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A Pragmatist Theory of Morality
The mid-twentieth century heralded morality as the defining element of sociology as a scientific discipline. Within structural-functionalist theorizing as advanced in particular by Talcott Parsons, morality, then conceptualized as norms and values, was used to solve the explanatory problem of social order (Blake and Davis 1964, 760–61). Leonard Broom and Philip Selznick, for example, in what is considered to be the most popular sociological textbook of the era (Manza, Sauder, and Wright 2010), defined the aim of sociology as discovering the basic structure of human society — that is, identifying the main forces that hold groups together or weaken them. Norms and values were presented as the central concepts in this endeavor: "All societies have rules or norms specifying appropriate and inappropriate behavior, and individuals are rewarded or punished as they conform to or deviate from the rules. ... Norms are based on cultural values, which are justified by moral standards, reasoning, or aesthetic judgment. ... It is impossible to imagine a normless society, because ... the standards of conduct contained in the norms give order to social relations" (Broom and Selznick 1963, 68–69).
Much of the temporary neglect of morality as an object of sociological inquiry is tied to the demise of structural functionalism and the accompanying definitions of norms and values as provided in this textbook passage (Spates 1983). In recent years, however, morality has resurfaced as an object of sociological inquiry. Scholars currently working on morality have made an effort to distinguish their approaches to the topic from the structural-functionalist account of morality associated with the work of Parsons. Vaisey and Hitlin have analyzed some of the more recent departures from Parsonian theorizing and argued for the existence of a new sociology of morality (Hitlin and Vaisey 2013).
The new sociology of morality is not a coherent school of thought or paradigm, and it is not the work of any single scholar or group of scholars. Instead of providing one consistent set of theoretical answers, its common denominator is better described as opening the issues covered by the old sociology of morality for empirical research and reconceptualization. Five topics of inquiry that depart from the conceptualization of morality within structural functionalism stand out:
1. How does morality relate to nonmoral valuations?
2. How widely shared are moral values within a given group, and to what extent are different moral values either consistent with each other or contradictory?
3. How stable or persistent is morality over time, and what causes it to either reproduce or change?
4. How does morality relate to practice?
5. How does morality relate to material objects and space?
Structural functionalism settled all five of these questions by theoretical fiat; that is, their answers were independent of the empirical case under investigation. Parsons and other structural functionalists contributed to a form of theorizing according to which morality constitutes a phenomenon sui generis that (1) is sharply separated from nonmoral valuations, (2) is collectively shared and internally consistent, (3) contributes to the maintenance of the existing social order, (4) is the motivating force of social action, and (5) finds expression in material objects and the arrangement of space yet is not causally influenced by them. This rather rigid way to think about morality (and its settling of all central questions on the topic) was among the main reasons for the temporary disappearance of morality as a topic of sociological inquiry.
The new sociology of morality that surfaced in recent years has returned these questions to the theoretical agenda and reopened them for empirical inquiry. These interventions and debates are no longer solely carried out within in the domain of sociological theory, as under the predominance of structural functionalism, but have emerged in several subfields of the discipline, most salient among them economic sociology, cultural sociology, and the sociology of science, knowledge, and technology. Scholars working in these fields have shown (1) that moral valuations and economic valuations (i.e., moral values and economic value) can mutually reinforce each other(Fourcade 2009a, 2009b; Fourcade and Healy 2007; Healy 2000, 2004, 2006; Krause 2014; Stark 2009; Zelizer 1979, 1985, 1994, 2005); (2) that morality is not just a source of social order and consensus but can likewise be a source of ambiguity, disagreement, and conflict (Boltanski and Thévenot 2006; Lainer-Vos 2013), and that it can create symbolic boundaries that reproduce social inequalities (Lamont 1992; Lamont and Molnár 2002; Lamont and Thévenot 2000); (3) that not only can the content and strength of moral valuations change over time but the very category of morality can transform (Abend 2011, 2014); (4) that morality can motivate behavior as much as it can be a tool or repertoire for action (Swidler 1986, 2001a, 2001b; Vaisey 2008a, 2009); and (5) that material objects and arrangements of space can enforce compliance with norms even in the absence of internalized moral values (Latour 1987, 1992, 2002, 2005).
