Moral Order and Social Change

morality_road_signsIs society a moral order? I don’t think so. Morals are plastic.  People’s morals  change all the time in order to adapt to non-moral practical exigencies.

For instance, people change their morals to conform to the beliefs of a group of people with whom they identify.  If the dominant beliefs in the group change, individual members of the group will shift their own beliefs to go along with the new common sense. This can happen without any instrumental calculation about the costs and benefits of dissidence; it can happen simply because one intuitively feels uncomfortable being eccentric, or because one trusts the opinions of the other members of the group, and so on. Morals adapt to the exigencies of collective identification.

People drift away from moral beliefs which they have no opportunity to put into practice, and especially those which create tension with their everyday lifestyle, and drift towards moral beliefs which they can effectively exercise.  We can see this in the oft-cited phenomenon of middle-class people being idealistic in their young adulthood and becoming more conservative as they get older.  For a young adult with a bit of new-found freedom, counterhegemonic ideals can fit with one’s life situation.  Such ideals justify rebelling against paternalistic authority; they resonate with the feeling that the world is full of possibility and is open to being made anew; one has some free time to devote to political activism, and so on. Then one gets older, gets invested in a career and family life, acquires a certain enfranchisement and authority over others, has to save money for retirement, has to buy a car, and so on. Those youthful ideals have little opportunity for fulfillment and so people let go of them.  Or, alternatively, people maintain activist involvements, find ways to modify the middle-class lifestyle, and remain committed to progressive ideals or even become more radical over time. Either way, people adapt their moral convictions to the changing opportunities to put those convictions into practice.

The same thing happens in the life of a social movement. When a movement is achieving incremental goals — attracting members, garnering attention, affecting legislation, etc. — then its moral claims have traction on the wider field of social practice. When a movement is blocked from achieving meaningful goals in the short to medium term, its moral claims lose force. Moral conviction needs to find an outlet in practice or else it withers.

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Even moral intransigence can come from non-moral sources. When I get into an arguments with someone who has a strong moral conviction, often I find one of two things happening. If that person is clever and articulate they will keep coming up with reasons to justify their conviction. Even if I  refute their best reasoning, they will go away and come up with new reasons. (I do this myself all the time when people refute my best reasoning!) Or, if spinning arguments is not their forte, they will resort to essentialism — “it just is right” – or to symbolic violence — “you’re a horrible person and I won’t listen to you”.  Moral conviction can be intense without being based on moral reason, if it appeals to some non-rational and non-moral emotion or intuition. Morals adapt to our libidinal investments and to our habitus.

I think that people who really base their actions on morality per se are few and far between and can be treated as a special case. Most of the time, if we want to understand morality, we need to look for the non-moral exigencies it is adapting to.

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For instance, if we want to understand the conservative opposition to LGBT rights, then by and large we should direct our attention not to the millennia-long tradition of Christian theology on the subject, but to the emotional and practical gains that people realize from adopting this position.  Even a brief look at the US debate on this issue shows that much of the resistance to gay rights is about status or symbolic capital, and also about certain libidinal investments which organize people’s feelings of anxiety and shame in relation to sex.  Tracing the social history of these investments will probably tell us more about how to overcome homophobia than will a rational critique of homophobic beliefs.

Of course the homophobic beliefs are not irrelevant and still do need to be critiqued. But I suspect that moral principles formulated in rational terms are only the most superficial line of defense for whatever it is that homophobes are trying to protect. If that’s correct, then the ideologues who articulate homophobic doctrines are acting as moral entrepreneurs, “selling” (so to speak) ideas which certain people will find intuitively appealing for pre-rational reasons, ideas which meet people’s emotional and practical needs. Such ideas are only as rational as they need to be to defend those who adopt them against criticisms which they themselves would find persuasive.

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This is just an example. There’s nothing special about conservative heteronormativity this way. Morals, and ideas in general, are almost always interwoven with and adapted to the practical demands of our physical embodiment.

The practices of morality include the things like formulating moral beliefs, advocating them, acting on them against resistance from non-moral motivations, and so on. These moral practices are always interwoven with other, non-moral practices like making a living, managing a household, negotiating one’s identity and social status, and so on.  If these non-moral, ‘material’ practices do not determine the moral practices in any simple and straightforward way, neither does moral practice simply construct the material social world. Morality is one domain of practice among others, interwoven with the others, rarely if ever  autonomous or autopoietic. To put all moral practices together in a category and treat that category as a reality sui generis capable of explaining other phenomena is a mistake.  Society cannot be a moral order because morals do not form a bounded, self-organizing system of action, let alone one capable of regulating society as a whole.

