Sociology, Morality, and Ethics: On being with Others

Barry Smart. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

In a critical historical study of the life and work of Emile Durkheim, Steven Lukes comments that it is ‘astonishing how little attention has been given to … questions [of morality] in twentieth-century sociology … Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that the sociology of morality is the great void in contemporary social science’ (1973: 432 n.19). In a similar manner, Pickering remarks on the ‘dearth of classics in the sociology of morals’ and wonders why morality ‘has not attracted a large number of scholars devoted to sociology’ (1979: 26) and Ossowska (1970) laments the marginal status of morality within sociology and calls for the development of a sociology of morality. Unease about the general relation of the social sciences to the realm of ethics and morality informs the work of several contributors to Social Science as Moral Inquiry (Haan et al., 1983) and disquiet about moral life has been a dominant theme in the work of a number of other prominent social and philosophical analysts (Bernstein, 1995; Maclntyre 1982, 1990; Rorty, 1989). A comparable concern emerges from Zygmunt Bauman’s critical reflections on the way in which the issue of morality has been virtually silenced within a sociological discourse bent on promoting its modern scientific credentials. Indeed, in his powerful study of the respects in which the Holocaust can be considered to be bound up with modernity and its consequences, Bauman (1989) sets out to explain why ethical problematics and moral questions have generally been treated as inadmissible within sociology and then proceeds to outline an argument for a sociology that might be more appropriately attentive to ethical and moral concerns. While Bauman’s (1991, 1993, 1995a) critical engagement with the consequences and discontents of modern civilization and associated ethical reorientation of social enquiry demonstrates that questions of ethics and morality are no longer quite as marginal within contemporary sociological discourse as they might once have been, it nevertheless remains indisputable that ‘insufficient attention’ has been devoted to such matters within contemporary social theory (Lash, 1996).

Questions of ethics and morality have featured in some form in some of the works of prominent classical sociological figures: Georg Simmel’s two-volume Einleitung in die Moralphilosophie Eine Kritik der ethischen Grundbegriffe (1892-3) and Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism (1904-5) represent two significant examples. In turn, the respective works of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, while not specifically analytically orientated towards sociology or necessarily directly preoccupied with questions of ethics and morality, might be argued to have contributed significantly to a sociological understanding of the ‘moral landscape’ (Rieff, 1965; Sayer, 1991). However, a sustained and explicit sociological engagement with questions of morality is perhaps most evident in the work of Emile Durkheim and it is his work, in the first instance, to which attention is directed below.

What consideration has been given to morality in contemporary social analysis and how, if at all, things have fared since Lukes drew attention to the moral void at the heart of modern sociology are matters to which the second half of my discussion is directed. It will suffice here to add that a number of commentators have remarked on the ways in which questions of ethics and morality have been marginalized within modern sociological discourse (Gouldner, 1971; Levine, 1995). The marginalization of ethics and morality has assumed two particular forms: a relative neglect of ethics and morality as social phenomena for sociological analysis and a parallel avoidance of potentially controversial ethical and moral matters within the practice of social enquiry. Belated recognition of this state of affairs has caused unease about both ‘the moral meaning of modern society’ and ‘the moral meaning of social science’ (Haan et al., 1983: 1), an unease that has perhaps proven to be analytically productive insofar as it has led to increasing attention being directed to the moral dilemmas of modernity and the prospects for a postmodern ethical turn (Bauman, 1993).

Sociology, Philosophy, and Morality

Morality and ethics, formerly regarded as primarily, if not entirely, the province of philosophy, are represented in Durkheim’s work as empirical matters amenable to social scientific analysis. In his work, Durkheim makes reference to the need to distinguish between the constitution of a science of morality and the deduction of morality from science, but it is evident that his analysis of the reality of moral life also had as one of its objectives the achievement of moral improvement. While Durkheim remarked that ‘science must resolutely and definitively be dissociated from practice’ and that the types of morality associated with different societies ‘should be studied for the sole purpose of understanding them, of learning how they are made up and what factors condition them,’ he also argued strongly that a sociological science of morals—a particular branch of sociology—promised to provide a ‘rational basis for practical applications,’ to put us ‘in a position to undertake a rational modification of … [moral reality], to say what it should be’ (1979: 31, 32; emphasis added). In a subsequent, more detailed treatment of the subject Durkheim remarks, in a characteristically legislative manner, that ‘the science of reality puts us in a position to modify the real and to direct it. The science of moral opinion furnishes us with the means of judging it and the need of rectifying it’ (1974: 60). In a similar vein, Durkheim comments that ‘the science of moral facts puts us in a position to order and direct the course of moral life’ (1974: 65). In sum, it can be argued that throughout Durkheim’s reflections on morality there is an implied articulation between the ‘theoretical’ and the ‘practical,’ the ambition driving his work being ‘to arrive at practical conclusions which should bear fruit in social action’ (Bougie, 1974: xxxvi). However, as I will endeavour to demonstrate below, Durkheim’s sociological reflections on the foundation of morality are not easily reconciled with his less frequently expressed views on the possibility of judging, rebelling against, and/or combating moral ideas deemed inappropriate.

