Sandra A. LaFave


I. Introduction

II. Nietzsche: Master and Slave Morality

III. Marx/Engels: Morality as Class Interest

IV. Marx on Alienation



Some influential philosophers have claimed that ethics is nothing more than the codification of political ideology. That is, ethical beliefs function to express and perpetuate a particular power structure. Popular ethical beliefs are either the beliefs actually held by the dominant class; or they are the beliefs that the dominant class enforces on the less dominant classes. In either case, the assumption is that popular ethical beliefs are those which, if followed by the majority of people, are in the interests of the dominant class. 

This claim thus denies that normative ethics is a purely rational “objective” enterprise. In effect, it denies the possibility of normative ethics as traditionally construed. 

Religions usually preach some moral code or ethical system. Thus, both Nietzsche and Marx/Engels criticize religion (especially Christianity) at the same time they criticize ethics.  They see religion as the tool of the dominant class for indoctrinating the lower classes in the morality, and thus the behavior, that will serve the interests of the dominant class.

Note that Nietzsche and Marx/Engels use the concept of “dominance” differently. For Marx and Engels, the dominant group is the one we ordinarily understand as dominant, i.e., the group that controls wealth and power. Thus for Marx and Engels, the bourgeoisie is currently dominant, and the workers are destined to become dominant. For Nietzsche, however, the “naturally” dominant “masters” are not socially or economically dominant; in fact, they are enslaved in modern times by the more numerous “slaves,” who wield power by their sheer numbers.


Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) exerted an important influence on 20th-century philosophy, particularly the movement known as existentialism. Before discussing Nietzsche’s ethics, let’s look at the general context of his philosophy, particularly his concept of the will to power, his epistemology and critique of religion.

The Will to Power

Nietzsche was very influenced by Darwin, and evolution is in the background of both Nietzsche’s epistemology and ethics. Nietzsche thinks that evolution demonstrates that life is a struggle for existence.

“Here we must beware of superficiality and get to the bottom of the matter, resisting all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest, exploitation ...”(Struhl, 143; slightly different translation in SS 68)

It is a fact of nature that some creatures are naturally more dominant, and that nature rewards those creatures who express that dominance. Thus, nature rewards creatures who express the will to power. There is nothing immoral (or moral) about this; it’s just a fact of life for Nietzsche. According to Nietzsche, we shouldn’t kid ourselves about this fact or try to sugar-coat it.

Evolution shows that in every species, some creatures are winners and some are losers in the struggle. Humans are no different. Nietzsche says it’s foolish to believe that people are “equal.” Some are naturally more gifted, stronger, more intelligent, etc., and others are less so. Humans, according to Nietzsche, are divided into two groups: a natural aristocratic group and a naturally dependent and inferior one. These two groups will always and inevitably be opposed. Nietzsche notes that some thinkers, like Marx and Engels, believe that as mankind develops, the natural exploitation of the weak by the strong will cease. But, says Nietzsche, this is silly.

“"Exploitation" does not belong to a corrupt or imperfect and primitive society: it belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function; it is a consequence of the will to power, which is after all the will of life.”(Struhl, 144; SS, 68)

The “superior” people are those who acknowledge and express the will to power. “Expressing the will to power” means taking advantage of your natural gifts (physical strength, intelligence, beauty, etc.) to achieve your full potential, which may include achieving dominance over others. Nietzsche says superior people develop their gifts directly and unashamedly. They do not deny their own nature, their own ability. They face the reality of the competitive struggle with their eyes open and their hearts under control. They eschew sentimentality and pretense. They resist slave ideologies that try to diminish and impose artificial limits on them.

The attributes that confer dominance may well differ from age to age; raw physical strength might be important at one time, intelligence at another, beauty at another, etc. Nietzsche’s point is that a superior person does not hesitate to exercise power, both over self and others.

For Nietzsche, the will to power is the only law and the only “morality.”

Inferior people, who outnumber the superior ones, use ideologies (“slave moralities”) like Christianity, utilitarianism, and Marxism, to try to deny the will to power. They promulgate silly ideas like equality, and urge silly “virtues” like humility and pity. But they are trying to live a lie; they are trying to deny obvious facts of nature, and trying to make a virtue of their weakness and cowardice.

“Master” and “slave” moralities are discussed in detail below.

The will to power can be expressed by species, by individuals, or by groups. 

A natural extension of Nietzsche’s views is that some species are “naturally” more dominant and this constitutes a justification for the exploitation of some species by others. Defenders of animal rights, such as Singer, give arguments against this view.

Nietzsche’s Epistemology

Nietzsche disputes the notion of objectivity, dear to traditional epistemology. He says the attempt to secure knowledge must be viewed in the context of the struggle for existence and the will to power. Humans engaged in the struggle for existence are simply not disinterested and objective; we don’t seek the truth for its own sake. Rather we seek what will be useful to us in the struggle. The notion of truth is a fiction, since there are only more or less useful propositions — useful in the struggle for survival.

Nietzsche has some interesting aphorisms about truth:

“What are man’s truths ultimately? Merely his irrefutable errors.” (Gay Science 265)

“Look, isn’t our need for knowledge precisely this need for the familiar, the will to uncover under everything strange, unusual, and questionable something that no longer disturbs us? Is it not the instinct of fear that bids us to know? And is the jubilation of those who attain knowledge not the jubilation over the restoration of a sense of security?” (Beyond Good and Evil, 3)

“There exists neither ‘spirit’, nor reason, nor thinking, nor consciousness, nor soul, nor will, nor truth: all are fictions that are of no use. There is no question of ‘subject’ and ‘object,’ but of a particular species of animal that can prosper only through a certain relative rightness ...