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What this means for revolutionary socialism is that one cannot build a new social order on the basis of the right moral beliefs alone. (Conversely, the collapse of actually existing socialisms is not an indication of the wrongness of socialist moral beliefs; it is a practical failure.)  To achieve the revolutionary transformation of society, socialism must do much more than appeal to moral convictions. It must articulate with the full range of practices with which morals are always intertwined. It must solve practical problems in people’s everyday and everynight life. It must put food on the table. It must relieve the pressures of housework and childcare. It must resolve people’s competitive struggles for esteem. It must calm inflamed emotions, and inspire healthy and sustainable passions. And so on.

To become a reality socialism has to solve problems, it has to work in practice, it has to get shit done.  Of course, socialists have endeavoured to do just that, with varying degrees of success. But the non-moral practices of socialism are less well theorized than its moral dimensions.  We have a fine tradition of moralistic theory inspired by the ideals of socialism and informed by its radical critique of existing society. There is, I think, rather less written about how to put socialism into practice under actually existing circumstances, circumstances that range from global geopolitics to the smallest and most intimate exchanges between individuals.  This is an interesting area for further theoretical inquiry.

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Note on my terms:

I’m using the term ‘morals’ in a particular way, influenced by Emile Durkheim’s analysis.  Durkheim defined morals as beliefs which are enforced by “widespread, repressive sanction, that is to say a condemnation by public opinion which consists of avenging any violation of the precept”.  He further specified modern morals, those of societies with a complex division of labour, as having three elements Moral rules are those which we pursue for their own sake, not out of practical utility; they refer to some greater good beyond individual gain; and they provide individuals with an enlightened basis for conforming to social norms.

I think of morality as consisting of beliefs which override an individual’s self-interest in the name of a greater good. On this basis we can make distinction between morality properly so called, and actions which may be morally salutary but which are motivated by non-moral factors.

Specifically, what Zygmunt Bauman calls “animal pity” is not a form of morality, although it may be the basis for certain forms of morality.  A person who refuses to harm another because they feel that harm in their own soul, because they have compassion or empathy, because they refuse to suffer the pain of pushing through those feelings to achieve some goal — that person is not acting morally, or more specifically their actions are not driven by morality, in the sense that is true for a person who refuses to harm another out of principle. Likewise, a person who does good for another because they feel that good as a pleasurable, as an enhancement or fulfillment of their own subjectivity, may be doing morally praiseworthy things but is not motivated by morality as such.

A parent who rushes into a burning building to save their child is not acting morally. Neither is a soldier who refuses to torture a prisoner out of sheer empathy for the suffering of the other. What is done out of love, as they say, takes place beyond good and evil.

13 thoughts on “Moral Order and Social Change

  1. Pingback: Moral Entrepreneurship | The Practical Theorist

  2. “we should direct our attention not to the millennia-long tradition of Christian theology on the subject, but to the emotional and practical *gains* that people realize from adopting this position.” [my emphasis added]

    To this I would add that we should also direct our attention to the emotional and practical *losses* or *costs* that could be borne by any who adopt moral positions contrary to their group’s norms.

    When I was analyzing terrorist recruiting and propaganda I resisted the trend in many US-based intelligence organizations to identify ideology as the source of all power. I would ask, “but for what (non-ideological) reasons do some people find terrorist ideology appealing?” Sometimes, young recruits indeed received emotional and practical *gains* by adopting a group’s moral positions. Other times, young recruits avoided significant emotional and practical *losses* by adopting a group’s moral positions. Identifying these emotional and practical gains and losses helped some analysts understand that ideologies and moral positions alone are not all-powerful but instead are intimately connected to the daily emotional and practical needs of the people that encounter them.


    • Thanks for this comment. I completely agree with your point. Your analysis sounds interesting; is it part of published research that I can look up somewhere?

      We can take this line of thinking further still by assuming that emotional and practical gains and losses cannot explain themselves, but rather emerge from a historical developmental process. We can always ask: what historical process enables this or that moral orientation to register as a gain or as a loss for specific actors?


