Culture as moral order

Are cultural and social institutions wholly functional – organized ways to control wealth and power?  Does human life ever transcend, in any meaningful way, the Darwinian struggle for food, sex, and material gain?

In a fascinating little book, Moral, Believing Animals, Christian Smith refutes these propositions, which appear to be dominant in his field of sociology.

Smith presents the human animal as acting on the opposite side of the stage from the functionalists and neodarwinists.  Our primary orientation, he writes, is to moral order.  The desire for rightness motivates far more powerfully than the craving for pleasure or reproduction – cravings which we desperately wish to validate by rightness in their satisfaction.

Every form of human organization reflects this primal orientation, all the way down.  Social institutions are “morally animated.”  Culture is moral order.  Without the guidance of normative values – right and wrong, good and evil, noble and base – the functional and material work of individuals and groups would be paralyzed by incoherence.

A bank, for example, requires rather large moral presuppositions to exist.  (Modern banks would have been banned in medieval Christendom, as they are in contemporary Islam.)  So do a hospital, a university, the Marine Corps, the commonwealth of Virginia, and Major League Baseball.

Beyond the primacy of the moral, Smith posits two foundational attributes in our species:  we are also believing and story-telling animals.  By believing, he means that all human knowledge ultimately rests on non-empirical propositions, which are themselves woven into our moral ideals and can achieve legitimacy only within those ideals.

We may call ourselves rational and scientific, but this is much more a moral judgment – in essence, a form of self-praise – than an intellectual stand.  What, after all, is a rational marriage?  A scientific father-son relationship?  How rational or scientific is it to assert, as Americans proudly do, that “all men are created equal”?

In any case, science and reason aren’t self-validating.  They aren’t a universal language, accessible to all.  They require a context and a moral foundation to become intelligible.  Put differently:  they need faith to exist.

On this account, the necessary context and direction for every aspect of social life is provided by explanatory “narratives.”  Smith explains:

Narrative is a form of communication that arranges human actions and events into organized wholes in a way that bestows meaning on the actions and events by specifying their interactive or cause-and-effect relation to the whole.

Culture, Smith believes, is a series of nested narratives within which individuals and institutions orient themselves toward right action in the world.  That is the genesis of moral order.  At the highest level, the narrative might be, for example, about the “American Experiment” – a story that explains how hard work and enterprising spirit leads to material success in America.  Or it might be about the “Militant Islamic Resurgence,” in which America is the villain, and success is attained by a return to the unvarnished words of the Koran.

At the personal level, I may have to balance a story about myself as a good father against a competing narrative in which I play the part of the good worker.  When my daughter has a piano recital on the evening I need to put in overtime, one narrative must triumph over the other.

What are we to make of Smith’s assertions?  My impression is that he aims his arguments at members of his own profession, an academic discipline which from his description appears trapped somewhere between mindless faddism and tribal superstition.  Let’s put sociology aside, and consider Moral, Believing Animal on its own merits.

In his definition of culture, I think Smith is brilliantly original – and correct.  Culture is moral order, all the way down.  Institutions can’t exist, much less function, without deep moral sanction.  Functional human activity would resemble a lunatic asylum without the orientation of rightness.  Nothing human is innocent of purpose:  there’s morality – or if one prefers, ideology – in the form of a greeting and the cut of one’s pants.

That we are believing animals is also true, but the reason has been overlooked by Smith.  We are a symbolic species – the only such on earth.  We dwell within a virtual world of invisible categories and relationships.  We find meaning in things we cannot perceive, or could ever perceive.  We see patterns everywhere.  Where part of the pattern is missing, we fill it in – and while the filling material is imagined we find it real and natural, if not transcendent and supernatural.

This ruling characteristic of our species explains our moral orientation.  We are driven to maintain our integrity – to complete our self-pattern – which is possible only by an appeal to some integrating process beyond ourselves.  This is the moral order inherent in culture.

Our symbolic predilections also help Smith out of a difficulty.  He holds that we sanctify because we believe:  but that does not follow.  I can, without fear of contradiction, be a believing animal and have no sense of the sacred.  But I can’t be a symbolic animal without faith in mysterious and invisible forces, which shape the world and have an awe-inspiring impact on my life.

The most consequential of Smith’s claims is that human knowledge must depend on unproven, and mostly unproveable, assumptions.  Granted that the moral order of culture operates by means of master narratives, the narratives themselves float on these unproven assumptions rather than rest on a bedrock of universal truth.

One implication, Smith notes, is that cultures must be viewed as incommensurable:  it’s impossible, on principle, to make a determination between their rival claims and demands.  If we accept that there’s no universally accessible set of facts to which every human being can appeal, how can we  adjudicate between, say, democracy and Bin Laden’s caliphate, or the radically different ways of life in North and South Korea?

The search for answers to this question – central to the interests of this blog – deserves a separate post.

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