Friday, December 28, 2012

The Disconnect Between Social Scientific Study of Morality and the Moral Commitments of Social Scientists

I've been waiting to read U of Notre Dame professor Christian Smith's What Is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up. Some years ago I appreciated (as everyone did) his brilliant study Soul Searching that gave us, among other things, the idea of moralistic therapeutic deism as the default religion of today's American adolescents.

Here is Smith, early in What Is a Person?, stating, as a sociologist, his concern. It's a long quote, worth reading in its entirety with little comment.

"The gap I see between the depiction of human beings in many of our social science theories and the moral and political beliefs and commitments that many social scientists embrace. Most social science scholars I know are personally committed-some passionately so-to human rights, social justice, equality, tolerance, and human emancipation. Behind those commitments stands a moral belief in the innate, inalienable dignity and value of human persons.

The disconnect I see is that few of the social science theories we employ in our disciplines model human beings in ways that justify or account for these humanistic moral and political beliefs. Few representations of the human in social science theories make it at all clear why such objects should be bearers of rights, equality, or self-determination. [Cmp. William Lane Craig's metaethical concerns here.]

If anything, much theory portrays humans as essentially governed by external social influences, competing socially for material resources, strategically manipulating public presentations of self, struggling with rivals for power and status, cobbling identities through fluid assemblies of scripted roles, rationalizing actions with post hoc discursive justifications, and otherwise behaving, thinking, and feeling in ways that are commonly predictable by variable attributes and categories according to which their lives can be broken down, measured, and statistically modeled.

Perhaps all this is true. But that picture does not obviously justify belief in human rights, social justice, equality, tolerance, and emancipation. I think it often does not and cannot. Some social scientists might be willing to live with that kind of intellectual and moral tension, even schizophrenia. I prefer to think harder about ways our social scientific, moral, and political views of human beings might better correspond with and reinforce one another." (Kindle Locations 60-69)