      • Hi Christopher. Sorry for the delayed response. I just relocated from Florida to Colorado and finally have the house unpacked. I don’t have a published reference for my thought on including losses as well as gains as motivations for moral positions. However I am sure I probably read it somewhere in my sociology and philosophy curriculum. The source of my thought is my practical experience with Taliban insurgents held in US custody in Afghanistan. I worked in the U.S. detention facility as a cultural analyst, and I reviewed the biographies, social environments, and personal testimonies of the detainees. It quickly became apparent the significant cost some of the guys faced if they had not sided with the Taliban. When one’s family, clergy, employer, and civil servants all support, appease, or acquiesce to the local Taliban, then one faces tremendous loss if he too does not fall in line with local conventions. I worked with an anthropologist who taught me to look for this and to consider how potential losses can be as motivating as potential gains.

        Just before typing this I saw your new post on agents vs events, and I think my thoughts here are right in line with those. The anthropologist taught me to analyze two broad categories of concepts surrounding behavior. One was intent and the second was capability. Intent encompassed things like a person’s social and cultural history and signals from family that could contribute to one developing the intent to behave in a certain way. Capability encompassed things like one’s access to resources, training, locations, etc. These two categories generally align with agents and events (contexts).

        The analysts among us in Afghanistan who lacked social science training tended to emphasize an agent’s essential culpability while those analysts with more social science training tended to emphasize environmental contexts as important causal factors. If a local teenager connected the wiring on a Taliban IED, some analysts would explain this behavior by asserting that the teenager was an essentially immoral person because he was under the ideological influence of extremism. Myself and the social scientists would point out what tremendous courage and bravery we would by implication expect from such a teenager if we expected him to side with the U.S military forces when every person in his family and village supported the Taliban, including the fact that the physical context in the village made it so much easier to support the Taliban than to report insurgent activity to ISAF forces.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Jeremy,

        I’ve been meaning to thank you for this comment. Your story is really fascinating. On the one hand you show how agent- and event-centered explanations are connected: by considering context and capability it seems you quickly reasoned back to what sorts of decisions an actor would have to make to act a certain way, in defiance of the consensus of their community. On the other hand you show how looking at context and capability make it easier to understand why people make decisions that conflict with our own values. For me this is one of the great gains of a social-scientific attitude. The Ugandan political scientist Mahmood Mamdani, in his book “When Victims Become Killers”, wrote something like “atrocity cannot be its own explanation” and I’ve always felt that to understand people’s moral decisions we must move beyond a moralistic, judgmental way of thinking.

        I’m curious about the way you describe there being two general positions among the analysts in Afghanistan, those oriented to ideological/moralistic interpretations of events and those oriented to understanding the context in which local actors made decisions. Did there tend to be a debate between those two perspectives? And if so, how did it play out?

        I’m very biased – to me, including a contextual understanding of events is so much more realistic and pragmatic than understanding events only in ideological terms. Part of me is amazed that a global superpower, fighting a difficult and costly war against a determined opponent, would waste its time employing analysts who can’t understand that the local teenager collaborating with the Taliban is acting normatively for his context. It’s like sending agricultural experts who don’t understand the local soil and weather conditions and treat Afghanistan like it’s Kansas. Do you have any insight into how and why this happened?


      • Yes, there was certainly debate between analysts who preferred practical explanations of behavior and those who preferred ideological explanations of behavior. But the practical social scientists were vastly outnumbered by the analysts who lacked social science training (in my opinion; I don’t have numbers to prove this). Because of this imbalance there was little debate. Sometimes the social scientists had the ear of individual mid-level, and on occasion high-level, military managers and commanders, and these managers and commanders would occasionally champion the arguments made by the social scientists. But this was the exception in my experience. On a day to day basis I experienced much contention between the practical and ideological analysts and their supervisors. In the end, it appeared to me that many of practical analysts and social scientists left their jobs and sought work in the civilian and academic markets. Their high levels of education enabled such transitions. The analysts with less social science training tended to continue work with the military. Again, this is just my perception of the events.

