MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms




In ethics, virtue answers the question “What is the right sort of person to be?”, in contrast to duty, which answers the question “What is the right thing to do?”.

Bourgeois ethics is exclusively an ethics of duty. Problems of bourgeois ethics centre on moral dilemmas in which a person must determine the right course of action; but it is never asked whether it is right that someone should value this or that thing, whether they should want some particular thing in the first.

For example, utilitarianism, the dominant ethics of bourgeois society, takes for granted the lowest kind of selfishness and greed, and seeks to prove that the general good will arise from the ethical pursuit of selfish needs.

Socialist ethics, by contrast, are essentially an ethic of virtue, being primarily concerned with the kind of needs and the kind of desires which may lead to a better life and a better world.

Marx and Engels’ frequent denunciation of “moralism” should be read as being directed against those who try to regulate the behaviour of other people according to some eternal god-given code.

Statements like those that follow give a picture of communist virtue:

When communist artisans associate with one another ... the brotherhood of man is no mere phrase with them, but a fact of life, and the nobility of man shines upon us from their work-hardened bodies. [Human Needs and the Division of Labour]

Only within the community has each individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; hence personal freedom becomes possible only within the community. [German Ideology]

In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and classes antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. [Communist Manifesto]

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly - only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banner: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs! [Critique of the Gotha Program]

Further Reading: George Brenkert’s Marx’s Ethic of Freedom.