Demoralizing Moralism: The Futility of Fetishized Values

By Jason McQuinn

Anarchist Library


Most anarchists — just like most other people on the planet — remain relatively naive concerning the many problems with theories and practices of compulsory morality and moralism. Positive, uncritical references to various forms of compulsory morality are nearly ubiquitous in both historical and contemporary anarchist writings, despite the occasional influence of Max Stirner’s critique of morality amongst the more widely read. Even amongst anarchist writers who have actually taken the effort to read Max Stirner’s 1844 master work, The Ego and Its Own (the publishing date was 1845, but it actually appeared in late 1844), his powerful and important critique of morality often remains either misunderstood, unduly ignored or ignorantly rejected. And although most anarchists may understand that moralism is most often a self-defeating practice in radical social movements, it is generally only excessive references to morality that are so understood, rather than uncritical submission to compulsory morality per se.

Every social theory — including those based on philosophy, religion or science — contains judgments of value by necessity. There is no form of knowledge that can be strictly value-free or even value-neutral. Unlike the natural sciences which can more easily — though never completely — evade acknowledgement of the human values expressed within their hypotheses, theories and research programs, the social sciences are unable to hide their multiple commitments to particular forms and particular expressions of human values. As Max Weber (one of the most important of the early scientific social theorists) put it: “There is no absolutely ‘objective’ scientific analysis of culture or of ‘social phenomena’ independent of special and ‘one-sided’ viewpoints to which — expressedly or tacitly, consciously or unconsciously — they are selected, analysed and organised for expository purposes.” (see Max Weber’s The Methodology of the Social Sciences edited by Edward Schils & Henry Parsons [The Free Press, Glencoe, Illinois, 1949])

Values are even more obviously implicated in radical social theories which are explicitly formulated to aid the pursuit of deeply rooted structural changes in society. But such values can be constituted in two distinctly different manners: (1) as finite, historical expressions of people’s individual and social desires, and (2) as being imputed to have some form of fetishized, transcendental — often absolute, ahistorical or objective — existence over and above human individuals and communities. Unfortunately, there is no commonplace, well-understood terminology to easily distinguish these two manners of constituting and speaking of human values. And this alone can lead to misunderstandings.


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