“Knowledge works as a tool of power. Hence it is plain that it increases with every increase in power.

“The meaning of ‘knowledge’: here, as in the case of ‘good’ or ‘beautiful,’ the concept is to be regarded in a strict and narrow anthropocentric and biological sense. In order for a particular species to maintain itself and increase its power, its conception of reality must comprehend enough of the calculable and constant for it to base a scheme of behavior on it. The utility of preservation ... stands as the motive behind the development of the organs of knowledge — they develop in such a way that their observations suffice for our preservation. In other words ...: a species grasps a certain amount of reality in order to become master of it, in order to press it into service.” (The Will to Power, 480)

“[Some philosophers say] ‘There are only facts’ — I would say: No, facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations.” (WP 481)

“Truth is the kind of error without which a certain species of life could not live. The value for life is ultimately decisive.” (WP 493)

“It is improbable that our ‘knowledge’ should extend further than is strictly necessary for the preservation of life.” (WP 494)

Superior people don’t worry about whether their positions are true — that is, in accordance with some external “objective” standard. First of all, there is no standard (Nietzsche says there are no facts, only interpretations). Secondly, to approve of oneself only tentatively — contingent on whether your propositions meet this external standard — is half-hearted, slavish, and cowardly, like living your whole life waiting for approval from others. It is to deny your own power, and your own truth. The self expressing the will to power — truly living — can’t be “wrong” (either ethically or epistemologically). If I’m truly living, expressing my power, and I destroy myself in the process, at least I was alive!

Nietzsche’s Critique of Religion

Nietzsche said “God is dead,” in the sense that the lives of modern people are not God-centered, and our science makes no reference to God. (Indeed, the hypothesis of God is explicitly disallowed in scientific explanation.) Nietzsche welcomes the death of God, because he thinks traditional Western religions have degraded and harmed people.

Capaldi, Kelly, and Navia give a good summary of Nietzsche’s views on religion:

.”.. up to now, religion has served the weak-minded masses as a kind of crutch supporting wasted lives, as a consolation for being lost, confused and exploited (indeed, Nietzsche believes that Christianity has even encouraged weakness, foolishness, and poverty). Moreover, religion has tempted men to reject those values appropriate to this life in favor of those of the next — has made men, in effect, long for death. It has robbed men of their courage and has taught them to despise this world. Thus ... religion reveals itself in Nietzsche as a denial of the best part of us, as a threat to life, to joy, and to the life-serving spirit. ... He opposes to religion a humanistic vision of a race of supermen who, by remaining true to the earth, perfect the resources of spirit that ages of evolutionary development have stored up in mankind. In each of us, says Nietzsche, is a god waiting to be born: something new, unique, and creative can be brought forth from us — if only we risk everything during the brief moment we are on earth, if only we have the courage to say that not God’s purposes, but my own joy, however brief, justifies existence itself.” (An Invitation to Philosophy, 209)

Christianity is an example of what Nietzsche calls a life-denying slave morality (see below). In order to truly live and express the will to power, the superior person must reject Christianity as construed by Nietzsche.

Nietzsche’s Ethics

Nietzsche identifies two types of morality — master and slave morality. Master morality is the morality of the superior people, while slave morality is the morality of the inferior people. Modern systems such as Christianity and utilitarianism are examples of slave or “herd” morality.

Master “morality” isn’t really morality in any traditional sense. The superior person makes his/her own rules; superior people are “beyond good and evil” (SS, 70). “The noble type of man experiences itself as determining values; it does not need approval; it judges, "what is injurious to me is injurious in itself"; it knows itself to be that which first accords honor to things; it is value-creating.”(SS, 69)

For the noble soul, “good” means power-enhancing, tending to the full development of natural ability; while “bad” means contemptible, power-diminishing, tending to the artificial limitation of natural ability. Because the noble soul defines good and bad in terms of power or lack of power, to fulfill full human potential, the noble soul lives in accordance with the primary law of nature, the will to power. A person who chooses powerlessness — in the form of anxiety, pettiness, suspicion, deceit, flattery, etc.— is contemptible (i.e., bad). The superior person strives for nobility, pride, honor, self-mastery, and integrity, i.e., staying true to one’s best self.

And “against beings of lower rank, [a superior person] may behave as one pleases or "as the heart desires," and in any case "beyond good and evil.””(SS, 70) The superior person looks with profound suspicion on values such as compassion, pity, and selflessness, as well as on the ideal of equality of all persons. Superior people, in expressing the will to power, embody completely natural human functioning; they live the most completely actualized human lives, and as such, are happy, energetic, and optimistic about the human condition.

Slave morality, by contrast, is pessimistic and fearful. Slaves are victims (the “abused, oppressed, suffering, unemancipated, the weary and those uncertain of themselves” (SS, 70)); but according to Nietzsche, most slaves choose to be victims. Slave morality is timid, and favors a limited existence; it “makes the best of a bad situation.” It promotes the virtues that “serve to ease existence for those who suffer: here pity, the complaisant and obliging hand, the warm heart, patience, industry, humility, and friendliness are honored — for here these are the most useful qualities and almost the only means for enduring the pressure of existence. Slave morality is essentially a morality of utility,”(SS, 71), i.e., a morality that values the mediocre group over the superior individual.

