Allen Ritter, The Political Thought of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, 1969

Dilemmas of Ethics

The most perplexing thing about Proudhon's ethics is its ambivalence. This ambivalence comes out clearly in a short passage found in Justice dealing with the conflict between social convention and personal morality.1 Proudhon considers a number of practices such as slavery, polygamy, and usury, all accepted in some societies and all wrong by his standards. He judges the decisions to follow these practices, the actions that accord with them, and the practices themselves. But it is impossible to tell what his final verdicts are.

Should one praise or blame a man who decides on grounds of moral principle to follow one of these practices? In one place Proudhon praises his decision: "A conscience that honestly subscribes to [such a practice] is justified." But the same decision is condemned a few pages later, where Proudhon writes that a popular but inadmissible practice "cannot go so far as to prevail against the moral sense, summoned unceasingly to reform it."

Are actions that accord with these practices right or wrong? Proudhon offers contradictory answers to this question. Acts forbidden by his moral standards "must always be condemned," he declares at one point. At another he says the opposite: "Conformity is just and deviance reprehensible," where established practices are concerned.

Finally, what about the merit of the practices themselves? Proudhon never says tliat they are laudable, since this would involve a blatant contradiction. Having expressed moral disapproval of slavery, polygamy, and usury, he cannot very well praise them. But he does vacillate between criticizing socially approved practices that are wrong by his standards, and treating them as morally irrelevant. He takes the second position when he writes, "From the point of view of Justice, slavery, warfare and usury are . . . trifles, polygamy is a trifle. . . . They are nothing but good or bad predicaments, accidents, hazards, errors of judgment if you like, but insignificant so far as morality is concerned." Yet Proudhon changes his mind two pages later by saying that conscience rightly declares practices like these to be "absurd and odious."

All these waverings are symptoms of indecision regarding two quite different ethical attitudes. Sometimes Proudhon opts for pure tolerance; he refuses to condemn decisions, conduct, and practices even though he disapproves of them. If others think and behave as seems good to them, he will not criticize. At other times he opts for strict rebuke of the choices, actions, and usages he thinks morally wrong. When he takes this tack, he denounces precisely what he accepts or even praises in his more tolerant moments.

There seems to be an explanation for Proudhon's wavering in the passage under consideration. He is careful to defend practices like slavery only where they are generally accepted. He will not tolerate slavery in a society that disapproves of it. This qualification suggests that what appears to be fluctuation between tolerance and severity is really adherence to the principle of cultural relativism.

Unfortunately, this explanation for his ambivalence does not hold water. For one thing, Proudhon's cultural relativism deserts him when he is judging action and choice. He has no qualms about condemning conduct and decisions that are generally approved. Even when he is discussing practices, he is not always a relativist. It is true that he never defends an unpopular practice, but he sometimes attacks one that is popular. He condemns punishing poor criminals more severely than rich ones, for example, even though this practice was quite widely accepted in his time.2

Since Proudhon's relativism is anything but consistent, it cannot account for his wavering. Close analysis of his ethical tlieory is needed. His fluctuations are signs of a more basic, though not fully explicit, tension in his moral thought.

The Theoretical Roots of Proudhon's Ethical Ambivalence

One factor helping to explain Proudhon's vacillations between severity and tolerance is his view of how to make affirmations of intrinsic goodness. In his early writings his position on this basic issue of moral epistemology was confused, to say the least. Much evidence of naturalism can be found there, for Proudhon often said that ultimate values could be deduced from the state of public opinion, from examination of historical trends, or, more generally, from the nature of things. But mingled with this naturalism are statements of the intuitionist view that he eventually adopted. By the time he wrote Justice, his position was that affirmations of intrinsic goodness are made with the same sort of a priori intuition used to apprehend the truth of geometric axioms.3

It is easy to see why this view of ultimate ethical cognition nurtures his ambivalence. If knowledge of moral principles and geometric axioms are obtained in the same way, it is just as impossible to convince a man that his ethical convictions are wrong as to show him his mistake in thinking that parallel lines meet. A person subscribing to Proudhon's ethical epistemology, or Euclid's geometry, has only two choices when someone disagrees with him about basic axioms. He can adopt a strategy of tolerant non-intervention or of crusading imperialism. In other words, he can accept the fact of ultimate disagreement, or he can try to force his adversary to accept his own opinions. A third choice, discussion on merits, is not open to him, because his view of how ultimates are apprehended has foreclosed it.

Another aspect of Proudhon's theory of moral knowledge that helps explain his wavering is his view of how particular obligations are derived from ultimate norms. His position on this matter is deontological. He sees the relationship between particular duties and intrinsic values as that of species to genus, not means to end. An action is right, he maintains, only if it conforms to the specifications of an ultimate norm, and regardless of the actual or expectable results that follow from adhering to it. Hence an intrinsically good action, such as telling the truth, "is indispensable, imperative, often onerous, indifferent to self-interest, concerned only with what is right and binding, however unprofitable circumstances make the former, however disastrous they make the latter."4 This is but a version of the old saying, "fiat justitia per eat mundus."

