Sunday, September 01, 1991

"Back to Basics" - My review of Alan Wolfe's "Whose Keeper?: Social Science and Moral Obligation"

[This review essay on Alan Wolfe's book Whose Keeper?: Social Science and Moral Obligation appeared with the title "Back to Basics" in Contemporary Sociology 20:5 (September 1991), pp. 696-698.
By the time it was published, my original version had to be pared down considerably, and discussions of some significant issues got cut out in the process. Perhaps that was just as well ... but for anyone who might be interested, the full pre-condensed version is below. Both versions are also available HERE. --Jeff Weintraub]

Review of:
Whose Keeper? Social Science and Moral Obligation, by Alan Wolfe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. 388 pp. $25 cloth.

Jeff Weintraub
University of California, San Diego

Alan Wolfe has written an important, ambitious, and valuable book about some of the dilemmas facing western societies in the late twentieth century and about how the social sciences can and should help us address them. Its central concern, as the subtitle implies, is to link the analysis of social structures with a consideration of the "complexities and paradoxes of moral obligations under modern conditions" (p. 104). While few of his main themes are entirely novel, Wolfe has woven them into an engaging synthetic argument that draws com­fortably on a wide range of both theoretical dis­cussions‑-in philosophy as well as the social sciences‑-and empirical studies. And he very effectively il­lus­trates and develops his larger themes by bring­ing them to bear on concrete di­lemmas of public policy and everyday life. Whose Keeper? is wide-ranging, gen­uinely thought­ful, con­sist­ently stimulating, and often illumin­ating (and written in clear, lively, at times even eloquent prose). Though in some respects Wolfe's reach exceeds his grasp, the result is an admir­able and provocative book which is likely to have a significant impact.

One of the most valuable features of Whose Keeper? is Wolfe's insist­ence that the social sciences recognize themselves as a ven­ture in moral inquiry and (expli­cit­ly or im­pli­citly) a crucial "theater of moral debate" (p. 7) in the modern world (actually, he says the theater of moral de­bate, but this is exces­sive). There are two interconnected points here, both worth emphasizing: (1) Argu­ments in the social sciences have an ines­capable moral import, not only in terms of their specific conclu­sions (or the "values" of individual research­ers) but, even more fundamentally, in terms of their orienting visions of human nature and social order. Every major paradigm in the social sciences carries an implicit moral philosophy, which ought to be subject to explicit consider­ation. (2) A central task of social inquiry is to elucidate the modalities and condi­tions of dif­ferent forms of moral order, and to grasp the ways that they are embed­ded in, and simultaneously shape, institutional patterns and systems of social re­la­tionships. Socio­logy in particular, Wolfe argues, has something dis­tinct­ive and indis­pens­able to contribute to this venture‑-but only if socio­lo­gists overcome their frequent reluctance to think explicitly about moral life and reacquaint them­selves with the resources for doing so developed within the sociological tradition.

Whose Keeper? is thus organized around two closely intertwined arguments, one about modern society and the other about the tasks of social inquiry. First (and foremost), Wolfe would like to help recall sociology to its historic con­cern, both practical and theoretical, with the problem of moral order. The book's unifying agenda is, as he puts it, to "contribute to a revival of a so­cio­logical approach to moral regulation" (p. 19). What makes this effort par­ticu­lar­ly necessary, he argues, is that the perspectives which predominate in economics and political science (and, alas, too much of current sociology) are profoundly inadequate to help us deal with the predicaments of modernity‑-not least because they evade, misunderstand, or trivialize the role of community and moral obliga­tion in social life. Second, Wolfe offers a substantive analysis of these predicaments which indicates what he thinks "a sociological approach to moral regulation" entails, and why we require it.

