Electronic Journal of Sociology (2001)

ISSN: 1198 3655

Durkheim's Altruism As The Source Of His Social Holism:
A Discussion Of The Viability Of A Social Basis For Moral Principles

Norman Dubeski
Dundas, Ontario


Emile Durkheim was one of the greatest advocates of the principles of moral collectivism and altruism. He maintained that society was a moral reality onto itself and that society was the sole determinant of moral phenomena. Durkheim compared society to an organism to help convince his audience of his moral propositions and of his whole paradigm of social realism. In any case of conflict between statements of the nature of society and the nature of morality, he assigned primacy to his statements about morality. His view of society was a product of his view of morality, and he attempted to construct a view of society as an organism to fit his pedagogical needs. Once we examine the errors in Durkheim's reasoning, we are better suited to scrutinize the basis for moral collectivism in general and in all theories that draw upon Durkheim's legacy.


This article is meant to initiate new scrutiny on what Durkheim understood by the word “society” and the tension between his assumptions related to existence and his moral assumptions. Books by contemporary Durkheimian scholars have accurately addressed the importance of perceiving Durkheim as a moralist, yet these same works have been reluctant to discuss the matter of primacy between Durkheim’s statements about the existence of society and his moral (normative) statements. We see the matters dealt with in this fashion by Lukes (1972), Miller (1996), and Wallwork (1972). These and other exemplary works on Durkheim have allocated much greater space to Durkheim’s conclusions than to his premises and the validity of his concepts. Also lacking from most works is a study of the differences between Durkheim’s methods to convince his audiences and his actual beliefs and pedagogical goals.

The criticism of Durkheim has been more abundant than biting. There is no shortage of commentators who say that recent anthropological studies have not born out Durkheim’s assessment of so-called primitive societies as lacking individuality or being based on penal rather than on restitutive sanctions. We see such criticism in Wallwork (1972: 112), Black (2000: 111), and Coser (1984: xxiv). Kapsis (1977: 364) showed that Durkheim conflated data about the Arunta Australian aboriginals with that of North American Indian tribes and lamented how many scholars had accepted unquestioned the view that Durkheim’s research was historically based (Kapsis: 365). However, these critiques have not challenged Durkheim’s conclusions directly, his belief in collective concepts, or his view of the social basis of morality in general.

Only a little recent scholarship has explored whether Durkheim was more committed to his position on morals or to his methodological position and view of the nature of society. The three books already mentioned, Miller (1996), Lukes (1972), and Wallwork (1972) all examined Durkheim from his own desired position as a social realist who examined morality in a scientific approach. However, in an earlier article, Miller (1988) suggested that Durkheim assumed without cause a harmonious social system and ethical relativism. Miller concluded that Durkheim’s methodological position was a product of his moral assumptions (Miller 1988: 664). Similarly, Ginsberg (1965:144) had shown that Durkheim lacked all evidence for his basic assertions on morality aside from dialectic rhetoric, but did not follow up with a criticism of moral collectivism. Black (2000:109) also noted that Durkheim assumed social holism in primitive societies and in their systems of conflict resolution rather than looking at the real social mechanisms for resolving conflict: a criticism that, though accurate, did not address the reasons for Durkheim to adopt his approach of social holism in general. Despite significant tangible criticism of Durkheim in regard to his facts and methods, on the whole there had been little criticism of Durkheim’s view of morality as a collective phenomena, perhaps because such criticism would be applicable to other, more popular, theories as well.