At first glance such a view seems severe. A deontologist like Proudhon, who eschews casuistry and derives specific duties directly from first principles, is able to praise and blame with extraordinary rigor. But there is also an implication in this viewpoint favorable to tolerance. Pure deontology leaves such a wide gap between general norms and detailed judgments that it weakens the reliability and the credibility of the moralist's verdicts. Insofar as he realizes this, he may be drawn toward toleration.

Still another element in Proudhon's moral thought that contributes to his ambivalence in his position on the issue of authority in moral matters. He insists that the last word in ethical disputes belongs to the adversaries themselves. Every man should decide for himself, at least about the specific obligations entailed by first principles. "In the last analysis, each individual is the judge of right and wrong and is empowered to act as an authority over himself and all others. If I decide for myself that something is unjust, it is futile for the prince or the priest to call it just and order me to do it: it remains unjust and immoral. . . . And, conversely, if I decide inwardly that something is just, it is futile for tlie prince or the priest to claim to forbid me to do it: it remains just and moral."5 This doctrine of inner light further reduces the persuasive power of Proudhon's ethics. If your conscience says some act or statement is wrong and his that it is right, there is little he can say to make you change your mind, since he acknowledges your own conscience as the best possible argument.

But the part of Proudhon's moral theory that helps more than any other to explain his shifts between restraint and activism is his choice of things worthwhile in themselves. His view is that only one thing has inherent value: respect, or, as he more frequently says, Justice.6 By assigning inherent value to a single good, Proudhon nurtured his ambivalence in a way that is easily grasped. A man who thinks there is only one intrinsic good can judge more harshly than a man who thinks there are many. For him, moral judgment is cut-and-dried. But the very simple-mindedness of his verdicts may also incline him toward forebearance, if he is aware of it, for he will then see that his judgments are too unqualified.

The substance of Proudhon's highest good, as well as its form, does much to explain his wavering, for respect as he conceives it is very ambivalent. Proudhonian respect is first and foremost a state of mind. It is a disposition to view others "abstracted from their abilities, their contributions, their failures," i.e., apart from conventional standards of appraisal.7 It means considering other people from their own point of view "simply as moral beings."8 In short, respect means identifying with others, accepting their purposes and choices, empathizing with them.

Respect for Proudhon is more than a state of mind; it is a pattern of behavior too. To respect another is not only to identify with him, to mentally affirm his dignity, as Proudhon likes to say, but is also "to energetically defend that dignity, even at cost to oneself."9 One must go beyond passively accepting die aims of others to actively protecting their freedom to pursue them.

Two inviolable moral rules are entailed by Proudhon's assignment of inherent value to respect as thus defined. The first enjoins us to accept the aims and decisions of others on their terms, as they understand them. The second-binds us to defend the liberty of others to pursue their aims and carry out their choices. It prescribes freedom of action.

The second of these rules strengthens Proudhon's tendency toward forebearance, because it coincides with the obligation to be tolerant. A duty to defend the freedom of others to execute their decisions, whatever they may be, entails a duty to tolerate their actions. When a respecter is judging overt behavior, his obligation is therefore the same as a tolerator's. Both must allow others to do as they please.

The first rule of respect -- enjoining identification with the choices of others -- makes Proudhon's ethic more severe than a morality of pure tolerance. A tolerant man may think what he likes about another's choice, provided that he allows him to carry it out. There is no place in his moral outlook for duties toward the decisions of other people. A respecting man, on the other hand, cannot be indifferent to conative states of mind. Unlike one who tolerates, he may not assume that it is "just and saintly" for a man "to satisfy ... all his needs, all his whims," for one of his needs or whims may be to disregard or interfere with another man's decisions.10 Instead he must "show intolerance [on] the issue of respect,"11 by blocking decisions that disregard another's choices. Otherwise, men might not make the effort to accept their fellows' aims and choices -- which is their highest duty. The conflict between the two basic rules of Proudhon's ethic thus introduces at its most fundamental level the same ambivalence that is found throughout.

The Tasks of Moral Theory: Propagation and Application

It is one thing to show that Proudhon's shifts between severity and tolerance have roots deep in the structure of his moral theory and another to account for them in a satisfying way. The explanation offered so far is insufficient because it shows no more than that his vacillation was compatible with his moral view. It tells why Proudhon's theory enabled him to shuttle back and forth between these two attitudes, but not why it impelled him to.

This impulsion has its source in Proudhon's awareness of the problems raised by his ethics. Although nothing meant more to him than the triumph of respect, he saw numerous obstacles to this goal, and tried persistently to surmount them. One obstruction he considers is ethical ignorance. If men existed who could believe in no intrinsic goods at all, then Proudhon's ethic might collapse at its foundation. Such persons would be unable to accept any ethical norms whatever, including, of course, the rules of respect. Proudhon has two defenses against this hazard.

The first, based on reasoning by analogy from Descartes' cogito ergo sum, claims that the same argument which proves that people have personal identity also shows that they must believe in moral ultimates. This argument is certainly specious.

