts into ethical attitudes within society as well as within individuals. An anarchistic approach to ethics therefore shares the critical individual investigation implied in moral relativism but grounds itself into common feelings of right and wrong. As Proudhon argued:

   "All progress begins by abolishing something; every reform rests upon denunciation of some abuse; each new idea is based upon the proved insufficiency of the old idea." 

Most anarchists take the viewpoint that ethical standards, like life itself, are in a constant process of evolution. This leads them to reject the various notions of "God's Law," "Natural Law," and so on in favour of a theory of ethical development based upon the idea that individuals are entirely empowered to question and assess the world around them -- in fact, they require it in order to be truly free. You cannot be an anarchist and blindly accept anything! Michael Bakunin, one of the founding anarchist thinkers, expressed this radical scepticism as so:

   "No theory, no ready-made system, no book that has ever been written will save the world. I cleave to no system. I am a true seeker." 

Any system of ethics which is not based on individual questioning can only be authoritarian. Erich Fromm explains why:

   "Formally, authoritarian ethics denies man's capacity to know what is good or bad; the norm giver is always an authority transcending the individual. Such a system is based not on reason and knowledge but on awe of the authority and on the subject's feeling of weakness and dependence; the surrender of decision making to the authority results from the latter's magic power; its decisions can not and must not be questioned. Materially, or according to content, authoritarian ethics answers the question of what is good or bad primarily in terms of the interests of the authority, not the interests of the subject; it is exploitative, although the subject may derive considerable benefits, psychic or material, from it." [Man For Himself, p. 10]

Therefore Anarchists take, essentially, a scientific approach to problems. Anarchists arrive at ethical judgements without relying on the mythology of spiritual aid, but on the merits of their own minds. This is done through logic and reason, and is a far better route to resolving moral questions than obsolete, authoritarian systems like orthodox religion and certainly better than the "there is no wrong or right" of moral relativism.

So, what are the source of ethical concepts? For Kropotkin, "nature has thus to be recognised as the first ethical teacher of man. The social instinct, innate in men as well as in all the social animals, - this is the origin of all ethical conceptions and all subsequent development of morality." [Ethics, p. 45]

Life, in other words, is the basis of anarchist ethics. This means that, essentially (according to anarchists), an individual's ethical viewpoints are derived from three basic sources:

   1) from the society an individual lives in. As Kropotkin pointed out, "Man's conceptions of morality are completely dependent upon the form that their social life assumed at a given time in a given locality . . . this [social life] is reflected in the moral conceptions of men and in the moral teachings of the given epoch." [Op. Cit., p. 315] In other words, experience of life and of living.
   2) A critical evaluation by individuals of their society's ethical norms, as indicated above. This is the core of Erich Fromm's argument that "Man must accept the responsibility for himself and the fact that only using his own powers can he give meaning to his life . . .there is no meaning to life except the meaning man gives his life by the unfolding of his powers, by living productively." [Man for Himself, p. 45] In other words, individual thought and development.
   3) The feeling of empathy - "the true origin of the moral sentiment . . . [is] simply in the feeling of sympathy." ["Anarchist Morality", Anarchism, p. 94] In other words, an individual's ability to feel and share experiences and concepts with others. 

This last factor is very important for the development of a sense of ethics. As Kropotkin argued, "[t]he more powerful your imagination, the better you can picture to yourself what any being feels when it is made to suffer, and the more intense and delicate will your moral sense be. . . And the more you are accustomed by circumstances, by those surrounding you, or by the intensity of your own thought and your imagination, to act as your own thought and imagination urge, the more will the moral sentiment grow in you, the more will it became habitual." [Op. Cit., p. 95]

So, anarchism is based (essentially) upon the ethical maxim "treat others as you would like them to treat you under similar circumstances." Anarchists are neither egoists nor altruists when it come to moral stands, they are simply human.

As Kropotkin noted, "egoism" and "altruism" both have their roots in the same motive -- "however great the difference between the two actions in their result of humanity, the motive is the same. It is the quest for pleasure." [Op. Cit., p. 85]

For anarchists, a person's sense of ethics must be developed by themselves and requires the full use of an individual's mental abilities as part of a social grouping, as part of a community. As capitalism and other forms of authority weaken the individual's imagination and reduce the number of outlets for them to exercise their reason under the dead weight of hierarchy as well as disrupting community, little wonder that life under capitalism is marked by a stark disregard for others and lack of ethical behaviour.

Combined with these factors is the role played by inequality within society. Without equality, there can be no real ethics for "Justice implies Equality. . . only those who consider others as their equals can obey the rule: 'Do not do to others what you do not wish them to do to you.' A serf-owner and a slave merchant can evidently not recognise . . . the 'categorial imperative' [of treating people as ends in themselves and not as means] as regards serfs [or slaves] because they do not look upon them as equals." Hence the "greatest obstacle to the maintenance of a certain moral level in our present societies lies in the absence of social equality. Without real equality, the sense of justice can never be universally developed, because Justice implies the recognition of Equality." [Peter Kropotkin, Evolution and Environment, p. 88 and p. 79]

Capitalism, like any society, gets the ethical behaviour it deserves..