In his reflections on the nature of moral facts Durkheim identifies two characteristics: obligation and desirability. For an action to count as moral it needs must involve duty or obligation, but in contrast to Kant, it is argued that such an action must also be characterized by a ‘degree of desirability.’ Duty or obligation alone is not enough, a moral act must appeal, it must, as Durkheim states, ‘interest our sensibility to a certain extent’ (1974: 36). As Bernstein argues, by ‘phenomenologically building into the obligatory force of moral norms their desirability, Durkheim constrains their theoretical reconstruction such that Kantian-style analyses that turn on the logical and rational vindication of universalistic claims are dropped from serious consideration’ (1995: 93). Furthermore, it is suggested by Durkheim that the idea of the moral presents a comparable duality to the idea of the sacred, insofar as it commands authority or respect while simultaneously appealing to us, while being an ‘object of love and aspiration’ (1974: 48), and this in turn leads reference to be made to close links between moral and religious life. Indeed, making explicit reference to the ‘sacred character of morality’ Durkheim adds that it is impossible for morality and religion to be ‘dissociated and become distinct’ and that ‘[m]orality would no longer be morality if it had no element of religion’ (1974: 68, 48, 69). The basis for the association between morality and religion drawn by Durkheim is that both are set apart from other orders of phenomena, that is, there is a relationship of incommensurability between the ‘sacred’ (religion; morality) and the ‘profane.’ Insofar as it is argued that ‘sacredness and morality are closely related’ (1974: 71), Durkheim’s work has been considered to be vulnerable to the charge that it neglects to satisfactorily distinguish between morality and religion (Lukes, 1973: 432). How justified is this line of criticism?

In addressing the question of the relationship between religious symbols and moral reality Durkheim comments that the ‘two systems of beliefs and practices’ have been historically closely articulated, that ‘moral ideas became united with certain religious ideas to such an extent as to become indistinct from them’ (1972: 109, 110). However, responding to a period of crisis in which traditional forms of morality were being undermined and displaced, Durkheim proceeds to argue that ‘we must discover the rational substitutes for those religious notions that have, for so long, served as the vehicle for the most essential moral ideas’ (1972: 110). In short, it is the achievement of ‘reasoned evaluations’ towards which Durkheim argues a science of morals is to be directed, but such a science while permitting ‘empirical study of moral facts’ does not apparently destroy the ‘sui generis religious character which is inherent in them and which distinguishes them from all other human phenomena’ (1974: 62).

A closely related criticism to which Durkheim’s work is vulnerable is that the relationship he sought to establish between ‘society’ and ‘morality’ remains ambiguous and that promotion of the potential benefits of scientific analysis for the practice of morality betrays an inadequate understanding of both the moral condition itself and the relationship between philosophy and sociology. Certainly the relationship between science and morality has proven to be far more complex and uneven than is acknowledged in references to ‘the science of morality … [teaching] us to respect moral reality [as] it affords us the means of improving it’ (Durkheim, 1984: xxviii-xxix).

Both the characteristics of moral action identified above—intrinsic desirability or a shared sense of the virtue or goodness attached to a course of conduct, and duty or obligation—are considered to derive from ‘society.’ As Durkheim states, ‘society … for me is the source and the end of morality’ (1974: 59), and again, ‘society … is … a moral power superior to the individual, enjoying a sort of transcendence analogous to that which religions ascribe to divinity’ (1979: 138). But what does this tell us about ‘morality’ and its relationship with ‘society’? And how are we to make sense of the other, less attractive face of morality, exemplified by moral indifference and/or immoral behaviour? How are we to account for the absence, suppression or silencing of moral responsibility? Frequent reference is made by Durkheim to different social types having their own particular ‘moral discipline,’ and that there is no one ‘single morality which is valid for all men at all times and in all places’ (1979: 31, 130). The observation that moral systems have varied and continue to vary is not contentious, neither is the idea that as a society changes, so may its morality. However, what is open to question is the quasi-legislative status accorded to the sociological science of morals outlined by Durkheim, a status that has become more contentious as everyday life is lived amidst a diversity of different, if not divergent and conflicting, moralities, in respect of which judgements have to be made concerning ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ Durkheim remarked that ‘we cannot aspire to a morality other than that which is related to the state of our society’ (1974: 61). But such an observation begs more questions than it resolves. In an increasingly fragmented and diverse late modern capitalist society in which it might be argued that ‘anything goes,’ to what morality can, do and shouldwe aspire?

Society, Morality, and Sociality

For Durkheim morality is necessarily bound up with society: it is by virtue of society that morality is possible. In short, ‘Man is only a moral being because he lives in society, since morality consists in solidarity with the group, and varies according to that solidarity’ (Durkheim, 1984: 331), or as he notes in a subsequent paper on the determination of moral facts, ‘society is the end of all moral activity … [m]orality begins with life in the group, since it is only there that disinterestedness and devotion become meaningful’ (1974: 54, 52). In a series of clarificatory remarks on the relationship between society and morality Durkheim states that his concern is to understand ‘objective moral reality, that common and impersonal standard by which we evaluate action’ (1974: 40). Durkheim asserts that the individual, whether acting as agent or object, cannot be a measure of the ‘moral value of conduct,’ for moral value derives from a ‘higher source,’ namely society, ‘the sui generis collective … formed by the plurality of individuals associated to form a group’ (1974: 51). Society for Durkheim is a ‘moral power,’ it transcends the individual and constitutes ‘the source and the guardian of civilization … It is a reality from which everything that matters to us flows’ (1974: 54). It is argued that ‘each society has in the main a morality suited to it’ (1974: 56) and that any other would be ‘impossible’ or ‘fatal.’ However, after emphasizing yet again that moral systems are a function of social organization, that they are bound to specific ‘social structures and vary with them’ (1974: 56), Durkheim is forced to confront reality and to briefly acknowledge the possibility that there might be exceptions, ‘abnormal cases,’ but the references made to such ‘exceptions’ are for the most part brief and enigmatic. The prospect that moral indifference or immoral behaviour may not be a temporary symptom of an in principle remedial societal pathology, but a direct consequence or corollary of modern culture and a particular modern form of societal organization, is not considered.

