The Moral System

© The Author(s) 2015
Bruce K. FriesenMoral Systems and the Evolution of Human RightsSpringerBriefs in Sociology10.1007/978-94-017-9551-7_2

2. The Moral System

Bruce K. Friesen 

University of Tampa, Tampa, FL, USA



Bruce K. Friesen

DurkheimMoral systemMoral evolutionReligionSocial change

The ultimate goal of this monograph is to explain the emergence of human rights as homo sapiens’ first truly indigenous global moral system. In order to do so we must first identify and describe the component of society most relevant to the discussion, and then explain how and why it evolves. This chapter describes the concept of the moral system, illustrating ways in which it is related to, but distinct from, the notion of religion. The notion of a moral system is used as a conceptual tool to assist in the analysis and understanding of rapid-paced changes in beliefs over time. Once defined, a theory of how moral systems change will be elucidated and propositions of the theory will be clarified. Subsequent chapters will apply the theory to traditional and modern societies respectively, in an effort to illustrate how moral systems evolve.

Secularizing Durkheim: Key Concepts

Durkheim (1912/1962) attempted to create a science of morality within Sociology that would objectively analyze and explain how it is that moral systems develop and function in societies at large. Early in his career, Durkheim had largely dismissed religion as a relic of traditional societies and predicted its eventual demise and replacement with a new norm he called the cult of the individual . Noting religion’s durability, Durkheim returned to examine its function later in life. He defined it as, “…a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden-beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (1912/1962: 44). Durkheim rightly viewed religion as sui generis, but came to view its role in social integration as essential in many ways.

It is unfortunate in my mind that Durkheim returned to focus on religion as the basis of morality, as recent global trends in the rise of non-belief and the development of secular moral systems indicate that Durkheim’s initial prognostication may have been prescient. While prejudice against non-believers abounds (Cragun et al. 2012), it is clear that they possess moral commitments in spite of their nonbelief. If a definition of morality includes a sense of respect for others, it is clear that non-believers are moral human beings (Cragun 2013; Didyoung et al. 2013). Durkheim’s preoccupation with religion, then, may have inhibited his efforts to develop a true science of morality.

Other research that makes use of religious terms, metaphors, rituals, and processes as explanation similarly obfuscates more than it clarifies. The study of religion is clearly a worthwhile endeavor in its own right. Yet if religion’s primary function is embedded in something other than, or in addition to, a religious reality, inquiry is best served if the analytical concepts and terms used actually clarify rather than confuse or befuddle. At times it appears that religious terms are intentionally used to infer a greater religious reality than might otherwise exist. This includes the use of religious jargon or definitions used to refer to ubiquitous human qualities. The redefinition of humanistic values as “spirituality,” is but one example of this slight-of-hand (Cragun and Kosmin 2013). It does more to artificially inflate the proportion of respondents identified as religious than it does to document genuine changes in values and the rise of new moral movements. When national and international data clearly show a persistent decrease in religious activity and an incumbent increase in people identifying themselves as having no religious affiliation or as atheist (PEW 2012a, b), describing the current religious climate as postsecular (Habermas 2008) seems disingenuous.

By shifting the focus from religion to morality, then, we can more clearly identify moral activity regardless of its religious or non-religious manifestations. To do this, I choose to “secularize” some of Durkheim’s key concepts (Friesen 2013) by replacing terms normally associated with religion to something more benign. In particular, I wish to modify Durkheim’s useful sacred/profane dichotomy. Drawing on the observations made by himself and his nephew Marcel Mauss in Primitive Classification (Durkheim and Mauss 1963), Durkheim argued in Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912/1962) that religions divide the world into two realms: the sacred and the profane . Components of the sacred involve those aspects normally associated with religion, while profane aspects of life are those which are outside the religious realm. Typically mundane aspects of life most often comprise elements of the profane, such as getting dressed or cleaning up after a meal. Profane activities and symbols are viewed neither as moral nor immoral; but amoral ; having no religious significance.

Modifying these concepts to focus exclusively on morality and moral behavior is not difficult. As Hume (1739/1985) long ago noted, moralizing; the dividing of the world into favorable (good) and unfavorable (bad) elements, is a quintessential human behavior. People who come together to form a community likewise construct a weltanschauung , or world view. Moralizing is an essential feature of every weltanschauung. Certain aspects of existence are attributed moral meaning; either good or bad. I’ll call this the moral realm . The remainder of collective experience is part of what I will refer to as the amoral realm . Neither good nor bad, aspects of existence within the amoral realm are morally benign. A third potentially useful concept is what can be called the nonmoral realm . Aspects of life not yet encountered, that have yet to be cognitively processed by the community in order to designate it as part of the moral or amoral realm, would be part of the nonmoral realm. For example, a group of tribesmen first encountering members of another tribe heretofore unknown, may be uncertain as to how the new group’s existence should be understood within the context of their shared weltanschauung. Members of the new tribe are not yet considered to be moral or amoral. Until an attribution is made, they remain part of the nonmoral realm.1

Components of the moral realm are distinguishable from those in the amoral realm by measuring the reaction of a group member to any known artifact, behavior, or statement of belief. While Durkheim relied primarily on the observation of sanctions to reveal the sacred, the approach taken here is broader. Reactions to those components which are part of the moral realm will elicit either a positive or negative moral valuation. They may be received with a certain reverence or sense of awe, or elicit an aversive reaction which incites fear or revulsion. Amoral aspects may elicit emotive responses, such as laughter, pleasure, or even grief, but a morally evaluative aspect will be absent. Some variation in individual responses can be expected, but aggregated responses will reveal fundamental aspects of a group’s moral system.

Durkheim observed that the proportion of life interpreted as sacred shrinks drastically as a society undergoes industrialization. Aspects of existence perceived as profane realize a corresponding increase during this process. This means that people in modern societies encounter more life experiences and artifacts devoid of religious meaning and perceive them as simply existing. Durkheim referred to this as the process of secularization . A similar trend can be described with the new terms defined above. While most every aspect of life is interpreted within the moral realm in traditional societies, people in modern societies perceive more parts of life as amoral. The result is a good deal less time spent deliberating about the moral meaning of issues and items in modern society. Human beings have much more individual freedom to choose to act according to their own desires, free from criticism, judgment, and negative sanctioning from others. This process might be termed amoralization for our purposes, though its close correspondence to the meaning of secularization should be clear. Amoralization may be a more useful term to tease out nuances in moral debates in modern societies as conflicts often involve two or more secular entities; neither of which may invoke a sense of sacred.

Though the proportion of life experiences interpreted within the moral realm generally decreases in modern societies, bitter disputes over what aspects of life should be ensconced within the moral realm continue, and may even increase. Foucault (1990), for example, noted an explosion of discourse over sexuality in Victorian England at the same time that sexual behavior presumably decreased. Becker (1963) used the phrase moral crusade to characterize organized attempts to convince the general public that certain (amoral) aspects of life should be bedeviled, or interpreted as wrong or bad. Whether sincere or orchestrated, moral crusades in modern societies make heavy use of political and rhetorical devices in order to engender a moral consensus. Moral conflicts in modern society are not only a function of traditional versus modern values, but also have to do with increased competition over a decreasing moralized space and the professionalization of moral suasion. As we will see, successful solutions to moral conflicts are often realized in the increased abstraction of moral principles or ideals.

Having defined key concepts, we now turn to a description of the moral system.