Descartes was able to refute the doubter of personal existence by showing that a precondition to his doubt was thought and that thinking in turn supposed personal existence. The cogito has force because its premise must be accepted by anyone who challenges it. Proudhon tries to turn this argument against the moral skeptic, the man who disclaims all capacity for belief in ethical ultimates. He seems to think that denial of a sense of right and wrong presupposes an exercise of conscience analogous to the use of reason to deny Descartes' cogito. "When you object that by myself I am unable to distinguish good from evil, . . . you implicitly assume that I have a sense or an idea of them."12 This objection assumes no such thing. I cannot deny that I exist without making a factual judgment; but I can perfectly well deny my ability to believe in ultimate values without making an ethical one. No argument of the cogito type can work in the sphere of morals, because moral judgments are not purely cognitive.

Fortunately, Proudhon has a better answer to those who would deny a capacity for belief in moral ultimates. He admits that ethically ignorant persons exist, but points out that it is improper to regard them as moral beings. Proudhon says in effect that having a morality means at least believing some things are intrinsically valuable and approving of them. It follows that a person who does not have such beliefs and feelings lacks a morality and, like animals and other amoral beings, is not a fitting object of ethical concern.13 This argument makes good sense. It is impossible to discuss moral questions with a man who thinks nothing is intrinsically worthwhile, because such a person cannot be convinced that an action or statement is morally good or bad. In order to make an ethical judgment one must have some basic standard of evaluation. A man who lacks such a standard is simply beyond the pale of moral discourse.

Proudhon's neat removal of ethical ignorance from the path to the supremacy of respect merely exposes a more serious obstacle. This is the danger of ethical disagreement. The problem here, to begin with, is that even moral persons may not accept respect as their highest value. Justice describes such a situation in the most ominous terms. It is nothing less than a "defaillance," which "seizes hold of ... society, invades men's minds, paralyzes liberty, dignity, all the noble sentiments, and dooms entire peoples to putrefaction."14 Fear of this danger makes Proudhon seek universal propagation of his first principles. He sees that if the rules of respect are to reign supreme, they must be placed uppermost in every man's conscience.

But even if everyone concurred on the intrinsic value of respect, ethical disagreement could still block realization of Proudhon's morality. While agreeing with him on first principles, people might still reach different conclusions about the specific obligations entailed by them.

The peculiarities of the rules of respect make this problem, especially hard to solve. For one thing, their extreme generality makes it hard to apply them to specific cases. Hence the chance is slight that all who accept them will apply them in the same way. Another difficulty in applying the rules of respect stems from their incompatibility. The second rule enjoins leaving people free to pursue their aims. Yet men who are free to work for all their purposes may disobey the first rule of respect by failing to identify with the decisions of others. The more faithfully the second rule is followed, the more likely the first will be violated. As Proudhon puts it, freedom of action is not only an ingredient of respect, but is also "a force capable of defeating it."15

Recognition of this danger leads him to put binding application of his values as high on his agenda as their universal propagation.16 Fearing that people will not all apply his norms in the same way, he finds need for "a principle that acts on the will like a force and makes it choose the right course."17 His attempts to both propagate and apply the rules of respect lead directly to the waverings in his moral outlook that we are trying to understand.

False Solutions and Further Problems

Proudhon could have tried to carry out these tasks in many different ways, and it is to his credit that he considered and rejected some that have been chosen by thinkers of greater stature.

For the job of propagating respect, he rejects a number of candidates, such as religion, science, and government, that might diffuse his values by authoritative decree. His arguments against using religion in this way are the same as those he uses against the others, and may be treated as paradigmatic.

The first argument against religion points out that one cannot draw ethical conclusions from purely religious premises, about God's will or commands. "The concept of religion can be deduced: that is what theology does. The concept of Justice can also be deduced.... But Justice and its laws cannot be logically deduced from the concept of religion, nor can religion and its dogmas be linked to the juridical concept: they are two totally distinct classes of ideas."18 Put in more contemporary idiom, Proudhon is saying that theological statements, being in the indicative mood, cannot by themselves validate ethical statements that are cast in the imperative.

Proudhon is not content with a metaethical denial of the power of religion to disseminate his values. He wants to show that it would be bad to use religion for this purpose, even if it were logically possible to do so. This he does by pointing to the conflict between respect's imperatives and the duty to obey divine commands. A Proudhonian ethic, with its commitment to the autonomy of individual conscience, requires me to follow every moral rule, and, a fortiori, the rules of respect, because I think I should, not because an external agent like God wants me to. "The intervention of a supernatural authority ... is destructive to Justice. . . . Justice must be independently affirmed and defended, or it does not exist."19

By using these arguments to repudiate all higher authorities, not just religion, Proudhon increased the consistency of his position, because he thereby excluded resort to devices for diffusing his values that are incompatible with them. But he also intensified the problem of their dissemination. For if subjection to the sway of authorities like religion, government, and science is impermissible, what could induce men to adopt respect as their basic moral principle?

