Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Durkheim on Moral Individualism, Social Justice, and Rights: A Gendered Construction of Rights

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Durkheim on Moral Individualism, Social Justice, and Rights: A Gendered Construction of Rights

Article excerpt


Ourkheim has been characterized as a conservative (Coser 1960; Nisbet 1952; Zeitlin 1981), a liberal (Strenski 2006; Lukes 1973; Prager 1981; Bellah 1973), a radical thinker with socialist tendencies (Pearce 2001; Gane 1992; Mestrovic 1992; Emirbayer 2003; Giddens 1986), or even as the precursor of Fascism (in Bellah 1973:xxxi; Llobera 1994:141). But there is one side to Durkheim's work that no one appears to dispute. Commentators agree that Durkheim championed the rights and dignity of the individual (Cladis 1992:129-130; Stedman Jones 2001:49), that he sought to "enhance human freedom" (Prager 1981:919), and that he was deeply concerned "with the implementation and the furtherance of individual rights" (Giddens 1986:3). There is wide agreement that his theory of moral individualism espouses a universal value system that stresses the importance of individual rights and freedom, and a world order based on the principles of equality and social justice.

There is a problem with this consensus. Contemporary scholars, in the English-speaking literature, read and interpret Durkheim's notion of moral individualism, and use the language of individual rights, in neutral terms, as if it could be applied equally to both sexes. His theory is presented as a concern for the rights of others (Tole 1993:3, see also Bellah 1973, Seidman 1985) and, hence, as supporting the rights of women. But scholars generally overlook the fact that Durkheim's commitment to the free individual does not relate to "humankind," but to "mankind."

Although there is an extensive scholarship and feminist critique on Durkheim's ideas on gender relations, suicide, law, religion (Lehmann 1994, 1991, 1990; Shope, 1994; Gane 1992; Kandal 1988; Sydie 1987; Tiryakian 1981; Johnson 1972; Besnard 1973), and a few authors have pointed out, in passing, that Durkheim's universalistic orientation "was marred by his exclusion" of the female sex (Llobera 2002:77; Barmaki 2008:57; Gane 1992:105; Cladis 1992:303fn14), the relationship between his theory of justice and freedom, and his views on women, has not been fully explored. The overwhelming majority of scholars dealing with his theory of moral individualism, present Durkheim as a champion of individual rights, and the theory itself as a "universal modern value system"(Cotterrell 2010:xi). (2) Even feminist scholars have neglected his theory of moral individualism relative to other aspects of his writings. This paper aims to address this shortcoming.

While Durkheim's concern with the development of individual freedom in modern society is undeniable, I argue that his reputation as defender and protector of human rights, individual self-development, and social justice is undermined by his writings on the female sex. A society which excludes the interests and well-being of females, cannot be said to be a just society. To deny women's demand for freedom, equality, and in the end, justice, is to go against the essential tenets of moral individualism.

There are four parts to my analysis. The article begins with an examination of Durkheim's theory of moral individualism as traditionally understood and interpreted. The next section examines Durkheim's early theory of gender relations. The third segment analyzes his views on women in modern society. Both sections help explain why his theory of justice cannot be universally applied. The last piece deals with Durkheim's gendered construction of social justice and rights. I also discuss here a persistent problem in contemporary scholarship on moral individualism, namely the tendency to ignore that Durkheim excludes women from his vision of a just society.


For Durkheim, the malaise of modernity was the result of the profound structural changes that had occurred in a very brief period of time. In The Division of Labour, he laments that tradition has lost its controlling influence, and "individual judgment has been freed from collective judgment. …

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