Thesis I: Bakunin’s Virtue Ethics is grounded in one more similar to Aristotle than other Greek V. Ethicists
Thesis II: Aristotle and Bakunin differ radically in their explanation of human differences and their attitudes towards said differences.
Epilogue: Closing remarks.
I Introduction and Bakunin’s Virtue Ethics as Aristotelian.
First and foremost Bakunin is a philosopher and social activist who believes Man must be given the collective opportunity to be virtuous (Basic Bakunin p. 46). This is seen in his essay All-Round Education (Basic Bakunin p. 112). In it, he criticizes those he calls “bourgeois Socialists” for only encouraging partial (I suppose what today would be primary or something close to it) education for the poor while the upper-class still receive higher education. He states quite bluntly that this will continue to perpetuate the division in knowledge that helps to constitute Capitalism, but also that the poor will continue to be ignorant generally. As ignoramuses, they will unable to effectively run for and hold public office, and there will be no surprise when the people in charge support policies and laws that aid themselves and those with similar backgrounds to them – i.e. the bourgeoisie.
He believes the main focus is to help people be virtuous – this is seen in him constantly rallying people to participate actively in the removal of the conditions that beset them. Bakunin clearly believes and shows throughout his writings, that the general “purpose” or concern of human beings is growing and acting upon their moral, intellectual and physical abilities – without which they are not fully human but the cattle which are indoctrinated with religion, free-market ideology and patriotism. This is not only Virtue Ethics clearly, but Aristotelian.
Most of the Ancient Greek Ethicists were virtue ethicists. The Cynic-Stoics focus primarily on virtue being mainly living an ascetic life according to “Nature” where one is not troubled and practices reasonableness in his personal life – clearly the rabble-rouser and Anarchist Bakunin believes there are more important things than whether one is placid or how an individual acts in his arguably minor social dealings. The main difference however is while the Cynic-Stoics and Epicurus are personal (focusing on the individual’s life and choices) Bakunin and Aristotle are social and political. They would hold that at-least in-part a person is defined by his environment (for Aristotle one’s upbringing in particular) and in-effect it’s largely a waste of time to try to influence someone as a “free agent” as the Cynic-Stoics do. Aristotle’s virtue ethics is defined as being loosely speaking scientific and focusing on the functioning of the organism and society generally speaking. Bakunin clearly is Aristotelian, in the sense he believes virtue is the expression of goodness or health in the organism that also creates virtue and prosperity for the collective.
II Differences between Aristotle and Bakunin.
Although Aristotle and Bakunin agree that social factors play heavily in their moral, physical and intellectual development and that these developments are significant to individual virtue, it is far-more apparent their differences in politics, moral psychology and attribution of human traits. Aristotle’s and Bakunin’s main distinctions come in their view of degree in human formation, whether they believe it is healthy or proper for some to obey and whether they believe in free will among others.
Although Bakunin states that it is proper to defer to the cobbler in the expertise of shoe-making, in general he values just defiance over compliance. Aristotle, however, favors political reform over revolution, and not only this but he doesn’t think there to be anything wrong with one group being systematically subjugated to another. This is the distinction. Though Bakunin thinks it rational to refer to the boot-maker (an honest one with the interest of making the best boot, at-least) in selecting boots he would not favor legal or systematic authority of the boot-maker over the man. Aristotle, however, speaks of obedience as being a virtue that is necessary to have a healthy State.
The two also differ in their general temperament and attitude towards the poor. Bakunin is a fervent revolutionary who writes with a great deal of passion and moral fervor; Aristotle is very sober to the point of being boring to many, and despite Chomsky falsely believing Aristotle to be in favor of Democracy, he would today very-likely be someone Chomsky would call an “intellectual,” someone who uses their education and public status to reinforce the interests and opinions of the ruling group. Although Aristotle believes some to be “natural slaves” and therefore don’t receive the same rights or living conditions, he believes fairly clearly in the property rights of the ruling group (Politics; Aristotle collection p.478). To what extent he would maintain this is a point of interest. Are taxes then unjust? Or just the massive redistribution of property and capital? This defense of massive accumulation of capital in the rich (though it did not exist in the same form nor the same degree in Aristotle’s time as Bakunin’s or today) is another stark contrast ‘tween the two. Bakunin believes that “bourgeois” or individual property (to be distinguished from personal possession) in land or resource is effectively robbery of poor by the rich. He believes society to be inherently social, and its social element to be ignored or defiled when the rich through property rights take the large sum of benefit of the workers’ labor (Basic Bakunin p. 131 ).
