The Critique of Morality, Machiavelli, etc.

To continue a post from yesterday . . .

The famous critiques of dominant moral codes (such as those offered by Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Marquis de Sade, etc.) seem to relate closely to the functional differentiation of society. These critiques, beginning with Machiavelli, who’s been called the founder of modern political science, might be seen as a symptom of evolving functional differentiation. Machiavelli demonstrated the inapplicability of moral codes in the context of politics.

Morality has been seen by sociologists (e.g., Weber, Durkheim) as a sort of glue that holds a society together, a moral consensus, or a normative schema that regulates the means and ends of action. One question, for Parsons, was,

What are the values that society uses to restrict freedom of choice concerning the combination of means and ends? (Luhmann, Introduction to Systems Theory, 9).

For instance, if winning a game, obtaining food and shelter, or something else is accepted as a legitimate end, society restricts the means of achieving that end.

But in a functionally differentiated society, various communication media (power, money, truth, etc.) hold society together, or establish a social order. Such a society is far too complex to rely on morality alone. A person can treat his friends and family terribly, but if has enough money (the symbolically generalized communication medium of the economy) he can buy a pack of cigarettes.

Moral distinctions sometimes don’t apply.

One may ask oneself when making a moral distinction is appropriate and when it is not. If you purchase something in the course of a normal business transaction you will not use the distinction as to whether the purchase is good or bad or whether the seller is good or bad. What you will want to know is how much something costs or perhaps what is the matter with the goods. (Introduction to Systems Theory, 104.)

Another example: Diagnosis is a communication medium of the healthcare system. If I am diagnosed with cancer, I won’t ask if cancer is good or bad; I want to know what kind cancer I have, if it’s benign or malignant, what the prognosis is, etc.  I also want to know if the diagnosis is valid or accurate—if I really have cancer.

Media codes start out as ad hoc solutions to a problem, and later, sometimes, evolve into stable codes, such as in power/out of power (politics) ill/not ill (healthcare), information/non-information (mass media) transcendent/immanent (religion), competent/incompetent (education), etc. These codes do not combine into a single code. So power doesn’t necessarily come with goodness, competence, health, etc. Each code has an invariant structure and is context-free.

The facilitation of crossing from one value to an opposing value and back (without the base value changing in the meantime) makes the code itself an invariant structure. At the same time, gluing together positive values or negative values of different codes becomes more difficult (i.e., more contingent). Whether someone who is beautiful also tells the truth, whether someone who is rich is also powerful, also good, also healthy is a question that depends on further conditions that are not systematically guaranteed and that observers have to treat as an accident, which they cannot assume to be stable. To this extent, the evolution of media codes towards schematized crossing . . . also explodes the premise important for all hierarchically stratified societies, namely, the assumption that all positive values come together at the apex (in the nobility, the ruler, God.)

(Luhmann. Theory of Society, vol. 1, pp. 216)

But because the codes are rigid, flexibility has to come from somewhere. This is where programs come into play.

Facilitation of crossing to the other value makes the operation context-free, giving it too much leeway, which then has to be restricted. In the course of evolution, codings therefore develop a supplementary semantics of criteria determining the conditions under which positive and negative values are correctly attributed. I shall be calling these conditioning “programs.” (p 217)

For instance, Luhmann lists a few program strands of the mass media system: news and documentary reports, advertising, and entertainment–each of which operates by the information/non-information code.


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