In Athens, the result was extreme moral confusion. The language of money, debt, and finance provided powerful — and ultimately irresistible — ways to think about moral problems. Much as in Vedic India, people started talking about life as a debt to the gods, of obligations as debts, about literal debts of honor, of debt as sin and of vengeance as debt collection. Yet if debt was morality — and certainly at the very least it was in the interest of creditors, who often had little legal recourse to compel debtors to pay up, to insist that it was — what was one to make of the fact that money, that very thing that seemed capable of turning morality into an exact and quantifiable science, also seemed to encourage the very worst sorts of behavior?
It is from such dilemmas that modern ethics and moral philosophy begin. I think this is true quite literally. Consider Plato's Republic, another product of fourth-century Athens. The book begins when Socrates visits an old friend, a wealthy arms manufacturer, at the port of Piraeus. They get into a discussion of justice, which begins when the old man proposes that money cannot be a bad thing, since it allows those who have it to be just, and that justice consists in two things: telling the truth, and always paying one's debts. The proposal is easily demolished. What, Socrates asks, if someone lent you his sword, went violently insane, and then asked for it back (presumably, so he could kill someone)? Clearly it can never be right to arm a lunatic...
As we all know, Socrates eventually gets around to offering some political proposals of his own, involving philosopher kings; the abolition of marriage, the family, and private property; selective human breeding boards. (Clearly, the book was meant to annoy its readers, and for more than two thousand years, it has succeeded brilliantly.) What I want to emphasize, though, is the degree to which what we consider our core tradition of moral and political theory today springs from this question: What does it mean to pay our debts? Plato presents us first with the simple, literal businessman's view. When this proves inadequate, he allows it to be reframed in heroic terms. Perhaps all debts are really debts of honor after all. But heroic honor no longer works in a world where…commerce, class, and profit have so confused everything that peoples' true motives are never clear. How do we even know who our enemies are? Finally, Plato presents us with cynical realpolitik. Maybe nobody really owes anything to anybody. Maybe those who pursue profit for its own sake have it right after all. But even that does not hold up. We are left with a certainty that existing standards are incoherent and self-contradictory, and that some sort of radical break would be required in order to create a world that makes any logical sense. But most of those who seriously consider a radical break along the lines that Plato suggested have come to the conclusion that there might be far worse things than moral incoherence. And there we have stood, ever since, in the midst of an insoluble dilemma.--David Graeber Debt: The First 5000 years, pp. 195-7.
It is much noticed that Graeber's book is a polemic both against what he takes to be the purportedly scientific "discipline of economics" (which he treats as founded by Adam Smith (p. 24)) as well as a polemic within political economy (with Graeber taking sides with various heterodox positions). I have not seen it remarked yet that the polemic extends toward philosophy. Graeber executes the polemic with great panache in the space of a few pages. Before I get to that, I should note that he relies on the striking methodological claim that "anthropologists have the unique advantage of being able to observe human beings who have not previously been part of" philosophical conversation "react to" philosophical "concepts." Thereby, anthropologists are thus given moments of "exceptional clarity" that "reveal the essence of our thought." (p. 243)*
The long passage quoted above (I deleted the remainder of the summary of Book I of the Republic) occurs in the middle of Debt. Graeber treats Plato's Republic as (an instance of) the origin of "modern ethics and moral philosophy." I return to the question of what may count as pre-modern or ancient ethics and moral philosophy before long. (Henceforth, I'll use 'moral philosophy' or 'modern moral philosophy' to refer to what he calls "modern ethics and moral philosophy.") He treats modern moral philosophy as (the) response to conflicts created by the clash between aristocratic norms or honor systems with commercial and utilitarian values. On Graeber's account the response fails to provide a coherent theory that can accommodate let's say the best of the conflicting pulls. Theory suggests that the only coherent alternative is a "radical break"--one such version is sketched by Socrates in the Republic.
Now, throughout Debt, radical is a word with a very positive valence. It does not follow Graeber endorses all radical solutions (he dislikes Platonic hierarchy, for example). But rather, he understands himself as belonging to the minority (as opposed to 'most') among those who seriously reflect on such matters who recognize that Plato got it right in some sense. That is to say, systematic modern moral philosophy (which is, thus, always political philosophy!) is always at odds with the world and can only be made to cohere with the world by nothing short of a thorough revolution. The insight is not disputed by the majority of serious thinkers -- presumably aware that many revolutions have a tendency to worsen the world they are supposed to improve -- decide to muddle on. (There is a sense that Socrates of the Republic belongs to the majority [see also this post on Le Guin.])
