A Moral Argument for Socialism

Disclaimer: This is second-year University work, and it shows.

J. S. Mill, in his unfinished ‘Chapters on Socialism’, writes:

“[Capitalism] is the principle of individualism, competition, each one for himself and against all the rest. It is grounded on opposition of interests, not harmony of interests, and under it every one is required to find his place by a struggle, by pushing others back or being pushed back by them… It is the parent of envy, hatred and all uncharitableness; it makes every one the natural enemy of others who cross his path, and every one’s path is constantly liable to be crossed.” [1]

Premise 1: the system of capitalism requires inequality, wage slavery and exploitation to operate, and as such, indulgences the most selfish parts of human nature.

Karl Marx wrote extensively on profit as a function of the exploitation of workers by owners, perceiving surplus-value capital as the driving force of capitalism. Principally, it is capital accumulation that is the central feature of capitalism. Writes Marx in ‘Capital: Volume One’,

“The intimate connexion between the pangs of hunger of the most industrious layers of the working class, and the extravagant consumption, coarse or refined, of the rich, for which capitalist accumulation is the basis, reveals itself only when the economic laws are known.” [2]

Even supporters of capitalist economies such as the libertarian writer Milton Friedman, acknowledges ‘unfairness’ as an essential component of capitalism. In Free to Choose, he is critical of the “moral fervor behind the drive for equality of outcome”[3], arguing that the distribution of human talents is equally unfair, as if this is some sort of justification for unfairness in economic affairs. This is an unconvincing argument for the simple reason that the hand we are dealt by our genetics is not within our capacity to change. It is not unethical that some are beautiful and some ugly, because our blind genetics have no capacity for ethical action. However, other social determinants are well within the sphere of human influence, and as such are subject to moral questioning.

Capitalist economists often extol the benefits of such a system, such as an extraordinary capacity for production of goods, a fast rate of technological progress, and so on, but make little reference to ethical principles. Those who do consider capitalism and ethics (and who still wish to defend capitalism) come to peculiar ethical positions.

For example, Ayn Rand in her essays, ‘The Virtue of Selfishness’ does away with concepts such as altruism, love for one’s fellow human being and (though it may seem trite) goodness for its own sake. She writes,

“The first thing [man] learns is that morality is his enemy; he has nothing to gain from it, he can only lose; self-inflicted loss, self-inflicted pain and the gray, debilitating pall of an incomprehensible duty is all that he can expect.”[4]

Not only does this do away with all considerations of social contract theory and evidence from evolutionary theory on the benefits of mutual reciprocation, but ignores the more lofty motivating ideal of progress for humanity as a whole. It may seem merely anecdotal, but it would be hard to believe that Stephen Hawking wrote A Brief History of Time only for his salary, that Carl Sagan produced Cosmos only out of selfishness, that Charles Darwin expounded his theory of natural selection only to advance his own agenda. Objectivism can neither explain nor justify many of the acts committed by virtuous and brilliant people.

Premise 2: Ethical systems that place value in the intrinsic worth of human life, and view greed, selfishness and injustice as moral evils are incompatible with capitalism, for ethical thinking must not be compartmentalized.

If one considers the inequalities between first and third world countries a bad thing, considers global poverty in the light of western luxury, one cannot endorse the system that makes it possible.

This ethic can be explained with regards to the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’. In the Dilemma, two rational, self-interested agents are pitted against one another to minimize the punishment they themselves will suffer. The problem encountered is that to do so is to doom the pair of them to significantly worse punishments than had they co-operated.

Talk of ‘rational’ and ‘self-interested’ beings ignores that the pair have a capacity for ethical thought, and may wish well for their fellow prisoner. If the two prisoners were mother and daughter, or brothers, or lovers, one can immediately see the ethical dimension impose itself upon the Dilemma.

Douglas Hofstadter explains a simple solution in Metamagical Themas that can account for ethical action without doing away with talk of rational self-interest.[5] Hofstadter explains that we, as humans, are ‘superrational’; that is, aware of the equal rationality of our fellow human being. If we believe that our fellow prisoner thinks as we do, we will account for that in our choice. Here, the principles of the socialist ethic are clearly advantageous over those of the capitalist.

This can be shown and further applied through Kant’s Categorical Imperative. Kant’s Imperative is a tool for considering moral actions, which demands us to act in a manner such that we would be pleased for all others to imitate our behaviour exactly. The capitalist ethic applied to the Categorical Imperative would leave us with a vicious, combative, un-just[6] society wherein victory is assured for some and defeat for others. A socialist ethic, with an emphasis on the restraint of base selfishness, on solidarity, fraternity and so on paints a near-eutopian picture of humanity through the Imperative. To take our ethics seriously is to apply them in the political, as well as personal realms.

Premise 3: If one were to describe a system based on both economic productivity and moral thinking, one would outline a system that looks like some form of socialism.

The precise description is not necessary, for it is not essential to provide a complete alternative to know that the status quo is in dire need of change. If it is unethical that people are starving whilst a privileged few live in luxury far beyond necessity, if it is within our power to change it through law, we should. In this regard, the traditional Marxist rhetoric of ‘class’ has been substituted for that of ‘morality’.

