Emile Durkheim: Sociologist and Moralist

Emile Durkheim: Sociologist and Moralist

Emile Durkheim: Sociologist and Moralist

Emile Durkheim: Sociologist and Moralist


International scholarship over the last twenty years has produced a new understanding of Emile Durkheim as a thinker. It has contributed to reassembling what, for Durkheim, was always a whole: a sociological selection on morals and moral activism. This volume presents an overview of Durkheim's thought and is representative of the best of contemporary Durkheim scholarship.


Reconnecting the sociologist to the moralist

Stephen P. Turner

The philosopher and moralist Alasdair Maclntyre closed his influential work, After Virtue, with a call for ‘another…Saint Benedict’ (1981:238-45). The idea of calling for a moral exemplar and savior who could change both forms and practice struck him as the only kind of serious intervention the moral thinker can make under present circumstances, What is lacking in modern life, he reasoned, is a genuine tradition of moral reasoning—moral persuasion and reasoning presuppose such a tradition. So the only choice is to create one. But the creation of a tradition is not something that a professor can do in the study. It is an act, as Maclntyre conceived it, of community formation and the development of a common narrative—what St Benedict did when he created the religious communities of post-Roman Europe through the attractive example of his own way of living as a Christian.

Maclntyre was not sociologically naive in coming to this conclusion. Maclntyre constructed a sociological account of the history of ethics from the heroic societies of Homeric Greece to the present as a basis for a rethinking of the moral situation of the present day. Heroic societies, he reasoned, were societies in which not ‘moral principles’ but rather virtues were celebrated and formed the core of ‘moral’ experience. Virtues, he argued, were more or less directly connected to the good of the community, in a visible way. The Homeric heroes, for example, were persons whose excellence in fulfilling the roles set for them in their societies enabled their communities to achieve communal aims. The ancient virtues were closely connected to defined social roles, and when these roles were themselves transformed by the stabilization of Greek politics and the rise of urbanism, they no longer had much application to the actual problems of life, and this posed fundamental intellectual problems for moralists and ultimately for philosophers.

The flowering of Greek ethics at the time of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and their students was a response to these changed social circumstances. Subsequent forms of moral reasoning were, similarly, fitted to the different social worlds of later societies, and came to be fitted in a specific

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