Socialism: Ethical Foundations

[This is the second in a multipart series addressing the surge in interest in and support for Socialism. Subsequent entries will explore what the surge means, what it will or ought to seek, where it might extend, and how it might unfold.]

Often allegiance to socialism (or to some other vision for the future) springs from one or another ideological commitment – marxism, anarchism, feminism, libertarianism, neoliberalism, and so on. But these allegiances tend to take for granted their underlying ideology and only rarely explicitly address its defining aspects. Later, nonetheless, people who support socialism or other aims ideologically often fight with each other over their unexamined and even unstated differences. A disturbing but undeniable truth is that such clashing can get more than a bit cultish. We are right, we are best, because we are us.

A second approach to specifying that one is socialist is to support a few specific policies, for example, free healthcare for all, free schooling, open borders, or a guaranteed minimum income, but this doesn’t provide much guidance for going beyond those policies. 

In this series of articles I will try a different approach hoping to reduce the risk of both unexamined presuppositions and cultish disputes. The idea is to first settle on some values and only then assess institutions’ abilities to fulfill those values in society’s economy, polity, households, and other key areas of life. In other words, when we consider how society ought to best accomplish its various functions, our shared values will hopefully give us an agreed standard to organize our thoughts around – in short, how well does what we propose fulfill our preferred values, rather than how well does it ratify some old ideological scripture.

So, the question immediately follows, what values might we adopt as a foundation for going on to envision specific aspects of a future society?

We know societies impact how much goods, services, and opportunities we all receive; who makes decisions with what level of say; whether we tend to be hostile or supportive or even empathetic toward others; the range of choices and situations we each confront; and how we relate to our ecological surroundings. Even just considering these basic facets of what any society provides and delimits for its members, can we propose a list of values any worthy society ought to fulfill?

First, regarding how much stuff we all get – don’t we favor that society be equitable and fair? Would anyone seeking a better society oppose that broad aim?

Regarding influence, we know some people favor democracy, various other modes of voting, or consensus among other options. But isn’t our overarching aim that people should have ample self managed say over their own life choices and situations? Admittedly so far that is a bit undetermined, like equity is too, but even so, would anyone instead prefer people having little say over their own lives and inequitable outcomes?

Regarding relations between people, surely we can agree that we would like society to foster positive, mutual, and even caring relations and not anti-sociality, can’t we?

Regarding the range of options society promotes, does anyone not prefer diversity, a wide range, to homogeneity, a narrow range?

And finally, regarding relations to the ecology, does anyone not prefer sustainability as a value, as compared to ecological decay?

So suppose we take this list – equity, self management, solidarity, diversity, and sustainability – as a starting place. Whether we call the system we seek socialism or something else, can we then say that a society, part of a society, or even a single institution is better to the extent it does a better job of fulfilling these values and worse to the extent that it violates them? 

Can we say that if a society is more equitable (where we determine just what this means for different aspects of social life) that’s better, and if it is more inequitable, that’s worse? If a society comes closer to delivering to all its members ample self managed say over their own lives, that’s better and if it denies people such say that’s worse? If a society fosters people being mutually supportive that’s better and if it causes people to constantly seek to oppose one another that’s worse? If a society has more diversity and less homogeneity, that’s better and if it has the reverse that’s worse? And if a society is sustainable rather that’s better and if it violates ecological balance that’s worse?

However, indicating what’s better, what’s worse  doesn’t demonstrate that any of our preferred values can be significantly attained by a society, much less all of them at once. And it doesn’t clarify the specific meaning of the proposed values in specific settings such as economic life, political life, family life, or culture. Nonetheless, the list already says, look at various facets of society, specify what the proposed values mean in each context, and then envision institutions that fulfill the values individually, and even all at once. If we can usefully carry out that instruction we will have a vision and also some insights into how to attain it. If we can’t carry out that instruction, then we will have to go back to the drawing board. But first, to get a little practice utilizing our proposed values, in our next essay I will take a brief look at our current societies, to see how they fare against our newly proposed ethical measure.


  1. avatar
    Michael Albert April 3, 2019 8:02 pm 

    Agree, but for the value to provide real guidance we are going to have to make it less vague…and will, shortly.

  2. avatar
    Michael April 3, 2019 1:02 pm 

    “Fairness” is a hard word to define exactly, but we all have some intuitive sense of what it means. Isn’t this the essence of socialism? It is clear that capitalism and fascism are not fair, not equitable, more or less built on the idea that if you can get it you can, which makes power the central idea of those system, not fairness.

    So, since I suppose I am advocating for a fair system, it sounds unrealistic, but fairness is probably also at the heart of ethics, of what is right and equitable. This is the world I want to live in and for my children, your children, and the rest of the world.

    Often when I lived for a number of years in Latin America there was a kind of shared, communal life that was often based on most of the people being relatively poor, or quite modest, and it was not bad at all. Did there need to be improvement and reforms, unquestionably, but generally there was less dog-eat-dog attitude and by necessity people often, not always, helped one another out. Or, at the very least, there were a significant number of people who would help out. Socialism? Not sure exactly if it was, but it is worth knowing and thinking about. Fairness, that’s the core issue.

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