Imagining an alternative to capitalism is not so baffling, however, for there have been thinkers whose work can give us clues as to what this society might look like. John Rawls in his works ‘A Theory of Justice’ presents us with the thought experiment of the ‘original position’[7]. In this ‘position’, we are asked to choose the guiding principles of the society we are to live in, whilst being denied any information of our race, gender, or (most relevantly) economic status. In this way, we are forced by probability to describe a relatively just, fair society. If we describe an extremely unfair society (such as our own[8]), within which 85% of the world’s total wealth is held by some 10% of the population, in all likelihood we will be in the 90% when the veil is removed and we discover our identity. There is a strong drive, then, towards a significant decrease in inequality between rich and poor.

This within itself cannot prescribe any specific form of socialism, but it can both justify the drive towards socialist principles, and critique the inequality of capitalism. Dennis and Halsey, in English Ethical Socialism describe Orwell of having seen “the socialist vision of people bound together in a shared life of optimally balanced freedom and equality; a life of dignity and purposefulness for each individual granted by the goodwill of all; a life not determined by material circumstance nor dominated by selfish scramble under conditions of scarcity.”[9] Although it long predates it, this appears to be Orwell’s ideal as conceived under Rawl’s ‘veil’.

Even the application of the amoral tenets of Utilitarianism may be of assistance here. Ian Shapiro in The Moral Foundations of Politics writes that Bentham was necessarily a supporter of the redistribution of wealth between rich and poor[10], for this would maximize the happiness in any society. The extremely wealthy are so much wealthier than they need to be in order to maintain their happiness, thought Bentham, due to the diminishing returns of pleasure that an ever-increasing stockpile of money brings. Accordingly, Bentham thought that the transferal of riches should begin with moving funds from the very richest to the very poorest, for it will matter so little to the wealthiest, and matter so much to the poorest[11]. Though he could never have read Marx’ work, Bentham managed to apply his principles to reach a conclusion astonishingly socialist in nature.

Therefore: Since (1) unethical action is an essential component of capitalism, (2) those with altruistic ethical values must necessarily reject capitalism in order to maintain those principles, and an alternative must be sought.  And so (3) a description of this alternative will look and sound something like socialism.

Deontology vs Consequentialism: The only significant problem for the ethical approach outlined in this essay is that it rests on a normative, deontological approach to ethics. A priori, socialism is unquestionably a more ethical approach to the structure of political life. Any consequentialist theory of ethics, however, may be able to reduce this approach to ruins; that is to say, socialism may be all very well in principle, but if any application of socialism leads to far greater tragedies than those naturally inflicted by capitalism, then our case has a serious problem.

Friedrich A. von Hayek captured this argument neatly in The Road to Serfdom. He writes,

“Is there a greater tragedy imaginable than that, in our endeavour to consciously shape the future in accordance with high ideals, we should in fact unwittingly produce the very opposite of what we have been striving for?”[12]

Hayek is arguing here that, regardless of capitalism’s evils, socialism (though well-intentioned) produces far more evil in its attempt to reduce it. This is an extremely problematic issue for the ethical socialist. If Hayek is right, and there is an inevitable slippery slope from socialism to totalitarianism, we must accordingly pick the lesser of the two evils, and endure the fundamental injustices of capitalism as necessary and unavoidable. As such, the moral ontology is with socialism, whilst the moral consequences are with capitalism.

Whilst the weight of historical evidence lies with Hayek’s belief that the ‘road to serfdom’ is an inevitable one for governments who pursue socialist ideals[13], this does not defeat the ethical socialist argument. Since premises 1 and 2 remain unaffected by the failures of attempted socialist alternatives, it is in the interpretation of premise 3 that the socialist conclusion stands or falls: in the formulation and application of a practical socialist policy.

Conclusion: The argument from morality in favor of ethical socialism is a solid persuasive tool for showing how one can move from altruistic, humanistic values directly to socialism without appeal to class rhetoric. With the rise of the middle class, talk of a bourgeoisie/proletariat dichotomy is significantly less relevant, and significantly less potent as a tool for persuasion.

With the appeal to ethics, any altruistic person can perceive that the drive towards socialism is a moral obligation.


  • Friedman, M., Friedman, R., 1990, Free to Choose. Thomson Learning
  • Halsey, A. H., Dennis, N., 1988, English Ethical Socialism, Clarendon Press
  • Hayek, F., 2001, The Road To Serfdom, 2nd Edition. Routledge
  • Hofstadter, D., 1983, “Metamagical Themas: Computer Tournaments of the Prisoner’s Dilemma Suggest How Cooperation Evolves”, Scientific American 248
  • Marx, K, 1992, Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy. Penguin Classics.
  • Mill, J.S. Chapters on Socialism. In: Collini S. eds. 2007. J. S. Mill On Liberty and other writings. Cambridge University Press.
  • Rand, A., 1964, The Virtue of Selfishness, Penguin Group
  • Shapiro, I., 2003, The Moral Foundations of Politics, Yale University Press

[1] Socialist objections to the present order of society, p. 233

[2] Section 5b: The badly paid Strata of the British Industrial Class, ref: VII.XXV.73

[3] p. 136

[4] Introduction, p. 6

[5] Scientific American 248 p. 16-26

[6] For a given definition of ‘unjust’. Justice would exist only insofar as survival of the fittest applies. This would be the justice of brute nature, whereby domination of the weak by the strong is ‘natural’.

[7] p.116

[9] p.102

[10] p.31-33

[11] Ibid.

[12] Introduction, p. 5

[13] By this I mean what is usually referred to as the failure of the Soviet Union. Whether this can be considered genuine socialism/communism is a topic too lengthy for here.