Grub First, Then Ethics
As societies advance, individual freedom from domination becomes increasingly important.
The German playwright Bertolt Brecht, when asked what he thought about ethics, dismissed the importance of ethics replying, “Grub first, then ethics.” Brecht was a committed Marxist who, after living in the United States during World War II, went on to live in East Germany after the war ended. Brecht’s “Grub first, then ethics” is inherent in his Marxist’s beliefs and his socialist logic.
His countryman, the political scientist Christian Welzel, explores rigorously the human quest for freedoms and historical changes in values in his 2013 book “Freedom Rising: Human Empowerment and the Quest for Emancipation.”
Welzel argues that, as a society progresses, citizens become less concerned with physical needs and shift their values toward what he calls “emancipatory values.” He defines emancipation as the universal human desire for an existence free from domination. That is, freedom becomes more important to us than security. We give more importance to diversity than to uniformity. Creativity wins over discipline. And we much value autonomy over authority, and individuality over conformity.
Some scholars suggest that Brecht’s prioritizing of values is analogous to Abraham Maslow’s well-known hierarchy of needs where physiological needs, such as food and security, take precedent over others such as social or ego needs. Regardless, these emancipatory values of freedom, diversity, creativity, and autonomy, are the values of free societies. Here I will call them liberty values. They contrast with security, uniformity, discipline, and authority. These are the conformist values that makeup the ethics of Marxist-Leninist societies.
Dr. Welzel’s earlier research focused on East German elites from the perspective of democratic sociology. His work provides valuable insights into the changes in values over time, and across cultures that we observe in South Florida. Particularly the value changes in the waves of Cuban migration over six decades. It is a change in Cuban values that distresses the older exile generation.
When studying changes in values over time, scientists take into account that changes can take place for three reasons: A Period Effect, an Age Effect, or a Generational Effect. A Period Effect is simply a change in the times. An Age Effect accounts for how we, as individuals, change over time; and a Generational Effect captures how the cohort of people born at a certain time will carry traits of that generation throughout their lives. Common American cohorts are: the GI Generation (born between 1900 and 1924); the Silent Generation (1925-45); the Baby Boomers (1946-64); Generation X (1965-79); and Millennials (1980-2000).
For example, my values as a 1948 Baby Boomer, 1961 Pedro Pan exile, with life exposure in both Republican and Communist Cuba, and a lifetime of living and learning in the freedom of the U.S., have been shaped by those Period, Age, and Generational effects. My liberty values will not be the same as those of a Millennial just arriving from the deprivations of Communist Cuba. Those values may understandably be closer to Brecht’s “Grub first, then ethics.”
Welzel’s shows that the emancipatory values of freedom, diversity, creativity, and autonomy, result from expanded resources such as access to information, and the integrity of a country’s institutions. Seventy percent of the variation in liberty values across countries can be explained by measures in the Knowledge Index of the World Bank. In other words, knowledge and honest institutions contribute significantly to moral progress.
Freedom, diversity, creativity, and autonomy, are values that “unlock a population’s intrinsic qualities, vitalizes civil society, and creates social capital.” These liberty values are crucial for any bottom-up democratization process. To the degree that “Grub first, then ethics” efforts succeed in decoupling peoples from their liberty values, such efforts facilitate oppression.
Rising liberty values have a much higher effect on effectively expanding rights than, uttered rights have on rising liberty values. Institutions, as essential as they are for democratization, cannot create empowering qualities in the people. Democracy flows, not from institutions, but from a peoples’ desire for emancipation.
For those content with the “grub” values of security, uniformity, discipline, and authority; liberty values are only an optional aspiration for the future. For me, liberty is a value necessary for life.
Dr. Azel‘s latest book is “Reflections on Freedom.”