Social change and moral values: A modest research program to change the world

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In order to bring about desirable social change, it is necessary to know what is morally desirable and what is social change. Unfortunately, ethics and social sciences fall short here: ethics cannot cope with moral uncertainties, while sociology cannot handle social change. I choose an institutional perspective to deal with these issues. Firstly, because institutions can be seen as the way in which values are collectively safeguarded. Second, because institutions can be changed if there are good reasons to adjust the prioritization and interpretation of values.

We have to thank Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel that we reflect on the relationship between social change and morality. Before Hegel, the world also changed, but this change was not seen as an intrinsic part of morality. Thinking about the way the world should work was independent from the question about how that world could be realized.

It is also thanks to Hegel that we still do not have a good grasp of the process of social change. To describe change, he came up with the famous trio of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, which can be substantiated in so many different ways that it is of little use. With Hegel, you can either arrive at Marx’s historical materialism or at highly esoteric directions. The great common denominator of all these approaches is that you can predict any development afterwards.

Sociology also offers little relief. As Émile Durkheim stated, sociology aims to explain social order. That society changes is a given, what is special about society is that why some of it does not change. Since Durkheim introduced the foundations of social science at the end of the nineteenth century, plenty of concepts and theories have been devised that explain a stable social order. Think of institutions, structures or culture. But we don’t really know the right words for change.

How can we examine the ethical aspects of social change in a way that is sociologically valid? Where to start when there are so few leads? I propose to first look at the way in which meanings become crystallized in institutions with the aim of safeguarding specific social values. I base myself on insights from philosophers such as John Dewey and Ludwig Wittgenstein, but also on insights from sociologists such as Michel Callon. I have to admit that I’m not aiming for conceptual coherence, I am saving that for another occasion, it’s about the idea.

Man is a being that gives meaning to the things around her. We name and categorize the things we see so that we can remember them and talk about them with others. Only then they acquire meaning. Something that cannot be expressed in language actually means nothing. Characteristic for humans is that meaning-making is a social process, meanings are constructed by linking the words we share with others to experiences and observations. In this way subjective impressions receive an intersubjective connotation.

The fact that you know what something means, implies that you know what is going to or should happen in a particular situation. A meaning introduces a regularity so that you can face the future with confidence. If you know what coffee is because you have drunk it many times and have seen how other people drink it many times, because you have read about it, saw commercials on the television about coffee and people drinking coffee, then you can safely take a sip of coffee.

Because we understand things the same within a linguistic community, it usually takes little effort for us to act together. You can assume that someone else knows what I know (and knows I know). This is how institutions arise, which are nothing else than repetitive actions between at least two persons that are based on a shared understanding of a situation.

Meanings are about regularity, about words that you can recycle to interpret recurring experiences and categorize new impressions. Yet the process of meaning making is a fluid process. A linguistic community constantly has to classify new impressions by using old words or introducing new ones. As a linguistic community there is always the question of what belongs to what.

Meanings also often have a normative connotation, they categorize impressions as good or bad, so that you not only know what to expect, but also know how to act. Within linguistic communities, different value judgments are aggregated by assigning an overarching value to them, so that a multitude of experiences and impressions can be captured with a single understanding. Such values ​​have a special status within a linguistic community, they are seen as normative principles that everyone should consider important within that community. In this way a linguistic community becomes a moral community which shares certain values.

Until recently, values ​​were maintained by priests, seers and philosophers. But as Immanuel Kant put it, the Enlightenment means that people must determine for themselves what is good for them. Upon the basis of Hegel you can say that modern institutions are formed to effectuate that goal, as the philosopher Seyla Benhabib argues ‘institutions make it possible to realize moral truths’.

These are not the institutions I talked about above, because two people are not enough to pursue ‘moral truths’. No, these are social institutions that are formalized, which usually means that it is laid down in law how those institutions work. Hence, Hegel called his philosophy a ‘philosophy of law’, where ‘the state is the realization of concrete freedom’, in other words, our freedom to determine for ourselves what we consider to be good is reflected in social institutions.

I do not only include law or the state among those institutions, but also social contexts that secure collective values by formalizing them. As I described earlier, you can also see democracy, the free market and science as such (and of course the conditions for these institutions are also largely anchored in law). These institutions secure equality, participation, freedom, prosperity and truth. You should also think of more specific policy arrangements or participation structures. In sum, it concerns all the formal rules that govern binding collective actions within society. Incidentally, I also include technology in this, because the technology we use determines to a great extent how we should act. Moreover, innovations are little more than attempts to realize certain values, each new technology aims to make the world a better place.

