My dissertation is an articulation and defense of Marx’s account of ideology—his claim that most moral, political, and religious thought consists largely of beliefs that have been systematically distorted by social circumstances and which function to support the interests of a ruling class. I argue that Marx’s account is important but thinly sketched–consisting more of assertions than a worked out theory detailing the origins and functions of such beliefs. My dissertation corrects for this by articulating and defending Marx’s core insight, while filling in three central lacunae in his account. First, appealing to contemporary research in social psychology, I argue that the causal origins of ideological beliefs can be found in pervasive cognitive and motivated biases that favor the status quo in systematic ways (what I call a “bottom up” account). I then argue that there is in fact a dominant group whose interests ideology functionally serves, and who in turn act to articulate, refine, and promote these beliefs (a “top-down” account). The accounts are complementary—the former explains why so many system-justifying moral, political, and religious ideas come into being in the first place; the latter explains how the dominant group promotes and manages their wider circulation throughout society in a self-serving fashion. Finally, I show that there are both epistemological and psychological explanations for why those in non-dominant positions accept the ideological beliefs produced and disseminated by the ideologists, even though doing so frustrates their own interests. In sum, I find that the core idea behind Marx’s incendiary remarks is largely correct—a troublesome and far-reaching result that must be taken especially seriously in moral, social and political philosophy.
After defending my dissertation in the Spring of 2018, I will finish work on the Marx volume in the Routledge Philosophers series, which I am under contract to write (with Brian Leiter), and which is scheduled to appear in 2020. This volume will serve as an introduction to Marx’s thought that is accessible to advanced undergraduates, while also taking distinctive positions on central interpretive issues that will be of interest to more advanced scholars.
In the future, I plan to continue working on these issues both historically (including, tracing their antecedents in Hegel and their development in 20th Century Marxism and Foucault), as well as working through the consequences of this view for democratic theory (particularly the ways that an elite monopolization of political and ideological power would be an affront to democratic ideals of equal representation and participation, why we should remain committed to these ideals, and the best means to changing the system in a more democratic direction).