Durkheim’S Pedagogical Orientation

Durkheim was a moralist. Not only was he a professor of pedagogy, he was a sociologist who stressed that the social reality was a moral order (Durkheim 1951: 310). He claimed that he was starting a scientific and empirical study of morality (Durkheim 1992: 1 ; Durkheim 1993: 134). In simple terms, Durkheim was a moral collectivist who said that morality began with the life of the group and that society created all moral codes (Durkheim 1974a: 37 ; Durkheim 1965: 103 ; Durkheim 1968: 298). For Durkheim, social solidarity was virtually synonymous with morality. Durkheim specified his premises. He knew that for society to be the source of morality and the sole adjudicator over moral issues, society had to be a holistic thing, a being, and a subject which had purpose. After all, all morality had to exist for a purpose, Durkheim reasoned, an assumption that by itself is not controversial (Durkheim 1995b: 29). Durkheim referred to morality as existing not for the individual, but for the purposes of society. He never said that morality served the welfare of society’s individuals; instead, he emphasized that it served the collective interests or collective purpose (Durkheim 1993: 45). He was adamant that society pursued its own interests (Durkheim 1995a: 209). For it to have interests, it had to be a holistic social being. The role of organic holism in Durkheim’s theory deserves further exploration. Durkheim frequently alluded to his belief in organic holism and in the life of the collective being, but not once did he ever begin or end an essay with a statement to that effect.

Durkheim’s moral theory can be sufficiently described as either moral collectivism or philosophical altruism. Both terms are for Durkheim different sides of the same coin and are essentially the same moral principle. Durkheim’s work bears scrutiny and discussion because his theory represented a thorough development of his premises to achieve his pedagogical goals. One does not have to agree with Durkheim to find value in an examination of his work. Few academics have been so ruthless in the development of their moral theories, and an examination of Durkheim gives greater insight into the related theories of Kant and Schopenhauer. Even for the sake of brevity, we must not be pragmatic in our use of definitions and equate terms that are thought to be favorable such as altruism and self-sacrifice with “good” or “being nice.” Durkheim equated self-sacrifice and altruism with morality in essence, but always kept his definitions clear: for him altruism was the violent and voluntary act of self-destruction for no personal benefit (Durkheim 1995b: 29) whereas what people thought was “the good” or desirable would vary from society to society and person to person (Durkheim & Wilson 1981: 1064 ; Durkheim 1974a: 40). Altruism was not kindness or charity, and self-sacrifice was not the act of helping a particular person for that person’s own sake. Durkheim’s definitions of altruism and self-sacrifice then were the same as that of Kant and Schopenhauer and even the same as Rand. When Kant and Schopenhauer talked of virtue they meant the opposite of egoism and the lack of self-interest or even interest in helping specific individuals (Kant 1996: 150 ; Schopenhauer 1969: 492 & 600). Rand and Durkheim used the term altruism to mean the same thing, and used the same definition: impersonal self-sacrifice and the opposite of rational self-interest, but were on opposite sides of the question whether altruism was good and whether objective rational thought was possible (Rand 1984: 61). In other words, moralists of different ideological agendas would have agreed with him in regard to definitions, and this is a key reason why it is useful for Durkheim to be still studied today. With Durkheim there is no middle ground: his theory is moral collectivism without sugar coating. Durkheim’s theory is a test case for altruism as the philosophical principle and content of morality, and for social holism as the sociological basis of morality. It is possible that Durkheim may not have always been consistent in his view of society, but no one ever made a more relentless case for moral collectivism and altruism.

For Durkheim, not only was morality not for the benefit of the individual who would accept self-sacrifice, it was not for the benefit of the other individuals, but for the collective nature of society. After all, if individuals could not morally live for themselves because individual life was worthless, they could not morally live to help other individuals as such. Because morality was self-destructive, Durkheim described those who took morality to an extreme as fools (Durkheim 1974a: 86). Durkheim was not a functionalist as the term is understood in North America. He did not say that morality was for either the collective well-being of society as a whole or the collective well-being of society as a group of individuals, but for the collective nature of society: for the collective nature to be strong and to assert itself against the wishes and needs of the individuals. Also, according to Durkheim, sometimes the collective forces of society sometimes merely needed to rage and lash out in mindless destruction simply because they could (Durkheim 1974a: 91).

