A group of scholars gathered at Cerisy-la-Salle Normandy in May 2015 to consider whether a social theory that addresses morality and justice in our modern age is possible. Various attempts to articulate such a theory have failed over the past century and many believe it is not possible. We were asked to consider whether the problem is with theory itself – or merely with the particular types of theory that have been put forward so far – and if so to suggest alternatives (Caillé, Chanial, Dufoix, Vandenberghe, 2018). I argued that a viable theory has been around – at least in outline – for a long time, but that a strong tendency to treat the individual, meaning and social facts as durable and/or natural had prevented an understanding of that theory. The social facts in question (including the individual self) are actually quite fragile, which has significant implications for moral theory. That popular approaches privilege the individual, along with positivist illusions about social objects and meaning, in ways that are Eurocentric is also problematic. What we seek is a theory that respects diversity and difference, does not impose unwanted modern western moral standards on well-ordered undifferentiated societies, but still addresses issues of freedom, equality and justice.
In clearing the ground for considering the possibility that we already have a moral theory that meets these requirements, I focus on Durkheim’s argument that social labor becomes increasingly differentiated as modern societies diversify: that such differentiation is one of the hallmarks of modernity; that differentiation changes the way social facts are made, and, that as a consequence the moral requirements a society must meet also change…
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