He faced the same dilemma when he examined candidates that might help apply his morality to particular cases. Altruism, for instance, might help in this task, for if people were altruistic, they would seldom violate the rules of respect by ignoring the aims of others or blocking their actions. Rather, they would go out of their way to help others reach their objectives.

Proudhon's psychology keeps him from accepting this line of argument, for it denies the actual or potential force of altruistic motives. Another reason for his rejection of altruism is based on ethical considerations. This argument questions not its psychological force, but its moral authority. Altruism is "an instinctive feeling, which it is useful and laudable to cultivate, but which, far from engendering respect and dignity, is strictly incompatible with them."20 In short, there is a conflict between the practice of benevolence and the obligations of respect. Altruism, as a form of love, "cannot be willed." And since "we are not free to love," we can have no obligation to.21 Moreover, while respect enjoins allowing people to do what they please, it imposes no duty to help them. In fact, respect requires dispensing with help. "The essence of our dignity is to do without the aid of others."22 Since I act disrespectfully toward my neighbor when I help him as well as when I hinder him, I have an obligation to avoid both.

Another force considered by Proudhon as an aid to applying his morality is compatible egoism, the disposition to find self-satisfaction in ends harmonious with those that others seek. If people always pursued self-regarding ends, and if such ends were compatible, it would be easy for them to follow at least the second rule of respect. For they would never interfere with the efforts of others toward goal attainment, no matter what they did. Proudhon rebuts the case for compatible egoism by examining its assumptions. In the first place, people do not always pursue self-regarding ends. They occasionally follow their consciences or their generous impulses when these conflict with their selfish ones.23 When this happens, compatible egoism is of no use, even if it exists, because then behavior is not motivated by egoism at all. More important is the point that egoistic action is not always compatible with the goal attainment of others. "Because of their mobile and evolving character, interests . . . continually block one another."24 The case for compatible egoism is thus "reduced to a petitio principii. It takes for granted what can never be achieved."25

Compelling moral knowledge is the last force considered by Proudhon as a possible aid to applying respect. If moral knowledge compelled right conduct, those who knew the rules of respect would necessarily follow them. No problem of application would arise, because all who accepted them would use them correctly. According to Proudhon, the psychological facts refute this contention too. Conscience is very weak; hence there can be no guarantee that men with moral knowledge will act accordingly. In fact, they will do the opposite of what they think right, in most cases. Moreover, even if moral knowledge were compelling, it would not alleviate the danger of ethical disagreement very much. Moral, as opposed to factual, knowledge is difficult to obtain. It "must be continually amended, as indicated by the experiences of daily life."26 Since few true statements can be made on moral issues, knowledge can seldom arbitrate ethical disputes.

By rejecting all these forces as aids to the application of respect, Proudhon of course made the job of applying it more difficult. Just as his refusal to invoke higher authorities made it hard for him to win universal acceptance for the rules of respect, so his unwillingness to rely on altruism, compatible egoism, or compelling knowledge complicated the problem of assuring that men applied these rules correctly to their daily lives.

Social Pressure

Proudhon usually tries to solve both of these problems by offering proof that respect is the ultimate criterion of value. He seems to think that if only he can show the supremacy of the rules of respect, they will be automatically accepted and applied. This solution has two shortcomings. In the first place, it is no more compatible with Proudhon's psychology than any of the solutions he rejects. No matter how cogent his proof of respect's goodness, he cannot hope to succeed in diffusing and applying respect, because his psychology warns that people convinced of its value will not necessarily act accordingly. Even more damaging is the logical impossibility of adducing such proof. No norm can be proved supreme, because such proof would entail testing that norm with another one. But in that case, the norm used as a criterion of value, and not the one being tested, would have to be regarded as supreme. Hence Proudhon cannot refute those who deny the supremacy of respect without dethroning it from its position as the highest good.

Since the method most frequently relied on by Proudhon to solve the problems raised by his ethics cannot possibly succeed, there seems no escape from the conclusion that his moral theory is a failure on its own terms. But before we draw this conclusion, one more point must be considered. In one place in his published writings, at the very end of Justice, Proudhon suggests a vastly different method for diffusing and applying respect. What he says then is that "society" should "use the powerful stimuli of collective conscience to develop the moral sense of all its members."27 Here Proudhon espouses ethical conventionalism, the doctrine that people should obey the dictates of public opinion. He assumes that men who feel bound to obey the informal social pressures they exert on one another will be sure to accept and follow the rules of respect.

Justice offers no defense of this position. Its espousal of conventionalism is not connected with tlie rest of its moral theory -- except by fiat. For over a thousand pages nothing is said about a duty to obey public opinion.28 Then, it suddenly appears as a deus ex machina, to end what was threatening to become an interminable search.

One is tempted to say that Proudhon committed more than a non sequitur by preaching conventionalism at the last minute. Did he not also introduce a blatant contradiction into the heart of his system? After ostentatiously rejecting all authoritarian sanctions for morality as incompatible with the autonomous conduct demanded by respect, he seems to have inconspicuously admitted one, in the guise of social pressure. Proudhon realized that this accusation has great weight. "After destroying that double conscience in us, for which we so strongly condemned religion, will we recreate it by means of this collective conscience, whose prescriptions have such trouble penetrating individual minds? Won't this structure lead us into new hypocrisy, rather than assuring social trust?"29 An analysis of his defense against this charge is illuminating; it exposes another layer of theoretical confusion.

