Toward a Just Social Order

Toward a Just Social Order

by Derek L. Phillips

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Derek Phillips presents a strong case for the importance of normative theories about the just social organization of society. Most sociologists urge the avoidance of value judgments, but Professor Phillips argues for a notion of a just social order that reflects a twin concern with explanatory and normative thinking.

Originally published in 1986.



Derek Phillips presents a strong case for the importance of normative theories about the just social organization of society. Most sociologists urge the avoidance of value judgments, but Professor Phillips argues for a notion of a just social order that reflects a twin concern with explanatory and normative thinking.

Originally published in 1986.

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Toward a Just Social Order

By Derek L. Phillips


Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-09422-9


Toward a Just Social Order

The problem of social order has long been at the center of philosophical and sociological inquiry. Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Comte, Durkheim, and Parsons are only a few among the many who have wrestled with the social order question. As already noted, that question asks: Why have human societies not been characterized by the "war of all against all"? What holds society together? What are the sources of social cohesion and integration in a society? What is it in social relations that makes organized group life possible?

Numerous answers have been offered to one or another variation of these questions, and there are several contemporary sociological approaches that provide competing accounts of what makes social order possible. In the first part of this chapter, I begin by examining the four dominant theoretical approaches to the social order problem: the private interest doctrine, situational analysis, the consensus doctrine, and the conflict approach. The first two take the form of micro-sociological theories, while the latter two are more macro in character. I then turn to a consideration of the answers to the social order problem provided by two of today's leading social theorists, Jeffrey Alexander and Anthony Giddens. It is not my intention to provide a detailed description and analysis of their various approaches. Rather, I want mainly to indicate how they account for social order and how they conceive of morality or moral values in their theories. In the second half of this chapter, I discuss the status of normative theorizing and the rational justification of specific moral principles.


The Private Interest Doctrine

The doctrine of private interest assumes that individuals are guided entirely by considerations of self-interest and, so far as possible, act to choose the most efficient means for achieving their own private ends or aims. Under the most extreme form of this theory, every individual's ends are independent of every other individual's ends — even though they are, of course, influenced by the ends that others pursue and by the means chosen to achieve them. Although Herbert Spencer believed that the pursuit of individual interests formed a self-regulating mechanism in society, most private interest theorists emphasize the inevitability of conflict, arising either because people desire different things or because they must compete for scarce resources. Hobbes, for instance, posited war as inherent in human nature, which must therefore become subject to a social order represented by the absolute power of the sovereign.

Whatever the actual sources of conflict, private interest theorists see rules and laws emerging as a necessary condition for social order among persons with conflicting desires and objectives. Further, they stress that individuals will voluntarily comply with these rules or laws only to the extent that they believe compliance better serves their self-interest than does noncompliance. Max Weber was one of the theorists who viewed social life as characterized by competitive struggles among individuals and groups of individuals as each seeks to realize its own interests. But these competitive struggles, according to Weber, often generate social regularities or social order. He observes that "many of the especially notable uniformities in the course of social action ... rest ... entirely on the fact that the corresponding type of social action is in the nature of the case best adapted to the normal interests of the actors as they themselves are aware of them." With regard to social order in the marketplace, for example, he says that "all economic activity in a market economy is undertaken and carried through by individuals acting to provide for their own ideals or material interests." Thus, for Weber, social order is frequently — though not always — created and maintained by the actions of people mutually pursuing their individual interests.

Among contemporary sociologists, George Homans is the best known exponent of a private interest approach. Working with an exchange model based on principles of the free market, Homans attempts to get beneath existing norms and values to locate an abiding substructure upon which organized social interaction (social order) depends. To attain various goals (prestige, wealth, social approval), Homans argues, individuals engage in exchange processes. Social interaction consists of exchange involving such rewards as esteem, admiration, and respect, and certain costs like boredom, embarrassment, expenditures of time, and the like. According to Homans, it is the informal rules governing these exchanges that provide for social order.

