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The Aristotelian Foundations of Marxs Ethics

By Rojhat Berdan Avsar


University of Utah
Abstract: Aristotle argues that eudaimonia, the highest human good, resides in the ergon
(function or work) of man. Accordingly, humans will reach eudemonia, fulfilled lives; if they
function properly in the sense that if they are able to exercise the capacities to be found in
the human soul well. Function of man, therefore, would correspond to particular life
activity. Marx, though not a moral philosopher, shows a deep concern with situation of
man in his extensive critique of capitalist economic system. The main argument of this
paper could be summarized as follows: Marxs critique of capitalism essentially has
ethical/humanitarian content. Without a reference to this content, Marxs critique would not
be grasped in depth. Moreover, his conception of human good and nature that seems to be
most important basis of his ethical position shares some Aristotelian insights. Specifically,
just as eudaimonia could not be attained without proper ergon of man for Aristotle, likewise
for Marx man could not realize his essence without his work/labor as genuine and active
property.

I. Need for study of morality in Marx


The paper proposes to make two interrelated arguments: (i) Marxs critique of capitalism1 has
substantial ethical/humanitarian content, and (ii) there is a strong Aristotelian influence on Marxs ethical
stance2.
In his sharp criticism of Marx, Veblen argues, the class struggle proceeds on a recognition by
the competing classes of their mutually incompatible interests with regard to the material means of life
The doctrine of class struggle is of a utilitarian origin3 and it belongs to Marx by virtue of his having
borrowed its elements from system of self-interest. It is in fact a piece of hedonism and is related to
Bentham rather than to Hegel. It proceeds on the grounds of the hedonistic calculus4 [My italics]. This
passage is based on a superficial understanding of Marx at least in one fundamental respect: (i) Marx
concern is never distributional conflict: As Marx himself points out, To demand equal or even equitable
redistribution on the basis of the wage system is the same as to demand freedom on the basis of the
slavery system5. Marx is concerned, rather, with the human condition in general6, dehumanization and
degradation of working class under capitalism in particular. The reason why he emphasizes the struggle
led by working class might be thought to be the fact that emancipation of working class would mean
emancipation of all7. So that in the future society there will be no class. Veblens implausible critique

Rohjat Berdan Avsar


seems to urge us to take a closer look at the ethical content of Marxs argumentation to be able to assess
him truly.
Nevertheless, whenever one ascribes Marx an ethical stance, he/she would probably face two
basic objections: (i) Some argue that it is clear that Marx was not a moral philosopher and did not leave us
with an explicit philosophical treatise on ethics. (ii) Some others argue that since morality is an
ideological category and only reflects the underlying economics substructure8, Marx would have tended
to reject any morality. Even though Marx was not a moral philosopher, he left us very clear evidence that
he recognizes a particular morality as uncovered especially in his early writings such as 1844
Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts or On Jewish Question. There is a truth in the second objection
as explicit in Marx critique of ideology that applies to all values, moral and non-moral. For instance, with
a change in the material structures, there will be a corresponding conceptual change in the nature of
justice. Nevertheless, Marxs conception of morality should be analyzed in broader sense of the term
morality. As will be seen, Marxs conception of moral good was structured around his ideal of freedom
and self-realization.

II. Aristotle and good life


As noted in the very beginning, there seems to be strong Aristotelian influence on Marxs ethical
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stance . Aristotles exposes his ethical views in three different books: Nicomachean Ethics (EN),
Eudemian Ethics (EE) and Politics. As very explicit in the very beginning of EN, his treatise proposes a
portrait of good and happy man. The best good for man is eudaimonia, a fulfilled life10. To explore
further the nature of eudaimonia, we should turn to Aristotles ergon, function or work, argument. As he
himself notes in Book I Chapter 7 in Nicomachean Ethics, ... the remark that the best good is happiness
is apparently something generally agreed and we still need a clearer statement of what the best good is.
Perhaps, then, we shall find this if we first grasp the function (ergon) of a human being11 [My italics].
Just as shoe is the function of the activity of shoe-making and good shoe implies good work/functioning,
the good for man also depends on the ergon of man and the degree of goodness is determined by how
well man practices/realizes its ergon whatever it is. For the ergon is the end (or the purpose) of a thing
and for this very reason it is the best: the ergon (work) of anything is its end; from this that work is
better than the state; for the end is best, as being end; for we assumed the best, the final stage, to be the
end for the sake of which all else exists12.
To put it in Kains words, Aristotles intuition can be summarized as follows: each thing,
including human beings, has a process, activity or function, when it has realized its essence, it achieves
its end or good. Therefore, the exercise of the function of man realizes its essence/species-being or
nature which is the best good13 since mans ergon uniquely belongs to man. If we see what the best man

