Moral Sentiments In Society Research Paper

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The sociology of moral sentiments has a specific and paradoxical position in the history of sociology. Morality was an important research topic for most classical sociologists of the early twentieth century, whose works attest to the existence of a specific area of research within the discipline. Examples include Durkheim and then Gurvitch in France, Weber in Germany, Hobhouse and Westermarck in the UK, and to a minor extent Parsons in the USA. However, moral sociology has never succeeded in becoming an official subdiscipline of sociology, and it is difficult to trace back the history of its research and present its main paradigms. This situation derives from the lack of visibility of modern moral sociology. If sociology has continually dealt with moral issues, the focus on morality as a specific object of study has been neglected, in contrast to Durkheim’s project. However, looking back to the classics reveals the difficulties of the project of a moral sociology.

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1. Morality As A Specific Subject Matter Of Sociology

What does a moral sociology consist of? For classical sociologists the common idea, which Durkheim has expressed several times, is that moral sociology cannot be the theoretical morality of philosophers. On the other hand, it is not obvious what can replace it. What will be the object of this science? Weber, Durkheim, and Gurvitch have all stated the difficulty of finding the empirical object of a moral sociology. Indeed, moral life is linked to most social activities, without having either a specific institution to represent it, nor a specific instrument to implement it. Besides, it is well known, even without the help of sociology, that moral systems vary according to societies and social groups. What then will be the contribution of sociological analysis to the understanding of moral phenomena? By revealing the pluralistic and contingent nature of morality, sociology may risk impairing its ability to understand the unity and specificity of these phenomena. Moreover, this object of study has the peculiarity that if it is an experimental fact for the sociologist, it is also a specific object of experience for the individual. Therefore, it is expressed not only in terms of norms, rules, and morals, but also as a set of values, feelings, and ideas, namely as the result of individual experiences. The fact that morality is also embedded in the individual seems to impair the project of a positive moral science. However, we cannot understand the overall phenomenon of morality if we ignore its subjective nature. All these difficulties, which the classical authors have tried to solve, shed light on some aspects of the development of moral sociology and on its current position.

1.1 The Social Nature Of Morality

For Durkheim (1960), moral rules are moral facts par excellence, or more precisely they are the form under which moral facts are scientific. Such a choice, which allows him to escape the subjectivity of the moral of common sense, explains why moral sentiments have not been, at least in France, the favorite subject of moral sociology. Besides, not only can sociological analysis bring to the fore moral variations according to social groups and societies, but it can also show the intrinsic social nature of morality. Indeed, Durkheim demonstrates that society is the very source of moral authority, which explains why, for individuals, morality can be both desirable and constraining. The merit of this theory is to show the additional understanding that sociology can bring compared to the mere description of the contingency of moral life. It also provides the unity and specificity of morality as a subject matter for sociology. Finally, after revealing the two essential properties of morality, both constraining and desirable, Durkheim (1960) determines the ideal toward which modern societies tend.

However, according to Gurvitch (1960), this normative ambition would have led Durkheim to focus on specific elements of morality, at the expense of the plurality of moral life. He adds that the sociologist, on the contrary, has to consider such diversity and then only reveal the functional correlations between moral systems and social types, leaving to the philosopher the justification side of it. This criticism of the normative feature of Durkheim ’s analysis is typical of a continuing tendency that will lead to the following problem: the sociological analysis of moral life may have to resolve itself to being a mere description of the variable, plural, and contingent nature of morality, otherwise it might confuse explanation and justification. But beyond this disagreement, Durkheim and Gurvitch both suggest that the objectivity of morality is due to its strong link, whatever it is, with social life.

Durkheim comes up against another difficulty. In modern societies’ secular morality, he discovers a third differentiating characteristic of morality, which he calls ‘autonomy’ or ‘self-determination’: individuals want to understand the raison d’etre of moral rules. How can this be reconciled with the obligatory force of morality? Here, Durkheim (1961) suggests that the third element of morality is only ‘the understanding of it,’ an ‘enlightened assent,’ while society is still the author of morality. This solution shows how difficult it is to conceive that the feeling of constraint or obligation, characterizing the obedience to a moral rule, can originate in individuals themselves. If there is a constraint, it means that an external cause has intervened, for example, the group or society. That partly explains the success of analyzes in terms of social causes in modern moral sociology. However, this difficulty will sometimes lead Durkheim (1922) to abandon the term ‘moral rules’ in favor of ‘moral act,’ and finally ‘moral judgment’ (Durkheim 1920), in a posthumous text which should have been the introduction to his book on morality. By the same token, modern moral sociology will deal essentially with moral feelings, no matter what the choice of perspective.