Also, though I want to make this mostly a representation of the distinctions between the two as opposed to a critique of Aristotle, why would it “ruin the state?” We’ve heard the same thing for centuries by Conservatives and Right-wing Libertarians (Classical Liberals), that safety regulations one decade, then minimum wage laws the next would be the ruin of the American way of life – yet the living conditions for the majority across the board rose with little effect on the Capitalist class. There are periods where Aristotle speaks of the benefits of having a democratic or populist formation in the State (p.479) but he quickly wishes to clarify that it is proper only to minor roles in the positioning and organization of Government (Collected works p. 479). The common people are not properly equipped to run society the way Bakunin would like them to. While for Bakunin this lack of skill, virtue and intelligence has largely to do with the savagery of the ruling group and lack of proper cultivation, for Aristotle, it is an outward expression of the immense differences in types of people there are and roles they should play. Once again expressing that Aristotle is similar to the “elite intelligentsia” that Chomsky has made a large part of his career criticizing.
One of the most fundamental differences however ‘tween the two is their belief in individual moral culpability. Bakunin who rejects free will consistently refers to it as a justification for suffering and something that doesn’t follow from our understanding of nature. Aristotle however speaks of volition, and choice being a category within voluntary action; and how though a man doesn’t choose some things which lead towards his ill-living, he does choose others, and these things we label as vice (Nicomachean Ethics; Aristotle Collection p. 360 ). Ignoring that whether or not he will have the traits necessary to endeavor to improve his station in life or to avoid vice (or even know the good from the bad) will be largely based on his environment as well as his own nature which fundamentally is outside his control.
The rejection of free will is no small thing for Bakunin. When one is reading Bakunin, one gets the sense that he feels that much of philosophy exists as moral justification for injustice or cruelty on behalf of the ruling class or as a general “pragmatic” justification of the status-quo, people are naturally selfish so Capitalism reflects human nature and so on. With Bakunin, one gets the sense that the philosophical always takes on a social dimension, and questions about the existence of God or free will are never academic squabbles made by lofty intellectuals with no real world ramifications.
For Bakunin, free will is a justification for suffering. And of course he’s completely right. We have a tendency to understand if someone is mentally ill or caused by an exterior source to act a certain way they don’t deserve the lion’s share of moral blame, if any blame is to be assigned to any party. However, though we understand Man to be a causal being, most people want to believe that people are in a moral sense (not merely a causal one) “responsible” for what they do. This comes largely from our evolutionary psychology, our material necessity throughout most of our history to condemn those doing what is not advantageous to the group even if it has nothing rationally to do with ethics, but philosophically at-least it comes largely from Aristotle.
Bakunin believes that he founds human liberty in human nature. This is seen in his rejection of free will in materialism. He finds human beings to be material beings, who are free only if they are given rights not only theoretically but in the reality of them fully realizing their human nature. So in this sense, one could argue that he furthers the “biologist” project of virtue ethics from Aristotle and perhaps corrects some inconstancies by making a significant distinction between volition and causation (that is, a person may do something voluntarily, of their own ‘free will’ but this process of the moving of the arms and legs is a process containing billions of variables both interior and exterior to the person and outside of their control).
The differences between Aristotle and Bakunin, I believe, make an interesting study in highlighting the idea that moral psychology creates political ideology and not the other way around. The Ancient Greek Skeptics believed that regardless of an argument’s validity, people regularly latch on to the sentiments and philosophies that express the state of mind the person already has. Though people are clearly (especially from a young age) influenced by external sources in regard to their views, it also seems to be the case that if one feels that some people deserve to be ruled and some people deserve to rule then one will naturally follow that train of reason – seen in Aristotle spending little time in the Politics arguing for this position. The same can be said if you innately believe that people are material beings who must be “grown” rather than commanded, legislated or essentially “moralized” to to be virtuous in the case of Bakunin.
There are several major problems with a law-enforcement notion of virtue ethics. First off, most laws are negative in character. That is to say, they are preventing action rather than commanding it. You don’t make someone a good person by forbidding them to murder. For Aristotle points out that virtue depends highly on habituation, and one cannot be habituated into a negative. Instead, virtue is positive, that is, it is descriptive of a certain trait and a mean between extremes for Aristotle.
