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Two Opposing Ideas of Moralism – Equivocation of a Modern Concept

Political Sociology
Liberalism
Normative Theory
Dirk Schuck
Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg
Dirk Schuck
Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg

Abstract

The term “moralism” almost has become a pejorative concept in contemporary political philosophy. It is generally associated with an unscientific worldview which regards social reality only under certain “moralist” terms. In my paper, I want to reconstruct the 17th ct. French term moralisme (in De La Bruyere, for example) as having a contrary meaning to today’s term “moralism.” Instead of referring to a normative standpoint that is regarded as unquestionably right, the original French meaning of moralisme refers to an empirical understanding of a society’s multiple customs; their interconnectedness, and also, explicitly, their normative bias towards specific views which are taken for granted without being questionable. Ironically, the term moralism today is mostly used in the exact sense which the original meaning of moralisme aims to uncover (découvrir) as ideological. For Durkheim, “moralisme” then becomes a swearword signifying all views of society which are not sociological, meaning empirical. There is, however, a still different meaning of “moralism” virulent in early modernity. This is the meaning (in which mostly later) philosophical history speaks of the “British moralism” of Hume, Smith, Ferguson and others. “British moralism” refers to a social philosophy that turns pragmatist in the sense that its main goal is to alter social reality in a way that fosters the civil virtue of citizens. This is a more active meaning of “moralism” than in the original French meaning but it still cannot be understood as the abbreviated concept of “moralism” which is used in a pejorative sense today. What I will show instead is that “British moralism” combines philosophical (normative) elements with early sociological empiricism, and can, therefore, be regarded as being of social-scientific value. British moralism, however, also does not refrain from advocating for specific action (like the French courtier’s initial term moralisme). British moralism, therefore, must better be understood as an early form of critical social theory, trying to initiate a stable moral sense, or social morality.