Insofar as the impact of modernity is recognized to have loosened ties between people by undermining traditional sources of solidarity, then modern societies are acknowledged to be morally uncertain—‘[t]he old duties have lost their power without our being able to see clearly and with assurance where our new duties lie’ (Durkheim, 1974: 68). The reality of modern life according to Durkheim is that ‘we do not feel the pressure of moral rules as they were felt in the past’ (1974: 68-9), however this is not experienced as greater freedom or liberation, but as ‘crisis,’ as ‘anomie,’ a condition that may be alleviated if not resolved by a ‘special science of moral facts.’

Although Durkheim is frequently credited with analysing the reality of emerging modern forms of social life a significant part of his narrative is preoccupied with outlining prescription, with articulating what needs to be done to compensate for the anomie consequences following the ‘disappearance of the segmentary type of society’ (1984: 333). In his first major work the key proposition is that ‘the division of labour becomes the predominant source of social solidarity, at the same time [as] it becomes the foundation of the moral order’ (1984: 333). But this is merely speculation, for as the concluding paragraphs of the text acknowledge, ‘morality … is in the throes of an appalling crisis’ (1984: 339). Concern over the weakening of the foundations of morality also informs Max Weber’s (1976) reflections on the consequences arising from the development of the modern economic order, in particular the ‘inexorable power’ exercised by ‘material goods’ over people’s lives. Max Weber notes how ‘the refusal of modern men to assume responsibility for moral judgements tends to transform judgements of moral intent into judgements of taste’ (1970: 342). For Emile Durkheim, the loosening of traditional ties has ‘irretrievably undermined’ morality and as a result it is suggested that ‘our first duty at the present time is to fashion a morality for ourselves’ (1984: 340). In a related text Durkheim notes that ‘we are passing through a period of crisis’ and that in such circumstances morality appears to us ‘less as a code of duties’ and more as a ‘sort of aspiration towards an elevated but vague objective’ (1974: 69).

It is in the Preface to the Second Edition of his narrative on the division of labour that Durkheim turns directly to address the legal and moral anomie to which modern economic life is considered to be subject and remarks on the lack of any clearly articulated ‘boundary between the permissible and the prohibited, between what is just and what is unjust’ (1984: xxxii). In a context where economic functions are recognized to have become of ‘prime importance’ morality is described as at best ‘vague’ and ‘inconsistent’: the development of an industrial and commercial economic environment is considered to have become the source of ‘moral deterioration,’ to have left social life without an adequate moral framework. The picture painted is one in which there is a lack of regulation and an absence of self-control. The predominance of self-interest is portrayed as having the effect of undermining ‘public morality.’ Seemingly anticipating ‘communitarian’ sentiments articulated by contemporary analysts addressing the moral malaise of late modern consumer capitalist forms of life in which the habits of individualism predominate (Bellah et al., 1996: Etzioni, 1994), as well as analyses that have drawn attention to a crisis in the public domain following the promotion of self-interest and the stimulation of private appetites (Bell, 1976), Durkheim calls upon the collectivity to reconstitute cohesion and regulation. However if, as Durkheim argues, political society or the state is unable to fulfil such a role—‘[e]conomic life, because it is very special and is daily becoming increasingly specialised, lies outside their authority and sphere of action’ (1984: xxxv; see also 297)—from where is the impetus for a re-moralization of social life to come? The answer forthcoming from Durkheim is that professional groups and professional ethics may provide a ‘moral force capable of curbing individual egoism’ (1984: xxxix).

What is outlined is the possibility of professional groups being constituted—‘between the state and individuals’—as a system of corporations with a variety of functions, including the exercise of moral regulation over members. With the benefit of hindsight Durkheim’s account of the ways in which the disorganizing, disorderly and disembedding consequences of modernity might be remedied appears excessively optimistic. The idea that a network of corporations, in addition to exercising ‘moral influence’ over members, might also in good faith adopt and apply general principles formulated by the state in respect of ‘mutual assistance,’ education and other activities, is strikingly at odds with the reality of late twentieth-century life. Durkheim may have been sufficiently perceptive to recognize that ‘the corporation is destined to assume an ever more central and preponderant place in society’ (1984: liii), but the conduct and consequences of corporate affairs have been quite different from those anticipated. Far from contributing to a re-moralization of social life, economic corporations have contributed to the development of a seductive consumer society and an associated pervasive cult of individual self-interest which serve to weaken ‘the impulse of responsibility for the integrity and well-being of other people’ (Bauman, 1998: 77). In short, increased demoralization rather than re-moralization would appear to have been the outcome of the modern reconstitution of the corporation.

