Saturday, February 03, 1990

Durkheim & Weber on moral autonomy

[A note to a graduate student of mine at UC San Diego (February 3, 1989) —Jeff Weintraub]

Dear X,

Here are some randomly chosen remarks of Durkheim's which are more or less relevant to the (potential) topic of your essay:
"Liberty and [moral] authority have sometimes been opposed, as if these two factors of education [i.e., socialization] contradicted and limited each other. But this opposition is factitious. In reality these two terms imply, rather than exclude, each other. Liberty is the daughter of authority properly understood. For to be free is not to do what one pleases; it is to be master of oneself, it is to know how to act with reason and to do one's duty."
—Durkheim, Education and Sociology (pp. 89-90)

"Self-mastery is the first condition of all true power, of all liberty worthy of the name. .... Discipline is thus useful, not only in the interests of society and as the indispensable means without which regular cooperation would be impossible, but for the welfare of the individual himself.  ....  The capacity for containing our inclinations, for restraining ourselves—the ability that we acquire in the school of moral discipline—is the indispensable condition for the emergence of reflective, individual will.  The rule, because it teaches us to restrain and master ourselves, is a means of emancipation and of freedom. [....]  [L]iberty is the fruit of regulation. Through the practice of moral rules we develop the capacity to govern and regulate ourselves, which is the whole reality of liberty."
—Durkheim, Moral Education (pp. 45, 48-49, 54)
Taken by themselves, these statements are perhaps not crystal-clear; but they may at least furnish some hints about Durkheim's thinking on the issues involved. (See my P.S. below)

Durkheim's two main points in this connection are (1) that society, and especially culture, is not just an external framework for individual action, but enters into the formation of the individual personality at the deepest levels (i.e., it plays a crucial constitutive role); and (2) that socially elaborated structures—in terms of both conceptual and symbolic systems and forms of social organization—don't simply serve to restrict individual action, but can be simultaneously constraining and enabling (to borrow Anthony Giddens's terminology). Thus, the internalization (and, increasingly, the self-conscious acceptance and appropriation) of collectively elaborated systems of rules, including in particular an effective sense of moral obligation, are crucial to the development of a character or personality capable of autonomy.

And as Michael Walzer puts it in developing this part of Durkheim's argument (in Obligations):
The process by which obligations are incurred and the process by which they come to be felt are not the same, or not necessarily the same. They are similar, however, in at least one respect: they are both social processes. (p. 4) [my emphasis]

.... The best description of these processes is probably still Emile Durkheim's Moral Education. (p. 4fn.)

.... Obligation, then, begins with membership, but membership in the broadest sense, for there are a great variety of formal and informal ways of living within a particular circle of action and commitment. (p. 7)

Now, all these ideas are not so completely different from Weber's concerns as might at first appear. One need only consider Weber's (highly complex and perhaps even ambivalent) thoughts on the notion of vocation. Recall that one of the effects of Calvinist moral discipline was precisely to create a character type of exceptional integrity, self-direction, self-control, and effectiveness:
It is very easy not to recognize that only an unusually strong character could save an entrepreneur of this new type from the loss of his temperate self-control and from both moral and economic shipwreck. Furthermore, along with clarity of vision and ability to act, it is only by virtue of very definite and highly developed ethical qualities that it has been possible to command the absolutely indispensable confidence of his customers and workmen. Nothing else could have given him the strength to overcome the innumerable obstacles, above all the infinitely more intensive work which is demanded of the modern entrepreneur. But these are ethical qualities of quite a different sort from those adapted to the traditionalism of the past. (PE, p. 69)

The Puritan, like every rational type of asceticism, tried to enable a man to maintain and act upon his constant motives, especially those which it taught him itself, against the emotions. In this formal psychological sense of the term it tried to make him into a personality. (PE, p. 119)
(My emphases.) And this is no trivial accomplishment, since, according to "Science as a Vocation" (p. 135): "nothing is worthy of man as man unless he can pursue it with passionate devotion."

Of course, it remains true that Durkheim and Weber treat these issues within very different overall theoretical contexts....

I do hope that these odds and ends provide some useful food for thought; if they merely add to your perplexity, you can file them away for some other time. Meanwhile, perhaps sometime soon I can offer you some more direct comments on your topic.

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Incidentally, in the background of Durkheim's formulations is—among other things—a famous passage by Rousseau (one of Durkheim's favorite authors, though obviously not one with whom he uniformly agreed):
The passage from the state of nature to society [for Durkheim this is, of course, mythical] produces in man a remarkable change, by substituting in his conduct justice for instinct, and by giving his actions the moral quality that they previously lacked. It is only when the voice of duty replaces physical impulse, and right replaces appetite, that man, who until then considered only himself, finds himself obliged to act on other principles, and to consult his reason before heeding his inclinations. Although in this state he is deprived of many advantages derived from nature, he acquires equally great ones in return; his faculties are exercised and developed; his ideas are expanded; his feelings are ennobled; his whole soul is exalted to such a degree that, if [!] the abuses of this new condition did not often degrade him below that from which he has emerged, he ought to bless without ceasing the happy moment that released him from it forever, and transformed him from a stupid and ignorant animal into an intelligent being and a man

..... Besides the preceding, we might add to the acquisitions of the social state moral liberty, which alone renders man truly master of himself; for the impulse of mere appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law one prescribes to oneself is liberty.
Social Contract (Book I, ch. viii)