Social status and goodness

Samuel Johnson often defended social class stratification. He also associated clothing with class and, by extension, respect. By dressing as someone of the upper class, a person logically gained respect, according to Johnson. Also, by associating with the upper classes, one gained respect. He said a man would gain more respect by spending time with an aristocrat than a merely wise or learned commoner.

The idea was that goodness, and therefore respect, goes along with high social status. In a stratified society moral goodness is supposed to increases as social class rises, with God as ultimate goodness existing at the apex or some “Omega Point.” But in functionally differentiated society, wealth is de-linked from virtue or morality. Thus we have the familiar stereotypes of the corrupt, “fat cat” businessman, the trust fund kid, etc.  The fiction of Charles Dickens demonstrates the 19th century revaluation of wealth and poverty, as the poor have greater virtue than the rich.

But the rich person doesn’t have to be portrayed as morally corrupt because this would mean using of the same code; the poor or hard-working person is then called good instead of bad. The more logical consequence would be to simply ignore the moral factor when thinking about wealth or its lack. This is the case with someone like Trump.

In a stratified society, the positive values of a code (e.g., goodness, high social status, lawful) are linked, whereas under functionally differentiation these links are broken. As Luhmann puts it,

The separation frees up the combinatrics, enabling an immoral application of law, or an illegal acquisition of property, or an unwelcome (“welcome/unwelcome”!) transfer of property into power. . . . [The old] form of integration has to be relinquished along with the enormous relevance of morality. Typically system codes are thus distinguished from moral coding, avoiding any congruence of positive/negative values with those of morality. Property and law, truth, and even political power have to be available for immoral applications.

(A Systems Theory of Religion, 48)


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