Proudhon tries to cleanse social pressure of the taint of disrespect by contrasting its origin with that of the authorities he disapproves. All of these, be they the decrees of God, rulers, or the spokesmen of science, are an imposed "pressure from without, exerted on the self."30 Social pressure, on the other hand, does not restrain from outside. Its influence "would never be transformed into an obligatory law for the will without an emotional predisposition which makes the social relations that embrace the subject appear to him as... a sort of secret commandment from himself to himself."31 His point here is that since social authority, unlike other authority, is an informal force, lacking explicit promulgators and sanctions, it cannot operate unless its imperatives are internalized by those at whom it is directed. The implication of this contrast is that social pressure, being self-imposed, does not interfere externally with action and choice, and so is not disrespectful.32

This conclusion is of course fallacious and conflicts with Proudhon's whole moral viewpoint. To begin with, its premise is mistaken, since it is not true that social authority works only if internalized. It may also control externally, with sanctions that range from mild stigma to complete ostracism. Insofar as it restrains in this way, social pressure shares the faults that Proudhon finds in political, religious, and scientific authority.

But even if the premise of this argument were correct, and social pressure could control only when internalized, a duty to obey it would still contradict Proudhon's highest value. Respect demands that I be free to choose and act as I see fit, unimpeded by the will of any other man. The pressures of society, for all their spontaneity and impersonality, are nonetheless interferences of external human origin, and rather strong ones at that. Even if they must be internalized to be effective, this does not prevent them from constraining, because the process of internalization may itself involve external coercion. Proudhon saw this perfectly when considering inward assent to political and religious authority. If I internalize religious norms, for instance, I may be unwittingly coerced by "Another, namely God,... who directs me, without my knowing it, by His imperious suggestion, just when I imagine I am acting autonomously by following the moral law."33 There is really no significant difference if the "other" is society.34

The explanation for Proudhon's failure to identify the disrespectful origin of social pressure is rather obvious. Had he called attention to how public opinion interferes with action and choice, he would have had to admit that it was a no more suitable moralizer than the other authorities. But such an admission would have put an end to his ethical theorizing. Having ruled out all other methods for diffusing and applying his morality, he had to salvage the remaining one as best he could, even if this meant resorting to unfounded distinctions.

Suppose nonetheless, for the sake of argument, that Proudhon is correct in saying that social authority is not disrespectful in origin. Even then conventionalism poses a serious problem. How can I reconcile my obligation to obey social pressure with my duty to follow the rules of respect when the two conflict, as they will when others fail to identify with decisions or block their execution? Unless Proudhon says that I should disregard public opinion when it violates the rules of respect, he tacitly justifies my submission to pressures that may perhaps not be disrespectful in origin, but certainly are disrespectful in content. For then I must follow convention, whatever it decrees, even if it ignores aims and interferes with conduct.

But to accuse Proudhon of contradicting himself in this way would be to say too much. He would have made this mistake only if he had claimed that public opinion is always right and hence should always be obeyed. This he never did. In fact, though he never went so far as to condemn disrespectful social pressure, he did say that in certain unspecified cases it could be rightfully ignored.35 Though he thereby escaped the accusation of inconsistency, he left himself open to the only slightly less serious reproach of evading a crucial problem connected with conventionalism. To assert dogmatically that social authority should sometimes but not always be obeyed tells nothing of significance to a person who needs moral guidance in a particular situation. And this, ostensibly, is the sort of advice Proudhon intends to give.

His solution to his basic ethical problem is thus subject to three criticisms, (1) It is not logically connected with the rest of his moral theory, but is a crutch, added at the end, instead of one of the vital organs of the system. (2) It is an unsuitable crutch because it is repugnant to the first principles of the system. (3) It fails to offer the specific guidance it is supposed to furnish.

The odd discontinuity in Proudhon's ethics and the surprising severity of its suggested moralizing force have provoked extended controversy between commentators who call him a "moralist" and those who see him as a "sociologist." The former stress the heart of his theory -- the rules of respect -- and disregard what comes after the non sequitur -- its conventionalism. Or, put another way, they take his vague assertion that social authority is sometimes wrong to mean that it frequently is, and that individuals are then justified in ignoring it. Elie Halevy gave classic form to this interpretation at a meeting of the Societe francaise de philosophie held in 1912, where this issue was first publicly discussed. According to Halevy, Proudhon believes that each individual should obey his own conscience when it conflicts with convention. "Where Proudhon presents the principles of his ethics most didactically -- in the first chapters of Justice -- he makes not the slightest allusion to an alleged social origin of reason's commands."36

The "sociologist" interpretation was advanced in the same discussion by Celestin Bougie. He emphasized Proudhon's moral conventionalism and narrowly construed his warning that public opinion may be mistaken to mean that it hardly ever is. By doing so, he was able to say that Proudhon subordinates conscience to convention, by making moral obligation "a revelation of the Collective."37

This debate set the terms for much subsequent controversy about Proudhon's ethics. Even today commentators sometimes feel the need to choose between Proudhon the "moralist" and Proudhon the "sociologist."38 Yet such a choice is pointless, for there is evidence to support, and refute, both alternatives. Fortunately, material in the unpublished "Cours" shows a way out of what has by now become a rather arid interpretational impasse.

