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What Liberals Can Learn From Emile Durkheim

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and author of the best-selling book The Happiness Hypothesis, in his office at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Haidt has been a professor at the University of Virginia for nearly two decades, but he is in Manhattan for the next semester as a visiting professor. (It is also a homecoming, Haidt is from just outside of the city.) I interviewed him about his forthcoming book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion and wrote an article about the book and his intellectual background, which will be running on the Scientific American guest blog in a few weeks or so. While preparing for the interview and writing the article I learned a lot about the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who along with Max Weber is considered one of the founders of sociology.

Durkheim is perhaps best known for studying the factors that contributed to suicide during the late nineteenth century throughout Europe. As Haidt explains in The Happiness Hypothesis, all of the data that Durkheim collected can be summarized in one word: constraints. No matter how Durkheim shuffled through the data he found that suicides rates increased whenever people had fewer social constrains. Specifically, he found that Catholics and Jews (who both had the strongest religious obligations) committed suicide at a much lesser rate than Protestants (who had the weakest religious obligations), that single men and women committed suicide more than married men and women and that suicide rates are higher in times of peace compared to times of war. He concluded that constraints and obligations are necessary for structure and meaning. In his words: “The more weakened the groups to which [a man] belongs, the less he depends on them, the more he consequently depends only on himself and recognizes no other rules of conduct than what are founded on his private interests.”

In September of 2008, Haidt wrote an essay entitled, “What Makes People Vote Republican,” which was published on the website Edge.org. He argued that there are two radically different approaches to forming a society where unrelated people can live peacefully. One approach, which is predominantly liberal, was most famously outlined by John Stewart Mill in “On Liberty,” when he argued that, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Mill’s idea – the harm principle as it is known – is a cornerstone in liberal ideology. It is best illustrated in institutions like the United Nations and embodied by Obama’s latest speech to the UN when he twice quoted the General Assembly’s Universal Declaration, which states that, “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and in rights.”

The other approach, and this is mainly conservative, is Durkheim’s. Haidt explains that a Durkheimian society, “would value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one’s groups over concerns for out-groups.” He also quotes Durkheim who warned of the dangers of anomie (normlessness) in 1897: “Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free himself from all social pressure is to abandon himself and demoralize him.” Haidt holds that there are six foundations to morality, and Durkheimian societies exemplify three: Ingroup, Authority, and Purity. (Liberals foundations include harm/care and fairness/reciprocity.)

One conclusion that Haidt comes to is that Democrats tend to think that Republicans are “duped” into being Republican because they are either dumb, were brought up with overly strict parents or they fear openness and change. The other conclusion is that morality is diverse; it is constituted by several moral foundations and a healthy society requires that all are valued. Both sides of the political spectrum do an equally bad job of understanding this because they are trapped in “moral matrices.”

I’ve considered myself liberal most of my life, but studying Durkheim has made me understand conservatives better. I still don’t agree with their (and I am generalizing here) stance towards homosexuality, abortion, religion and other social issues, but I now sincerely appreciate that a limit of people’s autonomy, tradition and social hierarchies are vital aspects to morality. Liberals would view Durkheimian society where individuals “bind themselves to each other, [suppress] each other’s selfishness, and [punish] the deviants and free riders who eternally threaten to undermine cooperative groups” with a critical lens. I think this is a mistake. (And a mistake that is particularly costly to the leaderless Occupy movements.)

The key piece, Haidt explained to me in his office, is that morality binds and blinds. Whether our world views are Millian or Durkhiemian, we are attracted to those who are like-minded and are frustrated with those who are not, we look for what confirms our intuitions and ignore what does not, and it is genuinely difficult for us to understand why people do not see the world like we do. Such is human nature. But this is only the pessimistic side. On the other hand, we are, as Haidt also explained, 10 percent bee (as opposed to 90 percent chimp). That is, we have the extraordinary ability, unlike more species on Earth, to cooperate and have common purposes and goals. Don’t forget this no matter your political lens. If you are conservative, read some Mill, if you are liberal, check out Durkheim.


8 Comments Post a comment
  1. fuzzmello #

    As a Buddhist, I can attest that Durkheim was quite wrong.

    Not only does freedom from social restraint allow for greater personal freedom, it allows for better well-being.

    I think what he missed and what he left out of his theory is the irrational compulsion to cling to a social group one does not belong to, or to which one does not ascribe value. It is this compulsion to measure oneself by the values of others that leads to despair, and not the valuable insights gained through removing oneself from a particular society’s constraining norms.

    December 6, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Durkheim’s observation of suicides rates is an empirical fact about the world, which has been backed up by a century of psychological data. So that was something he was not wrong about.

      The claim that freedom from social restraint allows for better well-being is much more debatable. Somewhere between Durkheim and Buddha is maybe optimal? If you want to expand on the Buddhist side of the story I would welcome that.

      December 6, 2011
      • fuzzmello #

        Durkheim gathered (through personal observation) data about how persons in social situations reacted and drew his conclusions from those statistics, by the way. Not entirely scientific when you get right down to it. Nothing empirical about it.

        The Buddhist side of the story is just what I said in my comment. The *fancied* “need” to adhere to the norms of the society was the instrument of those poor peoples’ suicides, not the norms themselves. For Durkheim this “need” to be understood while adhering to an alternate mode within the society about them is so essential that he doesn’t even question it.

        From the Buddhist perspective, it is when they didn’t continue fit in (due to their chosen unrestrained lifestyles, regardless of how unrestrained we might judge them) and *yet still sought be nurtured through social engagement* that things went south for them.

        The Buddhist perspective would be the alternative course – self-validation. Admittedly, that validation would indeed require self discipline; self restraint.

        My complaint with Durkheim lies in this distinction. His is a theory that relies on society for nurturing and guidance. The Buddhist way advises, ‘no guru, no path’.

        December 6, 2011
        • sammcnerney #

          Suicide was one of the first attempts to study society empirically – that is one reason it is considered a landmark text in sociology. I would say that Durkheim was an empiricist, but not a very good one. He collected data and drew conclusions (many flawed to be sure). I’m not really sure how you can say that there is nothing empirical about Suicide.

          I am more partial to the Buddist way, but I still think that Durkheim’s observation – that constraints are important – is a great insight.

          December 6, 2011
          • fuzzmello #

            Heh,heh. Did I say there was nothing empirical about suicide?

            I think Durkheim’s observations lead to discussion and contemplation that lead to great insight. But that’s just me. ;)

            December 6, 2011
  2. There are a number of over generalizations taking place here. Why don’t you start with definitions of what you both mean by liberal and conservative, for starters?

    December 6, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      I understand liberals and conservatives in context to Haidt’s moral foundations theory. There are five foundations to the theory: Ingroup, Authority, Purity, Harm and Fairness. Conservatives tends to value the first three much more than Liberals who value the last two.

      December 6, 2011
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