Oeconomicus, Volume IX, 2007-2008


is like, we are seeing at the same time what mans true nature is: we understand the species by
understanding the perfect individual14. The portrait of man with eudaimonia amounts to portrait of the
complete man or the perfected individual since it corresponds to the exercise of mans ergon. It seems
that Marx recognizes such a channel from human nature to morality. Following Allan G. Nasser, we
argue that Marx has a concept of man which serves as a standard against which his present existence is
measured and criticized15.

III. Marxs conception of morality


In his commentary John Bellamy Foster insightfully states, Marxs entire lifework was
motivated by the dream of a whole man 16. Similarly, Fischer entitles the first chapter of his book,
How to read Karl Marx, where Fosters commentary appears, as the dream of the whole man. Both
seem to capture well that Marxs project could not be understood by purely economic terms.
What is the whole man? Human beings have inner potentials that wait for realization and
unfolding. Moreover, human beings are also social animals. Therefore, communal-being is also the part of
human nature. The latter point is developed in On Jewish Question explicitly. In his critique of egoistic
conception of man, Marx exposes his argument regarding alienation and species-being: The actual
individual man must take the abstract citizen back into himself and, as an individual man in his empirical
life, in his individual work and individual relationship become a species-being; man must recognize his
own forces as social forces, organize them, and thus no longer separate social forces from himself only
when this has been achieved will human emancipation be completed17. What Marx basically argues here
seems to be the fact that sociality is very essential part of human nature and egoistic interpretation is
doing nothing but separating individual from his/her nature and leaving him/her as alien being to himself
and others.
Alienation might also appear in another form. In his critique of private property in On James
Mill, Marx points out, My work would be a free expression of my life, and therefore a free enjoyment of
my life. Presupposing private property, my work is an alienation of my life, because I work in order to
live, to furnish myself with the means of living. My work is not my life my individuality is so far
externalized that I hate my activity: it is a torment to me and only the appearance of an activity and thus
also merely a forced activity that is laid upon me through an exterior, arbitrary need not an inner and
necessary one18. When labor becomes any other good in the market, it serves only preservation of a
minimal existence as Marx states. In this case, the satisfaction of basic needs becomes the highest good19
and labor divorces from its essence.
If man produces in a human manner when he has the complete control over his own labor in his
activity he would realize his own essence, its inner potentials as individual. In this case, in work the

Rohjat Berdan Avsar


peculiarity of my individuality would have been affirmed since it is my individual life. Work would thus
be genuine, active property20. Marx, here, makes a clear distinction between the appearance of
labor/work and its original principle or essence. He sees a possible conflict that also constitutes the base
of his analysis of alienation. Marx reveals his conception of moral evil: alienation. Alienation, therefore,
could be best defined as a discrepancy between mans actual empirical existence and his nature which
consists of both his species-nature and essential potentials as individual. As Kain summarizes, moral
evil is the outcome of a state of affairs in which an empirical existent is shut off from and fails to live up
to its essence On the other hand, moral good is the result of existence conforming to essence21.
Therefore, Marxs conception of morality seems to glorify self-realization and condemn alienation.