1.2 The Subjective Meaning Of Moral Sentiments

The sociological analysis proposed by Weber seems to be able to resolve both difficulties mentioned. Explaining moral activity, for Weber, would consist in understanding its meaning for the individual, which should be explained by finding the meaning of the original moral belief. The notion of ‘axiological rationality’ (Weber 1949) could be interpreted as meaning that individuals’ moral points of view are meaningful for them and therefore are able to foster their social activity. Even if Weber does not express this so clearly, this is what comes out of his sociological analyzes (Weber 1930). In this perspective we understand how the feeling of moral constraint can originate in the individual. However, in other places, Weber (1968) notices that it is not possible to justify rationally the superiority of one ultimate value compared to another. This explains why social sciences cannot solve this sort of conflict. On the other hand, the sociologist can help to make the decision by assessing the degree of coherence of each statement and by revealing the empirical consequences of their application. Thanks to what Weber calls ‘comprehensive analysis’ the conflict between explanation and justification seems to be more flexible. Sociological analysis can then go beyond a mere descriptive analysis. However, the main idea that modern sociology has retained from Weber is that it is not possible to argue rationally about ultimate values, and in general about moral opinions. Following this viewpoint, ‘axiological rationality’ is reduced to the rationality of an action expressing an unquestioning attachment to a value.

2. Morality In Modern Sociology

2.1 Modern Sociological Theory On Moral Sentiments: Causes And Utility

In view of these difficulties, sociological theory about moral feelings has developed in three main directions. A first possibility consists in circumventing the question of the specificity of morality by moving moral phenomena into either the social, cultural, or affective sphere. From then on, moral feelings can be explained in term of causes associated to these latter spheres. This is how models inspired by Durkheim have developed, notably in anthropology, in which individuals recognize as good those values and moral ideas that have been instilled in them by society. According to Geertz (1984), the objective of anthropology is to scientifically develop and establish such a relativist conception of morality. Otherwise the culturalist theory inspires all the sociological approaches that insist on the phenomena of socialization in order to explain the emergence of moral feelings. Among the causalists models are the affectivist theories which state that moral beliefs are rationalizations of subjective feelings. This latter argument is rooted in the positivist tradition according to which only positive beliefs can be rationally explained as only they stem from logical and experimental thought. Such a process has been used by Pareto (1935) when he came to analyze what he calls ‘derivations.’ Further, it can be found implicitly in many empirical studies of feelings of justice in social psychology.

The analysis of the moral act or moral sentiments through the prism of utilitarian rationality is another major direction taken by modern moral sociology. This instrumental interpretation of practical reason (which has also been prominent in the irrationalist version of Weber’s axiological rationality) has found a fruitful source of inspiration in the utilitarian tradition initiated by Bentham and Mill. Such interpretation can be found in the rational choice model which inspires the analyzes of Oberschall (1994a, 1994b) on the emergence of norms, as well as Adams (1963) and Homans’s (1974) equity theory regarding feelings of justice. According to Oberschall, norms and morals are ‘social inventions’ allowing in all cases benefits from social co-operation. Equity theory postulates that feelings of justice express a desire to see the proportionality between contributions and retributions of various individuals being equal. This desire is stimulated by the will to maximize one’s personal benefits. Whether the analyzes are in terms of causes or in terms of utilitarian rationality, their common point is to move moral phenomena into other spheres of life or social activity, which eases their explanation but compromises the specificity of the initial object of moral sociology.

Finally, modern moral sociology follows a third direction which no longer consists in moving the object of analysis, but in its dispersion as it belongs to every field of social life. The difficulty in identifying the sector of moral life, as well as the lack of specialized institutions, leads modern moral sociology to abandon morality as a unified subject matter. Moral questions arise when one comes to study religion, family, couples, or health. Similarly, the ethical dimension is used as only one of the properties that characterize one social activity as, for example, political claims or social movements. But in all these analyzes, normative activity in itself and its content remain unexplained.