        As far as insights into how and why this happened, I don’t have much to offer at the moment. Even though I quit working for the military in 2011 I am still processing my experience. At a very general level, while I was on active duty as an analyst and and working as a civilian contractor analyst, I experienced an almost overwhelming sense of inertia. The military’s fight against terrorism around the world and the work of analysts who supported that fight felt to me to be propelled by much bureaucratic inertia. In a way, it was just easy to stay engaged, keep your head down, and keep doing the work in spite of the sometimes great frustrations, especially if you didn’t have options in the civilian world. The military keeps you constantly moving, i.e., new training, new promotions, new assignments, etc. These constant transitions occupy a great deal of one’s attention and have big effects on one’s rank and prestige. Managing these transitions takes much effort. People who cared about these transitions tended to stay in the military or working for the military. People (like me) who cared more about the work (analyzing terrorism) than about navigating bureaucratic machinery tended to leave. But these are only micro-level observations. I read your book, Barbaric Civilization, in 2013, and it has me thinking about the long term historical explanations for our present day military activities. I am also pondering over Hirschman and Reed’s new paper “Formation Stories and Causality in Sociology” and it’s implications for how I understand causality in social events. The skeptic in me keeps me from settling on any one grand narrative to explain my military experience, though never stop processing it and trying to explain it. Your blog helps, too, and I appreciate you engaging here.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. The substance of the piece- the question of the instrumental and social uses to which morality can be put- is theoretically very important, and also timely in light of the spotlight place accorded to moral politics in our societies (e.g. the culture wars, the recent Internet-driven epidemic of political correctness, et cetera).

    What’s contestable about the piece is the starkly Manichean choice it presents. Either society is a lock-step “moral order” in which a transcendent morality assembles a human robot army to do its bidding, a Borg collective of wholly selfless drones; or else society is a mere congeries made up of wholly anomic opportunists and sociopaths, a Hobbesian state of Nature that nonetheless (and rather miraculously!) avoids descent into a war of all against all in the absence of truly public rules of individual conduct.

    The first of the two choices can be called “radical rationalist idealistic collectivism”; the second, “radical emotivist materialistic individualism” (in the strongest, reductionist sense of “methodological individualism”).

    But there’s no real need to construct awkward neologisms here- for it is clear that, in all this, it is in the now-ancient debate between Hegel and Nietzsche that we find ourselves. This debate was long ago made obsolete by the revolutionary scientific discovery of the non-reductive distinction between the social and the cultural systems, which made possible a truly sociological approach that had no need of either Hegel’s Absolute or Nietzsche’s genealogy.


    • Thanks for the comment. I’m going to differ on two points.

      “Either society is a lock-step “moral order” in which a transcendent morality assembles a human robot army to do its bidding, a Borg collective of wholly selfless drones; or else society is a mere congeries made up of wholly anomic opportunists and sociopaths, a Hobbesian state of Nature that nonetheless (and rather miraculously!) avoids descent into a war of all against all in the absence of truly public rules of individual conduct.”

      That’s an interesting interpretation of what I wrote, and I’ll keep it in mind, but this wasn’t my intention and I think my text supports a different interpretation. If we accept that social relations engender or constitute a domain of emergent system (bracketing off for the moment all the complexities and problems of those terms), we can ask what function morals perform in that system. The two extreme hypotheses are, (a) morals are the cybernetic switching mechanisms which control most or all of what happens in the system, and as such constitute a self-organizing control system within or in relation to the wider social system, and (b) morals are epiphenomenal byproducts of some other aspects of the system, e.g. class relations or what have you. My position is actually somewhere in the broad middle ground: morals do sometimes determine people’s actions; however they do not do so autonomously or constitute an autopoietic (sub)system unto themselves, but rather are always tangled up in non-moral practical considerations.

      Importantly, think that the assertion that human action is not morally determined does not in any way necessitate a Hobbesian pessimistic agonism. If we define morality as a type of social practice, à la Durkheim, rather than as a metaphysical essence, then we can easily perceive that love, compassion, solidarity, and the like can arise from non-moral motivations, and that symbolic violence, torture, and genocide can be legitimated by moral claims. The converse is also true, of course. But morality, as a particular type of social rule, has only a contingent relationship with kindness.

      “This debate was long ago made obsolete by the revolutionary scientific discovery of the non-reductive distinction between the social and the cultural systems”

      I’m not aware than any such scientific discovery has been made. The non-reductive distinction between the social and the cultural systems has been asserted, by Parsons among others, mainly on philosophical grounds. It has not been empirically validated in any decisive way nor, I think, even formulated in a way that makes it empirically testable.

      To be sure, it’s a claim that is consistent with some empirical observations and which has been useful in generating certain insights. I’m not saying it’s a worthless claim, or even one that should be thrown away by everyone (even if I do throw it away in my own work). It’s been fruitful in an “arts” sense as opposed to a “scientific” sense if you see what I mean.

