Marx thinks that evil will not be an important theoretical problem for people if the concrete problems go away. The concrete problems matter more than anything else by any means necessary. But, if your main goal is the removal of these concrete evils, a vision of this sort can undergird an ethic of really quite brutal consequentialism, which did historically come to pass in some places. However, Marx’s concrete idea of evil is also not without its problems.
Negating the Intellectual
Marx raises two very large and fundamental questions, one theoretical and one practical. Does the approach that Marx offers—an approach that focuses ruthlessly on the practical solution to the practical problem of evil—does this solution offer enough respect to theoretical questions about evil that humans might have? Doesn’t the sheer phenomenon of evil itself stand in need of being accounted for? Is there no theoretical worry here that will trouble people? Is a purely materialist “resolution” of all these problems adequate to meet any intellectual puzzle that people will have?
Maybe not. Any attempt to offer an account of the problem of evil that fails to talk about why evil happened in the first place and offer an ultimately adequate account for why that is, seems to suggest that humans have little capacity to wonder and be puzzled at things. But our capacity to wonder abstractly about things is very central to we are. That’s one problem with this view. The second problem with the theory lies in its understanding of history; the problem of whether or not you need a theoretical resolution to the problem of evil.
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Justification for Evil
Marx’s understanding of the problem of evil means that at any moment when there is suffering in the world we will understand ultimately that suffering to have been justified, as it was with Hegel, only because the later event that is caused by the suffering is much better than it would have been in the absence of the suffering. In other words, every moment in history doesn’t have its own integrity, its meaning, its ultimate significance is only part of a larger story; we can’t know the meaning of any moment until the later moment.
In another way, the moment of history that we are going through at this time is never something that is fully clear to us now and we can’t actually know what it really means yet because history as a whole is an organic unity. That’s one view of history; that’s Marx’s and Hegel’s view.
Learn more about the nature of evil.
The Autonomy of Each Moment
The other view, which is a different one and one that is at least more plausible initially, is the idea that each moment of history is in some important way is possessive of its own integrity, its own autonomy. Each moment of history, were it to be subsumed or consumed into the totality of the whole, would possess its own integrity that would resist and protest that consummation, that consumption. Each moment of history, that is, in this rival view to Marx and Hegel, has a kind of moral sense that is determinant in itself.
If you believe in the second account of history, so that at a moment the evils or the goods that happen in that moment bear their own significance and their own meaning within themselves, if you believe in that view, no matter what the justification of it is down the road, somehow the suffering of that moment still stands out as demanding some kind of answer. There must be some account of why that had to happen.
If there is no account of why something had to happen, why there was a necessity to its happening that’s fine. But in that case, that the moment of suffering has as its own meaning the real suffering of the people within it, and that in some sense that suffering matters not just in that moment but eternally, as the ultimate eternal meaning of that moment of suffering. The picture we’re presenting is a picture where each moment is individually seen by a god outside of time, outside of history in eternity, who sees each moment in its integrity and sees it as an integral moment.
In a way, we’re gesturing at the idea that there might be different meanings of God here. Hegel at least insists that God becomes identical with the World-Spirit working itself out. Marx obviously doesn’t have a sense of God in that way, but Marx nonetheless thinks there’s nothing outside of history.
Learn more about Hegel’s ideas about history.
The Dangers of Consequentialism
That’s all the theoretical debate around Marx. The practical questions are more immediate and direct. Most obviously, is it viable to say that evil can be solved in the way that Marx suggests it can? The history of Marxism after Marx does not give us a great deal of confidence that Marxism became on the whole a device for ameliorating human suffering, to say the least; if anything, the consequentialism it justified provoked in people a kind of amplified level of cruelty and aggravated the suffering of the human race, at least for a century or so after Marx’s own death.
It’s not entirely fair to blame Marx for all of the things done by those who said they followed him in the same way that it’s, of course, not entirely fair to blame Jesus for all of the things done by those who said they followed him. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting fact that some of the most frankly moralistic of visions of life, even if they don’t admit that they are moralistic, are often the most quickly and dangerously corrupted.
Common Questions about the Problems with Marx’s Idea of Evil
Marx’s view fails to talk about why evil happened in the first place and offers an ultimately adequate account for why that is, implying that humans have little capacity to wonder and be puzzled at things; as if no one would be curious about this.
In Marx’s philosophy, as in Hegel’s, at any moment when there is suffering in the world we will understand ultimately that suffering to have been justified, only because the later event that is caused by the suffering is much better than it would have been in the absence of the suffering.
The history of Marxism after Marx does not give us a great deal of confidence that Marxism became a device for ameliorating human suffering. If anything, the consequentialism it justified provoked in people a kind of amplified level of cruelty and aggravated the suffering of humans, at least for a century or so after Marx’s own death.