The weaknesses of the logic of private interest are well known. It is unable to explain how there could have been sufficient similarity among individuals and enough continuity over time to have created what are widely recognized as organized societies. Further, and contrary to what the private interest theorists claim, not all adherence to rules and laws is explainable by people's calculations that they benefit from them or by their fear of punishment if these rules and laws are disobeyed. That is, the private interest doctrine almost totally ignores the existence of shared normative standards. Most importantly for my concerns here, private interest theories, taken to the extreme, appear to have no room (have no need) for moral notions like "wrong," "bad," or "immoral." Since social action is viewed as reducible to individual desires or to a calculation of means and ends, moral discourse is not even possible.

In its pure form, the doctrine of private interest is not really concerned with moral considerations at all. This is not to say, however, that moral rhetoric is missing from the language of those emphasizing an instrumental explanation for social order. Homans speaks, for example, of "distributive justice," describing it as follows: "A man in an exchange of relation with another will expect that the rewards of each man be proportional to his costs — the greater the rewards, the greater the costs — and the net rewards, or profits, of each man be proportional to his investments — the greater the investment, the greater the profit." But Homans never provides any justification for this conception of distributive justice. Nor does he give any independent arguments to defend it as a moral notion. Since morality concerns human beings who are able to distinguish what they ought to do from what they want to do, the private doctrine theory makes it impossible for individuals to treat one another as moral persons. A theory of social order based entirely on considerations of private interest omits totally the moral dimension in human relations.

Situational Analysis

Somewhat like Homans, Erving Goffman sees people as narrowly self-interested beings who are almost exclusively concerned with their own particular goals or ends. Men and women are viewed as "actors" playing their parts with different styles and varying degrees of skill. In Goffman's world, the characters are played by actors who treat their roles as public means to private ends. For him, society is a pseudo-moral system in which everyone is busily involved in the exchange of impressions.

But in contrast to Homans, Goffman focuses on the pre-existing rules — which are themselves largely situationally dependent — that help sustain orderly social relations. While Homans's subjects are consciously aware of what they are doing and why they are doing it, Goffman's actors utilize tacit rules and resources in their social encounters. Instead of emphasizing the particular attributes that individual actors bring to a social situation (prestige, power, and the like), Goffman stresses the importance of the properties and structures of the situations themselves in influencing social conduct.

Nevertheless, Goffman does — like Homans — see people's actions as being determined largely by a concern with strategic conduct. Much of the activity occurring during a social encounter, he says, "can be understood as an effort on everyone's part to get through the occasion and all the unanticipated and unintended events that can cast participants in an undesirable light, without disrupting the relationships of the participants." There are, he emphasizes, frequently taken-for-granted norms that participants in a social situation draw upon in cooperating to sustain one another's presentations of self. Social encounters are characterized by a tacit recognition that everyone is engaged in "face-work," and a tacit agreement to help each other perform such face-work. Thus,

when an individual projects a definition of the situation and thereby makes an implicit or explicit claim to be a person of a particular kind, he automatically exerts a moral demand upon the others, obligating them to value and treat him in the manner that persons of his kind have a right to expect.

While, undoubtedly, people often do exert a "moral" demand on others to honor their presentation of self, for Goffman there are no independent "moral" reasons for accepting or rejecting such demands. Furthermore, there appear to be no situations where moral agents who possess an identity and are capable of exercising choice even exist. In fact, Goffman's whole notion of actors and performances is rather unsatisfactory. If, as he argues, we are all involved in performing, then obviously there must be a legitimate sense in which we can speak of people as not being involved in performing. Since performances involve dissembling, i.e., playing a role that one does not normally play, there must be some notion of one's usual or normal role. Put another way, play-acting can have explanatory force only if there are many other instances of people not engaged in play-acting. What is missing in Goffman's account is a serious notion of human beings as creatures with a sense of personal identity. If Goffman's actors are not simply and always "actors" in the theatrical sense, then we require some notion of autonomous human beings who can choose and take responsibility for their activities.

Thus, Goffman's actors lack a sense of personal identity as well as a commitment to moral standards and principles other than those found in one or another social situation. "The general capacity to be bound by moral rules may well belong to the individual," he says, "but the particular set of rules which transforms him into a human being derives from requirements established in the ritual organization of social encounters." In some unspecified sense, then, it is moral rules that transform an individual into a human being. It is apparently the binding nature of the moral rules required for maintaining social order in face-to-face situations that makes one a human being. Aside from questions about the adequacy of this notion of what it is to be a human being, there is also the serious problem that what is right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust, is to be established entirely by reference to what is required to sustain orderly social relations. There are for Goffman, then, no rational standards and principles of morality that might sometimes impose a requirement on human beings not to be bound by the moral rules dominant in one or another social situation. Insofar as there is any emphasis on morality in Goffman's work, it is entirely a situational morality.

