Social Ethics: Sociology and the Future of Society

Social Ethics: Sociology and the Future of Society

Social Ethics: Sociology and the Future of Society

Social Ethics: Sociology and the Future of Society


First serialized in 1914, "Social Ethics" attempts to convince readers that individualist ethics have failed to make the world a safe place for children, and that we cannot progress to a fully social ethics unless we understand the morality of collective action from a specifically sociological point of view. Gilman argues that in order to be fully progressive, ethics must shift from its traditional focus on individual behaviors to the structure, morality, and outcomes of social or group actions. The social ills she addresses in her attempt to advocate for a reexamination of our ethics include topics still relevant today: militarism, waste, religious intolerance, conspicuous consumption, greed, graft, environmental degradation, preventable diseases, and patriarchal oppression in its numerous manifestations. Hill and Deegan's purpose in recovering this forcefully argued book from obscurity is to show not only that Gilman's central arguments remain largely valid and cogent today, but also that Gilman is a major and substantive contributor to the shape and importance of sociology in its formative years.

Traditional ethics, Gilman argues, fail to resolve the enduring problems facing society because our received ethical systems are invariably and mistakenly founded on individualist rather than social logics. The shape of our collective future, if it is to be progressive and morally responsible, depends fundamentally on adopting a sociological perspective, and our guiding principle must be to make the world a safe and nurturing place for babies and children. Anything less, in Gilman's view, is morally degenerate. In their carefully considered introduction, Hill and Deegan locate Gilman's personal and professional sociological identity within a network of influential and collegial sociologists, and relate "Social Ethics" to Gilman's interests in evolutionary thought, Fabian economics, feminist pragmatism, and the cognate work of Thorstein Veblen. The publication of "Social Ethics" in book form recovers an important theoretical treatise for a new generation of students, scholars, and fans of Gilman's Herland/Ourland saga.


Then, being nothing if not practical, they set their keen and active
minds to discover the kind of conduct expected of them. This worked
out in a most admirable system of ethics.

—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland

Social Ethics: Sociology and the Future of Society provides a complex yet accessible statement of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s mature sociological theory of ethical life. Her perspective is welded intellectually to sociology and evolutionary thought and concretely to the well-being of children throughout the world. We have failed, writes Gilman in Social Ethics, to teach even “a simple, child-convincing ethics based on social interactions, because we have not understood sociology” (emphasis added). For Gilman, a world in which children are not loved, well fed, properly clothed, thoughtfully educated, and humanely disciplined is a world ethically at odds with logic and itself. From this fundamental premise, all else follows. Thus: war, barbarism, waste, religious bigotry, conspicuous consumption, greed, environmental degradation, preventable diseases, and patriarchal oppression in all its manifestations—all these for Gilman are highly unethical and must not be allowed to stand if society is to be a good place for children. If, as readers of Social Ethics, we sense that we are being firmly lectured as well as cajoled by Gilman’s penetrating wit and obvious intellect—that is because we are. Gilman pulls no punches, she really intends us to change our ways, and to use . . .

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