      I’m surprised to see you make this claim since at one point in our conversation you seemed to allow that the distinction between social and cultural systems was one of the more arbitrary and questionable aspects of Parsonian theory. [Correction: I just reread your comment about re-reading The Structure of Social Action etc.] But you are right to hone in on it in this discussion since my argument about morals is precisely part of a larger rejection of that distinction. So if you could defend that distinction as not only plausible but *necessary* to a scientific sociology then you would refute my claims about morality.


  4. “solidarity…can arise from non-moral motivations”

    For a materialistic, non-moral account of the genesis of social solidarity, see von Mises’ so-called “law of association” (in Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, 157-60). Mises agrees that society is not a moral order, and that holistic concepts such as Durkheim’s notion of the “collective conscience” amount to so much metaphysical jibber-jabber.


    • Thanks for this reference! I will look up that work, which I haven’t come across before at all. But I will say that I don’t go so far as to say that Durkheim’s notion of the collective conscience is so much metaphysical jibber-jabber or that we should renounce all holistic concepts. I want to take Durkheim’s claim seriously as a plausible positive proposition but express my skepticism about it.


      • Just looked up von Mises … I suspect I will disagree with him on many fundamentals. The analysis I’m trying to construct is pro-socialist, even if it aims to pursue socialism without assigning such centrality to morality or solidarity as is sometimes done.


  5. I disagree with Mises on many, many fundamentals (more theoretical than political), but Human Action is a must-read for the aficionado of social theory. The Austrian economists were a veritable lost tribe of Weberians working totally outside of (and in self-conscious antagonism towards) the sociological mainstream, and consequently remain totally unknown to contemporary sociology even though they elaborated upon many of Weber’s key ideas in extremely interesting and important ways. For example, the contemporary understanding of “methodological individualism” in terms of radical anti-holism really originated with Mises and not Weber (in Weber’s hands, methodological individualism was the means of making the Verstehen programme operational at the methodological level, and was agnostic with respect to theoretical holism/individualism quandary).

    I vehemently reject Mises’ methodological individualism, to be sure- but his exposition is admirably rigorous (to the point where the limitations of M.I. become acutely evident), and also undeniably succeeds in bringing to light certain foibles of holism (ecological fallacy, etc.).

    Also of great interest is that, while Mises rejects holism, he also rejects atomistic individualism in the form of e.g. “Crusoe economics” that takes only the theoretically isolated individual as its object. Mises is a self-avowed and dyed-in-the-wool social theorist, and for him, economic action is nothing other than a species of social practice; it both presumes and produces social solidarity. Although I personally don’t always find his treatment of this theme satisfactory to say the very least (there’s a lot more to social solidarity than mutual advantage), it is a very useful corrective against certain facile oppositions between social and economic factors.

    Mises is one of a select handful of social scientists who doesn’t shy away from foundational questions of ontology, epistemology, and methodology in theory-building. Rather unusually for an economist and methodological individualist, he is a fierce critic of positivism and empiricism/quant, against which he defines an eccentric and provocative programme of “a priorism” in which the task of social science is to develop self-validating “apodictic” theories that, unlike physical science theories, need not be empirically validated, because their propositions would appear self-evidently true to any human subject.

    The sheer ambition of scope of Human Action, which purports to lay down the epistemological and theoretical foundations of a unified science of social practice (“praxaeology”) in which economics would figure as a specialty (“catallactics”) by itself arouses interest. Mises did not, of course, succeed in realizing these ambitions or come close to doing that. Moreover, read in light of Parsons’ cognate The Structure of Social Action (which covered the same ground, in a much more sophisticated way), many of his arguments are demonstrably either wrong-headed or irrelevant. But, just like Marx (who, in his style of thought, Mises often resembles, in a Bizarro-world sort of way), when Mises is wrong- and he frequently is- he is wrong in interesting and fruitful ways.

    Those serious about actually building socialism in the real world, as opposed to mere moral critique, urgently need to engage with Mises’ discussions of the formidable (and very real) technical and practical difficulties involved in making a Socialist economy operational, above all his elaboration of Weber’s “problem of economic calculation” in a socialist economy. It’s also interesting to note how Mises’ critique of Keynesian-type State intervention in the economy triangulates with certain Marxist analyses (e.g. Poulantzas 1978), albeit of course predicated on radically divergent grounds.


  6. Erratim: The extreme form of “methodological individualism” does not in fact appear in Human Action, but elsewhere in Mises’ corpus. The definition offered in HA reiterates that of Weber.


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