A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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Then Durkheim presents a second idea (at the basis of sociology): an individual does not exist apart from society, as it is a simple abstraction when it is considered alone, and, only the social whole exists. It results from the idea that an individual denying the morality of his time (arguing that it has no foundation) would deny society itself and consider that he may exist apart from society. This theory is condemned by Durkheim for three distinct, if not contradictory, reasons.

First of all, this is impossible, as we have just seen that: The only question that one may ask is not whether man is able to live apart from society, but in what society he wants to live 1. Secondly, it would amount to suicide, that is why Durkheim adds It remains for me to examine whether man must deny himself; the question is legitimate, but shall not be examined. I postulate that we have reason to want to live 2. Thirdly, man would be deprived of his humanity: We cannot get out of society without losing our humanity […]. We can only renounce to it by renouncing to ourselves 3.

Thus, we can see that moral sociologism proposes a foundation for morality (namely, society and the social conditions which generate such and such a rule). However, this proposed foundation is relative. A moral rule, founded for the present, will no longer be founded for tomorrow because our social conditions will have changed, and this rule will have lost its raison d’être. In this case, the rule in question will should be removed. No rule is founded in absolute terms. What is fascinating in this doctrine is that it conciliates objectivism and relativism, although we tend to imagine that these are totally opposed concepts.

On the other hand, we can note the ambiguity of Durkheim’s analysis as he declares to avoid judging the morality of a certain period (and simply aims to explain it) but proposes a foundation for this morality.
This ambiguity may also be observed in the two concepts used by Durkheim to judge such and such moral rule: the concepts of “normal” and “pathological”. Durkheim carefully avoids the concept of value, which immediately reveals that he does not simply explain morality, but judges it. For this reason, he does not examine whether a given moral rule has any value, but whether this rule is normal or pathological. Every remaining law is pathological because the social cause at its origin has disappeared. Every law in accordance with the social conditions of the period (or produced as a result) is normal.

Thus, chapter III concerning the Rules of sociological method entirely consists in this rhetorical effort to judge the value of a phenomenon without making use of the concept of value. The concept of “normality” enables him to create this optical illusion: a concept different from that of value is used and allows us to discreetly judge the value of a thing. If we separate the concept of normality from any consideration of value, “to be normal” means nothing other than “to be frequent”. This is the meaning that is given by Durkheim to this concept. Nevertheless, to deny that the concept of normality is related to that of value in this manner has led him to unsolvable paradoxes, such as the assertion that crime is normal in a society. In this case, Durkheim says nothing other than “Crime is frequent in a society” as “normal” means “frequent” in his opinion (or “general” within a given species). However, the paradox comes from the fact that the notion of normality is commonly used in relation to that of value, despite Durkheim’s efforts.

Consequently, one of the essential aspects of moral sociologism resides in attempting to avoid any judgment of value while surreptitiously reintroducing such a judgement by different concepts, such as the normal and pathological concepts. We can also mention the “reactionary” concept, which refers to he who respects moral rules whose conditions have vanished, and which conceals an implicit value judgment behind an objective appearance. Therefore, moral sociologism is characterised both by the adoption of several axiological positions (or judgments of value) and their prudent dissimulation.

However, in my opinion, this escape from the notion of value is precisely what prevents moral sociologism from founding morality. Sociologism seems to only show us the origin of morality, such as was the case for Nietzsche. The origin of moral rules is such and such social condition. However, establishing that we ought to respect these moral rules (in other words, found morality requires proving that these moral rules have a value (and not only conditions).
Furthermore, we need to show why these social conditions themselves have any value. Durkheim succeeds in establishing that a particular morality is required for the existence of a society. However, how can we answer the immoralist, who affirms: “That which has a value, is the disappearance of this society (or of society in general)”, or “Neither society, nor morality, has value”? He manages to show that individualism is impossible, that an individual cannot exist apart from society. Even if we admit this dubious postulate, how can we answer the following : “The individual is impossible, is a simple dream, but the dream, the impossible, has more value than reality”?

We can observe that moral sociologism relies on a sequence of groundless value judgments, and Durkheim partly acknowledges this when he presents one of these judgments as a postulate: It remains for us to examine whether man must deny himself [by living apart from society]; the question is legitimate, but shall not be examined. We shall postulate that we are right in wanting to live 4.
However, a sequence of groundless judgments cannot establish a foundation for morality, but only a set of opinions about morality. The failure of moral sociologism appears, at last, as a second example, after Nietzsche, of the impossibility of establishing the foundation of morality from its origin (in this case, a social foundation).

1. Sociology and philosophy, chap. II
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.