16 August 2010

Haidt & Graham - Planet of the Durkheimians, Where Community, Authority, and Sacredness are Foundations of Morality

How to start an academic paper:

It has not yet been revealed to the public, but we have it on good authority that intelligent life was recently discovered on a planet several light years away. The planet has been given an unpronounceable technical name, but scientists refer to the planet informally as “Planet Durkheim.” Judging by the television signals received, Durkheimians look rather like human beings, although their behavior is quite different. Durkheimians crave, above all else, being tightly integrated into strong groups that cooperatively pursue common goals. They have little desire for self-expression or individual development, and when the requirements of certain jobs force individuals to spend much time alone, or when the needs of daily life force individuals to make their own decisions or express their own preferences, Durkheimians feel drained and unhappy. In extreme cases of enforced individualism, they sometimes commit suicide. Durkheimians have a biological need to belong to tight groups with clear and widely-shared norms for behavior.

Given this need, it is not surprising that Durkheimian ethics revolves around groups. For any action they ask: does it undermine or strengthen the group? Anyone whose actions weaken social cohesion is evil and is ostracized. For first offenders the ostracism is brief, but for the most serious offenses the offender is tattooed with the word “Individualist” and is expelled from the group. Durkheimian societies are hierarchically organized by hereditary occupational castes, and most of the ostracism cases involve individuals who fail to perform their caste duties. These individuals seem to prefer their own comfort or own projects to the needs of their highly interdependent groups.

Within a few weeks of the discovery of Planet Durkheim, Google found a way to translate and index all Durkheimian academic journals. We used Google Durkheim to examine the state of social psychology research, and we found a fascinating debate taking place over the puzzle of “The Dissenters.” The Dissenters are a social movement that disagrees with the frequent use of permanent ostracism. The Dissenters point out that the penalty is applied overwhelmingly to members of the lower castes, for whom work is often dull or dangerous. They argue that these individuals are not traitors, they are innocent victims who should be given compassion, more societal resources, and better work. The Dissenters even suggest that society should be changed so that each individual rotates through all the high and low caste positions. The Dissenters acknowledge that such rotations would be less efficient than the current system of lifelong specializations assigned at birth, but they say it would be somehow right or good to do it anyway.

The Dissenters are a puzzle because most of them come from the upper castes. Why would an upper caste Durkheimian press for a change to society that would harm not just him or herself (through loss of privileges) but also society as a whole (through loss of efficiency)? There is no justification for such a position within Durkheimian morality, so Durkheimian social psychologists recently proposed a theory – called “Victim Justification Theory” – to explain the unconscious motives that impel Dissenters to defend traitors and challenge the legitimacy of the social system.

The paper: link.