Another problem is you do not ensure everyone will be good by commanding they act so. They may in the public eye, but even then it is likely they will be good from fear of punishment rather than from compassion, sincerity, or any aspect of moral psychology. Also law of a positive-prescription (enforcing something like the Good Samaritan Law from Seinfeld) does not ensure what it cannot enforce. Our drug laws show this. The answer, or at-least Bakunin’s answer, is to encourage rather than command. That is, promote the social conditions that will have people behave well and be virtuous, rather than command it through fear of punishment – those who are constantly in fear of punishment either from God or from the magistrate is not, I think it can be agreed, a person we think of when we picture the embodiment of vigor and virtue.
Aristotle seems to be a great philosopher to read to get a sense of how most people perceive things. He uses “common sense” and superficial descriptions of choice and volition to describe a notion of his ethics, without peering deeper into the chain of causality or nature of people just as he describes extensively the details of parts in his biology (particularly of marine life) without getting to the fundamentals of organic or physical existence. Bakunin on both counts seems to get to the heart of things that I would argue Aristotle fails to do. He also is more compassionate, wanting to correct the problems of society rather than assign blame. The bourgeoisie, who he has many apparent problems with, he commends for once being revolutionary, and doesn’t blame them for who they are – but puts them in a place where they are harming others through their social roles and perpetuation of economic conditions. This to me is the correct stance to take in life. People are as they are but we must always encourage and promote change in ways that appear valid. Especially of course personal and social change that will diminish suffering, for this is our main if not only moral obligation.
 But what constitutes the real basis and the positive condition of freedom? It is, for each individual, the all-round development and full enjoyment of all physical, intellectual, and moral faculties; consequentially, it is all the material means necessary for each individual’s human existence.
 You will have to acknowledge that from the material standpoint this vaunted civilization means only oppression and ruination to the people. The situation is the same with respect to the modern progress of science and the arts. There has been vast progress, yes. But the greater the progress, the more it becomes a cause of intellectual and hence material slavery, cause of the people’s poverty and inferiority.
 To revolt is a natural tendency of life. Even a worm turns against the foot that crushes it. In general, the vitality and relative dignity of an animal can be measured by the intensity of its instinct to revolt.
 If the poor, for example, because they are more in number, divide among themselves the property of the rich, is not this unjust? No, by heaven (will be the reply), for the supreme authority justly willed it. But if this is not injustice, pray what is? Again, when in the first division all has been taken, and the majority divide anew the property of the minority, is it not evident, if this goes on, that they will ruin the state?
 If the greatest genius lived on a desert isle from the time he was five years old, he would produce nothing; the individual is nothing without the collectivity. Individual property has been and is nothing but the exploitation of collective labor. We can do away with this exploitation only by establishing collective property… especially of land and in general of all social wealth, in the sense of social liquidation.
 For the many, of whom each individual is but an ordinary person, when they meet together may very likely be better than the few good, if regarded not individually but collectively, just as a fest to which many contribute is better than a dinner provided out of a single purse.
 Whether this principle can apply to every democracy, and to all bodies of men, is not clear. Or rather, by heaven, in some cases it is impossible of application; for the argument would equally hold about brutes; and wherein, it will be asked, do some men differ from brutes? … There is still a danger in allowing them to share the great offices of state, for their folly will lead them into error, and their dishonesty into crime. But there is a danger also in not letting them share, for a state in which many poor men are excluded from office will necessarily be full of enemies… For this reason Solon and certain other legislators give them the power of electing to offices and of calling the magistrates to account, but they do not allow them to hold office singly.
 But perhaps a man is the kind of man not to take care. Still they are themselves by their slack lives responsible for becoming men of that kind, and men make themselves responsible for being unjust or self-indulgent, in the one case by cheating and in the other by spending their time in drinking bouts and the like; for it is activities exercised on particular objects that make the corresponding character… But if without being ignorant a man does the things which will make him unjust, he will be unjust voluntarily. Yet it does not follow that if he wishes he will cease to be unjust and will be just. For neither does the man who is ill become well on those terms. We may suppose a case in which he is ill voluntarily, through living incontinently and disobeying his doctors. In that case it was then open to him not to be ill, but not now, when he has thrown way his chance, just as when you have let a stone go it is too late to recover it; but yet it was in your power to throw it, since the moving principle was in you.
 Materialism denies free will and ends in the establishment of liberty; idealism, in the name of human dignity, proclaims free will, and on the ruins of every liberty founds authority