These three aspects of modern moral sociology’s theoretical development can explain its lack of visibility within the discipline. Without any doubt this is why authors such as Isambert et al. (1978) have regretted the absence of ethical sociology.

2.2 Feelings Of Justice And Social Values: Plurality And Complexity

In terms of empirical research, notably that carried out in social psychology and to a minor extent in sociology, a considerable amount of literature has been published about feelings of justice in the area of social justice. Using questionnaires, surveys, or experiences, individuals are invited to assess the fairness of different rules of distribution or to build their own distributions. Most analyzes are essentially descriptive and try to follow the variations of feelings of justice according to the social position of individuals, and to the context of distribution or the nature of the resources to be distributed. However, the individuals’ evaluations are often analyzed either in an instrumental way, in relation to the objectives groups pursue, or with the help of psychological models. The first approach is illustrated by Deutsch (1986) who examined the impact of a distribution rule on group efficiency, as well as surveys by Kellerhals et al. (1988) about the ability of moral rules to promote or to maintain specific types of social relations. In the second approach some authors refer, for example, to feelings of relative deprivation (Runciman 1966), or to beliefs in a ‘fair world’ (Lerner and Lerner 1981). Generally, the accumulation and heterogeneity of models, as well as empirical studies themselves, reveal the plurality of criteria and principles of justice used by individuals, and the difficulty of interpreting them with a single theory.

Other important works in the area of empirical research are the quantitative studies by Stoetzel (1983) and Inglehart (1977) who compare systems of values at European and international levels, and the study carried out by Riffault (1994) who describes the process of increasing diversification of values, as well as the tendencies to majority consensus. These works reveal the individual’s ability to recognize both universal and particularistic values. A recent study by Hardin (1995) sheds light on the success of communitarian values.

2.3 Explaining Moral Complexity: The Rationality Of Moral Sentiments

Considering the above empirical research, it is hard to adhere to the recent attempts to develop a naturalist explanation of moral feelings, such as the one by Wilson (1993) regarding moral sense, because they risk missing out the moral complexity revealed by the empirical analyzes. Another way to make sense of this complexity consists in concentrating on individuals’ points of view and on their reasons, not only the instrumental ones but also the axiological ones, to adhere to moral beliefs in different contexts. It might then be possible to explain the plurality and variability of moral feelings in a way that is not only descriptive. Moreover, analyzing moral feelings with reasons instead of causes opens up an additional and fruitful path in order to resolve the dilemma Durkheim had to face, namely to reconcile the obligatory force of morality for individuals and their moral autonomy. Here, the explanation can be found in the feelings of objectivity and universality that underly the individual’s own judgment. In this way, Boudon (1995, 2000) develops a ‘cognitivist’ model when he gives an account of individuals’ feelings of justice by reconstructing the reasons that have convinced them in a given context. In doing so, he comes within the scope of ‘comprehensive’ sociology as defined by Weber. This perspective has also been implicitly adopted by de Tocqueville (1972) when he sought to understand the moral and religious beliefs of Americans, as well as by Durkheim (1915) when, moving away from the strictly moral area, he explains the primitive’s religious beliefs in terms of reasons and asserts that individuals cannot passively adopt the beliefs that society would impose upon them. The sociological analysis of Boltanski and Thevenot (1991) also attest to a renewal of interest in the individual’s normative activity. They describe how individuals produce moral justifications in reference to several ‘dimensions.’ These authors also try to tackle the pluralistic and contextual dimensions of people’s evaluations.

Therefore, it seems that an explanation in terms of reasons can give an account of the specificity of morality, without either narrowing it or dissolving it among other objects or social spheres, while in the mean time providing an alternative to Durkheim’s solution. One of the issues at stake in moral sociology now is to show how this explanation does not elude the social or collective nature of moral beliefs. From this viewpoint, reflections stemming from the interactionist stream, and notably Simmel’s analysis about the objectivity of values, can be a fruitful source of inspiration. The focus put on the individual’s point of view also induces moral sociology to renew its empirical research, in a less descriptive way, with a much greater emphasis on individuals’ argumentations.


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