Over the last couple of years I’ve been growing more and more skeptical of moral entrepreneurship as a means for achieving radical socialism, that is, a post-capitalist society in which working people collectively own and democratically control the means of production.
The sociologist Howard S. Becker coined this term in 1963 in his work Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. Becker used it in a more restricted sense than I do. He was concerned mainly with “rule creators” and with moral entrepreneurship in American civil society. The Wikipedia page for the term gives a good short list of the kinds of examples Becker had in mind:
MADD (mothers against drunk driving), the anti-tobacco lobby, the gun control lobby, anti-pornography groups, and the pro-life and pro-choice movements (an example of two moral entrepreneurs working against each other on a single issue
But it seems to me that the notion has a broader applicability than this. The sociologist Emile Durkheim, in The Rules of Sociological Method in 1895, defined ‘morals’ in this way:
To decide whether a precept is a moral one or not we must investigate whether it presents the external mark of morality. This mark consists of a widespread, repressive sanction, that is to say a condemnation by public opinion which consists of avenging any violation of the precept. Whenever we are confronted with a fact that presents this characteristic we have no right to deny its moral character, for this is proof that it is of the same nature as other moral facts.
The notion that morals, by definition, are enforced by public opinion coheres with Becker’s focus on civil society as the setting for moral entrepreneurship. And yet not all moral entrepreneurs need be civil society actors. Political leaders can and regularly do seek to shape civic morals through legislation, social programs, and other top-down measures. Capitalists can and do seek to shape civic morals by, for instance, determining the editorial slant of the news media that they own. And so on.
Lenin and the revolutionaries of Soviet Russia can be understood as moral entrepreneurs in this sense. All state Communism follows an arc in which revolutionaries who originate in civil society take control of the mechanisms of the state in order to try to effect a deep change in the relations of production. This revision inevitably involves a transformation in the moral norms associated with economic life, redefining the limits of individual rights and responsibilities in relation to other individuals and society as a whole.
Likewise, the Western Marxist project of critical theory can be understood as almost entirely concerned with moral entrepreneurship. Likewise, too, the new social movements that have emerged since the 1960s, including new articulations of the feminist, labour, peace, environmental, and human rights movements, are quite heavily involved in moral entrepreneurship. Likewise, the French Revolution. Likewise, the entire project of Western Enlightenment.
Perhaps any attempt to purposefully make deep changes to the social order, whether in an egalitarian and emancipatory direction or otherwise, will necessarily entail a major investment of time and energy in moral entrepreneurship. And yet I do not think that moral entrepreneurship can drive social change all on its own.
We can ask: why do some moral projects succeed and others fail or go awry?
How we answer this question depends on how we think society works. We must theorize morality, and social norms more generally, as aspects of the broader social system.
This leads to a further question: is society a moral order?
If we can theorize morals as the products of another social process, then society is not a moral order.
If society is not a moral order, then we can understand why moral entrepreneurship cannot produce a radical transformation in social relations, and we can begin to theorize the means by which this transformation could be achieved.