Sociology as Moral Philosophy (and Vice Versa)

By Vandenberghe, Frederic | Canadian Review of Sociology, November 2017 | Go to article overview

Sociology as Moral Philosophy (and Vice Versa)


Vandenberghe, Frederic, Canadian Review of Sociology


A moral philosophy characteristically presupposes a sociology

Alasdair Maclntyre: After Virtue (1984:23)

Social scientists are moral philosophers in disguise

Alan Wolfe: Whose Keeper? Social Science and Moral Obligation (1989:23)

WHILE A GOOD DEAL OF contemporary sociology is political and moralizing, moral sociology as such remains largely underdeveloped. Recently, there has been a resurgent interest in moral sociology with concerted attempts to institutionalize it as a specialized subfield of inquiry, both in mainland Europe (centered around the work of Honneth, Boltanski, and Thevenot) and in the Anglo-Saxon world (influenced by the work of communitarians like Maclntyre, Taylor, and Walzer or by the critical realism of Bhaskar and Archer). (1) Unlike the sociology of religion, the sociology of knowledge, or the sociology of arts, moral sociology does not have a real tradition. The founding fathers had, of course, a strong interest in morality and ethics. (2) To the extent that there is a canon, Emile Durkheim would be its prime figure (even though he did not finish his book La morale). Max Weber and his paradoxical defense of axiological neutrality would come second, even if it undermines ethics. Marx does not have any specific texts on ethics as such, and it is not even clear if there is space in Marxism for a morality that is not subservient to politics. After all, wasn't it Marx (1969), who declared "communists do not preach any morality at all" (p. 229). With his Einleitung in die Moralwissenschaft, Georg Simmel (1991) has two volumes on ethics, but they are not very sociological and deconstruct most of its basic concepts. Following the Second World War, more than anyone else, Talcott Parsons has continued the Durkheimian tradition and underscored the moral dimension of social life. With the downfall of structural functionalism in the 1960s, moral sociology went into hibernation as well. (3) Pierre Bourdieu certainly has a sociology of morality, but no moral sociology. Like everything else, he explains morality sociologically but does not leave much space for independent moral reflection. As a counter position, there is Jiirgen Habermas's theory of communicative action and discourse ethics, but most sociologists would consider him a philosopher anyway.

One could easily make the case that the "founding fathers" of our discipline, not just Marx, Weber, and Durkheim but also Parsons and Bourdieu, who, unlike us, were deeply steeped in philosophy and knew their classics, were fully aware of the moral dimensions of moral life, as well as of the normative presuppositions and implications of the new discipline. In spite of their declaration to the contrary, they knew only too well that the sociology they proposed was situated in a long tradition and taking explicit sides. Marx tried to combine Aristoteles, Kant, and Hegel in a revolutionary philosophy of history, Durkheim was knowingly fusing Aristotle and Kant into his science of morals, whereas Weber, brushing aside 2,000 years of moral philosophy with a slight of hand, was sociologizing with a hammer. Parsons for his part rejected utilitarian consequentialism and sought, through a synthesis of Kant and Christian ethics, to restore a common system of ultimate ends. In spite of his endorsement of practical reason and in order not to be too closely associated to a Marxian theory of justice, Bourdieu described himself as a Pascalian. In any case, without reference to their classics, I surmise, our classics cannot be properly understood.

To develop a moral sociology worthy of its name, one has, however, first to break down the disciplinary barrier between sociology and philosophy and overcome the reticence and resistance of professional, critical, and public sociologists to engage in some constructive "border thinking." (4) While most would probably agree that sociology entails a normative project, grounded in a slightly nostalgic liberal-communitarian worldview, few would actually be willing to spell out that project and launch a philosophical inquiry into its normative foundations. …

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