Durkheim and morality

In The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim argues that the collective conscience, or the social integrating force of morality, progressively diminishes, and the focus on the individual increases inversely. But there are problems with this theory.

For one thing, Durkheim assumes a universal movement or progress. Durkheim even treats this idea as a law, but it isn’t. Religion and a general morality have not diminished everywhere. There has even been a resurgence of religion outside of Europe since about 1980.

The second problem is that Durkheim ignores organizations. For him, there are apparently only two things to consider–societies and individuals. This is his primary distinction. But the moral code lives on in organizations and protest movements, and probably in interaction systems as well. It is only the function systems that lack a sense of morality.

Moral communication differs from other kinds of communication in that crossing the boundary between the negative and positive values is discouraged. Many conditions or obstacles are set up to make crossing difficult. For instance, people are supposed to be forgiven or make amends before they can cross from social disapproval back to approval. People are also trained to never cross from the good to the bad. Even when we are encouraged, or encourage ourselves, to break a moral rule, the rule is framed as bad and the rule-breaking is framed as good. So there is no real escape, except perhaps in amorality.

This means that many practices that were once considered bad are now considered neither good nor bad–e.g., premarital sex. These things are removed from social oversight, which is what Durkheim’s collective conscience amounts to.

However, things are different in organizations. For instance, religious organizations may actively discourage premarital sex, as well as things like gambling, drinking, dancing, cursing, etc. It seems that all organizations have a sense of morality in that certain behaviors can elicit punishment or banishment from the organization. Organizations make this fact explicit by writing and distributing a code of conduct. Many organizations also have mission statements prominently displayed.

As for social protest movements, these tend to be highly moral, or even self-righteous, but there is no explicit code of conduct or mission statement. There is just a generalized sense of good and bad–and the bad needs to be completely eliminated.

This is not the case with organizations. These don’t think it’s possible to eliminate violations of the code of conduct. They actually expect and have procedures (which Luhmann calls programs) in place to handle conduct violations. Organizations, unlike protest movements often work hard to recruit the right members; so they don’t simply kick someone out for breaking one or two rules. Organizations are complex enough to (paradoxically) expect the unexpected.

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