This study contributes to these recent developments by looking at the development of bird conservation in Great Britain and Germany from the late eighteenth to the early twenty-first century. Looking at a specific empirical case from a long-term and comparative perspective offers an opportunity to locate morality in the larger fabric of social life and to treat the five topics raised by the new sociology of morality as open research questions. The point of departure for this analysis is the theory of valuation of the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey and its adaptation by scholars belonging to what is known as the Chicago school of sociology. Key to this perspective is the insight that motives — moral motives included — are embedded in action and the institutional settings that facilitate this action. Motives are not fixed entities that trigger action from inside the actor, but they emerge within a given course of action. This insight has crucial implications for the way one looks at the five questions raised above: it implies that morality cannot be analytically separated from other social phenomena (as structural functionalism has done) but must be approached as a relational phenomenon, best studied in interaction with other dimensions of social life.
This study shows that the way valuations of birds are embedded in social life differs between Britain and Germany. In Britain, birds derived their meaning in the context of the practices and institutions of the game of bird watching. Birds are the most popular and best protected taxonomic group of wildlife in this country due to their particularly suitable status as "toys" on the "playground" of nature. Birds, in other words, are good to play with. In Germany, by contrast, birds were part of an economic set of practices and institutions in the world of work. They were initially protected as "labor birds" for their usefulness in agriculture and forestry. Actors who did not agree with this exclusively economic value attached to birds began in reaction to assign an equally exclusive ethical (i.e., moral) value to them. This study further looks at the interactions between conservationists in these two countries that over time made for a mutual adaptation of bird conservation policies and eventually led to its recontextualization within the legal framework of the European Union.
The remainder of this chapter has three aims: first, to outline Dewey's theory of valuation and the central distinction between work and play on which it is built; second, to extend the account of these two practices by a theory of institutions and to show how the conceptual distinction between work and play can be used to account for differences in the valuation of birds; and, last but not least, to show how these differences can be employed to explain the historical emergence of bird conservation and its transformation over time. In addressing these points, this chapter shows how a sociology of morality informed by the pragmatism of Dewey can enrich current debates on the topic.
Pragmatism and Moral Valuations
The key to Dewey's theory of valuation is its conceptualization of the relationship between the means and ends of action. It is in fact the cornerstone of his entire philosophy, from aesthetics, ethics, religion, science, and epistemology to education and social reform. No single article, collection of essays, or monograph outlines the argument in detail; instead Dewey scatters its discussion throughout writings produced over more than five decades. The relation between means and ends is what the term pragmatism stands for in his case. As Josh Whitford has pointed out, Dewey's conceptualization of the relation between means and ends is also the part of his pragmatism that has the most far-reaching implications for current sociological debates on agency (Whitford 2002). Hans Joas has moreover demonstrated the importance of Dewey for a theory of creative action that is different from both theories of norm following behavior as envisioned by structural functionalism and theories of instrumental behavior described by rational-choice theory (Joas 1993, 1996, 2000).
Dewey develops his theory based on a critique of the teleological model of action according to which every act can be separated into means and ends (Dewey 1939). From this perspective, ends are the only carriers of value, and means have a merely instrumental function. In the folk model of action, ends have an intrinsic motivational force, while the means of action are entirely neutral or instrumental — hence the dualism of means and ends. Dewey challenges this dualism. In his view means and ends are neither analytically distinguishable nor empirically separable. Instead, he holds means and ends to constitute each other reciprocally in a given course of action. The very terminology of means and ends is thus misleading.
Dewey's argument unfolds from a rather simple yet crucial insight. He argues that what motivates action are not the ends of action as a state of affairs to be attained, which he calls ends-in-themselves, but the anticipation or idea of this state of affairs, which he calls ends-in-view. Since the ends or goals of action only motivate agency as long as they are unachieved, it is not the end result of action itself that motivates agency but the prediction or anticipation of this end. These ends-in-view organize a given course of action. As such, ends-in-view have the status of means for action, so-called procedural means: "On this basis, an end-in-view represents or is an idea of the final consequences, in case the idea is formed on the ground of the means that are judged to be most likely to produce the end. The end in view is thus itself a means for directing action — just as a man's idea of health to be attained or a house to be built is not identical with end in the sense of actual outcome but is a means for directing action to achieve that end" (Dewey 1966, 57).
Throughout a course of action, ends-in-view serve as procedural means; that is, they are tools or instruments for the attainment of a certain anticipated end result. Viewed a different way, means are intermediary ends. Means are never pure instruments, what Dewey calls means-in-themselves. They are instead intermediate ends with which we organize a course of action. This is to say that in a given course of action "means" as intermediary ends are on a par with "ends" as procedural means. At any given moment throughout a course of action every end is also a means and every means also an end.
