On history and morality: The two theories

An undergraduate essay, which I recently revisited at the conclusion of my first postgraduate degree.

If we are to formulate a theory of everything, the theory may come in (at least) two parts. The first theory addresses what is, and the second considers what ought to be. The first is the theory of history, and the second is the theory of morality. Here’s what I think they might look like.

The School of Athens, the first theorists of history and morality

Project I: The theory of history

Possible titles:

  1. On powerTowards a holistic theory of history
  2. Realistic historical materialismA holistic theory of history 

The variables of history:

PartVariables (in order of significance)DimensionsModes
Base1/ TechnologyAbundance/scarcityOf production
1. Forces of production
2. Forces of destruction
3. Forces of legitimation
2/ The stateUnity/disunityOf organisation
1. Relations of coercion
2. Relations of legitimation
3/ ClassEquality/inequalityOf distribution
1. Forces of production
2. Relations of organisation
Superstructure4/ CultureLiberty/Slavery
Of socialisation
1. Relations of signification
2. Relations of education
Table 1: The variables of history

The processes of history (selective causation):

PartProcesses (in order of significance)ExamplesMechanisms
BaseI/ Productive selection Economic competition
1. Trade
2. Resource tension
Of production
1. System reproduction
2. Resource seizure
3. Economic emulation
II/ Destructive selectionMilitary competition
1. War
2. Lower-level conflict
Of destruction
1. Conquest
2. Expansion
3. Military emulation
SuperstructureIII/ Cultural selectionCultural diffusion
1. Communication
2. Indoctrination
Of socialisation
1. Cultural emulation
2. Cultural imitation
3. Cultural performance
Table 2: The processes of history (selective causation)

The sources of history (generative causation):

InterestsKinds of interestParts of neo-Platonic soulPlace in society
SurvivalMaterial (bio-economic/-political)IronTechnology 
CollectivityInstitutional (political)SilverThe state 
SatisfactionMaterial (bio-economic)BronzeClass 
Freedom or recognitionIdeational (cultural)
Table 3: The sources of history (generative causation)

Summary: Material/institutional base (tech, the state, & class) —> ideational superstructure (culture); one possible exception to this rule is that the state involves legitimation, involving ideas—but these are specifically state-facing ideas, which therefore pertain to the material survival of coercive power, rather than than the non-state-facing ideas of culture / socialisation (though the state can shape socialisation, too—in conjunction with the family; a smaller kind of state). Regardless of whether the state can be said to be ‘material’ in the way that technology and class are, realistic historical materialism—the theory that material interests basically determine history, primarily through technology, in conjunction with states and classes—still stands on the basis of theoretical and empirical arguments. Such a priori arguments include: 

  • 1. The scarcity argument: (a) resources for maintaining life are scarce; (b) life is the precondition for other interests; (c) technology is the primary means of accessing, forging, and harnessing resources; therefore, (d) the interest for survival / life is the most basic interest, (e) technology is the primary need of society and fundamental driver of history, and (f) class distributions of resources trump culture in survival significance —> tech > class > culture. 
  • 2. The subjectivity argument: (a) resources are scarce [1]; (b) we are subjective beings who cannot directly access other people’s mental contents without mediation (e.g., talking); (c) human beings are naturally equal with respect to the capacity to kill one another (the weakest person can at least potentially kill the strongest person); therefore, (d) the state is needed to guarantee people’s survival and to guarantee property/other supra-survival needs —> the state is central. 
  • 3. The physical publicity argument: (a) human beings are subjective creatures (2); (b) physical matter is public (social), i.e., visible to separate embodied subjects, whereas the ideas in people’s heads are private (individual); (c) social evolution is primarily determined by social (public), not individual (private), facts; therefore, (d) matter determines history more than ideas do —> tech, the state, & class > culture. 
  • 4. The sociality argument: (a) human nature entails an interaction between instinct and reason, producing dynamism through reflection on nature and adaptation to it (‘the rational animal’); (b) this dialectic between instinct and reason is mutually reinforced by the tendency of humans to form collectivities with one another, along with other political animals without the same capacity to reason, and therefore with less dynamism (‘the political animal’); (d) rationality and collectivity, when placed together, produce dynamic collectives called states (the mode of human political organisation), in contrast to proto-states (the mode of pre-human political organisation in the natural world) —> the state is central.  