It is the social and formal character of such collective institutions that makes them so special. Firstly, this makes sure that no one can escape it, in the constitutional state there are no individuals or groups of people who are above the law. The moral values ​​really apply to everyone. Secondly, these kinds of institutions are codified, the laws and regulations are written down in such a way that they are permanent.

The latter implies that meanings are fixed in institutions. The rules and procedures are not flexible like everyday meanings. Within society itself, however, there are countless informal systems in which meanings are constantly changing and where values ​​are adapted to new insights and circumstances. These changing values ​​can conflict with the fixed institutional values. If so, it can lead to citizens’ dissatisfaction. They can come to protest by voting for parties that promise change, by demonstrating, or by displaying civil disobedience. ‘Emerging publics’ that use new meanings to understand social reality. They estimate values ​​differently or believe that the connection between values ​​and meanings should be adjusted. According to these groups, it needs to be reconsidered how a collection of impressions and experiences is aggregated by a value, new metaphors must be applied, emphases must be shifted.

To use the terminology of the sociologist Michel Callon, one may speak of ‘overflowing’. The institutional frameworks with which meaning is imposed on social reality − in Callon’s words: ‘framing’ − are no longer capable of coping properly with the meanings and values ​​introduced by emerging publics.

In a democratic system, such overflows necessitate adjustment. Society is free and autonomous, which means that the meanings and values ​​that are developed within that society are guiding for the institutions. I have mentioned with my colleagues the adjustments of these institutions as a response to social expressions of dissatisfaction as ‘backflows’.

Such backflows can be new procedures, new laws or regulations, or a modified policy. It is not simply said that such backflows obey new social wishes. That would also be difficult, as the values ​​of specific public groups do not need to be widely shared at all. There are plenty of loud protest movements that are getting a big amount of media attention, while representing only a marginal segment of society. For instance think of corona demonstrations and the anti-vaccination movement. Furthermore, institutions often revolve around the trade-off between different values, for example in vaccination programs there is the dilemma between the value of individual freedom of choice and the value of public health. A protest movement can very easily give up one of the two, a luxury that a policymaker does not have: he must consider how both values ​​can be included in the policy as good as possible. In short, it is always a matter of probing and trying out how an institution can be adapted in response to social discontent.

The framing-overflowing-backflowing dynamics create a cyclical pattern in which institutions are constantly adapted to changing circumstances and new meanings. That it is about changes in a certain type of society — ours — is clear, but at least you can describe this category of social change without having to resort to esoteric theories.

Social research benefits not only from a good description of social change processes. It also forces us to think more sharply about the role that moral theories can play in the design of our lives. What does it mean that institutions enable moral truths if institutions can always change?

One problem is that the cyclical pattern of framing-overflowing-backflowing does not relate well to the common way in which values ​​are accounted for in academic ethics. Somewhat implicitly, ethics seems to assume that there are moral truths that, on the one hand, are universally true, regardless of any worldly circumstance, and on the other hand, cannot be deduced through observation but only through reason. In other words, ethics falls within Kant’s domain of the ‘analytic a priori’.

As I wrote above, Kant’s work implied that values ​​were no longer seen as a given, handed down through tradition and power’; it became our ‘duty to think about which values ​​are actually correct. However, when moral values ​​are approached as absolute moral truths, it becomes difficult to say anything about the moral aspects of social change.

This is what shows: when ethicists write about social change, it generally concerns evidently immoral practices such as slavery or women’s suppression. But it is of course not very informative to take the abolition of slavery as an example of moral progression, while little can be said about the many ethical debates that are currently going covering the climate problem, the corona pandemic, digitization, institutional racism and so on.

Ethical issues such as these are characterized by various uncertainties. Firstly, there is moral pluralism: not only do individuals and groups apply different moral principles, they can also come up with different interpretations about which values ​​suit certain situations and how these values would fit these situations. In addition, we are dealing with descriptive pluralism: we are dealing with a present and a future of which we do not know the correct scientific description, and we are often dealing with contingent processes of which the future cannot be predicted. Many ethicists arrive at an ethical standard that turns out to be too crude to deal with these kinds of moral uncertainties – in spite of their intellectual virtuosity.