Reflecting on events at the beginning of the twentieth century Durkheim speculated that the corporation might become ‘the elementary division of the state’ and that society ‘would become a vast system of national corporations.’ At the beginning of the twenty-first century it is increasingly evident that the sovereignty of the modern nation-state has been diminished by the development of transnational or global economic corporations whose relationships to any specific territorial location have become weak at best. In turn, given the increasing globalization of economic production, finance and cultural communications, and the extension of social relations beyond the territorial borders of the nation, society can no longer be assumed to be synonymous with the geopolitical formation of the modern nation-state. In such circumstances, where ‘the nation-state’s economic sovereignty is thinned’ and ‘state-endorsed nationhood is increasingly contested as the principal frame of cultural identity,’ it is not surprising to find that the moral community is considered to be ‘fragmented and pluralized’ (Bauman, 1995b: 152). Durkheim had hoped to help put an end to such moral uncertainty; we seem to be reconciled to living with it.

As I have indicated, recognition of the dynamism of modern society leads Durkheim to an acknowledgement of the difficulties that arise with the erosion of ‘morality maintained by the forces of tradition’ and the emergence of ‘new tendencies.’ The implication is of an interregnum between two moral orders in respect of which the moral science of sociology might serve to render new moral ideas more precise and help to direct ‘the process of becoming’ or ‘moral remaking.’ Although there is an associated reference to resistance to moral ideas being justified insofar as they are ‘out of date,’ such an observation avoids the important, albeit complex, question of the grounds on which ‘datedness’ is to be determined and a related and increasingly pressing, if not more difficult issue, that is the presence of competing, if not conflicting systems of contemporary moral ideas claiming to meet the criteria advanced by Durkheim, namely of being appropriately ‘related to the state of our society’ (1974: 61). The question of conflicting modern moral values and ideas and the associated problem of contrasting accounts of the condition of modern society is not a matter to which Durkheim devotes much, if any, attention. The process of understanding and accounting for the state of our society is not, as Durkheim seems to assume, independent of ethical and moral aspects, and as such it cannot constitute ‘an objective standard with which to compare our evaluations,’ and in consequence the attempt to demonstrate that a sociological science of moral facts can provide reasoned evaluations of morality and thereby guide conduct proves to be highly problematic. Modern scientific reason does not provide a secure basis from which to judge moral matters; to the contrary, as Bauman (1989: 18) argues, its ‘spirit of instrumental rationality’ has been directly implicated in the ‘moral mediocrity,’ if not the silencing of moral voices and the demoralization, characteristic of modern social life.

There is a lack of clarity in Durkheim’s work in respect of the ‘various different relations between “society” and “morality”,’ and Steven Lukes suggests a particular ‘confusion between “end”, “objective” or “object”; “interest”; “motive”; “ideal”; “precondition”; and “cause”’ (1973: 416). There is also another possible confusion between ‘societal’ and ‘social’ context that leads Zygmunt Bauman (1989) to propose a reorientation of the sociological theorizing of morality away from a Durkheimian focus on society and towards a consideration of a Levinasian conception of ‘pre-societal sources of morality.’

Dualism of Human Nature—Durkheim, Freud, and Levinas

For Durkheim the human condition is riven by a tension between the demands arising from ‘society,’ from the regulation that is a corollary of communal existence, from sociality, and the ‘organic’ characteristics of human beings, their ‘nature.’ Implied here is a close parallel with the work of Freud on the association between civilization and instinctual repression (Coser, 1960). In a text originally published in 1914 Durkheim makes reference to the ‘constitutional duality of human nature,’ to the substantially different, contrasting, if not conflicting, qualities of body and soul—‘sensations and sensory appetites, on the one hand, and the intellectual and moral life, on the other’ (1960: 326, 338). Just as Freud comments on the ‘antagonism between civilization and instinctual life’ (1985: 30), so Durkheim argues that we are unable to ‘pursue moral ends without causing a split within ourselves, without offending the instincts and the penchants that are the most deeply rooted in our bodies’ (1960: 328). For Durkheim we are ‘double’; ‘we are the realization of an antimony’—profane body and sacred soul; inferior sensations and sensory appetites on the one hand and the higher faculties of reason and moral activity on the other. When Durkheim turns to account for this duality he argues that ‘human dualism has always expressed itself in religious form’ and that even where explicit religious belief does not seem to be present morality remains ‘infused with religiosity.’ In short, the dualism of human nature is considered to be simply ‘a particular case of that division of things into the sacred and profane that is the foundation of all religions’ (1960: 335). As Durkheim makes clear in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1995), sacred forms are collective representations, they are products of group life. The force of morality, its authority and ability to move, lead and direct conduct, does not originate from within individuals but ‘from the outside.’ The duality identified is depicted as an inescapable feature of human being—on the one hand existence appears to be ‘purely individual and rooted in our organisms,’ on the other ‘social and nothing but an extension of society’ (Durkheim, 1960: 337). As with Freud’s analysis, for Durkheim our passions and egoistic inclinations emanate from the former, from our individual constitutions, while rational activity (‘concepts, the material of all logical thought’) and morality are deemed to be manifestations of society, of social causes. The relationship between the two is identified as one of tension, antagonism and struggle, the maintenance of social life being considered to require ‘perpetual and costly sacrifices’ on the part of individuals. From such a standpoint moral life is inevitably a socialized life.