The sociological enterprise, Wolfe reminds us, has its roots in the attempt to develop a comprehensive self-understanding of "modernity"‑-that is, of 'modern society' as it has emerged, starting in the west, since the eigh­teenth century‑-and to cope with its human consequences. Wolfe takes up this project (the timeliness of which is en­hanced by the collapse of the major alternative model of modern society in Eastern Europe). In structural terms, the two central phen­om­ena that have shaped the distinctive character of modernity have been the market economy and the modern state. At its best, modernity has held out the promise of un­paral­leled affluence and autonomy; but it has also been haunted by the prospect of objective in­ter­depend­ence combined, paradoxically, with moral isola­tion and anomie‑-raising, as in Tocqueville's monitory vision, the twin dangers of mass society and bureaucratic despotism.

In so far as mass society has been a threat rather than an actuality, a major reason is that the market and the state have not, in fact, swal­lowed up all of social life. Wolfe locates the saving alternative in what he calls "civil society," using (one sense of) this histor­ic­ally ambiguous and multi­valent term to capture the heter­ogeneous field of rela­tion­ships and institu­tions not organ­ized by the impersonal logic of the market or the state: families, local commun­ities, churches, char­it­able enterprises, voluntary associa­tions, informal support networks, and so on. Modernity thus has a "tripartite" struc­ture; it is characterized, not by a single systemic logic, but by the ongoing interplay of several, each organized around different sorts of rules and prac­tices. Ideally, "civil society" main­tains a social fabric that tempers the opera­tion of the market and the state and anchors them in a normative frame­work. But both the market and the state have a tendency to "colonize," and thus undermine, other spheres of social life.

The imperialism of the market takes both a theoretical and a practical form. Its current theoretical expression is the aggressive resurgence of utili­tarian individualism (to import a phrase into Wolfe's analysis) throughout the social sciences, under such labels as "the economic approach to human behavior" or, more recently, "rational choice theory." As Wolfe easily demon­strates in his acute critical discussion, this perspective has a normative as well as des­criptive thrust. By positing self-interested cal­culation (termed "rational" action) as a more or less universal model of individual motivation and social action, it renders moral obligation inexplicable, "irrational," or at best trivial. Given these premises, the market and the state (or, more generally, coercive organiza­tion) tend to emerge as the only effective modes of regulating social inter­de­pend­ence; society drops out. Thus, the free-market fundamentalism of the "Chicago school" of eco­nom­ics can mesh easily (if para­doxically) with an authoritarian distrust of democratic autonomy. [Hobbes to Pinochet] Wolfe notes perceptively that this is the underlying message of Mancur Olson's influential Logic of Collective Action: "Olson paint­ed a remarkable picture of how, in a world without sociology, a theory of liberal individualism inevitably becomes a defense of coercive authority" (p. 119).

Wolfe is, of course, not the first to argue along these lines. After several centu­ries of debate, the moral and theoretical inadequacy of utilitari­an in­di­vid­ualism as a comprehensive world-view certainly ought to rank among the most solidly established commonplaces of modern social thought. But this is ap­par­ent­ly a lesson that has to be relearned in each generation. As Wolfe ob­serves, the inappropriate generalization of this narrow pre-sociological perspective by economists and (some) political scientists is less puzzling than the tendency for socio­lo­gists to capitulate to it. One of the forma­tive in­sights of "classic" socio­lo­gical thought was pre­cisely that there was more to society (and certainly to a good society) than the market and the state‑-and, accord­ingly, that under­stand­ing social life required going beyond an exclusive focus on self-interest and coercion to ex­plore the ties of attachment, solid­arity, and obliga­tion that bound together the social order. But con­tem­por­ary sociologists often seem to have only a tenuous grasp of this hard-won insight, and are far too ready to abandon it. The result is too often (as Wolfe nicely puts it) "sociology without society."

The pseudo-'realism' of such a truncated vision (whether it leans toward the market or the state) can lead us to overlook, take for granted, or even help undermine important elements that help make modern societies liveable. Wolfe argues that excessive reliance on either the state or the market to organize social interdependence can have troubling and self-defeating conse­quences (often surprisingly parallel). The heart of his book is an extended comparison between the prac­tical consequences of the moral imperialism of the market, illustrated especially by the United States, and the moral imperialism of the state, observed (at its most benevolent) in Scandinavia.