In slave morality, “good” means “tending to ease suffering” and “evil” means “tending to inspire fear.” (In master morality, by contrast, it’s good to inspire fear.) Nietzsche believes that slave morality is expressed in the standard moral systems (particularly Christianity and utilitarianism). That is, Christianity and utilitarianism both exemplify the same ideology: the ideology of the majority, the herd, the cowardly, the conventional, the less-than-fully-human.

In summary, a “Master” says:

·       I value myself, glorify myself because I am better.

·       I have duties only towards equals.

·       I don’t owe sympathy, helpfulness, etc., to beings of lower rank.

A “Master” values what the “slave” fears:

·       “the exalted, proud disposition” (pride as a virtue)

·       nobility, courage, whole-heartedness

·       “the happiness of high tension” — challenging self to maximum achievement

·       abundance of power, proper lavishness

·       “hardness” of heart

·       “artfulness in retaliation” — “dreadfulness, subtlety, and strength”

·       age and tradition (where deserved)

·       “effete refinement of the idea of friendship” — the need for enemies

A “Master” despises what the “slave” values:

·       prudence, timidity

·       self-abasement and self-doubt

·       distrustfulness, concealment, mediocrity, conformity

·       the narrow outlook that values things only insofar as they are useful

·       “female” virtues — kindness, patience, sympathy, friendliness, pity, humility, cooperation, bonhomie

Nietzsche thinks slave moralities have pretty much taken over as the official moralities of the Western world (the ones people pay lip service to). But Nietzsche thinks the triumph of ideals of equality and democracy in modern times is a great tragedy for humanity. Equality and democracy are for Nietzsche the worst, not the best, values; they are the exact opposite of what humans in their hearts actually value, the opposite of what it is natural to value. Inferior people naturally see the superiority of their “natural” masters; hence by nature, they fear them and feel uncomfortable with them. When slave morality takes hold, the inferior ones are suddenly given “moral” license to brainwash and persecute those who try to express the will to power. (Such persons are not “friendly,” “not team players.”) Thus when the ideal of equality rules, the best specimens of humanity are at risk. Nietzsche would like to revert to an ancient “classical” time when the “natural aristocrats” (those who expressed the will to power) actually ruled.

Critiques of Nietszche

The ideas of human “superiority” and “inferiority” aren’t exactly self-evident. Claiming that a person is superior or inferior requires argument. If the claim of superiority or inferiority is intended as a statement of fact, the argument should invoke publicly observable facts. Sometimes this is possible. For example, I can say with some assurance that Steve Young is superior to me as regards football playing. This is because there’s agreement about what constitutes a good football player.

Is there corresponding agreement about what constitutes superior humanity in general – i.e., agreement about what makes a superior or inferior human being? Nietzsche seems to think so (superior humans inspire fear, etc.). There are a couple of problems here:

1.      Nietzsche’s depiction of the superior person seems incomplete at best. Nietzsche seems to emphasize only the virtues of a certain time of life (one’s prime) and a certain sex (male).  But human life is also the life of the very young and very old — weak, needy, powerless, unable to “give back,” “unequal” in power — the traditional realm of women, whom Nietzsche appears simply to despise.

2.      Insofar as there has been consensus among “wise persons” about which attributes constitute superior humanity, Nietzsche picks out exactly the wrong ones! Most religions, for example, — both Western and non-Western — see loss of self (not glorification of self) as key to both virtue and personal happiness. Nietzsche doesn’t seem to understand or acknowledge the possibility of benevolence, generosity of spirit that extends to all, “deserving” or not. 

Marxist critique: there are master and slave moralities because there have historically been master and slave classes (duh!).

Defending Nietzsche

Nietzsche’s defenders argue that he revolutionized philosophy because he saw more clearly than any previous thinker the implications of modernism. It was clear to Nietzsche that dualism was bankrupt, so Christianity had to die a well-deserved death. The only epistemological options left were Humean skepticism, or a Kantian constructivism; either way, Nietzsche realized you can say good-bye forever to the possibility of knowledge or certainty about anything. The God of science is as dead as the God of religion, according to Nietzsche.

More contemporary philosophers such as Dewey and Rorty point out that the real problem Nietzsche grappled with was the failure of modern epistemology (the branch of philosophy that tries to figure out what can be known). Modern philosophy had imposed an unrealistic model of knowledge – knowledge as a “mirror of nature.” The quest of epistemology had become how to guarantee that the mental mirror accurately reflected the world. Descartes established that all we really know with certainly is the mirror itself, since our senses are liable to be deceived regarding what, if anything, is “out there.” Then the empiricists, especially Berkeley and Hume, pointed out quite rightly that if all we can really know are our minds, we’ll never know whether those mirrors reflect anything at all, let alone whether their reflections are accurate. The basic question of epistemology – as that question had been understood – couldn’t be answered. Nietzsche saw the implications of that. Another route, of course, is to revise our concept of knowledge, and most 20th-century epistemology has been concerned with that.

In a way, Nietzsche’s philosophy is the culmination of the Romantic rejection of rationality and idealization of “natural” feeling.

