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1 Conventions, laws and climates of attitude

1 Conventions, laws and climates of attitude

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Central to both convention and law in Weber’s senses is the belief

(Vorstellung) that the custom in question possesses ‘validity.’ Since ‘validity,’

along with ‘legitimacy,’ are words that naturally come to mind if one tries to

unpack the meaning of the question about the ‘basis’ that people have for

approving or condemning a practice, ethics will clearly be interested in

conventions and laws in the senses Weber uses. What the words ‘validity’ and

‘legitimacy’ point to is that people will not only feel approval or disapproval of

some form of conduct but they will also regard the way they feel as correct or

appropriate, as conforming to some notion they possess of how (objectively) they

should or ought to feel. It is not, however, easy to make this notion more precise.

The question whether people in a given society will feel and express

disapproval when one of their customs is broken (so that the custom is a

‘convention’ in Weber’s sense) is the sort of factual question that social

scientists regard as proper for them to address, and such questions can often be

settled by observation. The question whether a custom is regarded as having

validity is also a factual question, but it is often more difficult to settle by

observation, especially where people are motivated in some way not to observe

the custom rigorously when no one else is watching or not to make evident their

feeling that the custom should be observed by others. Bad faith and weakness of

resolve complicate social reality. Habitual adulterers do not necessarily reject the

validity of marital fidelity. Corruption may be widespread enough to reduce

those who do not profit from it to intimidated silence, while the nudges and winks

of those who do profit constitute back-handed acknowledgement of the validity

of what they flout.

The validity of laws (customs that some group of people is taken to have

authority to enforce) may also in some circumstances be difficult to determine,

particularly in societies where laws are not written—difficult even for those

responsible for enforcement. In societies with written legal codes and welldeveloped constitutional traditions, on the other hand, it is in most cases

straightforward for citizens as well as outside observers to determine which

customs are in fact laws or ‘have legal validity.’ But the ‘validity’ in this case is

a very different kind of notion (about which more will be said in Section 2.4);

conformity to a legally valid statute may be regarded by most people as a matter

of indifference and attempts to enforce it as anything from unnecessary

inconvenience to tyrannical oppression.

Because it is for the most part straightforward to determine whether breaking a

custom will arouse disapproval but more difficult to determine what (moral)

validity, if any, people attribute to that custom, let us begin by describing the

social phenomena that are of interest to ethics in terms which avoid the concept

of validity and take up that concept in subsequent sections of this chapter. We

can proceed by advancing the following two-part claim (using a slightly

elaborated version of Weber’s notion of convention in order to highlight features

that have so far been left in the shadows). In every society we find that:


1 members approve or condemn certain practices (found in their own or in

other cultures); and

2 these practices are reinforced or discouraged as a consequence of this

climate of approval or disapproval.

This is a (very plausible) generalization about human society. Attitudes of this sort

—together with the patterns of motivation that they generate— exist and are

important constituents (although by no means the only constituents) of a culture.

Could we say that whenever a group of people share enough attitudes of this

sort, they have a common ‘ethic’ or a common ‘morality?’ The concept we are

trying to capture at this point is sometimes referred to as a ‘concrete ethic’ or

‘concrete morality.’ Stress on the importance of this concept is associated with

the name of Hegel (see the quotation at the head of this chapter).

The set of obligations which we have to further and sustain a society founded

on the Idea is what Hegel calls ‘Sittlichkeit’. This has been variously

translated in English as ‘ethical life’, ‘objective ethics’, ‘concrete

ethics’…‘Sittlichkeit’ is the usual German term for ‘ethics’, with the same

kind of etymological origin [as the words ‘ethics’ and ‘morals’], in the term

‘Sitten’ which we might translate ‘customs’…. These obligations are based

on established norms and uses and that is why the etymological root in

‘Sitten’ is important for Hegel’s use.

(Taylor 1975:376)

This notion can be usefully studied and applied in isolation from the rest of Hegel’s

theoretical apparatus and does not have to be treated as consisting exclusively of

a set of obligations.

The adjective ‘concrete’ serves to distinguish the social phenomenon that we

are considering from ‘abstract or ideal ethics (morality),’ which is generated by

reformers or theorists who have worked out some idea of how people should

conduct their lives (or perhaps merely have some idea of how eventually to

discover how people should conduct their lives). A concrete morality is an aspect

of a living culture or way of life; it is what people actually live by and may not

necessarily be something that is held up as an ideal and may not even be

something to which people pay lip service. (Normally, however, people believe

that what they live by is compatible with their professed ideals and they will

speak in its defense.)