These examinations are sufficiently rich, and fertile in insights and promising ideas (along with some less success­ful notions), that it would be foolish to try to offer more than the sketchiest summary. In the United States, the major threat to the integrity and vitality of "civil society" comes from the erosion of institutional and cultural constraints which have histor­ically insu­lated certain crucial spheres of intimacy and com­mun­ity from being overwhelmed by the market and its moral logic. One result is to weaken the whole notion of moral obligation in both personal relation­ships and the larger public world. Wolfe has considerably more sympathy for the "'Scandinavian' approach to moral obligation" (p. 133), which makes effective use of the state to maintain a humane and egalitarian moral order. Never­theless, while respect­ful of its achievements, Wolfe subjects it to a searching critique. By constant­ly extend­ing its role as the "primary moral agent" in so­ciety, Wolfe argues, the welfare state tends to undermine its own moral found­ations (or, at least, is incapable of renewing them). Wolfe's use of the di­lemmas of public day care to explore the changing relationship between the family and the state is a particular gem‑-at times inconclusive, at other times honestly perplexed, but always perceptive.

Thus, neither the "economic" nor the "political" approach to moral regula­tion is fully adequate, either practically or theoretically. The book's last section offers a suggestive, though incom­plete [and uneven], discussion pointing toward the "recovery of sociology and its moral tradition" (p. 190). Modern societies can neither dispense with moral obliga­tion (as suggested by certain market utopias) nor rely entirely on externally enforced rules (which would be a kind of statist utopia). In some ways, indeed, modernity places greater demands on the responsibility of individuals as moral agents than do societies able to rely on the boundedness and the tight surveil­lance of tradi­tional communities. Part of the significance of "civil society" is that its ties of intimacy and community serve as crucial contexts for moral educa­tion and the development of our capacities for moral agency. "Moral ob­li­ga­tion is a learned practice" (p. 233) that necessarily originates in particular concrete attachments; a morality of distant obligations or abstract principles [e.g., Rawlsian neo-Kantianism] will never be sufficient by itself. However, it is also true that the market and the state can play an essential role in overcom­ing the parochialisms and potential injustices of "civil so­ciety," and that there are inescapable tensions between particu­lar­istic and more inclusive obligations. Thus, the chal­lenge is to find a comp­le­mentary and beneficial relationship between the "small-scale world of civil society" and the larger world of national and inter­national interdependence; but this is an ongoing project rather than a defini­tive solution. The conditions of moral life in modernity make for an irreducible (and, indeed, valuable) com­plexity, which it is the business of sociology both to recognize and to render intelligible.

"This book," Wolfe remarks laconically, "represents a change in both sub­ject matter and political perspective from my earlier work" (p. xvii). In his former incarnation, Wolfe was a prominent figure in the revival of Marxist poli­ti­cal sociology and political economy. The perspective informing this book is complex, tentative, and marked by an acute sense of paradox‑-and certainly not easily located on any simple left-right spectrum. I would describe it‑-though Wolfe does not put it this way‑-as a chastened and exploratory democrat­ic social­ism, sensitive to the dilemmas and paradoxes of modernity, which does not fore­see any final solution to those dilemmas. If some of his arguments occasionally make him sound like a neo-conservative (of the Public Interest and not the Com­mentary variety, to be sure!), Wolfe is not particularly bothered. "Politically speaking," Wolfe observes, "sociology is es­sen­tial­ly a dialogue between those on the right who distrust the market and those on the left who distrust the state" (p. 210). Its attitude toward modern­ity ought to be an informed and engaged ambivalence. If this sensibility leads Wolfe to be more successful at posing questions than providing answers‑-at least, for the moment‑-one can hardly complain, since ask­ing the right questions is the crucial first step.