Emerging publics articulating new values ​​or linking old values ​​to new developments are a manifestation of such moral uncertainties. They not only show conflicting starting points and interpretations, they also show which ethical aspects are or could be relevant. The values ​​put forward in societal controversies enable us to learn about the values ​​to be covered by institutions.

Based on the cyclical dynamics of institutional adjustment described above, you can arrive at three important goals for ethics. This involves: 1) ethical evaluation of institutional framing; 2) the evaluation of the normative claims of emerging publics; and 3) establishing criteria for institutional adjustment.

The first point is about determining values ​​that guide the development of institutions. It is about identifying the values ​​that are important, while it is much less important whether those values ​​are universally valid or not. In fact, I think that the need to reflect on values ​​does not so much arise from the consideration that there are moral truths, but rather from the fact that there are none. If there is no single moral guideline for individuals, they will have to find a way in which conflicting moral claims and interpretations do not lead to collective misery (you could say there is agreement on the morally undesirable nature of collective misery, but that seems to me to be too thin to legitimize a scholarly field).

Whether the findings of ethics are universally true or not, understanding values ​​fulfils an important social role: it creates collective awareness that can give rise to social protest. Just look at the way in which the principles of individual autonomy and equality are continuously redefined according to the social situation at a particular moment. These ideas that have inspired our major institutions, democracy, law, the free market. But what freedom and equality and mean without empirical embedding is hard to imagine, we will always have to come to agreements about where our freedoms collide with those of others and where we can accept differences in access, possession or power.

With regard to the second point, ethics should contribute to the development of criteria by which social claims can be assessed. Social groups come up with moral demands, but ethics seems to have difficulty establishing the validity of these kinds of demands. The question must be asked which forms of overflowing are justified? This probably cannot be established uniformly, but ethics can indicate which justifications can be given for certain claims and, moreover, ethics can come up with procedural criteria that the social moral claims must meet. In doing so, account must be taken of both moral and descriptive pluralism.

The third point also concerns the development of procedural criteria. How can institutions be adapted in such a way that they respond to new social demands and wishes? What are legitimate ways to organize backflows? How can different groups, different values, different interpretations be accounted for in such a way that everyone feels heard? These are mainly questions that can be answered on the basis of democratic theories.

There is too little room here to illustrate these points with examples. But I think it is perfectly possible to find out for yourself how the three steps of institutional change work in social controversies such as vaccination programs, identity debates or conflicts around new energy policy.

Not all change in society takes place through the dynamics of framing, overflowing and backflowing described above. Just think of the influence of technological innovations, in which descriptive pluralism plays an important role: nobody knows what the technology of the future can bring, and different assessments of that future will co-exist. Also in this kind of explicitly intended change, it is about pursuing or enabling certain values ​​and here too ethics could play an important role − as I have also shown in other posts, for example about promises or debates about innovations.

All in all, it is the role of ethics to identify tensions between values. Values ​​are never absolute and institutions are never perfect. In daily life and in the design of institutions, it is always about trading off different values, ethics can help map out the way in which values ​​can be exchanged, where they inherently conflict, where one value goes to the expense of another. With such reflections we can not only describe social change in a better way, but also organize it in a better way. So that we know better how to change the world.

Further reading:

Benhabib, S. (1988). I. Judgment and the Moral Foundations of Politics in Arendt’s Thought. Political Theory, 16(1), 29-51.

Boenink, M., & Kudina, O. (2020). Values in responsible research and innovation: from entities to practices. Journal of Responsible Innovation, 7(3), 450-470.

Callon, M. (1998). An essay on framing and overflowing: economic externalities revisited by sociology. The Sociological Review, 46(S1), 244-269.

Durkheim, E. (1973). Emile Durkheim on morality and society. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Pesch, U. (2020). Making sense of the self: an integrative framework for moral agency. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 50(1), 119-130. doi:10.1111/jtsb.12230

Pesch, U., Correljé, A., Cuppen, E., & Taebi, B. (2017). Energy justice and controversies: Formal and informal assessment in energy projects. Energy Policy. doi:

Pesch, U., & Vermaas, P. E. (2020). The Wickedness of Rittel and Webber’s Dilemmas. Administration & Society, 52(6), 960-979. doi:10.1177/0095399720934010

Taebi, B., Kwakkel, J. H., & Kermisch, C. (2020). Governing climate risks in the face of normative uncertainties. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 11(5), e666.

Taylor, C. (2015). Hegel and modern society: Cambridge University Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (2009). Philosophical investigations: John Wiley & Sons.


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