Concrete moralities found in different historical contexts often have enough

features in common to constitute generic types. For example, many cultures in

which there are no other institutions for maintaining public security rely on a

commitment to a concrete morality known as the revenge ethic. A group of

people, typically an extended family, may feel with considerable justification

that if it does not maintain a credible threat to exact vengeance for injuries to any

of its members, it will find its property and the lives of all of its members in


jeopardy. Maintaining its credibility may well extend to inflicting physical

punishment for symbolic injuries and affronts (to ‘the family honor’). Carrying

out revenge may require the physical strength of the men of the family, but

sustaining the attitude that the imperative to seek vengeance should override

everything else is commonly shared by all members of the family. Vilhelm

Grönbech, who draws on literature to illustrate the revenge ethic in medieval

Scandinavia, gives this example from the Laxdoela Saga:

Gudrun was up at sundawn, says the saga, and woke her brothers. ‘Such

mettle as you are, you should have been daughters of so-and-so the peasant

—of the sort that serve neither for good nor ill. After all the shame Kjartan

has put upon you, you sleep never the worse for that he rides past the place

with a man or so…’ The brothers dress and arm themselves.


Claire Longrigg cites evidence of the same attitudes today among women of

Mafia families in Southern Italy: ‘Women are responsible for keeping the flame

of vendetta alight, and reminding successive generations of their duty toward the

dead, with theatrical displays of grief, keening over the body and swearing

vendetta over open wounds’ (1997:81).

The obligation to seek revenge is one of the concrete phenomena reflected in

an abstract form in ‘the morality system’ (Section 1.1). What is not reflected in

this system is the sense of honor that is at stake where there is a debt to be

repaid, a sense that may tie together phenomena we are inclined to think of as


The Japanese do not have a separate term for what I call here ‘giri to one’s

name.’… The fact that Western languages separate [an obligation to return

kindnesses and offenses] into categories as opposite as gratitude and

revenge does not impress the Japanese. Why should one virtue not cover a

man’s behavior when he reacts to another’s benevolence and when he

reacts to his scorn or malevolence?

(Benedict 1946:145–6)

The same grouping together of repayments for favors and gifts with those for

insults and injuries is reported among the Kabyle of North Africa by Bourdieu

(1980:190–2) and includes in their case an imperative to reacquire any ancestral

lands that have been sold because of economic hardship.

Max Weber’s name is perhaps most commonly associated with the thesis that

a secular ethic, which he called ‘the spirit of capitalism,’ was a product of an

ethic that first developed among Protestant sects in Northern Europe in the

sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The uniqueness of the phenomena and

significance of the connection that Weber claimed to have found have both been

intensely disputed, but the existence of certain widely shared attitudes is not in


dispute. Weber found his paradigm of the spirit of capitalism in Benjamin

Franklin, whose moral attitudes were carefully weighed against their effects on

his ability to prosper materially. ‘Honesty is useful, because it assures credit; so

are punctuality, industry, frugality, and that is the reason they are virtues.’

According to Weber:

the summum bonum of this ethic [is] the earning of more and more money,

combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life…

[and this] is thought of so purely as an end in itself, that from the point of view

of the happiness of, or utility to, the single individual, it appears entirely

transcendental and absolutely irrational.


Like the revenge ethic, this set of attitudes toward what is good and how and

why to behave has been shared by neighbors and family members in significant

segments of societies in a variety of places.

What Weber claimed to be the historical root of this ethic—having similar

features but with significant religious elements—appears among early modern

Protestants, who believed that God could call men to all manner of mundane

occupations and that economic prosperity was a sign of being in a state of grace.

Maintaining that state, however, required that one not allow business to acquire

overriding importance in one’s life: Reformation culture emphasized the biblical

parable of the nobleman who, having left money with his servants, rewarded

those who had multiplied their deposits by trading and reprimanded the one who

had managed only to keep his deposit secure.1 This was interpreted to mean that

all people should see their roles as productive stewards, neither attached to nor

enjoying what God had placed in their trust. Weber quotes from a seventeenthcentury Puritan, Richard Baxter:

If God shows you a way in which you may lawfully get more than in another

way (without wrong to your soul or to any other), if you refuse this, and

choose the less gainful way, you cross one of the ends of your calling, and

you refuse to be God’s steward and to accept His gifts and use them for

Him when he requireth it: you may labour to be rich for God, though not

for the flesh and sin.

(ibid.: 162)

What God gives in trust is, however, not to be used for oneself, above all not for

spontaneous enjoyment. Wealth is to be increased but not used to live a care-free

life. Sports, entertainments, amusements, idle conversation, earthly vanities are

to be eschewed as distracting and unproductive. Under such constraints, material

gain could only, once the means of life and necessary operating expenditures had

been met, be devoted to generating more gain, consumed only in further

investment. This concrete morality, which Weber contends would have struck


earlier cultures as bizarre, developed first among small tradesmen, who amassed

only modest fortunes. It nevertheless served as a cultural environment in which

the spirit of capitalism could flourish and, when the technology became available,

provided—this is the disputed part of Weber’s claim—a sine qua non of the

Industrial Revolution.