Whose Keeper? is not without shortcomings. While the broad outlines of Wolfe's argument are clear and persuasive, the conceptual analysis has a ten­dency to go a bit fuzzy just when the crucial issues should be coming into sharp focus. And I have to say that many of Wolfe's discussions regard­ing the history of social thought need to be treat­ed with a certain caution [in fact, are often unreliable] as soon as they begin to get into detail. At the very least, many of his inter­preta­tions of important thinkers seem to me ques­tion­able and in need of further clarification and refinement: For example, much of what he has to say about Durkheim (a figure of considerable signifi­cance for his sub­ject) strikes me as peculiar. At other times, his com­ments seem to me definitely misleading or just plain wrong: For example, Wolfe (very properly) wants to stress that Adam Smith is neither as narrowly unsocio­logical nor as sim­plist­ically enamored of the market as the standard caricature (or the example of his latter-day followers) would suggest. But Wolfe gets carried away, and goes on to argue that Smith offers an account of particular markets, but has no vision of "the market" as an impersonal system with a logic of its own‑‑thus dissolving the central achievement of The Wealth of Nations. These are venial sins, since the central message of Whose Keeper? does not turn in any crucial way on Wolfe's analyses of the history of social thought. Still, they are troublesome, and occasionally‑-as with Hegel and Durk­heim‑-they lead Wolfe to overlook signifi­cant ideas which he could have used to support or enrich his own argument. But, given Wolfe's central purposes in this book, these are not critical weaknesses.

A book that opens up as many substantial lines of argument as this one is bound to generate disagreements. I will pass over most of mine, but I would like to express dissatisfaction with Wolfe's use of one of his central con­cepts, "civil society."

This concept has a long and checkered history in western thought; and (as Wolfe notes) it has been given a range of different and even contradictory mean­ings. With the sudden and sweeping increase in the popularity of this notion during the last decade or so‑-in both scholarly and political circles‑-defini­tional confusion reigns supreme. (The main common denominator is that almost everyone now agrees that, whatever it is, "civil society" is a Good Thing‑-as opposed to, say, Marx, who wanted to abolish it. Why this should be true is an interesting question in itself, but at all events....)

The boundaries of Wolfe's version of "civil society" are actually a little ambiguous. Wolfe sometimes uses "civil society" to mean "society," in the sense of a very broad residual category denoting the whole range of activities and in­sti­tutions outside market and state. But usually (and fundamentally) he means by it something narrow­er and more specific, namely the "small-scale world" of intim­acy and face-to-face community: what Nathan Glazer once (rather nicely) termed the "fine structures" of social life, and Wolfe himself often calls "the intimate sphere." This is certainly an important object of analy­sis, to which Wolfe is right to direct our attention; and, whether or not one would wish to call it "civil society" (I would not), the term is open enough that no one can quarrel with Wolfe's right to do so. However, a few complaints are appropriate.

First, Wolfe at times seems to imply that other thinkers he discusses meant by "civil society" something close to what he does, when they decidedly did not‑-and he thereby blurs some of the relevant issues. "The notion of civil society," says Wolfe, "lay ... at the heart of Tönnies's notion of Gemeinschaft" (p. 16). In fact, Tönnies (following Hegel) clearly associated "civil society" with Gesellschaft. "For Hegel, the family was a crucial component of civil society...." (p. 18). Now, it is certainly true that the family (and above all the parent-child relationship) is at the heart of Wolfe's notion of "civil society." But Hegel, of course, distinguished the family from civil society; and his reasons for doing so have significant implications for his overall theory of modern society and what made it distinctive. "Certain Marxists, especially Antonio Gramsci, were attracted to the idea of civil society as an alternative to Leninism" (p. 16). But what Gramsci meant by "civil society" (a complex matter) was much more similar to, say, Tocqueville's conception of "political society" than to Wolfe's "intimate sphere." And so on.