A Durkheimian approach to the sociological study of moral life places emphasis upon the requirements of society, ‘social needs’ and the accommodations and adaptations demanded of individuals to meet and maintain these. Above all it is to the achievement and maintenance of one central need, the need of social integration or societal unity, that moral ordering is considered to be directed. In a brief critical address of Durkheim’s sociological view of moral life, Zygmunt Bauman makes a series of telling observations and raises a number of significant questions about ‘the conception of society as, essentially, an actively moralizing force’ (1989: 172). Pre-social, a-social, if not anti-social, our ‘natural’ inclinations are represented by Durkheim as in need of socialization, as requiring moral regulation and constraint, if society is to be sustained. In this context social integration appears to be the end and measure of morality. The problem with this, as Bauman rightly argues, is that if ‘the only existential foundation of morality is the will of society, and its only function is to allow the society to survive, then the very issue of substantive evaluation of specific moral systems is effectively removed from the sociological agenda’ (1989: 172).

Insofar as the analytic agenda is conditioned by an uncritical acceptance of the idea that there are as many moralities as there are social types and a parallel assumption that any existing morality practised by a people needs must have a purpose, namely ‘to enable it to live,’ analysis necessarily appears to be confined to simply studying the various types of morality in order to learn ‘how they are made up and what factors condition them’ (Durkheim, 1979: 130, 31). Such a line of argument, developed in a discussion on moral doctrines first published in 1909, leads Durkheim to express the view that notwithstanding knowledge of variations in moral life, and an appreciation that ‘the morality of the future will probably not be that of today,’ existing morality is ‘worthy of respect’ and ‘children must be bound … to the morality of their own time and country’ (1979: 131). This point of view provides little scope for a critical analytical address of a prevailing system of morality. As Bauman suggests, given the above ‘there is no way in which various moral systems can be compared and differentially evaluated. The need each system serves arises inside the society in which it is nested, and what matters is that there must be a moral system in every society, and not the substance of moral norms this or that society happens to enforce in order to maintain its unity’ (1989: 172).

Durkheim was clearly aware that his view of moral reality was vulnerable to the criticism that it precluded the possibility of judgement and in a 1906 seminar discussion of his ideas he sought to counter objections by arguing that they rested upon a misunderstanding. However, the counterargument raises more questions than it resolves, for it amounts to little more than an expression of faith in the potential ability of what Durkheim describes as ‘the science of reality,’ ‘the science of moral opinion,’ and ‘the science of morals’ to provide the means of judgement and rectification when we encounter a ‘troubled moral condition.’ The science of morals is credited by Durkheim with the capacity to resolve the dilemmas of moral life. Whether it is the retrieval of an inappropriately abandoned moral principle, one that can be shown to be still ‘related to … essential and ever-present conditions of our social organization and collective mentality’ (1974: 60), or facilitating adjustment to an interregnum between ‘two divergent moralities, the one now existing and the one in the process of becoming’ (1974: 61), it seems that the science of morals is able to provide a resolution of moral dilemmas. Durkheim adds that ‘[w]e are not then obliged to bend our heads under the force of moral opinion’ (1974: 61). It seems that we may take issue with a specific prevailing regime of morality. But the bottom line remains, namely that ‘we cannot aspire to a morality other than that which is related to the state of our society’ (1974: 61). Such a statement begs the question of how the vague criterion advanced allows the appropriateness of different, possibly overlapping, perhaps competing, if not conflicting, simultaneously present moralities to be compared and evaluated. On what basis, following Durkheim, can we take issue with a prevailing moral order, make clear that it is not worthy of respect, and refuse to be bound by it, even if it is the morality of our own time and country? Following Durkheim, is it possible to develop a critical analysis of morality?

Towards the conclusion of his discussion Durkheim remarks that the science he proposes is insufficiently advanced to guide us and that in such circumstances we are forced to do what we can, to operate with a ‘more summary and premature science,’ and to look ‘in moments of doubt to the inspirations of sensibility’ (1974: 61-2). Durkheim does not elaborate on the ‘inspirations of sensibility,’ but such a remark opens up the issue of our ability to perceive or feel and a cluster of related possibilities, including the capacity of responding to emotion, and the habits of the heart documented and explored to such critical effect by Bellah et al. (1996), as well as moral feelings. It is evident from Durkheim’s discussion of human nature and moral activity that any inspiration needs must derive from society, for morality can only come from society. From such a standpoint symptoms of ‘immorality’ necessarily signify deficiencies in the social processing of moral behaviour and there is little, if any prospect, as Bauman warns, of recognizing the respects in which society ‘may, at least on occasion, act as a “morality-silencing” force’ (1989: 174). If morality is considered to be a consequence of society, a social product, then ‘moral behaviour becomes synonymous with social conformity and obedience to the norms observed by the majority’ (Bauman, 1989: 175). The significant limitations of this conception of moral life, in particular for generating appropriate criticisms of problematic social norms and for promoting resistance to questionable standards promoted by society, leads Bauman to explore a radically different perspective on the subject of moral sensibility.