While Goffman accounts for social order on the basis of social actors in face-to-face situations sharing the same symbolic order of meanings, definitions, and implicit rules, ethnomethodologists renouce an interest in explaining social order. Instead, their concern is with understanding how social actors manage to produce and sustain a sense of orderliness and coherence. Garfinkel, who is widely regarded as the principal progenitor of this approach, states that ethnomethodology is

directed to the tasks of learning how members' ordinary activities consist of methods to make practical actions, practical circumstances, common-sense knowledge of social structures, and practical sociological reasoning analyzable; and of discovering the formal properties of common-place, practical actions, "from within" actual settings, as ongoing accomplishments of those settings.

The concern of ethnomethodologists is not, then, with discovering pre-existing sets of rules or norms that constrain actions and assure social order. Their focus is on learning how actors in face-to-face situations manage to impute and sustain a sense of orderliness.

But despite their difference from Goffman and other theorists (e.g., symbolic interactionists) to social interaction, ethnomethodologists, too, largely ignore moral considerations in their work. Consider, for example, Garfinkel's criticism of those sociologists who explain social order as the product of certain shared rules and norms that ensure constraint. He accuses these persons of seeing man as a "cultural dope" who "produces the stable features of the society by acting in compliance with pre-established and legitimate alternatives of action that the common culture provides." But it seems to me that Garfinkel's conception is subject to a similar criticism. Whereas he rejects the view that individuals simply accept those action-guiding alternatives provided by the common culture, he replaces it with the view that the actor has no agency except in the actual presence (face-to-face interaction) of others. As with Goffman's conception of human actors, they have no moral agency. Totally absent in the writings of Garfinkel and others who focus on social order by way of situational analysis is a conception of man as a being who is responsible for his actions. Missing is a conception of men and women as moral agents who are capable of choosing how they should act, of determining what they ought to do, and taking responsibility for their choices. No more than in the writings of Homans and Goffman, does one find a conception of human beings who manifest their moral autonomy through the exercise of freedom and responsibility. Garfinkel has replaced the view of man as a "cultural dope" with an equally unappealing conception: man as a "moral dope."

The Consensus Doctrine

Social scientists (Durkheim, Parsons, and probably the vast majority of sociologists) who advocate the doctrine of consensus start from an entirely different position from either those emphasizing private interests or those involved in situational analysis. Rather than beginning with the individual busily calculating ends, means, and the rewards and punishments for observing or disobeying various rules and laws, or with the norms and values operative in face-to-face relations, the consensus theorists begin with the group or society — entities characterized by shared values, meanings, and understandings. Social order (organized social life) is made possible, they argue, by consensus about these values and meanings. When the individual is born, he or she immediately encounters, and may eventually internalize, these shared social values and meanings. The various rules and laws, then, are viewed as totally a manifestation of a society's shared values. Thus Parsons defines "institutions or institutionalized patterns" as being "normative patterns, which define what are felt to be, in the given society, proper, legitimate, or expected modes of action or of social relationship. ... They are patterns supported by common moral sentiments." And Durkheim explained social order in terms of the constraints provided by the moral rules embodied in the state, occupational associations, religion, and in society as a whole.

According to consensus theorists like Durkheim and Parsons, individuals come to be motivated to act in conformity with normative standards, thereby themselves providing the restraining control necessary for social order. Parsons says that motivation is kept at the level and in the direction necessary for the continuing operation of the social system through the mechanisms of socialization and social control. The mechanism of socialization is the process by which individuals are motivated to "meet the exigencies imposed on them by the imperatives of their culture and society," i.e., to incorporate the normative standards of the society into their personalities. The mechanism of social control is concerned with regulating the behavior of people who have undergone socialization yet are not motivated to conformity. As Parsons himself points out, it is not always possible to draw a rigid line between socialization and social control mechanisms. But it is clear that mechanisms of social control come into play when social systems fail to achieve integration through socialization.


Excerpted from Toward a Just Social Order by Derek L. Phillips. Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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