In any case, Nietzsche’s defenders say the “master-slave” stuff isn’t necessarily a proposal of innate human types. Rather, Nietzsche is issuing an existential challenge.  If God is dead, and nothing can be known, nothing is “objectively” right or wrong, so you don’t have to live any particular sort of life, and certainly not a life ruled by desire for other people’s approval. Nietzsche’s message is to live life fully and authentically.


Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) was Karl Marx’s longtime friend and collaborator. They were co-authors of the Communist Manifesto.

Marx and Engels were very influenced by G. W. F. Hegel’s notion of the dialectic of history. Hegel (1770-1831) believed that the entire course of history is the expression of what he called “the Absolute.” The Absolute unfolds by a dialectical process: every state of affairs (thesis) gives rise to its opposite (antithesis), and then a synthesis of the two is formed, which becomes the new thesis, and the process starts all over again. Hegel thought the Absolute revealed itself as “objective spirit” in social organizations, in particular in the family, civil society, and the nation-state. For Hegel, the nation-state is the most important of these three, and the culmination of the historical dialectic. In a nation-state, a person can achieve the highest level of self-realization, because his interests qua human and qua citizen are merged in a new synthesis. A person is thus most free in a nation-state, in the sense of having the most opportunities for realizing his full potential.

Marx and Engels, as metaphysical materialists, got rid of Hegel’s “Absolute” (too mysterious, spiritual, and unscientific), but kept the notion of dialectic (thesis/antithesis/synthesis); hence their theory is often called dialectical materialism.

In their “dialectic of history,” every major historical political/economic arrangement (pre-history, ancient empires, feudalism, capitalism) is a thesis that “contains the seeds of its own destruction” (its antithesis), and so is bound to be replaced by a further synthesis. The thesis and antithesis are the opposing economic classes (e.g., lords vs serfs, capitalists vs proletarians); the dialectic of history thus manifests itself in class struggle. The final synthesis is pure communism, which, according to Marx and Engels, will inevitably replace capitalism.

The fundamental principle of Marx and Engels’ thought is thus that economic conditions determine all social arrangements, human relationships, thought, and values. In Marxist terminology, the economic “substructure” determines the cultural “superstructure.”

But Marxists do not use the word “economics” in the sense of the social science you can study at WVC. In fact Marxists are skeptical about the “science” of economics. They find two notions of that “science” particularly absurd:

1.   The so-called “free market”

2.   The so-called “law” of supply and demand

Marxists say these notions, masquerading as “science,” are simply myths that serve the interests of capitalism. Obviously (to Marxists) the capitalists control both the market (i.e., no way is it free), and also both supply and demand (i.e., there is no neutral “law” of supply and demand). Capitalists clearly control supply; but they also control demand by their control of media, which they use to manipulate people’s perceptions of their “needs.” That is, capitalists make people think they need things that they really don’t need. Then, having created “demand,” capitalists can raise prices (leaving workers’ wages the same), and make more and more profits. Thus, says Marx, the condition of the worker inevitably gets worse and worse. The more he produces, the less he can buy.

Marx says this situation is inherently unstable, because workers will inevitably get more and more miserable, and the economic and social gap between workers and capitalists will grow wider and wider. The workers will eventually revolt and seize ownership of the means of production. This is why Marx says capitalism “contains the seeds of its own destruction.”

Contemporary Marxists, such as Marcuse, are less optimistic about the inevitability of revolution (see next section on alienation), because they see workers in advanced capitalism as victims of more sophisticated and all-pervasive manipulation than Marx or Engels ever dreamed possible.

Because economic conditions determine all social arrangements, Marxists say there is an intimate connection between ethics and ideology. As Engels says, “All former moral theories are the product, in the last analysis, of the economic stage which society had reached at that particular epoch. And as society has hitherto moved in class antagonisms, morality was always a class morality; it has either justified the domination and interests of the ruling class, or, as soon as the oppressed class has become powerful enough, it has represented the revolt against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed.” (from Anti-Dühring, as cited by Strull and Strull, Ethics in Perspective, 147)

In the essay “Morality as Class Interest” from his 1878 work Anti-Dühring, Engels describes the historical development of the concept that all persons have equal human rights. The concept develops in history because of economic conditions. According to Engels, history shows the progressive expansion of the concept, i.e., economic conditions make it inevitable that more and more people are thought “equal.” There are natural laws of history operating here: political and social equality is tied to economic power, the more communal ownership of the means of production, the more equality.

In primitive communal societies, where people had little individual wealth or property to lose, there was equality among all men, though women, slaves, and strangers were excluded. That is to say, communal ownership goes with a relatively broad notion of equality. In Greco-Roman times, when wealth had become concentrated in the hands of some men, the concept of equality was correspondingly diminished; “it would have seemed ... idiotic to the ancients that Greeks and barbarians, freemen and slaves, citizens and dependents, Roman citizens and Roman subjects ... should have a claim to equal political status.” (as cited by Strull and Strull, 148) Later in the development of the Roman Empire, the concept of Roman citizenship was broadened because more people became involved in trade and commerce, but the gap between freemen and slaves (and men and women) remained.

The feudal Middle Ages saw the rise of nation-states and the beginnings of the bourgeoisie. Explorations of the New World and increased trade contributed to the economic ascendency of the bourgeoisie, though the state and Church organization remained feudal (Popes and kings). The bourgeoisie, in order to sell their goods to the most customers with maximum profit, needed to be able to trade freely and also needed international trading laws. Thus, economic conditions forced the issue of their political equality. The bourgeoisie acquired political equality because economic conditions had changed. It was a struggle, since the Church and government had to give up some of their power; but it had to happen. Meanwhile, the notion of equality found its way into the general thought of the times, into the writings of philosophers and political theorists.