Vigilante Justice

The sections on morality in the "Cours" fill some of the gaps in Proudhon's definitive work on ethics and remove some of its ambiguities. To begin with, the "Cours" supplies the justification for ethical conventionalism missing from Justice. It states unequivocally that any infringement of "the rights of society" is a threat to collective survival. Moreover, the only way to secure these rights is by giving them precedence over the rights of individuals. In Proudhon's words, "the individual conscience must be taught to identify with the social conscience" for the sake of social survival.39

Though the "Cours" justifies conventional morality more explicitly than Justice, it does not go so far as to say that convention is always right. Like Justice, but with greater forthrightness, it too denies convention's infallibility. "In the ordinary practices of individual life, the Collective Being must be considered supremely immoral."40 The "Cours" then carries out the job that Justice shirks. It suggests a way to judge and control the dictates of social pressure. What it prescribes is recourse to vigilante justice. A privately organized band of righteous men is to make public opinion accord with the rules of respect by coercively enforcing compliance with them.

The "Cours" is not the only place where Proudhon praises vigilanteism; but all of his other favorable references to it, like this one, are in unpublished papers and letters. His earliest support for it is in a letter written to explain a cryptic reference in the Avertissement aux pro-prietaires to a moralizing method "which is known, but cannot be mentioned."41 This method turns out to be a secret society of "justiciers," modelled after the medieval Germanic Vehmgerichte, whose job is to punish all cases of immoral conduct and suppress every immoral thought.42 The theme of vigilanteism also appears now and then in the Cornets. They recommend private execution of tlie wicked, summary punishment of a long list of evil doings like treason and adultery, and formation of a band of zealots, a "sainte Vehme," to end corruption.43 Such outbursts occur in early, middle, and late Carnets; they are a permanent but repressed part of Proudhon's thought. The "Cours" goes beyond mere praise of vigilante justice by giving it a specific role to play. Suppose that prevailing sentiment and behavior are disrespectful and that "only a few bands of puritans still protest: Have they the right to?" Indeed they do, no matter how small their number. Even if "an entire people prevaricated, I would still have the right to protest, and, if not to avenge justice, at least be its martyr."44 The vigilance of a morally pure elite here becomes the ultimate recourse for judging social authority and for controlling it.

By preaching vigilanteism, the "Cours" frees Prou-dhon's ethics of the wavering between personal and conventional morality that encumbers his published writings. This makes it possible to settle the dispute between "moralist" and "sociologist" interpretations, so far as the "Cours" is concerned. In that work, Proudhon resolves his indecision between conscience and convention by distinguishing an elite of justiciers who are to follow their own principles and an impure mass which is to follow public opinion, as shaped by the elite. The "Cours" makes Proudhon a "moralist" with respect to the elite, and a "sociologist" with respect to die mass.

Unfortunately, this resolution of Proudhon's ambivalence cannot be applied to his published writings, for he suppressed all favorable references to vigilanteism when he committed himself publicly on ethical matters. But though die "Cours" cannot settle the old dispute between "moralist" and "sociologist" views of Proudhonian morality, it can do something at least as worthwhile, by suggesting a change in the central question of interpretation raised by his ethics. Rather than trying to decide if Proudhon is really for conscience or for convention, we may now ask why he thought it necessary to rely on both, and why he evaded the problem of reconciling them, even though he had once privately suggested a way to do so.

In Justice, Proudhon explains why he finally decided not to recommend vigilante justice. He remains convinced that in principle it is a good way to enforce right attitudes and behavior, because vigilantes follow their own consciences in carrying out dieir job, not the authority of an external agent. He continues to uphold vigilanteism as a highly effective method for regulating conduct. But he also recognizes that it faces grave practical difficulties. It would be very hard to assure that the hundred or so puritans, who are to abolish every evil thought and deed, limit their persecution to cases of genuine disrespect. And if they tried to restrict themselves to such cases, the vigilantes would probably be insufficiently vigorous in their persecution. Vigilante justice is likely to degenerate into a reign of terror or a comedy of pious moralizing. In sum, although a vigilance committee to serve as "the true organ and worthy avenger of the social conscience" appeals to Proudhon because of its moralizing promise, he finally has to admit, as a consistent realist, that it is "the most unrealizable of Utopias."45

Having rejected vigilante justice, he revised his estimate of social pressure. The "Cours" said that public opinion checked by vigilantes is supremely virtuous. But once vigilante justice was declared unreliable, the force it was supposed to check seemed dangerous too. Justice therefore takes an indecisive view. There are passages that justify obedience to social pressure; others criticize it. Proudhon even complains that if convention is accepted as morally binding, society, "exterior and superior to the individual, enjoys the sole initiative; outside of it there is no free action; everything is absorbed in an anonymous, aristocratic, unquestionable authority."46