At no point did Durkheim ever imply that what benefited the nature of society necessarily benefited the individuals. In contrast, he emphasized that the conditions of morality was that it commanded and it made itself look desirable (for an unspecified time) (Durkheim 1995b: 28 ; Durkheim 1993: 43 ; Durkheim 1974a: 36), and that it commanded the individual to do violence to himself and to his individual nature for no benefit to himself or to other individuals as such (Durkheim 1977: 210 ; Durkheim 1995b: 29). For Durkheim, desirability was a transitory characteristic, necessary but vague, a pleasure of performing duty for the sake of duty (Durkheim 1974a: 45). Desirability meant only that the individual wanted to be moral for morality’s sake, not that the individual benefited or even understood the reasons for why he was being commanded to obey. Durkheim’s statements that living people benefited from moral actions are few and should be put in context as criticism of escapism and utopianism (Durkheim 1977: 209). For Durkheim, morality was violence to part of our nature, albeit accompanied with some kind of desire or satisfaction (Durkheim 1974a: 45). Durkheim described society as necessitating the sacrifices of individuals irrespective of utilitarian calculation and this violence to human nature he described as going up the down staircase of nature (Durkheim 1995a: 321). By referring to morality as against nature, Durkheim’s wording is reminiscent of Schopenhauer (1969: 215). Though Durkheim considered individual self-preservation as frequently useful to society, he regarded individual life in itself as intrinsically worthless (Durkheim 1993: 109).

No discussion of Durkheim’s views of morality and the nature of society could be complete with a mention of his relationship to the paradigm of Immanuel Kant. Both men were the greatest academic advocates of moral altruism of their generations. There is not an abundance of publications on the relationship between Durkheim’s social realism and Kant’s philosophy, though we see that this aspect has not been neglected in such works as by R. Jones (1994) and S. Jones (1995). Durkheim was familiar with Kant through the German neo-Kantians such as Schmoller and also through Schopenhauer. He also approached Kant through the writings of French thinkers who are obscure today, chiefly Boutroux and Renouvier. Consequently, though it is fashionable to consider Durkheim a follower of Comte or Saint-Simon, his connection to Kant must also be emphasized, especially in light of the possibility that the basis of Durkheim’s paradigm may not have been methodological but pedagogical and normative.

Durkheim’s debt to Kant was somewhat unappreciated for on the surface the two men had opposing paradigms in regard to philosophical assumptions outside the axiological. However, considering that Durkheim was first and last a moralist, when one looks as Durkheim’s moral assumptions and the goals of his pedagogical work one finds a fundamental congruence with those of Immanuel Kant. Durkheim acknowledged that his moral reasoning followed that of Kant’s closely, but with some additions and variation in terminology (Durkheim 1974a: 44 & 51). Durkheim’s last project was to be a complete and definitive work on moral pedagogy titled La Morale, and the proposed chapter titles indicated Durkheim’s development of Kant’s moral system (Durkheim 1979: 78). In particular, Durkheim’s outline for the chapter “The problem of the Kantian solution” shows he did not disagree with Kant’s moral altruism as much as with Kant’s starting point and the matter of how to implement Kant’s rules into practical action in different circumstances (Durkheim 1979: 33 & 78). In essence, Durkheim sought to give Kantian moral theory a new base: he sought to do away with . priori philosophical categories and the logical autonomy of the individual as a starting point, and instead to base a very similar set of moral assumptions of duty and self-sacrifice on a social basis with society as the starting point and the only justification for morality (Durkheim 1974a: 52).

Durkheim made several distinctions between his moral system and that of Kant, but the distinctions were minor. He said that desirability of some kind was necessary for morality and not duty alone (Durkheim 1974a: 36) and he said that if one enjoyed or benefited from one’s moral behavior this did not necessarily make the behavior in question amoral. For example, if one enjoyed dying for one’s country, so much the better. If Kant based his altruistic theory on duty without self-interest, Durkheim based his version on altruism on duty and perceived desirability of obedience to moral authority, and if the individual happened to benefit, this was acceptable though not necessary. In Durkheim’s view, what was right was what was commanded of us, and we had an obligation to desire to do what was commanded of us: moral rules were right and moral because they commanded and bent our wills (Durkheim 1995b: 30 ; Durkheim 1995a: 209). The individual’s desire to be moral came from society bending the individual’s view of the world, not from self-interest, pity, or natural inclination. (Durkheim’s position is oddly congruent with the traditional Judeo-Christian view of YHWH of the Old Testament: God’s will was righteous because it was enforced, not enforced because it was righteous.) From the position of Kant, “Duty is duty,” and Durkheim’s position that morality hurt people and should be loved because it must be obeyed, it is not a far cry to the Nuremberg dictum, “Orders are orders.”