When manufacturing replaced handicraft, the bourgeoisie also needed to be able to make contracts with workers. The workers traded their labor for wages. So the workers, too, acquired a certain amount of political power; in order to make a contract with a bourgeois, a worker was in a sense his equal. The granting of political power to workers was happening at the time Marx and Engels were writing. The notions of natural, built-in “human rights” and the natural political equality of all men had become widely popular — indeed, were almost taken for granted.

This illustrates the general Marxist claim that ethical values simply mirror economic realities. “The idea of equality, therefore, both in its bourgeois and proletarian form, is itself a historical product, the creation of which required definite historical conditions which in turn themselves presuppose a long previous historical development. It is therefore anything but an eternal truth.”(as cited by Strull and Strull,151)

And the dialectic of history goes on. The bourgeoisie’s demands for political equality, and subsequent achievement of this goal, sow the seeds of the destruction of the bourgeoisie itself! The bourgeoisie is the thesis, the proletariat its antithesis. You can’t have a bourgeois (upper) class without provoking a negative reaction from the proletarian class. The proletarian demand for equality with the bourgeoisie is particularly ironic, because the bourgeoisie provided the proletariat with the rhetoric and argument for their position! But now the proletariat argues, using bourgeois egalitarian reasoning, for a complete abolition of classes!

“True” ethics — what Engels calls “a really human morality” — has never happened; all morality so far has been “class morality,” the morality of the dominant or ascendent class.

It is no accident that at any period of history, there appear to be many competing moral codes. This is because the dialectic of history moves slowly, like a glacier, and carries with it the residues of previous periods. Engels illustrates this by pointing out how Christian-feudal morality (the oldest) coexists with bourgeois morality (historically current) and proletarian morality (the wave of the future).

For example, because remnants of older moralities still coexist with newer ones, current Western society is in conflict over the role of women. Some people, such as conservative fundamentalists, think women should be subservient to men in all matters. This view exemplifies the oldest remnant, the Christian-feudal view. On this view, women are seen as just as sinful, if not more sinful, than men. They are the “weaker vessel” — weaker in intelligence, and morality as well as in strength, needing the guidance and moral leadership of men.

If the Christian-feudal view is the thesis, its antithesis is the bourgeois view of women, common in the upper classes of Europe in the 19th century, and, of course, still very much alive. On the bourgeois view, women are regarded as morally superior to men; they are the guardians of the home and hearth, moral models and moral educators. The home is thought to be the man’s “refuge” from the ugly, competitive, brutal world of the marketplace; and woman’s job is to make the home as pleasant and orderly and morally upright as possible for the husband and children. The woman is the “angel of the hearth.” On the bourgeois view, women have authority on matters pertaining to home and child-rearing, although they do not control the purse-strings. So while the wife is idealized for her innate moral superiority, she is still treated as a child or a servant when it comes to matters outside the home. On the bourgeois view, “fallen” or “forward” women are doubly evil; they are both immoral and unnatural. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary exemplify the fate of “fallen” bourgeois women of the period.

Finally, the most “advanced” view of women’s role — since it is the synthesis of the previous ones — is that of the proletariat. For proletarians (workers), there are hardly any sex-specific roles at all. Sex is not necessarily a criterion of eligibility for, or exclusion from, any job. You can see this if you just look at proletarian women, Engels says. They do pretty much everything men do. Unlike the bourgeoisie, proletarians neither condemn women, nor put them on a pedestal.

Proletarian marriage, according to Engels, is more of a true partnership than any previously possible. But it isn’t the last word; it is still a relation of oppression based on mutual economic need rather than authentically chosen, truly human ties. Marriage itself is to be superseded in the utopia of pure communism.


Marx’s early writings deal with some of the most important problems in ethics:

1.  What sort of life is the “good life,” in the sense of the best and happiest for humans?

2.   What, if anything, prevents individuals from actualizing the good life?   

Marx’s essay “Alienated Labor” (also translated “Estranged Labor”) gives answers to these questions. All quotes in this section are from that essay, which is part of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. You can read it online. It is also widely anthologized.

The answers are:

1.   The best and happiest human life is life in accordance with what Marx calls species-being (explained below).

2.   The good life (life in accord with species-being) is possible only in a society organized according to the principles of true communism. Economic conditions, especially capitalism, make it impossible for anybody (worker or capitalist) to realize the good life before pure communism is in place.

Marx’s Conception of the Good Life

Like Aristotle, Marx begins his analysis of the good life by noting what is distinctive about humans — the characteristics that make humans different from animals. Marx notes the obvious facts that

     1. Humans can think about more than animals (because of language). In fact, humans can think about the whole world.

     2. Humans can think more generally and theoretically than animals.

     3. Humans can do more than animals, through the use of tools and machines.

Animals deal primarily in particulars. They manipulate the world — in Marx’s terminology, they “produce” — but their productions are limited. They feed and hunt and build shelter only to meet their immediate needs. Their production is repetitive and stereotyped; that is, given a particular environment, the same species always produces the same things, again and again. That is, the species determines the mode of productive life (the being) of animals, in accordance with laws of genetics and ethology.