More substantively: "Civil society" in Wolfe's sense is not broad enough to encompass "society," and much of Wolfe's argument depends on his trying to make it do so. If "civil society" in this sense is posed as the alternative to the market and the state, then too much of social life falls between the cracks of Wolfe's tripartite conceptual scheme. One especially important example (among others) is the realm of democratic citizenship‑-of participation in pol­itical community and the exercise of "public virtues" (as Tocqueville calls them)‑-which is sur­pris­ing­ly slighted in Whose Keeper?. Neither the market nor the state, Wolfe asserts, treats people as "capable of participating in the making of their own moral rules" (p. 12). I would agree. On the other hand, one of the most power­ful traditions in western social and political thought has argued that a dis­tinct­ive characteristic of citizens (as opposed to subjects) is precisely that they do participate in making their own moral rules‑-that "politics" in this sense (not to be confused with the state) involves a process of collective self-determination. But throughout this book Wolfe tends, expli­cit­ly or in effect, to equate politics (and the "political approach to moral regulation") with the administra­tive state.

This is peculiar (especially since Wolfe himself, in his previous‑-al­leg­ed­ly "Marxist"‑-work, has argued effectively against precisely this confla­tion (see, e.g., the cogent discussion in Wolfe, 1974). We need a theory, Wolfe argues, which sees the individual moral agent as simultaneously a "rule fol­lower" and a "rule maker" (p. 212). Isn't this a good paraphrase of Aris­totle's classic definition of the citizen? Citizens, Wolfe argues, have rights, whereas members of "civil society" have obligations (p. 151); don't citizens have both? Despite disclaimers, Wolfe's discus­sion often seems to suggest that social action based on ties of commitment and moral obligation is confined to "civil society." Since I don't think this is what he really means to say, I assume that these peculiarities stem from Wolfe's desire to counter­act a widespread tendency (which has roots on the left, for example, going back to Jacobinism) to focus too one-sidedly on large-scale solidarity and collec­t­ive struggle and to ignore or denigrate more particularistic attachments. But, if so, his reaction is excessive‑-and, in fact, probably distorts (and confus­es) his own position.

Several of Wolfe's own arguments bring out the inadequacy of his organiz­ing framework. For example, Wolfe stresses that much of the moral capi­tal of the Scandinavian welfare state derives from the fact that social demo­cracy was a powerful social movement united by a comprehensive moral vision (p. 179). But a movement of this sort, while clearly distinct from the logic of the bureau­­cratic state, is not a phenomenon of "the intimate sphere" or the primary group; while it may draw strength from ties in "civil society," its signifi­cance is precisely to carry people beyond "civil society" and to bring them together as active participants in the public realm of "political society" (in the Tocque­villean sense). "A political approach to moral regulation," Wolfe goes on, "substi­tutes [i.e., replaces] the sense of partici­pation in a common struggle with adminis­trat­ive rationalization..." (p. 180). But this is true, again, only if one equates politics with the administrative state. What is "participation in a common struggle" if not "a political approach"?

Wolfe's analysis here is confused because the phenomenon of citizenship, of active participation in a self-governing political community, is lost somewhere between his cate­gories of "civil society" and the state. Wolfe is absolutely right to stress that citizenship cannot and should not submerge or replace the bonds of intimacy and of particularistic forms of community. But, as he no doubt realizes, the opposite is true as well. In a social world of large-scale interdependence, neither community nor moral agency can rest entirely on "the small-scale world of civil society." If, as Wolfe correctly urges, one of the key moral chal­lenges of modernity is to find ways to recon­cile intimate with distant obli­ga­tions‑-in a context that can promote both autonomy and solidar­ity‑-then it is precisely on the terrain of citizenship that this challenge has to be addressed.

But it is not necessary to agree with all of Wolfe's argu­ments to find his book enlightening and intellectually profitable. Sociolo­gists-‑and others‑-should read it.

Other Literature Cited

Wolfe, Alan. 1974. "New Directions in the Marxist Theory of Politics." Politics and Society 4:2 (Winter 1974), pp. 131-159.