Once we understand that Durkheim was a moral collectivist who advocated a moral theory of altruism and self-sacrifice in a way virtually identical to Kant (whose starting point was metaphysical and not the social life of the group), we can look at the relationship of Durkheim’s theory of the nature of group life with new insight. Durkheim’s commitment to his moral theory never wavered. We have to look at the relationship between his statements about morality and his statements about the nature of society to see which of these two parts of his theory he regarded as primary and the most important, and to see the difference between what may have been his alleged starting position and what was his fundamental position around which all revolved.

Society as an Organism

Durkheim insisted that not only was society a holistic entity, it was an organism. His references seem extensive (Durkheim 1974b: 198 ; Durkheim 1982: 129 & 243 ; Durkheim 1973b: 60 ; Durkheim 1981: 66). At other points he referred to society as a moral being (Durkheim & Wilson 1981: 1063 ; Durkheim 1974a: 51-2). Sometimes he labeled society a collective being (Durkheim 1974a: 52). Not only was society an organism for Durkheim, he went as far as to describe it as possessing a collective personality (Durkheim 1974a: 51).

Durkheim’s repeated statements that society was a being and an organism could be construed as either an argument in itself or as parts of another argument. It is the latter interpretation that is correct. Durkheim’s description of society as a social being was not a goal in itself. Durkheim never treated his assertion that society was an organism as a starting position and neither did he seek to empirically prove the assertion or to describe it in empirical detail. The assertion was merely a means to explain why and how society possessed purpose and thus could be the final and sole justification for all morality and moral action. Durkheim was adamant that all morality was conducted for the purpose of living beings (Durkheim 1973b: 60 ; Durkheim 1974a: 52), yet could not be for the benefit of the individual (Durkheim 1995b: 29 ; Durkheim 1974a: 45 & 91 ; Durkheim 1977:210).

Having said that morality was for living beings but not individuals, once Durkheim started his lectures and essays he would usually quickly dip into organic holism. Social or organic holism was never his starting or end position, but always an intermediate position in the middle of a chain of reasoning formed on the basis of its ability to persuade a chosen audience. By bringing in a secondary argument that society was an organism in the middle of his main argument, Durkheim had to deal with the new idea rather quickly. Because his argument was already past the point where it could be proven, he relied upon analogy and metaphor at these points where he was seeking to convince his audience.

The Rug Snarl

Durkheim was always consistent in declaring that the individual’s service to society was the only goal for moral action (Durkheim 1951: 213 ; Durkheim 1995b: 30). Durkheim’s wording in his explanations for the origin of society, however, is consistently inconsistent. The primary part of his theory would be the consistent part, and the inconsistent parts would be the varying expedient methods he used to win favor with different audiences.

Durkheim had different arguments regarding how the collective nature of society was established.

1) Sometimes Durkheim saw society as the result of individuals coming together in aggregation. Where these presocialized individuals would come from he did not specify (Durkheim 1974a: 24, 27-8 & 91). This argument is found repeatedly in Philosophy and Sociology.

2) On the other hand, he saw societies as being created from earlier societies. We see this argument in Incest: The Nature And Origin of the Taboo and The Division of Labour (Durkheim 1963 : 25 ; Durkheim 1984: 204).

3) Later in his career, he turned his attention to the importance of religious rites as the cause of the emergence of social phenomena. He saw the first societies as being created from religious rites and collective effervescence. This is the argument of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Unfortunately, it appears to be a little muddled. Durkheim seemed to have implied that religious rites preceded religious beliefs and were not coeval (Fields 1995: xxxiv ; Durkheim 1995a: 220). Also, Durkheim gave as proof of his assertion that collective effervescence created morality and collective concepts the evidence that during collective effervescence the primitive savages violated their conscience and moral codes and committed incest and the murder of old people and children --violations of their strict taboos (Durkheim 1995a: 387). As consciences and taboos are, according to Durkheim, products of society and collective effervescence, citing the violation of moral codes as evidence for the start of morality seems a strange reversal. In other words, unless he omitted a temporal relationship that was needed to make it make sense, the violation of consciences created the first conscience. This simple mistake was either caused by how he looked at enduring and periodic social rites of developed tribal cultures as merely repetitions of the first primordial social rites due to a lack of better empirical evidence, or was caused on axiological grounds because, since he had already defined morality as a painful violation of self, he saw any social rites that caused pain and violation as being of the exact same nature of any social rites that may have invented morality itself, rendering the empirical facts inconsequential.