This indecision shows that at the end of his journey Proudhon had not reached his destination. He had been looking for a way to diffuse and apply a system of ethics both abstract and ambiguous. For a while, obligatory social pressure checked by vigilanteism seemed to be the answer. But second thoughts convinced him that this means for checking convention was too perilous to recommend. One might expect him to acknowledge defeat and end his search. This he was not prepared to do. Instead, he held fast to all the unreconciled elements in his morality and evaded die task of bringing them together.47

The troubles caused Proudhon by die conflict between conscience and convention suggest a fuller explanation for his wavering between severity and tolerance. Their opposed claims place him in an awkward position when faced by a problem like judging a slaveowner in a society that approves slavery. Considered from one angle, the claims of conscience call for tolerating, or even condoning the slaveowner's aim and action. Respect demands that one identify with the purposes of another and defend his pursuit of tliem. One should not interfere witli the slaveowner, especially in a society where slavery is accepted, where the slaves themselves are unlikely to think they are being treated disrespectfully. The claims of conventional morality reinforce tlie duty to tolerate the slaveowner; after all, he is doing the accepted thing in keeping slaves, and adherence to public opinion is desirable. On the other hand, Proudhon's theory also makes a strong case for criticizing the slaveowner. Conscience enjoins us to understand the purpose of other men, yet the slaveowner always disregards and sometimes thwarts his slaves' aims. As for convention, it ought to be observed only when it promotes respect, and it is very doubtful that social pressure favorable to slaveholding does so. When Proudhon considers these implications of his viewpoint, he naturally tends to criticize the slaveowner, and since he has no principle for adjudicating between the conflicting claims of his morality, he has no way to choose between them.

Kantian Formalism and Proudhonian Practicality

Although Proudhon does not admit it, his moral outlook is more like Kant's than that of any other theorist's. Comparison of the two should therefore bring out the character of Proudhon's ethics more clearly than has been possible thus far.

Both writers take the same position on the important metaethical questions. They both opt for a priori intui-tionism, deontology, and the supremacy of the autonomous conscience. The main lines of their normative ethics are also similar. When expressed as the rule that one should always treat otiiers as ends in themselves, never as means only, Kant's categorical imperative has a meaning very like Proudhon's rules of respect. Both enjoin us to acknowledge the legitimacy of die purposes of others and to avoid interfering with their actions. But Proudhon's theory diverges from tiiat of his predecessor in two revealing ways.

First, though Proudhon accepts Kant's picture of moral perfection, he wants to apply it more concretely, by deriving from it detailed imperative advice. The trouble with the categorical imperative, he writes, is "that instead of defining Justice, it raises a question about it.... How can I know whether or not my action can serve as a general rule?"48 This vagueness will not do. The moral law must be "decreed for every level of civilization and all possible cases."49

Proudhon also differs from Kant by applying their shaded picture of moral perfection to a wider range of conduct. Kant recognized that not everyone would follow, or even accept, the categorical imperative. He therefore relied on legal as well as moral rules to regulate behavior. In that sphere of action where one man can reduce another's liberty, law was to protect the freedom of the individual to pursue his goals, so that he could reach them even if others ignored their moral duty to let him do so.50 Proudhon, on the other hand, thought respect could be so widely diffused tJiat men would invariably acknowledge the legitimacy of the goals of others. Hence he saw no need to reinforce moral with juridical obligation and relied solely on the rules of respect to regulate behavior.51 His version of the categorical imperative thus has a wider scope than Kant's: it is the sole directing agent for all aspects of men's lives.

The extensions of Kantian ethics sought by Proudhon through particularizing its application and broadening its scope are surely impossible to achieve. A deontological ethic of principle cannot furnish wide-ranging detailed advice, because it is the sort of ethic that gives little consideration to particular circumstances. The limits on Kant's morality, which so dissatisfy Proudhon, are imposed by the nature of its premises. Why then did Proudhon try to remove them? And why did his attempt launch him on such an arduous but inconclusive intellectual voyage ? Reference to his radicalism and realism suggests answers.

Proudhon tried to remove Kant's limitations because they stood in the way of his radical impulses. In his eyes, respect is such a valuable good tliat one cannot be content with its partial attainment. Instead, one must strive incessantly for its perfect realization, no matter what the obstacles. This endeavor would not have led Proudhon down such a sinuous path, had he not been realistic; he would have been oblivious to most of the obstacles that blocked his way. It was only because he was a realist that he faced and tried to deal with so many of the theoretical problems raised by his enterprise.

Judged by its own pretensions, Proudhon's theory of morals is a failure. But since its shortcomings spring from the convergence of radical zeal and realistic insight, its failure on its own terms by no means deprives it of all value. On the contrary, his attempt to reconcile an ardent desire for respect and freedom with appreciation of the difficulties involved makes his dieory a useful model for understanding what happens when these two attitudes intersect. Perhaps its most important lesson is that since unlimited observance of respect's imperatives is unachievable, anyone who wants to extend personal liberty and increase the justice of human relations must admit tiiat success will be limited, but he should not therefore renounce his effort to obtain it. By showing this, Proudhon set an example relevant for those whose dilemmas are evoked by his way of thinking.