That is to say, Graeber essentially understands the whole history of modern moral philosophy as a tension between those with a responsible risk aversion on behalf of themselves and humanity and those few daring souls who are willing to risk all to improve man's estate. Graeber is notable for insisting that this tension plays out in all major philosophical traditions including ones (China, India) not initially influenced by Plato. Graeber's interpretation of the risk averse side is compatible both with a kind of conservative status quo bias and with the thought that the responsible types opt for small, incremental steps toward the more radical ideal knowing full well that the ideal itself is out of reach (because it will bump up against internal contradictions eventually). This is not, in fact, a silly reading of the history of philosophy, although many will dispute the claim that there can't be a reconciliation between the world and our best moral or political theory short of radical rupture. The radical response is, of course, itself to be found within modern moral philosophy.
I infer from Graeber's treatment that pre-modern moral philosophy is not theoretical or systematic. For, as we have seen, he does not deny that reality of moral evaluation. Recall that he is committed to three claims that,
- When humans transfer objects back and forth between/among each other or argue about what other people owe them the same fundamental moral principles will be invoked everywhere and always;
- Humans have a sense of justice that grounds sociality;
- Most humans are, when given the opportunity, oriented toward a pleasing conviviality.
What Graeber, thus, claims is that it is impossible to systematize these three commitments in a way that does not end promoting revolution. (As an aside, one may understand Plato's true city more derisively known as the city of Pigs as a way at approximating these three commitments.) But that's compatible with finding instantiations of these commitments throughout human history. So, the alternative to modern moral philosophy is by Graeber's lights a kind of anti-theoretical situationism eternally immanent in local mores and practices (he sometimes dubs this 'baseline communism') if they are not corrupted by significant violence. I call this rustic wisdom (recall). It does not always remain immanent, and it is partially expressed in many religions.
Now, Graeber tells another genealogy of (Greek) philosophy. For, he recognizes that modern moral philosophy was preceded by "speculations on nature." In his broader story, Thales of Miletus is the founder of philosophy. As I noted a few days ago in a post on James Ladyman, this is a recurring trope in the history of philosophy (see Hume), and the way to understand Thales' philosophy was even a matter of dispute between Hume and Smith (recall). He suggests that it is no coincidence that the founding of Greek philosophy coincides in time with the introduction of coinage (p. 245, and the rise of Greek mercenaries). In different contexts I have suggested that the debate over the meaning of Thales also recurs throughout the history of economics and political economy (see also this paper; and this one). As an aside, one thing missing from Graeber's interpretation (as distinct from the tradition) is Thales's (mythical) significance as an astronomer.
The key to this broader genealogy is that the "peculiar way" in which "pre-Socratic philosophers began to frame their questions" is (indirectly) a meditation on the nature and paradoxes of coinage (p. 247); this results in (i) making forms of materialism the "starting point" of speculative philosophy and (ii) the creation of (historically more popular) systems in opposition to materialism, but all these oppositional systems introduce (iii) conceptual dualities around some enduring form vs content or mind vs body distinction (or both; there are shades of Nietzsche here--Graeber never confronts more monist systems). (Again, this is also said to be true of non-Greek traditions.)
The underlying thought of -- and the bite of -- Graeber's genealogy is that our inherited traditions of philosophy fail to recognize that the manner of theorizing is itself conditioned by particular and peculiar circumstances. In particular, these circumstances presuppose the violent eradication of forms of life that may be amenable to baseline communism and rustic wisdom (see also this post on Justin Smith). This is, I think, what Graeber means elsewhere in Debt, "the logic of identity is, always and everywhere, entangled in the logic of hierarchy." That is to say, the Graeber critique of philosophy amounts to our unwillingness to recognize the reliance of our way of (philosophical) life on this violence.
*One wonders if Graeber fully acknowledges that anthropological thought is itself immersed in and contaminated by philosophical concepts and so these encounters are mediated by what is purportedly revealed. But that's for another day.