4) Finally, there is a simple position that Durkheim used only occasionally. The collectivity of society was formed by all the individual consciences of its present and past (Durkheim 1995b: 31). As Durkheim also believed that society created the conscience and with it the bifurcation of the individual into homo duplex, to say that the consciences joined together and formed society is invalid reasoning, even from his point of view. However, such a view becomes a convenient basis to appear to validate holistic collective concepts. After all, to say that all of anything forms an object implies that the object is a holistic entity and neatly sidesteps the matter of empirically defined boundaries.

Building a sociological theory can be compared to laying down a carpet. If there are problems, there will be a snarl, and if one is unable to remove the contradiction, one merely moves the snarl down the carpet to where it won’t trip the owner up. For Durkheim to be so adamant and politically effective in his championing of moral collectivism and altruism, he had to be consistent in regard to his view of morality, and to then emphasize the holistic unity of society. His theory then had to accept inconsistency and contradiction in less noticeable places, such as in his actual explanation for how society was an organism.

Ultimately, every theory rests upon axioms and irreducible premises on one hand, and on the other, value-judgments. The only consistency in Durkheim’s theory is his set of value-judgments and his axiological premises: these are never in contradiction and are in fact taken to their most extreme and logical conclusions. He never bothered to validate his concepts and his methodological premises on axioms and empirical proofs because for him the necessity for altruism was axiom-like and irrefutable, and he based his theory on it. This would explain Durkheim’s apparent lack of interest in the contemporary methodological debates of his time such as the Methodenstreit. In other words, instead of basing moral theory on the nature of existence, he based his view of existence on his faith in a particular view of morality. He consistently promoted the moral primacy of society and his chosen moral principles of altruism and collectivism; everything else was a means to this end. The principles altruism and moral collectivism are merely different sides of the same basic idea of the abnegation of the individual: to say altruism emphasizes the what, the content of the moral phenomena in question; to say moral collectivism emphasizes the motivation and form, the why and the how. What mattered to Durkheim the most was not the nature of society nor the means to study it, but the moral authority of society, and presumably, his place as a professional pedagogue for the French Third Republic.

Altruism as the Source of Organicism

Durkheim’s consistent inconsistencies are due to the greater emphasis he placed on normative concerns rather than the methodological. Durkheim’s moral collectivism effectively impaired his theorizing about the nature of society and led him into the unsubstantiated and contradictory use of organic metaphors and analogies. In his pedagogical lectures translated as Moral Education we see a clear summary by Durkheim of his reasoning that intertwines his absolute belief in moral collectivism and altruism with the perceived organic nature of society. It is because Durkheim equated all morality with altruism and dismissed all aspects of moral phenomena outside the realm of indiscriminate self-sacrifice (Durkheim 1974a: 51-3 ; Durkheim 1973b: 256) that he had to validate altruism. Durkheim saw society as the recipient of individual self-sacrifice, and consequently, society had to be a fit recipient of all the bloodshed, genital mutilation, war, suicide, fasting, and conformity done to express and maintain its hold over the minds of the individuals. According to Durkheim, individuals could conduct violence in the name of religion or for the alleged benefit of society, but the real reason they did so was to reaffirm the collective nature of society. This reaffirmation could have functional benefits, but was never conducted for utilitarian, materialistic, idealistic, or functional benefits as such, or even for love and empathy. All moral action was conducted for the transcendental nature of society and its power of coercion over the individual. For altruism and moral collectivism to be justified to those who were not already acolytes of the secular faith, society had to be something more than a label and a generalized term for overlapping webs of social relations. For altruism to make sense, society had not only to be an entity and a moral reality, but it had to also be an organism.

