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Durkheim on social justice (or: why political theorists should read sociology)

As part of my long-term project to convince political theorists that they can benefit from cooperating with empirical social scientists (see also here), I’ve recently written a paper on an intriguing argument about social justice that I found in the writings of Émile Durkheim, who is widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of sociology. I here present a short summary; the full paper can be found here.

How does an average person experience social inequality? Often, she won’t be directly in touch with the “super-rich,” and only know about their existence and their lavish lifestyle through the media (bad enough, you might say!). But there are at least two things that the “person on the street” will feel close up in an unequal society: first, such a society will very likely suffer from reduced equality of opportunity. Depending on what family one is born into, one’s chances to make it into different social positions and to earn a living will be very different. Second, in such a society, some prices and wages will be highly distorted because buyers with highly unequal purchasing power compete with each other (housing in many metropolitan areas seems a prime example today, see also Andrew’s post from earlier this year). When people experience these phenomena, they perceive the resulting contracts as unfair – and their willingness to stick to them declines, which is fatal for a society based on contractual relations.

This, in a nutshell, is Durkheim’s argument: there are functional reasons for why high inequality is harmful, above and beyond reasons of justice or morality. His approach is not completely “value-free”, but he does not argue in a deductive way, starting from moral premises and then making his way down to concrete institutions. Rather, he diagnoses certain social grievances that threaten to unravel the social fabric, and he puts his finger on inequality as one of the root causes. While presented in the late-19th-century language of “organic solidarity”, the argument can be reformulated in contemporary terms, and has lost none of its plausibility. It is vulnerable, however, to the possibility of ideological distortion: if people think that there is equal opportunity and that prices are fair, there might not be any danger of them rebelling against the perceived injustice. Is it too much of a jump to wonder whether highly unequal societies might have a tendency to produce ideologies about equal opportunity and fair prices, because without these, the existing realities would become unbearable?

In the end, it is of course an empirical matter whether the phenomena Durkheim describes, and the concomitant questions about ideology, play out in this way in today’s society. Hence, my paper closes with a sketch of the research program that Durkheim’s argument suggests. But I should add that I also see a lot of work for political theorists to do in this area, for example about the role of economic ideologies and ideas about rights and liberties. We need to understand these in order to see how progressive change could be brought about.

Lisa Herzog

I work on various questions at the intersection of economics and philosophy, currently focussing on ethics and organizations and ethics in finance. Methodologically, I sit between many chairs and I have come to like the variety. I think of my work as critical, empirically informed social philosophy.



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  1. This is excellent work, Lisa. As you know, in the states many people from across the ideological spectrum lament what they see as a decline in people’s senses of accountability and personal responsibility. However, for reasons that both Durkheim and Smith discuss, in a society where material welfare and social position increasingly reflects social connections, access to capital, and political power, rather than virtues such as hard work, prudence, and honesty, it is only natural that an ethic of money-making or money-taking will come to replace an ethic of personal responsibility. Such a state of affairs is bound to erode the very sentiments, including personal accountability, necessary for both a high functioning economy and a stable, flourishing civil society.

    • Lisa Herzog

      Thanks for your comment, Josh! The arguments you talk about are not center stage in Durkheim, but they cohere well with what he writes. And while the link between “interests” and “identity” is a complex one, it seems a reasonable hypothesis that if people have a sense that they cannot promote their interests through hard work, prudence and honesty (as you write), attention shifts to identity, and a search for ways of feeling superior, or at least not inferior, to others… pretty toxic for a democracy!

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