Towards a sociology of human flourishing

From this interesting interview with Phil Gorski on The Imminent Frame:

That would certainly be a hope of mine, and it’s something that I’ve been thinking about a great deal lately, whether there’s a limited kind of moral realism that we could defend, and that we might actually be able to contribute to through social science or at least through academic reflection of some kind or another? My suspicion is that there is; I just don’t know what the scope of it is. It would have to be premised on some understanding of human flourishing—that human beings are put together biologically, neurologically, in a certain way—that they have certain kinds of capacities or propensities—that their flourishing and well-being in general involves the development and cultivation of these propensities and capacities.

Of course I’m simply channeling a lot of research that’s being done in neighboring fields. There’s recent work in positive psychology, for example, which is starting to get a great deal of attention by people like Jonathan Haidt and Marty Seligman. There’s a neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics tradition that people like Martha Nussbaum and Richard Kraut have revived and defended in recent years. Even some folks like Amartya Sen have tried to make a basis for a different way of thinking about economics and development policy.

So the question is, “How do you develop a theory of the human good which doesn’t become a kind of hardened dogma, a sort of a one-size-fits-all understanding of what a life well-lived is going to mean?” We don’t live in Athens anymore. We live in a much more diverse, much more egalitarian, much freer society. Clearly there has to be a great deal of room for people to act freely. Part of flourishing is also making mistakes and learning and developing, so it’s not the idea that you simply prescribe some kind of a lifestyle. I think this notion that Nussbaum has developed, a kind of capacities approach to justice—that you need to create a basic set of preconditions for people to explore their own particular talents, capacities, inclinations—that that probably strikes the right balance between liberalism and a more robust form of moral realism.

I think where sociology might contribute to this is in thinking harder about how you create the preconditions for the sorts of social connections and communities that are clearly part of human flourishing. We know that this is one of the clear results of recent work in positive psychology: that relationships to other people are critical. There’s a lot of confirmation for this in evolutionary biology and psychology, the mounting evidence of pro-social characteristics of human beings. But most of these disciplines are really focused on the human organism, or they’re focused on the human psyche. They don’t really think deeply about the social, per se, so this is where sociology might actually step in and make some kind of a contribution to this, I think.

But I expect there’ll be a lot of resistance. One of the first things that you learn in graduate school in the social sciences is about the fact/value distinction, that there is no way of knowing or discovering what’s good. I don’t think people really believe that. I think that’s why most people go to graduate school, because they think this will help them answer these kinds of questions. But you get professionalized and socialized out of this during your first few years in graduate school. It’s salutary to the degree that we learn to establish a certain kind of reflexive distance to our tacit assumptions about what’s good, but I think the next step is to return to those basic practical questions that really animate people and get them interested in academic life and scholarship in the first place.

If Sociology has to find a new role for itself, against the background of an empirical crisis, perhaps this could be it?

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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  1. I agree with you about human flourishing, I have just started studying sociology at une and I am interested on what living a good life looks like for different people.

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