Principles of Sociology/Sociology and Ethics

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Sociological Visions of Ethics and Responsibility drawn from ideas featured in Conversations with Zygmunt Bauman

In this world there is beauty and there are the humiliated… whatever difficulties this situation may present we should all strive to never be unfaithful to either. – Albert Camus

As a general rule, in any society at any given time, there is more humiliation and misery occurring than society notices, more still than it admits, and much more still than it resolves to alleviate or rectify. This is the prime reason why justice is always a distant cry , far ahead and out of reach from everything we do for human well-being and dignity. However, we can't be faithful to the humiliated unless we at least reach for beauty.

Social thought is done for the benefit of humanity when it shows us how we can refuse to act in systematically hurtful ways even while living under circumstances that make the cruel treatment of others seem easy to accept. As relatively free beings, it is possible to choose to care a little more. In that choice lies our human dignity and our sense of morality. The role of critical sociology is to make these choices more accessible by demonstrating that our currently socially acceptable ways of thinking and acting are based on historically isolated and likely flawed sets of social ethics .

Sociologists are not unrealistic utopians who think they know how to finally set the world right to insure that all people live eternally in peace and harmony. This can be rejected on the grounds that the practice of sociology is implicitly tied to the values of the particular culture that surrounds it – those which likewise bind all men and women in the community of social thinkers. However, sociology is an important agent in re-imagining and redoing the current world. It is hoped that this deprives the prevailing institutions of the day the air of invulnerability they desperately need to continue to operate unopposed. What sociology badly needs to fulfill its mandate is an enlarged public forum in which people can come together to recreate their world first in ideas, without the fear that all our hopes and ambitions will be overshadowed by the public desire to make a spectacle out of private lives. It is this forum that our society conspicuously and disastrously lacks and needs to revitalize politics, especially in this time of greatest need.

The effort to give some social choices preference over other alternatives is what we call “ethics”. Society is an ongoing effort to increase the probability of some choices occurring over others. Thus, sociology cannot but be inquiry into the ways in which ethical rules are constructed . Societies are systems of coordinated choices and any society you study is but one reality chosen among many . Society may be “good” or “bad” depending on different beliefs, but in each case it may be better than it is. Being moral means accepting that new choices may be good or may be bad, but it does not mean knowing, let alone knowing for sure which are good and which are bad. Being moral means being bound to make such new choices under conditions of acute and painful uncertainty. To be moral means never to feel good enough about our choices or about the current state of our world – this is the restlessness associated with being human.

Often ethics comes in handy as a tranquilizer, as a drug to mitigate pangs of conscience. However, becoming dependent on the same tired old ethics of justification may in the long run destroy our moral immune system and deprive the self of the little ability it might have had in facing up to tough moral dilemmas and going after the good on its own volition. This restless and indefatigable search for ways to do away with the wrongs of our world never runs a straight line since new actions bring with them new evils . History has been more like a pendulum that a straight edge ruler. To defend ourselves from the evils perpetrated in the past, we march with our backs turned toward the future, but no sooner do we turn to scrutinize the future than it becomes in its turn a past with ugliness showing anew.

Modernity has often been about making the world a “clean” and predictable place. Ordering the world in such a preplanned fashion means making reality vastly different than it currently is by getting rid of the ingredients of reality which are deemed to be responsible for the impurity of the certain human conditions. On this path, we may quickly arrive at a verdict that some people should be refused help, thrown out, or destroyed in the name of a greater good and someone else's greater happiness. Would we be better or worse off without the modern ethos? No one really knows… we still need to wait for full inventory to be made of the atrocities which it may have blinded us to thus far. Modernity's forte is the power of its tools. What counts in the measurements of its success are efficiency, speed, and the scale of performance. Its weakness is the vagueness and uncertainty about the ends to which these tools may be applied. There is a fast growing imbalance between the means we (as members of the privileged lot of humanity) have at our disposal and the ends which we collectively can agree on as worthy of our attention and effort.

If you think you know exactly what the good society is like, then any cruelty you commit in its name is justified and absolved. We can abstain from self-assured acts of cruelty only when we are unsure of our wisdom and admit the possibility of our own ideological fallibility. The ghastly failure of our utopias has turned peoples' thoughts away from what a better life would require to be done in the here and now. It seems that societies manipulate morality rather than produce it. Powerful groups enforce the kinds of morality that advance their own interests. It is this socially produced reality which needs to justify itself, to be tried and judged at the tribunal of ethics.