Humans are different. They constitute a species, but a species of a very different type. Their species-being — their productive life, or manipulation of the world — is unique, in the following ways:

     1. Humans can manipulate the whole world (unlike animals).

     2. Via technology, humans can manipulate the world in virtually unlimited ways (again unlike animals).

     3. Because humans are free, they can manipulate the world any way they like (again unlike animals, whose wants are fixed).  

Unlike animals, too, humans are part of the whole of nature:

     1. Humans are not limited to particular ecosystems, as many animals are.

     2. The whole world is accessible to humans theoretically, in the sense that humans can think, in rigorous, theoretical terms, about anything. All nature, as the object of human consciousness, is “man’s spiritual inorganic nature.”

     3. The whole world is accessible to humans practically, in the sense that humans can use whatever nature provides for the maintenance of human life and for whatever other purposes please them. All nature, as the object of human productive activity, is “man’s inorganic body.”

Species-being is the characteristic productive life of a species. The foregoing considerations establish that the species-being of humans is unique. Both theoretically and practically, the species-being (characteristic productive life) of humans is unlimited and universal. The productive life of a human living in accordance with human species-being will thus be physically and psychologically unconstrained .

A human life lived in accordance with human species-being (a truly human life), therefore, will have the following characteristics:

1.   The human lives as a human and not as an animal. Human life is fulfilling on a human (unlimited) level, not just the level of animals.

2.   The activities of humans are freely chosen.

3.   The activities of humans do not harm nature, since nature is our “inorganic body.”

4.   The products of truly human production are cherished by their creators.

A truly human life is a life of self-initiated, self-directed activity (production) in the world, according to standards of “beauty.” This is the best and happiest life for humans, because it is most “natural”; such a life allows for the full expression of human species-being.

As we have seen above, Marx and Engels say that all human flourishing and culture depends on economic conditions. They also argue that truly human living — the ideal human life in accordance with species-being — has never been possible, because the right economic conditions have never existed. Only pure communism will provide such conditions. To understand why humans cannot live truly human lives under capitalism, we need to explore Marx’s notion of “alienated labor.”


Alienated Labor

Under capitalism, workers are inevitably alienated from their own lives. That is, they do not feel part of their own lives. They are just going through the motions.

Why does Marx say this? Under capitalism, a worker is constrained both physically and psychologically; he is alienated from both nature and himself (body and spirit), and from others. Under capitalism, we see the worker’s progressive intellectual and psychological “dis-integration.”

Marx notes at least five kinds of alienation:

1.   Alienation from nature

2.   Alienation from the body

3.   Alienation from fully human species-being (the worker has only an animal-type existence)

4.   Alienation from others

5.   Alienation from one’s own intellectual ability

Alienation from Nature

The worker is alienated from nature (anything outside self) in the following ways:

     -- The worker must assist the capitalist in ecologically disastrous practices, which destroy nature, his “inorganic body.”

     -- The worker comes to hate the very objects he creates (the product of his labor).

     -- The worker comes to view nature (his inorganic body) pure instrumentally. That is, the worker worries only about how nature can be used.

All these results are directly counter to true human species being.

Alienation from the Body

The worker is alienated from his body since all his physical assets — strength, agility, quickness, etc. — are harnessed by the capitalist for the capitalist’s benefit. The worker’s own body thus contributes directly to the perpetuation of the system that exploits him or her.

In addition, the worker’s body is harmed by dangerous and/or unhealthy working conditions, stress, etc.

Alienation from Fully Human Life

Workers want to produce in a fully human way because such production is the realization of their species-being, their heart’s desire, the realization of true human nature. But according to Marx, under capitalism they can produce only in a limited, animal way. In what ways are workers alienated from a full humanly productive life?

First, workers cannot direct their own production. The capitalist dictates what they produce. The worker’s work life is thus a kind of animal servitude; he “feels himself to be freely active only in his animal functions —  eating, drinking, and procreating, or at most also in his dwelling and in personal adornment —  while in his human functions he is reduced to an animal. The animal becomes human and the human becomes animal.”

Thus, work, which in true human species-being is a joy and an end in itself, is merely a means to the animal end of self-preservation. Workers want to produce. It’s human nature (human species-being) to want to be productive in a fully human way. But the workplace squelches this desire, and workers find no satisfaction in their jobs; in fact, they can find satisfaction only in less-than-human enterprises. “The culmination of this enslavement is that [the worker] can only maintain himself as a physical subject so far as he is a worker.” The worker must work in order to live; but the life she lives is mainly the life of work, which she hates. In other words, the worker is forced to work against herself. She knows this, and it makes her crazy, because she knows there is no alternative.

Because the worker comes to hate the very objects she creates, and because these objects represent the expenditure of her physical and psychological resources (her very self), the worker comes to hate herself through those objects. The products of her labor are constant reminders that her life is fundamentally (and hopelessly) flawed. The work is a constant source of psychological stress: the work itself is boring and mind-deadening; the worker cannot complain or show her true creative self on the job (and if she does, her ideas will be appropriated by the capitalist); and the worker has no job security. The characteristic feature of these psychological difficulties is the psychological double-bind: the worker is forced to make choices among options, none of which he really wants (because none fulfill his species-being). Whatever you choose, you lose.

