Marx’s famous pronunciation, 11th thesis on Feuerbach – Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verändern – [Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it] – makes me wonder (and always did) whether philosophers should be trying to change the world as philosophers or if they should abandon their futile efforts to explain the world (or leave it to scientists) and do something else (that else hopefully would be directed at changing the world).
I’ve always read Marx here as mocking philosophers not simply for trying to interpret the world, but for assuming that the world is static and somewhat accessible and that the real task is to sort things out and produce an adequate theory of how the world is, not how the world should be. But then again how do we know what the world should be like so that we can direct the changes in the right direction? Clearly, outside of the philosophical discussions most people are able to say quite easily what they think the world should be like, but then again it depends on whom we ask: I’m sure a poor unskilled laborer would want more security and a filthy rich banker would want less regulation and more money. If norms (and saying we must change the world in this or that direction is nothing but an affirmation of what norms we must follow) are simply derived from opinion polls, then they will change depending on how we pose questions (politicians know how to do that, or I should say, people who poll for them know how to do that). In that sense, universality will never result from any sort of empirical gathering of evidence. Well, screw universality then, right? Let us ask each specific group what it wants and give it to it. What about the very strong possibility of conflicts of interests? What will guide us in choosing to do something for the poor and therefore putting the rich at disadvantage? Where does this criterion of right/good come from? If we derive our norms from empirical/practical concerns and observations, then we can only produce a kind of “tough shit justice”*: yes, there’s no universal criterion of justice/right/good, but the majority of us (workers, for example) decided that this is going to be the case, because that is what we want and since there is more of us than there are of you (or we have more power to enforce our will), then you will just have to accept this.
In this sense the criteria of justice/right/good will constantly change as they will appeal to different groups with different interests. Is there any sort of substantial human interest? If there is anything like that, it’s likely to be something very basic like food, shelter and so on, and even those “commonsensical” things are, we are told, constructed in various ways. So there’s an option of keeping up with these human concerns and change our understanding of justice/right/good and there’s an option of postulating a kind of universal stable constant concept of justice/right/good and force everyone to stick with it (which is what religion seems to be about, at least for me). Is there a third way? Is there a way to attempt to change the world in the right direction (as conceptualized by the most recent idea of justice/right/good) while maintaining that this right direction is not a chimera or a recent human fad? People used to think slavery was awesome, then they thought feudal relationships were the shit, now everyone is crazy about capitalism. Imagine a future textbook describing human history of 19th and 20th century in terms of our strange love affair with capitalism: “By early 21th century many realized that capitalism might be a rather faulty economic system that benefited few and left the majority of humankind in horrible conditions. After a series of cataclysms and popular uprisings, by the beginning of 22th century humanity was set on forgetting the nightmarish dark ages where profit ruled and was already moving toward the world it firmly established now.” Or think about slavery: it still exists (according to some scholars there are more slaves now than there were in “classical times”), but our idea of it changed – but what does it matter to a slave? What we say to a young woman lured out of her poverty with promises of a decent job, sold to a brothel somewhere in the Western Europe and exploited without much pay, medical care or dignity? “We are sorry about your predicament, but as philosophers we have done everything in our power to interpret your condition as unacceptable. We are now working on letting the objects speak and so forth.”
Returning to Marx then, the question is whether there is a demonstrable connection between our ideas of what the world must be like and the changes that the world is undergoing. Are we and can we change the world in any direction or does it change itself independently because it changes itself? Do our ideas of justice/right/good function as a simple survival technic in the sense that they do not have any prescriptive or predictive power but are masked attempts to deal with the cruel reality of what the world is already like? Shit happens and therefore we say “tough shit” and move on while philosophers quickly formulate the reasons for why shit that happened was bound to happen necessarily. And yet I feel like we have already fallen into the philosophical trap of always interpreting things – what does Marx mean when he writes X? – as opposed to acting in any sort of direction. In this sense, interpreting the world, looking for the meaning of life, looking for truth are all very paralyzing activities: everything stops while we contemplate our next step. I have always been fascinated with histories of revolutions and crises simply because it seems that during those times the unmanageable character of the world’s changes becomes more obvious.
Back to justice then. What is justice? Is there one common understanding of what it is or does the concept itself function as an ideological smokescreen that allows for exploitation and oppression? If it is our task to change the world and not simply to explain it, then what sort of blueprint are we to use in our actions? Do we need a blueprint at all? Can’t we just do it? Do what?
* I wonder if I can use the expression “tough shit justice” in any sort of academic paper submission in the US or if I should look for something more polite like “tough luck justice”?