1 Justice, in, 355-61.

2 Ch. Perelman analyzes this argument of Proudhon's in The Idea of Justice and the Problem of Argument (London, 1963), pp. 49-54.

3 "There are things that I judge good and praiseworthy a priori, even though I do not yet have a clear idea of them; . . . and I approve of these things." Justice, m, 340.

4 Ibid., i, 311.

5 Ibid., i, 326; cf. iv, 350.

6 I will always refer to his highest value as "respect," however, since the conventional meaning of "justice" is so different from his own. For an excellent analysis of the relationship beween justice and respect see W. G. MacLagan, "Respect for Persons as a Moral Principle," Philosophy, xxxv, No. 134 (July i960), pp. 193-204.

7 Justice, i, 301.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid., 1,414.

10 Ibid., ii, 96.

11 Ibid., m, 275; cf. 1, 224-25.

12 Ibid., in, 341.

13 Ibid., i, 296, 313; 11, 344.

14 Ibid., in, 515.

15 Ibid., in, 518.

16 "It is not enough to show the superiority of a theory; it is also necessary to assure . . . that it does not fail miserably in the face of difficulties of application." Ibid., i, 306.

17 Ibid., 1, 315.

18 Ibid., 1, 365.

19 Ibid., i, 449.

20 Ibid., i, 416; cf. in, 516.

21 Ibid., 1, 350, 427.

22 Ibid., 1, 417.

23 Ibid., i, 310.

24 Ibid., 1, 301.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid., 1, 304.

27Justice, iv, 368; cf. iv, 366.

28 It is true that there are hints of moral conventionalism in earlier parts of the book, e.g., "In the last resort, each judges . . . himself and all others," 1, 326 (my italics); or, "men ... are one another's guarantors," 1, 419. But these phrases are so vague that it would be impossible to see them as enjoining obedience to social pressure, were it not for the frank prescription of this duty at the book's very end.

29 Justice, in, 263-64.

30 Ibid., 1, 316.

31 Ibid., 1, 325.

32 In the "Cours" at I-3 (2), Proudhon goes even further, by saying that social pressure increases freedom. "Society does not limit men ... it instructs them, i.e., it arms them and emancipates them: by making them cooperate for a common end, it gives them independence."

33 Justice, i, 322-23.

34 The much maligned Arthur Desjardins seems to be the only critic who noticed this. His conservatism often distorted his analysis of Proudhon's position, but he did see that by advocating social pressure Proudhon contradicted himself: "You subject men to such discipline and yet you think you have suppressed government!" Proudhon, sa vie, ses oeuvres, sa doctrine (Paris, 1896), 11, 203.

35 Justice, iv, 487.

36 Bulletin de la societe francaise de philosophie, xn (Paris, 1912), p. 191.

37 Ibid., p. 170.

38 Among the followers of the "sociologist" line are Jeanne Duprat and Georges Gurvitch. Georges Guy-Grand is on the "moralist" side.

39 "Cours," I-io (8); cf. ibid., I-14A (n).

40 Ibid., I-io (7).

41Avert., p. 247.

42Lettres a Chaudey et a divers Comtois, ed. Edouard Droz (Besan^on, 1911), p. 83.

43 Carnets, vi, 100; ix, 176; xi, 505.

44 "Cours," I-14D1 (71).

45 Justice, iv, 465.

46 Ibid., 1, 303; cf. iv, 363: "It is contrary to all philosophy, after having recognized an internal sanction, to speak of an external sanction, whose administrator would be God, the Church or society." The parallel treatment of social and religious sanctions in this text is remarkable, since Proudhon carefully distinguishes them elsewhere in the same book.

47 Pierre Haubtmann is the only other writer who has used evidence from the "Cours" to illuminate Proudhon's ambivalence between conscience and convention. See his thesis, "La philosophic sociale de Proudhon," (Faculte des lettres et des sciences humaines de Paris, 1961) chs. 4,6. He agrees that while there is more ethical conventionalism in the "Cours" than in Justice, some can be found in both; and that while personal morality is stressed more in Justice, it is not completely ignored by the "Cours." Nevertheless, Haubtmann goes further than is warranted by the texts toward portraying Proudhon as a "sociologist" in the "Cours" and a "moralist" in Justice. Part of the reason for this distortion may be Haubtmann's failure to consider the bearing of vigilante justice on Proudhon's waverings. The "Cours'" defense of vigilanteism makes it a weaker partisan of convention than would be true otherwise, while Justice's eschewal of vigilanteism makes that work more favorable to convention than would otherwise be the case.

48 Justice, i, 430.

49 Ibid., in, 355.

50 Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysical Elements of Justice, trans., John Ladd (Indianapolis, 1965), pp. 34-35.

51 Justice, iv, 368.