Escape 27: The Shape of Social Theory


Escape 27: The Shape of Social Theory

So, I know the title of this post lacks a certain excitement, but it’s the title of the last section of Chapter 9 in EFE and I’m not feeling particularly creative today, especially not given the topic here.  I mean, talk of social theory is not likely to contribute a lot of effervescence to a bar conversation, but I suppose if the bar is on a university campus it just might.  Things can get very serious in campus bars.

Becker takes the position that social theory is, or at least can be, scientific, although he has a particular goal for it.  He writes:

There is nothing in human nature that dooms in advance the most thoroughgoing social changes and utopian ambitions…A science of man in society is possible even while admitting the most destructive motives of men, precisely because these motives become open and amenable to clear analysis, to a tracing out of their total structure in the full field of human affairs as those affairs reflect the torments of man’s inner life, his existential paradoxes.

Social theory, then, is neither radical nor conservative, but scientific; and we should begin to get scientific agreements on its basic image of man and society.

Becker just after making this statement suggests that it’s possible to design “nondestructive yet victorious types of social systems.”

He writes:

A social ideal could be designed that takes into account man’s basest motives, but now an ideal not directly negated by those motives. In other words, a hate object need not be any special class or race, not even a human enemy, but could be things that take impersonal forms, like poverty, disease, oppression, natural disasters, etc. Or if we know that evil takes human form in oppressors and hangmen, then we could at least try to make our hatreds of men intelligent and informed: we could work against the enemies of freedom, those who thrive on slavery, on the gullibilities and weaknesses of their fellow man, as Burke so eloquently argued. 

This is hard to take if you’re an evolutionary biologist or human ethologist.  Becker in his last two books paints a very unflattering picture of humankind, as a species whose every member harbours hatred towards ‘others’ despite the Christian provocation that we should love our enemies.  We DO love our enemies because without them how would we know if our way to immortality is the real way, the way that is assured by victory in battle?  We just don’t want to hug them unless it’s in a death embrace.  So how can Becker now invite us to create a world in which we all become nice?   What possible mechanism could he point to that could bring this world about?  Thorstein Veblen, in his great book, The Place of Science in Modern Civilization, argues that science is the search for truth, with the emphasis on search.  Science is, first and foremost, a search for the truth but with the underlying assumption that the truth will never be completely found.  Oh, we may uncover bits and pieces of it now and again, here and there, but truth must always be considered tentative.  I’m with Veblen on this one.  Becker wants us to find a certain truth and act on it.  Well, he denies it and waffles a lot, but in the end he wants us to change from bloodthirsty immortality seekers to benign or ardent fighters for justice.  Let’s see where he takes us in the last 20 odd pages of his book…but we’ll leave that for tomorrow.

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