These arguments, taken together with historical evidence, imply that the order of importance of technology, the state, class, and culture is as follows: 

Technology > the state > class > culture, 

With ‘tech, the state, and class’ in the ‘base’ of history, and ‘culture’ in the ‘superstructure’ (a quadripartite hierarchy which I believe, as stated, is original). The arguments for the sources of history coincide with the arguments for the variables of history, due to the one-to-one correspondence between technology, the state, class, and culture and survival, collectivity, satisfaction, and the freedom to pursue the good or the freedom for recognition of one’s own identity (the Platonist or liberal accounts of morality). Below, I favour the Platonist morality, due to its placing morality and the good above concrete manifestations of these qualities, or non-moral categories such as the individual. My reasons for accepting the processes of history lie in Marx’s argument for technological primacy, Darwin’s argument concerning selection in the abstract (using biology as a metaphor, mostly), and Hobbes’s/Aristotle’s arguments for the centrality of the state. I therefore am combining arguments (1) to (4) with:

  • 5. The social variation argument: (a) without a single state of which all humans are a part, there are multiple states competing over scarce resources; (b) under conditions of scarcity and separation, like units survive or die on the basis of that adaptiveness to scarcity—which, in the case of humans, means the technological competitiveness of states; (c) the technological competitiveness of states is determined by the level of development of forces of production and forces of destruction, determined by the success of states in economic competition (including trade) and military competition (often involving war); therefore, (d) the two selective processes of human history are productive selection and destructive selection of states’ techno-productive/-destructive competitiveness, leading the forces of production and the forces of destruction to develop over time; (e) different states vary in their social structures due to the dynamism arising from sociality (variation arising from argument [4]) and random changes in institutions due to random changes in human behaviour due to random changes in DNA (non-metaphorical, but mediated, Darwinian variation); (f) states survive or fall on the basis of how appropriate their social structures (in terms of political institutions, class distributions, and cultural socialisation) are for developing the forces of production and the forces of destruction; therefore, (f) states, forms of state, and social structures within states are selected for according to their competitiveness in developing and wielding destructive and productive technologies in their socio-ecological environment. 

Scarcity, subjectivity, physical publicity, sociality, and social variation (arising mostly from sociality, but partly from natural variation, too, albeit indirectly) together lend some a priori justification to the theory of history. The empirical justification is that, when variables or processes conflict, the more ‘basic’ variables overcome the more ‘superstructural’ variables. 

Project II: The theory of morality


  1. On the good: Towards a holistic theory of morality
  2. Agathonism: A holistic theory of morality 

The hierarchy of morality

Values (in order of significance)Objects of lovePart of the soulRelation to history (sociopolitical order)
1/ Freedom to pursue the good by cultivating virtue in habit and contemplationWisdom and virtue (the pursuit of the good) GoldGood order
2/ SurvivalLife / physical survivalIronOrder    
3/ CollectivityCollectivity and/or honourSilverHonourable order    
4/ Satisfaction Satisfaction, pleasure, and/or moneyBronze  Vulgar order    
Table 4: The hierarchy of morality

As an ‘is’ cannot make an ‘ought’, and as the good is that for which all else is done (including academia!), any account of morality precedes any account of history. Therefore, the theory of morality precedes the theory of history—and the neo-Platonic account of the soul (which distinguishes the ‘iron’ need for survival from the ‘bronze’ need for satisfaction, which Plato did not explicitly do) in the theory of morality underpins the account of ‘social political economy’ (tech, the state, class, and culture) I offer in the theory of history. Project II logically precedes Project I. But, while an ‘ought’ can inform our account of an ‘is’ more than the other way around, there is more room for disagreement on what ‘ought’ to be due to the fact that different people may have different Platonic ‘souls’ (at least for social reasons, if not for Plato’s natural reasons) and that morality is informed by (or tainted with) emotion. Subjectivity also makes agreement on the theory of morality more difficult than on the theory of history. Therefore, in the interest of pursuing something of perceptible academic worth, I intend to start with the theory of history at dissertation, postgraduate, and PhD level—before combining the theory of history with the theory of morality later on in my academic career. That being said, I intend to be fully honest in my postgraduate and PhD theses (if I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to write such theses) about how my modification to Plato’s theory of the soul informs my modifications to the theory of history. 

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