The moral charge of made institutions

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The free market, representative democracy and modern science can be seen as institutions that were once designed to guard important moral conditions. The individuals who function within those institutions are forced to account to their consumers, voters or peers − thanks to the structure of the institutions themselves. This ensures that these individuals can learn what is considered to be virtuous behavior. However, the emergence of bureaucracies is weakening the moral effect of institutions. This is mainly reflected in the way in which rules have become an end in themselves and business has become more important than virtue. It is therefore important to rethink how we can make the institutions created function as liability structures.

Where there is regularity in the interactions between people, you can speak of institutions. Two people suffice. If people know each other how they react to each other in a certain situation, they do not always have to think and negotiate in order to reach decisions and agreements. That saves a lot of work.

In other words, rules arise that coordinate interaction. These rules belong to nobody in particular on the one hand, because they exist independently of specific individuals; on the other hand, they don’t exist if there is nobody using them.

You could see a culture as the total of as the total of institutions that are shared by a larger social whole. These are institutions such as language, power relations and belief systems. The institutions that form such a culture will generally have arisen spontaneously and at some point have acquired unquestionable legitimacy. They have become a reality in themselves.

Sociologists usually regard all institutions as spontaneously developed social systems. But you can also make them. And that is exactly what characterizes modern society: the institutions that surround us are institutions that are consciously designed to maintain the values ​​that we consider important. This mainly concerns the institutions (or institutional domains) of parliamentary democracy, the free market and science. All these institutions provide responsibility and virtue, but most of all they provide justice and freedom.

Sociologists are not so much concerned with what ‘should be’, but with what ‘is’; ethicists who do so, prefer to deal with individuals rather than institutions. The strong moral load of made institutions is therefore almost never appreciated. So let me briefly touch on the moral aspects of established institutions here.

It is pretty much the essence of institutions that they divide a certain good between people: they hand over the rules that determine who gets what, what is an fair exchange, who can say what, who can do what and so on. Usually those rules are clear, we all have an innate intuition which is ‘not fair’ − that is, if the rules are not followed. It is less clear what exactly needs to be distributed. Is it the case of a child who exclaims that it is ‘unfair’ that she is not getting any candy, or not receiving enough attention from the parents, does she think she is entitled to anything, or does she not think it is fair that she is less or the same? gets like her little brother. Even when we grow up, this mishmash of motivations remains, but the gut feeling is the same: if we feel that the distribution rules are not enforced, we feel treated unfairly.

This is completely different for made institutions, because these are precisely about the distribution and exchange of clearly delineated matters: money versus property, power versus control and knowledge versus authority. This makes the market, politics and science outright ‘distribution machines’. It is about who is entitled to claim a certain good, who is entitled to something and what is in return.

This is most obvious in the market: it is the amount of money that is seen as a ‘fair’ compensation for the ownership of a product. If you have paid enough for a device, you can do with it whatever you want. The same applies to the wages you receive as an employee, you exchange your time and effort and receive income in return.

Of course this is a very crude representation, in real life there are all kinds of other things at play − as if it were an ordinary, spontaneous, institution. You do not only want your employer’s salary, but also the recognition that you are performing well. Most of us also want to get satisfaction from their work and surround ourselves with great colleagues. But at its core, the relationship between employer and employee is, of course, just about money.

Politics is a little less straightforward, but it includes the effort to deliver on promises and ideas that are seen as a ‘fair’ exchange for the power a politician can acquire through elections.

In science someone ‘deserves’ the authority to tell something that is believed to be true. To do this, the scientist must expose herself to criticism, she must have studied for years and demonstrate that she has a good command of her profession.

Made institutions do not work differently from spontaneous institutions in their functioning as distribution machines, they also have a completely different status. Institutions created should serve spontaneous institutions: in a free society, it must be ensured that members of that society are not imposed on how to act, what preferences there are and what to think. In short, politics, the market and science must be contained; they must listen so that the freedom of citizens is guaranteed. Firstly, this is done by imposing certain rules on politicians, entrepreneurs and scientists, but even more so, this is done by offering these individuals the opportunity to learn what is the right behavior − behavior that meets the demands of the society.

The institutions created therefore do not present substantive values, but procedural values. The substantive values ​−- our norms, our customs, our preferences − must be made known by society to the institutions that have been created.

Take politics: in a democratic system, political leaders should listen to the wishes of the electorate. Or the market: the customer is king and the providers must ensure that their products meet the demands of the consumers. Not every scientific claim is simply believed; no, it must first be tested by independent peers whether it has been established on the basis of the correct theories and methods.

This creates accountability structures within which those who operate in these domains must account to their ‘public’, i.e. the voters, the customers or their peers. A politician who is not sufficiently responsive to her voters is voted out, an entrepreneur who does not offer what the market demands goes bankrupt. People within those institutions are forced to make choices that are in line with the wishes of the people outside those institutions. This guarantees the freedom and autonomy of society.

This role of accountability structures goes beyond ‘incentivizing’ officials to obey their audience. That would be too one-sided and perhaps too cynical approach, based on the idea that a person is no more than a behavioristic automaton. What really matters is that institutions that act as accountability structures ensure that they behave in a virtuous manner. After all, an official can only be held accountable for her choices afterwards, while she cannot just know in advance what the consequences of those choices will be. All she has to do is anticipate and reflect on the consequences and then make an informed decision.