In his critical confrontation with the Durkheimian perspective on moral life Bauman raises the question of the ‘possibility that… certain moral patterns may be rooted in existential factors unaffected by contingent social rules of cohabitation,’ but that these may ‘be neutralized or suppressed by countervailing social forces’ (1989: 174). Drawing on events associated with the Holocaust, Bauman argues that the civilizing process of modernity needs must be recognized now to include ‘death camps and Muselmanner among its material and spiritual products’(1989: 176); conformity with the moral norms of a particular modern society leading in the case of Nazi Germany to genocide and other forms of immoral conduct. The events of the Holocaust undermine the idea of society as the foundation of morality, in particular the punishment of individuals for war crimes, and other political and legal responses following the defeat of Germany testify to the existence of legitimate grounds for distinguishing good from evil that are not ‘fully and solely at the disposal of the social grouping able to “principally co-ordinate” the social space under its supervision’ (Bauman, 1989: 176). Citing Hannah Arendt’s powerful reflections on the moral implications of the prosecution of defendants for following orders, for engaging in forms of conduct unopposed, if not accepted and endorsed by the ‘unanimous opinion of … all around them,’ Bauman suggests that what is at issue is ‘the question of moral responsibility for resisting socialization’ and by implication the presence of non-societal or pre-societal sources of morality. Insofar as the conduct of an individual may be moral, notwithstanding condemnation by the group, and in turn, conduct advocated by the whole of society may be immoral, it is necessary, as Bauman argues, to rethink the sociology of morality. Rather than the process of socialization being the source of the solution to immorality it may be responsible for ‘the manipulation of moral capacity’ (Bauman, 1989: 178), for the neutralization, if not the perversion, of morality. Such an awareness leads Bauman to argue that ‘the factors responsible for the presence of moral capacity must be sought in the social, but not societal sphere. Moral behaviour is conceivable only in the context of coexistence, of “being with others”, that is, a social context; but it does not owe its appearance to the presence of supraindividual agencies of training and enforcement, that is of a societal context’ (1989: 178-9). It is the primary existential condition of our ‘being with others’ which is fundamental to the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, a philosophy that Bauman argues is able to provide the basis of a significantly ‘different and original sociological approach to morality’ (1989: 182).

Ethical Responsibility, Moral Life, and the Political World of Society

In his discussion of the model of the civilizing process which has informed our understanding of the development of modernity, Bauman argues that critical consideration needs to be given to the way in which the ‘promotion of rationality’ has marginalized, if not excluded altogether, alternative criteria of action, particularly ethical motivations for action. A marginalization or neglect of ethical and moral problematics has been a feature of modern sociological enquiry as it has worked to establish its place within an increasingly morally silent scientific culture. As Bauman remarks, ‘[t]he nature and style of sociology has been attuned to the selfsame modern society it theorized and investigated’ (1989: 29), a society which has revered the rational to the detriment of ‘ethical norms or moral inhibitions.’ The work of Levinas, on which Bauman draws, stands in stark contrast to the discourse of modern sociology insofar as it presents a relationship of ethical responsibility for the other as constitutive of subjectivity. Sociality, the condition of being with another, is from this standpoint primarily a matter of being for the other.

In the work of Levinas the inter-human relationship of proximity with the other constitutes the analytic focus. Subjectivity is conceived in ethical terms, ‘the very node of the subjective is knotted in ethics understood as responsibility.’ In turn, the latter is described as ‘the essential, primary and fundamental structure of subjectivity’ (Levinas, 1992: 95). In contrast to the mainstream philosophical tradition of the West, which makes a correlation between ‘knowledge, understood as disinterested contemplation, and being … the very site of intelligibility, the occurrence of meaning’ (Levinas, 1989: 76), it is ethics which constitutes first philosophy for Levinas. However, the relationship of ethical responsibility that constitutes our human being is recognized by Levinas to become occluded the moment sociality extends beyond face-to-face interaction. As soon as there are more than two people the ethical relationship changes and becomes political. It is here in ‘the sociopolitical order of organizing and improving our human survival’ that morality, ‘a series of rules relating to social behaviour and civic duty’ (Levinas and Kearney, 1986: 29) comes into play. Levinas argues that ethics, the sensitivity of the subject to the call of the other, ‘becomes morality and hardens its skin as soon as we move into the political world of the impersonal “third”—the world of government, institutions, tribunals, prisons, schools, committees, and so on’ (Levinas and Kearney, 1986: 30). The critical task of ethics as ‘first philosophy’ is to seek to unsettle this ontologically naturalized form of being-in-the-world by continually reminding us of our fundamental ethical responsibility for the other. A sense of our ethical responsibility for the other provides a foundation and a resource from which the prevailing moral-political order of the state may be challenged and resisted. Indeed, Levinas describes ethical responsibility as ‘a perpetual duty of vigilance and effort’ (Levinas and Kearney, 1986: 30) that needs to be continually ready to hold the political world of government to account. As such ethics represents for Levinas not so much a metaphysical ‘what ought to be’ as a critical disturbance of our being, of the complacency of our being, and as such Levinasian ethics constitutes a potentially powerful form of critique.

