Weatherhead: Workshop on Culture, History, and Society - "Viewing Morality Sociologically"


Friday, September 15, 2017, 12:00pm to 2:00pm


William James Hall, Rm. 1550, 33 Kirkland St, Cambridge, MA


Steven LukesProfessor of Sociology, New York University.


Yueran Zhang


Orlando PattersonFaculty Associate. John Cowles Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology, Harvard University.

Daniel Lord SmailFrank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of History, Department of History, Harvard University.

Ya-Wen LeiAssistant Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology, Harvard University.


This talk addresses six questions that viewing morality sociologically addresses. (1) How wide and how deep does the diversity of morals go? How different are moral codes and practices across and within societies and where there are differences, how fundamental are they? (2) What are the conceptual limits to answering (1)? To what extent is our very concept of what counts as ‘moral’ internal to our own moral framework? (3) Is the domain of the moral unified? Are there overall features distinguishing it from the non-moral? After considering various suggestions for disaggregating the moral field, I ask: are they convincing, plausible, illuminating? (4) Is a distinction between the moral and the conventional, between morals and manners (customs, etiquette—‘what we do around here’) sociologically appropriate?  According to Eliot Turiel et al. young children across several cultures readily make this distinction between requirements that are authority-dependent and those that are not, allowing for resistance to and rejection of the former. Under what conditions and to what extent is a normative framework escapable? (5) What is the relationship between morals and interests? For Durkheim morality ‘begins where disinterestedness and devotion begin.' For Weber interests are also subjective but can encompass a variety of orientations, including salvation, honor and security—including value-rational goals (ethical aesthetic, religious, etc.) ‘if such ends are pursued with deliberation.’ Does morality contrast with interests or form the ‘non-contractual’ background to their pursuit or does it shape or ‘constitute’ them or, as Axel Honneth suggests, does it inhere within them, so that even the pursuit and defense of material self-interests have a normative core involving claims to social recognition? (6) When investigating morals, are we to focus on (a) norms (codes, categories, boundaries, narratives, genres) or on (b) properties of actors and action (dispositions, experiences, judgments, beliefs, behavior)? (and which of the two do the experiments using economic games tap into?) And how are we to study the relations between (a) and (b)? Should we see these as cultural or power relations?

See also: Workshop on Culture, History, and Society2017-2018