Yet, Durkheim seems to dismiss any attempt to justify or refute morality, including a morality developed in a given society. Thus, in Sociology and Philosophy, he cautiously says:
Moral reality, like any reality, may be studied from two different points of view. We can try to understand it, or to judge it. The first of those problems, which is theoretical, is prior to the second, and it is the only one which shall be addressed here 1.
Durkheim resolves to understand morality, not to judge it; but he imperceptibly changes his perspective, as we shall see.
Durkheim mainly aims at establishing that a moral fact is a social fact. To demonstrate this, he maintains that an interested act is never to be described as moral, in other words, an act committed in the interest of an individual, or even of other individuals. Morality may only concern a group formed by a plurality of related individuals, namely a society, which is considered as a person who is qualitatively different from the individual people forming this society. This is why
Morality begins when the attachment to a group whatsoever begins 2.
Above all, a moral fact is a social fact because it perfectly corresponds to Durkheim’s definition of a social fact, provided in the Rules of sociological method. In this book, he tries to establish Sociology as an independent science, irreducible to other disciplines, such as Psychology and Biology.
Some thinkers from this period maintained that due to the fact that society is formed by individuals, social rules derive from individual spirits, and that the psychological analysis of the human mind may furnish the content of Sociology, which is deprived of its own consistency for the benefit of Psychology.They also considered that society is analogous to a biological organism, comprised of individuals similar to cells. Here again, this biological metaphor denies the consistency of Sociology, its content and method being that of Biology.
In order to contradict this idea, Durkheim attempts to show that there is a proper definition for social facts, distinct from biological or psychological facts. Thus, he remarks that, even if I observe social rules in effect, in other words, that my individual spirit is in agreement with these rules, they do not derive from my spirit (so they do not concern Psychology), but impose themselves to me, independently of my will. These rules exist before and independently of us, and are characterised by
an imperative and coercive power by which they impose themselves to us, whether we want it or not. They cannot be derived from my spirit, but impose themselves to it, which is why Sociology cannot be derived from Psychology.
This leads Durkheim to conclude that a fact is social insofar as it is mandatory:
A social fact can be recognised by the external coercive power it exercises or is likely to exercise on individuals; and the presence of this power is recognisable in its turn by any given sanction or the resistance that the fact in question develops against any individual attempt to deny it 3.
Therefore, a moral fact is by its very nature a social fact, and consequently a matter of Sociology, because it is mandatory. The question which arises now is the following: Can Sociology, as the science of social facts, be the foundation of morality? Does Sociology hold the answer to the problem of the foundation of morality?
Durkheim answers this question affirmatively: such moral rule was founded because certain social causes have favoured its development then its implementation, whereas such other rule is to be abandoned since the social conditions, which make us adopt it, have disappeared, and it is now just a relic of an ancient social state:
The self-consciousness of society may be inadequate. It may be that public opinion is full of survivals, is not in accordance with the real state of society anymore, or that certain moral principles, existing in a given society, remain unconscious, for a while. But the science of morals enables us to correct these errors 4.
Based on the process of founding each particular moral, Durkheim infers the general foundation of morality:
We cannot aspire to a morality different from the one which is adequate to the social state in a particular time era. To wish another morality (different from the one implied by the nature of the society), is to deny this society, and thereby to deny ourselves 5.
1. Sociology and philosophy, chap. II
3. Rules of sociological method, chap. I
4. Sociology and philosophy, chap. II