Durkheim assumed certain values and assumed that altruism and collectivism were exclusively the only moral principles. Durkheim accepted diversity in moral interpretation and variation in implementing the nature of societal obligation provided that altruism was not challenged as a primordial moral principle. For his value position to make sense, society had to exist in a certain way. His proof that society was an organic entity was ultimately that it was the only possibility that would validate his normative position.

In order to cherish society, to devote one’s self to it, and to take it as the objective of conduct, it must be something more than a word, an abstract term. A living reality is needed, animated by the special existence distinct from the individuals composing it. Only such a reality can draw us out of ourselves and so perform the function of providing a moral goal.
(Durkheim 1973b: 251)

This theme continues all throughout Durkheim’s lectures on moral education:

Man, we have said, acts morally only when he takes the collectivity as the goal of his conduct. This being so, there must be a collectivity. If society is considered only from a naively simplified point of view, nothing remains that may be called by this name. (Durkheim 1973b: 256)

Durkheim’s reasoning was circular, and, consequently, not based on empirical evidence or axioms. In fact, this is virtually the same argument that Durkheim found in Rousseau when he wrote his Latin dissertation and said that because the general will had to have moral authority society had to be a social being (Durkheim 1965: 103).

The quotation that best reveals all the steps in Durkheim’s lecture is as follows. Note that Durkheim used the conditional tense and that he started with statements about values and then finished with statements about the nature of existence:

If each individual taken separately has no moral worth, the sum total of individuals can scarcely have more. The sum of zeros is, and can only be, equal to zero. If a particular interest, whether mine or someone else’s, is amoral, several such particular interests must also be amoral. Moral action pursues impersonal objectives. But the impersonal goals of moral action cannot be either those of a person other than the actor, or those of many others. Hence, it follows that they must necessarily involve something other than individuals. They are supra-individual. Outside or beyond individuals there is nothing other than groups formed by the union of individuals, that is to say, societies. Moral goals, then, are those the object of which is society. To act morally is to act in terms of the collective interest. This conclusion imposes itself in the wake of the foregoing arguments, which were successively eliminated. Now, it is evident that a moral act must serve some living and sentient being and even more specifically a being endowed with consciousnesses. Moral relations are relations between consciousnesses. Above and beyond me as a conscious being, above and beyond those sentient beings who are other individual beings, there is nothing else save that sentient being that is society.
(Durkheim 1973b: 60)

In other words:

To understand the significance of this major proposition, one must take account of the meaning of society. If we accept what has for a long time been the classical and widely held view, that society is only a collection of individuals, we are thrown back into the foregoing difficulties without any way of surmounting them. If self-interest has no moral value for me, it has no more among my fellows whatever their number, and, consequently, the collective interest, if it is only the sum of self-interests, is itself amoral. If society is to be considered as the normal goal of moral conduct, then it must be possible to see in it something other than a sum of individuals; it must constitute a being sui generis, which has its own special character distinct from that of its members and its own individuality different from that of its constituent individuals. In a word, there must exist, in the full meaning of the word, a social being. On this condition only is society able to perform the moral function that the individual cannot.
(Durkheim 1973b: 60) [ emphasis added ]

If one should think that Durkheim’s logic that society is a being because it has to be a being or else he would be wrong is confined to his pedagogical lectures, “The Determination of Moral Facts,” has similar reasoning (Durkheim 1974a: 52).

A better way of reasoning would have been to start with statements about existence and one’s axioms and then to move to statements about values. Statements about values are best understood on the basis of statements about existence. Although there is considerable choice and diversity regarding values, and our knowledge of existence can vary, existence remains what it is. Things are what they are, and a society is either an organism or it is not. We can choose to see society as if it is an organism, but that would not change what it is, only what it would seem to us.