In an explication of the work of Jacques Derrida, Simon Critchley argues that Levinas attempts to ‘build a bridge from ethics understood as a responsible, non-totalizing relation with the other, to politics, conceived of as a relation to the third party … to all the others, to the plurality of beings that make up the community’ (1992: 220). The sociological significance of a transformation of this order in the magnitude or scale of a social group for the relations between its elements has been addressed by Georg Simmel. Reflecting on the significance of numbers for social life Simmel argues that the ‘simplest sociological formation … remains that which operates between two elements’ (1950: 122). Simmel argues that this formation, the dyad, is distinctive, that it has ‘a different relation to each of its two elements than have larger groups to their members … each of the two feels himself confronted only by the other, not by a collectivity above him … The dyad, therefore, does not attain that super-personal life which the individual feels to be independent of himself’ (1950: 123). As soon as an additional member or third party enters the scene the intimacy, closeness and sense of responsibility associated with the dyad is dissolved; the relationship is transformed with the formation of an ‘objective unit up and above its members … an objective, super-individual structure which they feel exists and operates on its own’ (Simmel, 1950: 127-8). Simmel proceeds to argue that such an objective structure may lead individuals to pass responsibility for ‘performances which really are the business of individual members … over to society’ (1950: 133). In turn, Simmel identifies other features, such as the erosion or elimination of moral restraint and the possible anonymity associated with group membership, leading ‘the individual to commit acts for which, as an individual, he does not care to be responsible’ (1950: 134). What is clearly at issue here is the qualitative transformation of the basis of individual conduct arising from an expansion in the scale of social interaction, precipitating in particular what Simmel describes as ‘disturbance and distraction of pure and immediate reciprocity’ (1950: 136).

While Simmel’s references to ‘dyads, triads and larger groups’ may suggest a degree of convergence with the views of Levinas on the significance of the move into ‘the political world of the impersonal “third”,’ beyond superficial similarities in respect of the significance of numbers for social life, there are really relatively few parallels to be found in their respective works. Although Simmel seems to acknowledge the way in which the size of a social group may affect ‘the individual’s group behavior’ and that this may have ‘normative and moral significance,’ ultimately such concerns receive merely the briefest of consideration and then only in relation to the ‘ties of the individual to a super-individual order of life’ (1950: 99), rather than through a more sustained consideration of the question of ethical relationships of responsibility towards others which Levinas has identified as primary.

When Simmel does directly address questions of ethics and morality it is in the relatively familiar sociological context of a consideration of the way in which relations between ‘individual and society’ and the distinction between ‘the social’ and ‘the human’ have been articulated in eighteenth and nineteenth-century thought. However, Simmel’s reflections on ‘the ethics of the individual and … the ethics of society’ (1950: 60) do extend beyond a predictable discussion of the ‘egoism-altruism dichotomy’ and acknowledge the existence of other significantly different philosophical positions. In contrast to the assumption of the necessity of individual egoism being contained and altruistically re-ordered or re-directed within society, Simmel at least opens up the issue of the violence to which the individual may be subject ‘for the benefit and utility of the many’ and, in turn, raises the question of the possibility that the individual’s strivings may not be an expression of egoism but rather a manifestation of the pursuit of a ‘super-personal value’ (1950: 59). What is placed on the agenda here is the potential discrepancy and conflict between the claims made by society upon the individual and the attempts that may be made by the individual to ‘realize a value … or … an accomplishment that is unappreciated … [and] not rewarded by society’ (1950: 61). Elaborating on this theme, Simmel makes reference to Nietzsche’s identification of possible differences between the interests of humanity and society respectively, in particular the fact that society is merely one of the forms in which human development is realized and that other objective orders in which we are involved may not have anything ‘intrinsically and essentially … whatever to do with “society”’ (1950: 62). Simmel notes that such ‘personal qualities’ as ‘depth of thought, greatness of conviction, kindness, nobility of character, courage, purity of heart – have their autonomous significance which likewise is entirely independent of their social entanglements’ (1950: 62). The contrast presented is between values of human existence and social values, it being argued that the former allow us to entertain claims that ‘go far beyond any given society … and may even be in pointed conflict with the more specific claims of the group that for any given man represents “his society”’ (Simmel, 1950: 63).

The pressures on the individual are, as Simmel recognizes, to accommodate to the demands and standards of society, ‘to differentiate himself from the humanly general’ but to submit to the ‘socially general.’ There is an underlying current here that has been articulated in terms of notions of the ‘freedom of the individual,’ ‘natural-law man’ and an abstract individualism, notions that suggest we are ‘ethically the more valuable, charitable, and good, the more each of us is purely himself … Inasmuch as he is more than sheer empirical individuality, the true individual has in this “more” the possibility to give of himself and thus to overcome his empirical egoism’ (1950: 70). In these eighteenth-century views discussed by Simmel there is a sense of an essential nature imperfectly (re)present(ed) in reality, the objective being to achieve ‘the ego which we already are … because we are it not yet purely and absolutely but only in the disguise and distortion of our historical destinies’ (1950: 71). In short, to achieve with others ‘the true equality of all that is man.’