Freedom may be the natural condition of humanity, but most of human history has been dedicated to repression. S ecuring bare necessities for all people is the secret to releasing humanity's amazing creative potential. In these times of “liquid modernity”, the hoops one must jump through to achieve security are notorious for being melted as soon as they are molded. For too many, there are only motel beds and sleeping bags available for readjustment. We are told daily that our possibilities are unlimited and that we need only pick and choose those that fit us best. We are then punished for failing to find the best of these advertised alternatives, as if what we had been told of their availability had some guarantee attached. This myth cannot become true for more people as long as the present-day decoupling of freedom and security persists. These two values cannot be entertained separately.

We are encouraged to believe that security is in fact disabling, responsible for breeding the kind of dependency that is thought to constrain human freedom. However, acrobatics and tight rope walking without a [social] safety net is an art few people can master and recipe for disaster for all the rest. Take away security and freedom is the first casualty. Most modern atrocities have been byproducts of a desperate search for security. As older unchanging and self-reproducing orders collapsed under the changes of modernity, quelling the fears brought on by this disturbance was brought to obsessive extremes by modernity, which allowed ever more desperate and destructive responses

Freedom is the uppermost among human values but first and foremost it is a fate. Free beings, if they are indeed free, may embrace that fate or try to escape it, make it into their vocation or fight against it: this is also the capacity to which they owe their freedom. Often freedom seems to be an ambivalent value because it sometimes attracts and repels at the same time. It is disconcerting and frightening to account for one's actions using the terms “I had to” instead of “I wanted to”. Hence the treacherous allure of “there is no alternative” ideologies as well as many of the awesome seductive powers of totalitarian regimes. Remember, there is never a shortage of offers to absolve us of our freedoms .

By itself, the idea of justice has no specific meaning. It only makes sense as a protest against injustice. A just society is a society which considers itself not just enough, which questions the sufficiency of any achieved level of justice and considers justice always to be a step more ahead. A just society is one which reacts angrily to any case of injustice and promptly sets about correcting it. While modernity has blurred many traditional distinctions between justice and injustice, its promise is provide more information on which to base our judgments. Today, the concept of injustice is more hotly contested than any other time in history. However, fast-paced change in the structure and content of our lives has made the idea of justice hazier than ever before. Since justice can only be described as an ever changing ideal, the just society must seek it through ongoing controversy, not majority rule consensus. Like modernity, justice is not just an unfinished project, it is an unfinishible project with only a very limited conception of future directions.

What is more noticeable these days is the tendency to ignore or brush off some of the world's most brutal and excessive differences in standards of living (caused both by particularities in human history and by the current economic regime) as “facts of nature” about which we collectively can do nothing but humbly accept and obey. This happens while the moral alertness of the public is redirected to focus on the demands for recognition from small groups and categories of people sufficiently free and resourceful enough to choose a new lifestyle and demanded its acceptance.

The increasing global effects of our local actions necessitate responsibility on a scale which has never been confronted before. Global power demands global responsibility. The latter has been much slower to arrive even as it finds itself increasingly impotent in the face of consolidated transnational corporate power. The fraction of our income or gross domestic product we are prepared to share with faraway impoverished people who are deprived of livelihood partly as a result of our economy's global search for wealth is pitifully tiny. Investing in the poor may be a morally correct act, but it makes no economic sense under capitalism – less money in wealthy consumers' pockets only raises prices.The problem of finding ways to catch up with rapidly globalizing economic powers by means of our local and national institutions of democracy may presently constitute the major challenge to our standards of justice and morality.

There is a contemporary feeling amongst individuals even in the most free and affluent societies that some of the most basic and important patterns of their lives simply cannot be changed and concern with these problems will only be a waste of time. This is because for the most part the roots of whatever troubles us most and stands in the way of a dignified and morally satisfied life are stuck well beyond the reach of our individual action. These roots are socially planted and cultivated and only collectively can they be dug up and detoxified . Once set in motion, individualization is a self-propelling and self-intensifying process. One of its foremost effects is the undermining of the possibility to act socially to question society and then following this critique with a shared strategy. It is the task of sociology to reconstitute society as the common property and responsibility of free individuals aiming at a dignified life.

With the world changing faster every day, levels of anxiety and isolation continue to rise as individuals and families attempt to cope alone – resulting in very negative consequences for some. With the almost forgotten ties of the extended family out of reach in times of need and insecurity, many people long for a community they can no longer locate. We cannot help missing the missing community but the community we miss cannot be found. Most disconcerting to today's consumer masses is that it cannot be commissioned or made on demand. A true community must be able to address serious crises collectively, but also secure stable and productive lives for its individual members. Like cultures, true communities are not as much impositions of fixed identities as they are processes of making sense with and through others. Our culture should be a knife pressed against the future…