To grasp this fact is to have done with the ordinary dualism of means and ends. The "end" is merely a series of acts viewed at a remote stage; and a means is merely the series viewed at an earlier one. The distinction between means and end arises in surveying the course of a proposed line of action, a connected series in time. The "end" is the last act thought of; the means are the acts to be performed prior to it in time. To reach an end we must take our mind off from it and attend to the act which is next to be performed. We must make that the end. (Dewey 1922, 34)
Both means and ends are intermediaries in a chain or course of action. If we were to freeze a given course of action in time, what we are used to calling means and ends would be indistinguishable. It is only from the fixed vantage point of an arbitrarily chosen before or after that means as means and ends asends can be distinguished. Yet this view must always remain a view from the outside, that is, a view ex ante or post hoc. It is an analytical abstraction that does not match any reality. Throughout the temporal unfolding of a course of action itself no such distinction can be made.
As long as action continues to proceed there is no beginning or end, no first step and no final goal. Ends are never final. Once a course of action comes to a close, new ends are designated. There are consequently no ends-in-themselves — the moment one line of action concludes, that which served as an end-in-view becomes a means for further action, that is, an intermediary for yet another end-in-view. In Dewey's view ends are in fact literally endless, forever coming into existence as new activities bring about new consequences. Once we have built a house we start furnishing it, once we have bought a car we start driving it, and so on. To talk about endless ends is a way of saying that there are no ends as fixed self-enclosed finalities. No end is forever final, unless it is indeed the final end.
Looking at the relation between means and ends as constituting each other reciprocally in the unfolding of a course of action turns the contrast between the two into an empirical rather than an analytical matter. The distinction between work and play captures this empirical degree of difference. Dewey conceives work and play as two different ways of relating means and ends to each other.
The difference between them is largely one of time-span, influencing the directness of the connection of means and ends. In play, the interest is more direct — a fact frequently indicated by saying that in play the activity is its own end, instead of having an ulterior result. The statement is correct, but it is falsely taken, if supposed to mean that play activity is momentary, having no element of looking ahead and none of pursuit. ... The point of these remarks is that play has an end in the sense of a directing idea which gives point to the successive acts. (Dewey 1916, 195–96)
Work and play are not two mutually exclusive concepts, but the difference between them lies merely in the length of the chain of intermediaries involved.
The difference between work and play is thus a matter of time-space extension — the longer the chain of intermediaries, the more real the difference between means and ends becomes. Play is an activity in which the result of each activity immediately motivates further action — that is, in which means and ends are in quick interchange — while work describes an activity in which a distant end-in-view motivates a course of action with many intermediate procedural means. A game of squash — in which every outcome of action (every ball hit) immediately affects the next action to be pursued — is play activity no matter how exhausting the task may be. A career in accounting, on the other hand — in which the only goal is to pay one's bills and make it safely into retirement — is a life of hard labor no matter how easy the task itself may be. The difference between the two activities lies in the length of the means-ends chains that are involved, not in the amount of effort involved or in the question of whether they are serious or fun.
This conceptualization of work and play as designating different degrees of time-space extension of means-ends relationships is the truly innovative step of Dewey's philosophy. Dewey applies this thinking in relational processes to his theory of value. The point of departure is the argument against the dualistic model of ends as self-enclosed finalities that motivate action and means as value-neutral instruments. In other words, a value is not an essence or an entity but rather the outcome of an act of evaluation. Value in this sense is not a noun but an adjective: "There is no peculiar class of things (much less of 'entities') to which value-qualifications can or should be attributed. The previous point indicates that 'value' is an adjectival word, naming that which is a trait, property, qualification of some thing — in the broad sense of thing mentioned. It is like, say, the words good, fine, excellent. ... Anything under the sun may come into possession of what is named by 'value' as its adjective" (Dewey 1949, 66–67). There is no such thing as a value in and of itself — a value is a quality attributed to something else. Such an attribution is an act, and this act of valuation is part of a larger course of action. Being part of a process of action, no distinction between what other authors tend to call intrinsic and instrumental value can be made.
Excerpted from "Moral Entanglements"
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Table of ContentsList of Abbreviations
Prologue: A Bird’s Eye View 1 A Pragmatist Theory of Morality
2 Collector’s Items and Viable Means
3 Technology Comes to the Countryside
4 Field Ornithology and Practical Bird Conservation
5 Endangered Birds and Indicator Species
6 Bird Watching as Organizational Strategy
7 Data Power and Geographical Reference Frames
Conclusion: Studying Morality Appendix 1: Method and Data
Appendix 2: Names and Translations
List of Interviews