IV. Alienation and creative labor


What is the source of alienation22, moral evil? Under capitalism, Marx believes, labor is exterior
to the worker that is, it does not belong to him essence: he does not confirm himself in his work, he
denies himself, feels miserable instead of happy, deploys no free physical and intellectual energy, but
mortifies his body and ruins his mind23. Since labor does not serve the objectification of mans specieslife and inner potentials anymore, human functions are reduced to eating, drinking, procreating etc24.
Nevertheless, in a similar line with Aristotle, these are not functions that separate human from other
animals. Just as the whole character of any species is its life activity whereby it distinguishes itself from
every other species, truly human life is the life of creative labor that helps man distinct himself from
other species and realizes his/her true essence. As Marx emphasizes in the Grundrisse25, the activity of
self-realization and objectification of the subject, which is the real freedom, is precisely labor.
To perceive this creative nature of labor at the very origin will be to discover the inexhaustible
possibilities and the total man hidden in man as a working being. Since human senses and intellect were
developed and refined through working26. Nevertheless, labor might take different empirical forms so
does the nature of the practical activity of man. But this does not change the fact that labor by its very
nature is creative27. Only when labor is creative, this energy is returned to the worker, not only as the
work product but also as confirmation of his individuality and his latent potential28. For labor to
represent mans species nature and the collective creative activity of mankind, therefore, its possibilities
should be properly exploited. This is only way to activate the full potential and true essence latent in
mankind.
The form, therefore, labor takes determines the degree of alienation or the distance between
mans essence it actual existence29. Just as the part of an acorns essence or ergon (function/work) is to
grow into a mighty oak tree30, the essence of human beings is to be self-realization31. Self-realization
involves the free and creative exercise of those powers that define mans ergon but the exercise of

Oeconomicus, Volume IX, 2007-2008


these powers is limited by the social-productive matrix within which they are developed32. Just as an
acorns essence may not coincide with its actual existence and it might remain as a small, unhealthy bush
because of the lack of proper circumstances, man also might not activate his essence and developmental
potential33 when his development does not proceed in the natural and proper way34.

V. Conclusion
Marxs critique of capitalism has a coherent and well-grounded ethical content. As noted earlier,
his conception of morality or human good borrows many elements of Aristotles discussion of human
nature and ergon argument. Both see the human happiness/good in the realization of mans inner
potentials or essence. And both think good for human also defines moral good.
Marx has a deep concern with the situation of human. Human situation undergoes different
transformations alongside different modes societies with their particular forces of production and social
relations of production. Each epoch of social development has caused man to alienate in the one way or
another. However, capitalism is the mode of production in which the contradiction between human
essence and human existence becomes the most total35. We argue that this contradiction is due to the
form that labor takes under capitalism. Aristotle suggests that the ergon or the purpose of man to live a
particular humanly life36. This would be the best life for him/her. Since the realization of the things
essence is the things good. Marx also tells us that we must measure existence by essence3738.
Putting what this particular life should be aside, Marx comes up with his own interpretation: the
life of creative labor as a way to self-realization of man. And self-realization requires the liberation of
humanity from pursuit of narrow economic ends and the opening up of wider realms of creativity39. Only
then labor would conform to its own principle and man reveals his essential being in the activity of
productive labor40.

Endnotes:
1

Marx also seems to be a great admirer of Aristotle. On several occasions he calls Aristotle genius or giant
thinker.
2
Marx also seems to be a great admirer of Aristotle. On several occasions he calls Aristotle genius or giant
thinker.
3

Even though the author of paper is in a disagreement with Veblen regarding utilitarian origin of Marx; the

discussion of this debate is not in the confines of this paper.


4

Veblen, T. Socialist Economics of Karl Marx and His Followers in The Place of Science in Modern Civilizations

and Other Essays. Transaction Publishers. 1990.

Rohjat Berdan Avsar

Quoted by George E. McCarthya on page 250 in Marx and the Ancients, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.,

1990.
6

He concerns with the capitalist system as a whole. This reflects itself in the Marxs belief that both capitalist and

workers are enslaved by the system and unlike the capitalists; workers do not find any subjective satisfaction in it.
Note that, there seems no disagreement between Veblen and Marx at this point.
7

In other words, working class is the only one in the society which is capable of overthrowing the current system

and replace it with better one.


8

McCarthy, p.250.