Simmel notes that this conception finds its ‘abstract perfection’ in the work of Kant, for whom moral value is predicated upon personal freedom, including equality. In the course of the nineteenth century a significant transformation is evident in the relationship that is assumed to exist between the qualities of freedom and equality, literally a shift from potential ‘harmony’ to perceived ‘antagonism,’ and two other tendencies emerge placing emphasis on ‘equality without freedom’ and ‘freedom without equality’ respectively. The first of these Simmel notes is characteristic of socialism, the second of a new individualism—a qualitative individualism stressing incomparability, uniqueness and specificity. A socialized system necessarily encounters the impossibility of reconciling freedom and equality and is ‘forced to resort to an adjustment to equality, which, as an overall satisfaction, is supposed to reduce the desires for freedom that go beyond it’ (Simmel, 1950: 75). With the new individualism, ‘the individualism of difference,’ there is an implied ‘constitution of a more comprehensive whole that is composed of the differentiated elements’ (Simmel, 1950: 82), a societal collective that unifies heterogeneous elements.

In contrast to the qualities identified above, qualities, that is, of reciprocity, freedom and equality that inform our understanding of the relationship between individual and society, there is another relevant position, to which I have already drawn attention, one that operates on radically different terms. Rather than ‘reciprocity,’ Emmanuel Levinas places emphasis on an ethical relationship of responsibility for the other as constitutive of subjectivity, a relationship that is not one of ‘symmetrical co-presence’ but of ‘essential asymmetry’ (Levinas and Kearney, 1986: 31), or as he states in Ethics and Infinity, ‘the intersubjective relation is a non-symmetrical relation’ (1985: 98). Instead of’freedom’ Levinas speaks of duty, responsibility and obligation. And rather than ‘equality,’ Levinas makes clear that ‘I must always demand more of myself than of the other’ (Levinas and Kearney, 1986: 31). In short there is an inequality of responsibility, such that ‘I and the Other are in this sense not equals. I am infinitely more responsible than the Other’ (Llewelyn, 1995: 139). Implied here is a very different conception of the relationship between individual and society to the one that has tended to underpin sociological reflection. Levinas demands,

It is extremely important to know if society in the current sense of the term is the result of a limitation of the principle that men are predators of one another, or if to the contrary it results from the limitation of the principle that men are for one another. Does the social, with its institutions, universal forms and laws, result from limiting the consequences of the war between men, or from limiting the infinity which opens in the ethical relationship of man to man. (1985: 80)

For Freud, Durkheim and Simmel it is the former view that predominates, it being argued that in the ‘development of the individual as of the species, ethical obedience to the claims of the “thou” and of society characterizes the first emergence from the pre-ethical stage of nave egoism’ (Simmel, 1950: 261). In the respective works of Levinas and Bauman it is evident that the latter view prevails, in short that ‘moral responsibility … is the first reality of the self, a starting point rather than a product of society’ (Bauman, 1993: 13). Indeed, reflecting on the question of the relationship with the other Levinas remarks that Durkheim has ‘misunderstood the specificity of the other when he asks in what Other rather than myself is the object of a virtuous action’ and that he is mistaken to regard ‘“morality … [as] the product of the collective” and not the result of the face to face encounter’ (1987: 84:). For Bauman it is clear that the sources of morality are to be regarded as ‘pre-societal’ and that rather than being a ‘product of society,’ morality may in fact be ‘something society manipulates- exploits, redirects, jams’ (Bauman, 1989: 183).

Concluding Remarks—Questioning Ethics, Critical Theorizing, and Moral Life

Traumatized by ‘the administered nightmare of the twentieth century’ (Jay, 1973: 280), Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer raised questions about the status and purpose of social enquiry and the fate of morality. The question of what remains of morality after Auschwitz is one to which both Levinas and Bauman have responded. For Levinas it is a question of whether we can ‘speak of morality after the failure of morality?’ The cautious answer provided is that it ‘cannot be concluded that after Auschwitz there is no longer a moral law, as if the moral or ethical law were impossible without promise’ (Levinas, 1988: 176). The notion of ‘ethics as first philosophy’ outlined by Levinas represents a more positive response to the same question, a response that promotes the idea of the continuing ‘primacy of the ethical, … of the relationship of man to man—signification, teaching, and justice—a primacy of an irreducible structure upon which all other structures rest’ (1969: 79). The ethical demand to recall and live with our responsibility for the other articulated by Levinas achieves a wide-ranging, if not universal, critical analytical and political value in a context where the articulation of an increasingly global neocapitalism with a culture of individualism has promoted self-fulfilment as the primary preoccupation and produced moral indifference as a consequence. As Robert Bellah and his colleagues suggest, it is important to recognize the extent to which our ‘basic sense of solidarity with others’ has been and continues to be undermined; how our sense of ‘solidarity with those near to us … [and] those who live far from us, those who are economically in situations very different from our own’ (1996: xxx) continues to be eroded. For Bauman too it is important to understand how the modern civilizing process has produced moral indifference, eroded moral inhibitions, and rendered victims of exploitation and dehumanization morally invisible. Now that it is no longer possible to treat the incidence of immoral conduct as symptomatic of a breakdown of ‘“normal” social arrangements’ (Bauman, 1989: 198) a new sociological theory of morality is required to account for the social production of immorality and to assist in the recovery of ethical life.