An institution that functions as an accountability structure can encourage people to be virtuous. Without that structure there will be no good entrepreneurs, politicians or scientists. Nevertheless, we attribute special abilities to individuals and take the rules that form an institution for data.

The emphasis on individual quality seems to apply most strongly to science: we talk about geniuses there, we give prizes to individuals who have done something we hold in great esteem.

But progress is not simply the work of geniuses who have a special gift. As said, it is much more about virtuous persons whose actions are the result of a dialectical interplay between institution and personal capacities. They try to come up with truth-claims by following the existing rules as accurately as possible. This involves building on existing knowledge, on the usual concepts, the correct use of accepted methods and having it tested by independent experts. These are all matters that lie outside the scientist.

Science is intrinsically cumulative, new insights, theories, methods and concepts are constantly being added to the already existing collection. That accumulated knowledge is owned by no one, but belongs to everyone − that is the essence of scientific progress. It is not up to the individual scientists themselves to determine which knowledge and insights deserve to be added, that is to the institution of science. An individual scientist can only ensure that she conforms as best as possible to that institution.

It is the institution that is smart, or perhaps more precisely, it is the institution that ensures that, from a scientific point of view, virtuous people can enrich science. The further accumulation of knowledge therefore does not so much require more clever people, but the rules of the scientific institution must be up-to-date, so that they allow the virtuous scientists to perform as optimally as possible.

The virtue of scientists receives little attention. This is different for the enormous amount of knowledge that is now available and which, thanks to the internet, is also available to many people. ‘Open access’ is encouraged, new knowledge systems are being developed and that makes quite some sense, but how do we ensure that scientists can justify their truth claims in such a way that they are forced to follow the right rules? That remains unclear.

Not only is little thought given to how scientists can do their work in a virtuous manner. The same applies to entrepreneurs and politicians. And that surely is a problem, because there are many developments that undermine the functioning of institutions as accountability structures, which means that individuals are less and less likely to develop virtuous behavior.

Perhaps the most important of these developments is that the institutions created are mainly populated by organizations − as I wrote earlier, their own amoral − while the moral power of institutions is based on the actions of individuals. What actually happens is that the internal rules of an organization increasingly come to replace the rules of the encompassing institutional domain.

This makes it hardly relevant for an organization in which domain it is located. Market, state or science, in fact, it does not really matter as long as the internal rules of the organization are followed. In addition, it often happens that those rules are becoming more and more absolute, they take on a life of their own and become rules around the rules themselves.

As organizations become more and more alike, there is also the possibility of blurring boundaries, so that they no longer function properly as singular accountability structures. You see this especially in the wat that government and science are increasingly shaped like businesses. The privatization of public services, for example, means that the government sees citizens as clients; politicians and civil servants do not have to be responsive to a wide range of public values ​​that society brings forward, they must achieve pre-agreed goals with as few resources as possible.

Science is also increasingly controlled in terms of measurable output: the number of articles, the impact score of a journal, the number of students with a pass. The added value of new truth claims to our knowledge pool is then regarded as much less important.

It is therefore mainly the idea of ​​business that motivates the management of organizations. Sometime in the 1980s, it was concluded that government and science were not functioning efficiently and effectively enough and that a great deal could be learned from companies in the management of ministries and universities.

By the way, it is not that companies themselves are responsive to their customers. To them the interest of the shareholders is much more important. The market, too, doesn’t work like the accountability structure that was once intended.

It is striking that the business operations are made more and more manageable by the application of so-called ‘smart’ technologies. As organizations become more and more alike and thus apply the same rules, it becomes tempting to automate processes. After all, a good algorithm can follow rules much better and in a much more fine-grained way than any person and moreover it can do so at a lower salary. Those algorithms seem smart, they are no virtuous at all − they are way too stupid for that.

In the meantime, individuals are also less and less provided the opportunity to become for virtuous. The bureaucratization of the rules of an organization is now also fixated in digital systems, with which the rules become even more dissociated from the made institutions.

The consequence of the damage to the moral effect of the made institutions is the loss of responsiveness. This inevitably leads to a widespread distrust of society with regard to these institutions. The fragmentation of society seems to me to be largely due to the loss of moral capacity in the institutional domains. The free market is seen as a disruptive force; politicians are only filling their pocket; scientists are people with just an opinion. All symptoms of a loss of virtue.

So we need to rethink our institutions. Institutions are not just accidental social contexts, but they have an essential moral mission: without the right institutions, our society loses the capacity for justice and freedom. We must seriously consider how we can make our institutions work as accountability systems. The fact that institutions were ever created implies that we can also reform them – and by all means it seems high time to do so.

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Dewey, J. (1922). Human nature and conduct: Courier Corporation.

Douglas, M. (1986). How institutions think: Syracuse University Press.

Merton, R. K. (1940). Bureaucratic structure and personality. Social forces, 18(4), 560-568.

Merton, R. K. (1979). The sociology of science. Theoretical and empirical investigations. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Pesch, U. (2014). Sustainable development and institutional boundaries. Journal of Integrative Environmental Sciences, 11(1), 39-54.

Pesch, U., Huijts, N. M. A., Bombaerts, G., Doorn, N., & Hunka, A. (2020). Creating ‘Local Publics’: Responsibility and Involvement in Decision-Making on Technologies with Local Impacts. Science and Engineering Ethics.

Walzer, M. (1983). Spheres of Justice. A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. Philadelphia: Basic books.



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