Without altruism moral collectivism could not exist, and the reverse is also true. Without moral collectivism, there would be little need to consider society an entity, much less as a “social being.” The methodological assumption that we should explain social events by the qualities and variables of society exclusively (such as through social facts) or by the functions and purposes of society (such as Talcott Parson’s Functionalism) would seem often, if not only always, to be based in turn upon the assumption that society is an entity in itself and, in addition, has organic characteristics. This paper does not suggest that all approaches which base themselves on such things be immediately rejected. Rather, this paper suggests that a closer examination be made of the relations between normative and methodological assumptions before one resorts to biological analogies and organic metaphors as means to persuade others of the worth of one’s paradigm. In those cases where the theorist errs on the side of organicism and over ascribes organic qualities to society, it is likely that the theorist confused normative and existence-related considerations, and has allowed value-judgments to creep into the concept formation and to affect the perceived validity of the linkages in the chain of reasoning.


There are different moral principles and different visions of the nature of society. One does not have to be a relativist to recognize that different people believe different things: the fact that there are different beliefs in no way suggests that the beliefs are somehow of equal value, equal consistency, or products of equal logic. The moral collectivists usually argue for variants of utilitarianism and altruism and believe that the individual as such is not an end in himself and cannot be the purpose of moral action. The individualists argue that the life of each individual is potentially an end in itself and is of moral worth regardless of the value it is to anything else.

The differences in moral theories can be compared by a general method even by those of different points of view, provided they accept value-free terminology (definitions without prejudice) and base their concepts on a basis that all can scrutinize without appeal to mystic intuition or divine inspiration. Morality is the reasoning regarding what is worth valuing, how, and why. Presumably, any individual capable of abstract thought and free-will would need morality. The religious believe that there cannot be morality without the divine and collectivists believe there can be no morality without aggregate societies. Subjectivists believe that whatever they want to believe is true for no other needed reason. The rational individualist believes that valid morality is a product of reason and value choices based on the respect for individual human life. Though other moral codes exist as products of conflict or tradition, from the standpoint of the rational individualist, these other codes, regardless of their entrenchment, would not be necessarily legitimate if based on a lack of respect for human life, invalid reasoning, or false assumptions. In any case, if human life is to be valued as such, a human being would presumably need morality in and out of a crowd, alone on a desert island or as part of a large population.

It may well be that social holism is indeed the prime metaphysical or methodological basis for the moral principle of altruism and self-sacrifice and that simultaneously the same moral principle is the real and ultimate foundation of social holism. Through the fact that the two principles would be each other’s basis, barring additional supports, both principles would then be based solely on faith and choice rather than on science, necessity, or objectivity. Once we have established the relationship between moral values and methodological/metaphysical views of society for Durkheim, we can then examine whether this relationship holds true for other theorists such as socialists, Social-Darwinists, Utilitarians, and Communitarians who have also promoted combinations of social holism and altruism. Though altruism is frequently given as the explanation for acts of kindness, as Durkheim rightly understood, it cannot be the basis of kindness: If we all cannot live for ourselves and we must serve something other than ourselves, then other people are not fit to be beneficiaries of our moral actions. In contrast, altruism and its voluntary abnegation of the individual is the most important moral basis for totalitarianism, state terror, and rigid social conformity. Let us remember that under totalitarianism and state terror no one is accorded the moral right to exist as an end in himself but must exist exclusively for particular others (such as a leader like Timurlame) or for a particular vision of society (such as the New Communist Man, the general will, religious order, or tribal supremacy). Though Durkheim may have not been a totalitarian apologist, he certainly was the advocate of altruism even more than he was an originator of social science, and if there is, as seems likely, a direct connection between political oppression and moral altruism, the connection between altruism and social holism must be further examined.

I have sought to show that Durkheim did not create his vision of morality as a product of his understanding of society, but that his view of society was a consequence of his moral assumptions. Consequently, it can be shown that Durkheim’s vision of society and his ontological assumptions can be quickly and tidily unraveled as unfounded. If one contests his moral values, one must totally reject his methodological and ontological orientation. If one does not believe that altruism is the primordial moral principle and that individual human life is of no moral worth, then one cannot believe in Durkheim’s paradigm and his view of society. He may have tried to show that his morality was scientific and a product of his sociological research, but merely the opposite was true: his “scientific approach” was carried out to provide a convincing basis for his moral assumptions founded on his chosen secular faith.


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