There are many other similarities between analyses of Aristotle and Marx. One of the most striking is the influence

of Aristotles derivation of exchange value on Marxs labor theory of value: In the first place, Aristotle states quite
clearly that the Money form of the commodity is only a further development of the Simple form of value, i.e. of the
expression of the value of a commodity in some other arbitrarily chosen commodity (quoted by Hans Ehrbar,
p.123, in Annotations to Karl Marxs Capital, http://www.econ.utah.edu/ehrbar/akmc.htm).
10

The notion eudaimonia is usually translated by happiness we, following Gerard Hughes in Routledge Philosophy

Guidebook to Aristotle on Ethics, 2001, prefer to translate the word where necessary by fulfilled life.
11

1097b22-25, Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated by W. D. Ross in The Complete Works of Aristotle edited

by Jonathan Barnes, Princeton University Press, 1995.


12

1219a6-10. Aristotle. Eudemian Ethics (translated by J. Solomon) in The Complete Works of Aristotle edited by

Jonathan Barnes. Princeton University Press. 1995.


13

14

p.21, Phillip J. Kain, Marx and Ethics, Clarendon Press Oxford, 1988.
p.282, In The Philosophy of Aristotle edited by Renford Bambrough and translated by J.L. Creed and A.E.

Wardman, The new American Library, New York, 1963.


15

p.485, Allan G. Nasser, Marxs Ethical Anthropology, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol.35,

No.4, June 1975, pp.484-500.


16

p.37, How to Read Karl Marx, Ernst Fischer with commentary by J.B. Foster, Monthly Review, 1999.

17

p.64, In Karl Marx: Selected Writings 2nd edition edited by David McLellana, Oxford University Press, 2000.

18

p.133, in McLellana (2000).

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Oeconomicus, Volume IX, 2007-2008

19

1096a6. Aristotle has a very similar position: The life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion,

and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else
20

p.132.

21

p.24.

22

In the 1844 Manuscripts Marx mentions 4 forms of alienation: (i) the alienation of individual from his product, (ii)

from his productive activity, (iii) from his species-being and (iv) from his fellowmen (E.K. Hunt, Marxs Concept of
Human Nature and the Labor Theory of Value, Review of Radical Political Economics, 1982, p.10). Nevertheless, it
would not be too wrong to say that the last two arise from the first two.
23

p.88, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, in McLellana .

24

McLellana (p.89).

25

Karl Marx, The Grundrisse, edited and translated by David McLellanb, Haper & Row Publishers, New York,

1972.
26

p.242, E. K. Hunt, History of Economic Thought Updated Second Edition, M.E. Sharpe, New York, 2002

27

According to Adam Smith, it is sacrifice and the pain of the worker which creates value. In his critique of Smiths

subjective concept of value Marx says: but he views this expenditure merely as the sacrifice of the rest, freedom,
and happiness, not also as mans normal life activity. It is not hard to see that Marx conception of labor is the
complete opposite of, so to speak, disutility theory of labor.
28

29

p.53, Fischer.
Even though Marx argues that alienation is total under capitalism, he does not claim that the pre-capitalist

societies were free from any sort of alienation.


30

Hunt, p.9. The acorn example is originally given by Aristotle in Metaphysics.

31

Marx sometimes uses self-realization and freedom interchangeably.

32

Nasser, p.500.

33

As Hunt notes, essence was much more than an intellectual concept denoting abstract possibilities (p.9).

34

In this sense according to Marx capitalism not only externalizes mans labor to himself, but also seems incapable

of providing the material goods necessary for the realm of freedom and the leisure to objectify and express ones
many-sided forms of talents and abilities. Its economic wealth is incapable of matching its real wealth of human

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Rohjat Berdan Avsar

needs. By this view, Marx comes very closer to Aristotle in a different respect. Aristotle also believes that human
happiness is conditioned on the available leisure (1177b4-5).
35

Hunt, p.10.

36

By particular life what Aristotle has in mind is the life of reason. According to Aristotle only the life of reason

can be truly human purpose. Since human is the only one with this capability.
37

Some argues that Marx do not have an ideal of a fixed conception of human nature, and this makes impossible

to evaluate the situation of man given the circumstances. Even though there is a truth in the objection, it is not
complete. Marx argues that human nature is modified in each historical epoch. However, it is part of human essence.
By transforming the nature human also transforms himself. On the other hand, in this interaction with the nature, he
also unfolds his inner potentials and becomes aware of his essence.
38

Kain, p.21.

39

p.37, in Fischer, commentary by J.B. Foster.

40

Nasser, p.487.

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