In a society which moves between moral relativism and absolutism it is little wonder that egoism becomes confused with egotism. By disempowering individuals from developing their own ethical ideas and instead encouraging blind obedience to external authority (and so moral relativism once individuals think that they are without that authority's power), capitalist society ensures an impoverishment of individuality and ego. As Erich Fromm puts it:

   "The failure of modern culture lies not in its principle of individualism, not in the idea that moral virtue is the same as the pursuit of self-interest, but in the deterioration of the meaning of self-interest; not in the fact that people are too much concerned with their self-interest, but that they are not concerned enough with the interest of their real self; not in the fact that they are too selfish, but that they do not love themselves." [Man for Himself, p. 139] 

Therefore, strictly speaking, anarchism is based upon an egoistic frame of reference - ethical ideas must be an expression of what gives us pleasure as a whole individual (both rational and emotional, reason and empathy). This leads all anarchists to reject the false division between egoism and altruism and recognise that what many people (for example, capitalists) call "egoism" results in individual self-negation and a reduction of individual self-interest. As Kropotkin argues:

   "What was it that morality, evolving in animal and human societies, was striving for, if not for the opposition to the promptings of narrow egoism, and bringing up humanity in the spirit of the development of altruism? The very expressions 'egoism' and 'altruism' are incorrect, because there can be no pure altruism without an admixture of personal pleasure - and consequently, without egoism. It would therefore be more nearly correct to say that ethics aims at the development of social habits and the weakening of the narrowly personal habits. These last make the individual lose sight of society through his regard for his own person, and therefore they even fail to attain their object, i.e. the welfare of the individual, whereas the development of habits of work in common, and of mutual aid in general, leads to a series of beneficial consequences in the family as well as society." [Ethics, pp. 307-8] 

Therefore anarchism is based upon the rejection of moral absolutism (i.e. "God's Law," "Natural Law," "Man's Nature," "A is A") and the narrow egotism which moral relativism so easily lends itself to. Instead, anarchists recognise that there exists concepts of right and wrong which exist outside of an individual's evaluation of their own acts.

This is because of the social nature of humanity. The interactions between individuals do develop into a social maxim which, according to Kropotkin, can be summarised as "[i]s it useful to society? Then it is good. Is it hurtful? Then it is bad." Which acts human beings think of as right or wrong is not, however, unchanging and the "estimate of what is useful or harmful . . . changes, but the foundation remains the same." ["Anarchist Morality", Op. Cit., p. 91 and p. 92]

This sense of empathy, based upon a critical mind, is the fundamental basis of social ethics - the 'what-should-be' can be seen as an ethical criterion for the truth or validity of an objective 'what-is.' So, while recognising the root of ethics in nature, anarchists consider ethics as fundamentally a human idea - the product of life, thought and evolution created by individuals and generalised by social living and community.

So what, for anarchists, is unethical behaviour? Essentially anything that denies the most precious achievement of history: the liberty, uniqueness and dignity of the individual.

Individuals can see what actions are unethical because, due to empathy, they can place themselves into the position of those suffering the behaviour. Acts which restrict individuality can be considered unethical for two (interrelated) reasons.

Firstly, the protection and development of individuality in all enriches the life of every individual and it gives pleasure to individuals because of the diversity it produces. This egoist basis of ethics reinforces the second (social) reason, namely that individuality is good for society for it enriches the community and social life, strengthening it and allowing it to grow and evolve. As Bakunin constantly argued, progress is marked by a movement from "the simple to the complex" or, in the words of Herbert Read, it "is measured by the degree of differentiation within a society. If the individual is a unit in a corporate mass, his [or her] life will be limited, dull, and mechanical. If the individual is a unit on his [or her] own, with space and potentiality for separate action . . .he can develop - develop in the only real meaning of the word - develop in consciousness of strength, vitality, and joy." ["The Philosophy of Anarchism," Anarchy and Order, p. 37]

This defence of individuality is learned from nature. In an ecosystem, diversity is strength and so biodiversity becomes a source of basic ethical insight. In its most basic form, it provides a guide to "help us distinguish which of our actions serve the thrust of natural evolution and which of them impede them." [Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p. 442]

So, the ethical concept "lies in the feeling of sociality, inherent in the entire animal world and in the conceptions of equity, which constitutes one of the fundamental primary judgements of human reason." Therefore anarchists embrace "the permanent presence of a double tendency - towards greater development on the one side, of sociality, and, on the other side, of a consequent increase of the intensity of life which results in an increase of happiness for the individuals, and in progress - physical, intellectual, and moral." [Kropotkin, Ethics, pp. 311-2 and pp. 19-20]

Anarchist attitudes to authority, the state, capitalism, private property and so on all come from our ethical belief that the liberty of individuals is of prime concern and that our ability to empathise with others, to see ourselves in others (our basic equality and common individuality, in other words).

Thus anarchism combines the subjective evaluation by individuals of a given set of circumstances and actions with the drawing of objective interpersonal conclusions of these evaluations based upon empathic bounds and discussion between equals. Anarchism is based on a humanistic approach to ethical ideas, one that evolves along with society and individual development. Hence an ethical society is one in which "[d]ifference among people will be respected, indeed fostered, as elements that enrich the unity of experience and phenomenon . . . [the different] will be conceived of as individual parts of a whole all the richer because of its complexity." [Murray Bookchin, Post Scarcity Anarchism, p. 82]