Twentieth-century Marxists, particularly Shulamith Firestone, make an interesting comparison between the institution of the job and the institution of the school under capitalism. The same sort of perversion of natural ends occurs both at work and at school; indeed, the renunciations learned at school prepare the working-class child for life as a worker. Children by nature want to learn and love to learn; learning is the realization of their full child nature, their species-being. However, the real function of the school under capitalism is to squelch the natural desire to learn (just as the job squelches the natural desire to work). The important lessons for children in schools are lessons in how to be a good worker: be on time, be there every day, obey orders, don’t make trouble, don’t ask too many questions, get used to boredom. The social institution most like school is prison; and this is no accident. After a few weeks, children who originally came to school filled with the desire to learn are happiest when they are released from school. Their desire to learn goes unsatisfied.

Even when workers are relatively well-off, e.g., in advanced capitalist societies like contemporary America, they nevertheless become alienated from themselves in other, more subtle ways. For example, they come to view themselves as they are viewed by capitalism — as objects. Contemporary capitalist consumer culture offers the consolation of money and possessions. But consumer culture is designed to stop us from thinking about who we really are, and what we really want. In consumer culture, you express yourself intelligibly only through your consumption, through your purchases; your identity is tied up in the products you buy; your very self is merely another “package” on display. (No wonder students resist the self-promotion required to obtain a “real” job; it is nothing but “grooming for the camera,” which they understand.) Not excellence, but the appearance of excellence counts. Not honesty and diligence, but the show. (It’s always show time.) The goal of life is to become an image, a shadow self — to be seen a certain way, but never to see. But that goal is perverse: a life of passivity, consuming prepackaged images and being consumed by them. Only the image-makers profit; but more importantly, we lose sight of our active, whole-hearted, authentic, best selves.

But that’s not the only problem with advanced capitalism and its consumer culture. Capitalism, via consumer culture, swallows up its potential enemies — the underclass, and non-mainstream cultures. Capitalism exploits cultural differences for profit, and by doing so, tends to dilute, neutralize, and negate non-mainstream cultures. Capitalist consumer culture cares about profit; it cares about creating and maintaining markets for “new” products, so that people will feel dissatisfied with their current stuff, throw it out, and buy new stuff. Capitalism doesn’t care about race or ethnicity or gender or sexual preference; in fact, it exploits both the attractive and unattractive aspects of underclass or minority culture for novelty in the marketplace. It feeds on minority and underclass culture, glamorizing it, ingesting its exotic flavors, dissolving all its potentially threatening aspects. As a matter of standard practice, it co-opts and usurps the exotic, marginal, and even threatening aspects of minority culture in order to make profit; the exotic becomes the “new,” i.e., new products, new fashions, new media idols.

Most significant is that capitalism can do all this while enlisting the voluntary cooperation of the very cultures being exploited. Inasmuch as capitalism influences style and corrupts desire, the poor, desiring what capitalism has to offer, often offer themselves up to be consumed. These observations are nothing new to sociologists or Marxists; Marxists call the process “cultural imperialism.” Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man is the classic recent expression of this line of analysis.

What is new is the unprecedented influence of professional image-makers on popular culture. Contemporary consumer culture features the systematic construction of images of all kinds; “advertising” or “commercials” are only a small part of the package. Practically all of mainstream television is advertising in one form or another: what the characters wear, eat, and drive, as well as how their houses are furnished, are all carefully chosen, and certainly send as many messages as what the characters say.[1] The fashion and cosmetics industries iconize images of beauty, which change regularly in response to market forces (as they lose their power to arouse), and which serve to encourage the contemplation of more exotic objects of desire, encouraging the intermarriage that further dilutes racial and cultural diversity. Think of the images that flood magazines and television and political advertisements nowadays. Great care is taken to include representatives of diverse races and ethnic groups, i.e., capitalist consumer culture wants to sell to everyone — especially the poor and powerless.

Members of minority cultures, and disaffected youth of the mainstream culture, can buy rap CDs, manufactured by the pop music establishment, that urge them to kill white policemen. Capitalism has found the ideal way to “neutralize” the legitimate rage of these youth. Ice T now speaks for them (they do not need to speak for themselves[2]). They can dress like him, thus supporting the fashion establishment. They can drink his brand of beer, and wear his brand of athletic shoes. They can wear Malcom X caps. They voluntarily spend their money in ways guaranteed to make profit for someone else, thus impoverishing themselves and reinforcing the gap between the economic classes. Capitalism, meanwhile, doesn’t have to worry that Ice T will say anything really radical (like “Let’s get rid of consumer culture”), because Ice T is becoming rich within the system. Madonna plays at being a “sexually liberated woman”; she co-opts the language of the women’s movement and gay liberation to make money for herself and for Time-Warner (the giant communications conglomerate to whom she is under contract for movies, CDs, and books). At the same time she reinforces the traditional fantasy of woman as sex object, thus making it more difficult in the long run for women, especially older women, to be heard. Benetton ads show homosexual AIDS victims dying in the arms of their parents. The scandalous music of 25 years ago (the Doors’ “Light My Fire,” the Beatles “Revolution”) now sells cars. Malcolm X becomes a Hollywood icon. Coca-Cola co-opts the religious language of universal brotherhood and sisterhood (people of all ages, colors, and costumes holding hands, walking forward through the meadow into the future together sharing Cokes) while making huge profits from the sale of sugared water that rots the teeth of children in countries where there is no dental care. And no one is forcing them to buy Coke.