These examples are enough to illustrate the idea we are trying to capture with

the term ‘concrete morality.’ The account given above identifies crucial features

of what morality as a social phenomenon involves. Until we take up some

problem cases (see Section 2.3) and consider what role the concept of validity

needs to play, let us refer to phenomena with these features as ‘climates of

attitude.’ The phrase ‘climate of attitude’ may be regarded as short for ‘causally

efficacious climate of attitudes of approval and disapproval.’ ‘Causally

efficacious’ means that individuals’ awareness of what people around them will

approve, tolerate or condemn has some effect on their conduct. Although the

usual effect is to encourage conduct that is approved and discourage what is

condemned, these effects are not necessary. Knowledge of other people’s

attitudes may simply encourage individuals to exaggerate their claims to be

doing what is approved and to take steps to avoid being observed doing what is



Psychological foundations and mechanisms of reproduction

Guilt and shame, ritual and myth

It is not difficult to appreciate why people should be sensitive (and find it

important to respond in some appropriate way) to what they perceive to be the

climate of attitude around them. People’s attitudes serve as guidance to

successful social interactions as well as warning signs. Approval of one’s actions

makes one welcome and more likely to receive help; disapproval may be

followed by unwelcome consequences, ranging from withholding co-operation to

physical violence. People who disapprove of certain conduct will, even if they do

not persecute offenders themselves, tend to approve when sanctions are applied

to prevent or punish that sort of behavior. Apart from the fact that other people

can make life physically uncomfortable for individuals who do what is

condemned and fail to do what is expected, human beings have deep-seated needs

to feel that they are accepted and approved by at least some of their fellow

human beings. Even where doing what is disapproved of entails no physical

discomforts, most people will avoid doing (or being seen to do) such things

simply because it is uncomfortable to feel that other people disapprove.

The desire to be accepted (the more warmly accepted the better) and to avoid

being shunned or driven away from the society of other people is very powerful.

Individuals’ sense of their own worth depends in important ways on how they

believe other people regard them. People who are confident of the association,

respect, admiration and (on occasion) praise of other people will have a sense of


their worth that is sometimes called ‘(high) self-esteem.’ Praise and other signs of

respect and admiration will generate feelings of pride. Experiences that tend to

undermine self-esteem —being treated with contempt, shunned, ridiculed, reviled

—are commonly accompanied by feelings of shame. Expectations that people

will respond either with ridicule or contempt are attached to various ways of

acting, and the feelings of shame that are generated by these responses are often

felt by people when they are acting in this way, even though no one is present to

witness them. They may even experience the feeling of shame from no more than

contemplating action of a sort they know will be greeted with contempt.

Contempt is not the only form of rejection that people may experience. The

feeling that one has done something that if discovered would earn the reproach,

hostility or anger of others is known as guilt (self-reproach). Anger normally

involves the desire to see its object suffer in some way that goes beyond being

made to feel small or ridiculous. Hostility will likewise give rise to efforts to

inflict suffering, if only in order to drive the object of this attitude away.

Reproach, rebuke and blame serve to warn people that their actions are tending

to elicit hostility or anger, that they deserve (or are close to deserving) being

made to suffer for their conduct. Guilt, like shame, may be felt by people whose

misdeeds are not known to other people.

Individuals who are in this way sensitive to other people’s attitudes toward

conduct, whose anticipations of either contempt or reproach bring about

conformity, are said to have internalized those attitudes. A sign that people treat

a custom as having validity is that they have internalized the attitudes of reproach

and contempt and feel either guilt or shame. Otherwise, their anticipations of

rebuke or ridicule from others will elicit indifference, resentful fear, or defiance.

Blame and guilt (or self-reproach) are, according to Williams (see Section 1.1)

the characteristic reactions of the morality system—the responses to failures to

fulfill one’s obligations. One aspect of the ethical life that the morality system

tends to overlook is the importance of contempt and shame —responses to

failures to live up to expectations. Weber (1978:31) held that customs had

validity or legitimacy to the extent that people accepted them as obligatory

(verbindlich) or exemplary (vorbildlich). To accept something as obligatory is to

believe that one is bound or tied by that thing. To accept something as exemplary

is to treat it as something one should try to approximate, imitate or emulate.

Someone whose efforts to follow what is exemplary are pathetic will be held in

contempt; people who hold themselves to higher than minimal standards—who

want to excel—may feel shame even when no one else is inclined to hold them in


The ethical life, moreover, is by no means entirely a matter of living so as to

avoid the external sanctions of contempt and reproach and the internal sanctions

of shame and guilt. Exemplars offer people something to live up to and afford

them both the satisfaction of achievement and the means of assessing their

efforts. Obligations may bind, but they also indicate to people, who want, more

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