As minority cultures of all kinds are mainstreamed, the majority culture itself changes, which in turn fertilizes changes in minority tastes and buying habits. Marketing strategies are narrowed to maximize profits, which often means maintaining and perpetuating economic class differences, now chosen more or less voluntarily by the economically already-oppressed, who willingly fork over their hard-earned money for Nikes and Coke and Madonna CDs. No really radical statements are ever widely heard or, if heard, understood; and we can hardly expect to hear any enlightenment from the mainstream media[3]. Who are the sponsors after all? “The more the marginal, the exotic, and the new become central to the culture, the more everything begins to send the same messages.” Even de Tocqueville noticed this. Given capitalism’s tendency to overwhelm indigenous cultures, the more I emphasize my difference, the more my difference is liable to be either marginalized or co-opted for profit. And the more my difference is exploited for profit — the more fashionable it becomes to be “different” — the more culturally alike we all become. Class distinctions, however, are maintained.

Thus, in the paradise of “stuff,” people do not necessarily seem better or happier. Quite the contrary; they lack a satisfying deep-rooted sense of themselves. And as long as they keep mindlessly shopping, they stay confused and in their place; the class divisions remain.

Alienation from Others

Workers come to view other workers as they themselves are viewed by the capitalist — as objects to be manipulated. Other workers’ feelings — their interior lives — do not count. When workers see other workers as objects, capitalism wins and the status quo is preserved, because as long as workers do not identify with each other, they do not trust one another and are incapable of joining together. Workers see other workers simply as competitors for the meager rewards they are offered. It’s everyone for him/herself. Thus, workers do not join together to fight the real enemy.

In addition, much psychic and social damage is done. Workers feel rootless, without significant ties to their communities. Safety and civility deteriorate. 

Intellectual Alienation

Alienation also takes place in the realm of the intellect. The worker is constantly faced with what Marx calls contradictions. A contradiction in the Marxist sense is not exactly the same as a logical contradiction, though it is related. In Marxist terminology, a contradiction is a notion that is constantly promulgated by the ruling class, but is clearly false (if you let yourself think about it). Contradictions are fictions that serve the interests of the ruling class. The ruling class needs to continually propagandize contradictions, so workers don’t think to question them.

Examples of contradictions are: “Anyone who works hard and perseveres can make as much money as Oprah,” “Anyone can be successful if they really want to,” etc. If workers believe these things, then they blame themselves (not capitalism) if they fail to become rich. It is clearly very advantageous to capitalists that workers believe these sorts of things, then.

Another Marxist contradiction: “This is the way to live: you meet the right person, fall in love, get married, have children, and live happily ever after.” This message, which is more or less explicit in much religious teaching and in media, serves the interests of capitalism because under capitalism, the family is the unit of consumption of “big-ticket” items, such as houses, cars, TVs, furniture, appliances, etc. It’s no accident that capitalist systems, aided by religion, foster “family values.”

These notions are so central to our consciousness that we never think to question them, even if they are entirely foreign to our experience of the world. A typical worker doesn’t know a single person who has ever made as much money as Oprah, or know anybody whose family life meets the ideal. Yet we maintain these beliefs, consistently denying our own experience; and we blame ourselves if we fall short of these ideals. We never think to question the beliefs themselves; or if we do, people don’t understand what we’re saying.

Marx’s notion of “contradiction” is analogous to the “conspiracy of silence” characteristic of dysfunctional families. The child knows Daddy is drunk, but must say “Everything is fine.” The child learns, in any case, that no one wants to hear what he has to say. He may even begin to wonder if he is seeing things correctly. Since his perceptions are never affirmed, he ends up not trusting his own mind —  in a kind of psychic “dis-integration.” He becomes intellectually dulled. Marx says the same thing happens to workers under capitalism; constantly bombarded with contradictions (and, according to 20th-century Marxists, advertising), they find it difficult to think straight. The effect in both cases is the same: people become intellectually dulled, depressed, bored, cynical, and live less-than-human lives.

[1] I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw in the Mercury-News, June 5, 1993, that there is now an entire channel on the Home Shopping Network devoted exclusively to selling products seen on soap operas: you can now buy sweatshirts from the fictional universities attended by the soap opera characters, the furniture and appliances you see in their homes, and even framed portraits of the TV families to put on your own mantel or piano.

[2]Video and other primarily visual media convey messages far more quickly and efficiently than the printed word; human brains process visual information far more quickly than written symbols. Mere words, one person’s opinion simply stated or written, no matter how clearly or eloquently, cannot compete with media. Many students seem to know this in their bones. Thus many of our students, raised on images, seem to have given up on words; when teachers try to elicit words from them, in speeches or in essays, many students are not merely tongue-tied — they are incoherent.

[3]TV newsreaders and writers have a carefully constructed veneer of “objectivity” about “serious” news — free-floating, without context, and unengaged — that is, by design, utterly boring. News stories all sound the same because they’re supposed to. Murphy Brown is a good illustration of this. The stories on the fictional news program FYI are all summarized in sound bites: Murphy’s “corrupt Aministration official scandal” story, Frank’s “pollution story,” Corkie’s “Mary Kay Cosmetics story.” We don’t need to hear the stories themselves because we already know them. In order to keep the audience from changing channels (and thus miss the commercials), news programs must focus a disproportionate amount of attention on “human interest” stories, celebrities, and other trivialities. 




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