An interview with Balihar Sanghera, author of Charitable Giving and Lay Morality: Understanding Sympathy, Moral Evaluations and Social Positions, shortlisted for The Sociological Review Award for Outstanding Scholarship 2016.
What is lay morality?
The term is taken from Andrew Sayer’s work, including his book Why Things Matter to People. It refers to our evaluative relation to the world, and how we make first person evaluative judgements about things of importance that affect our and others’ well-being. It is common in our discipline to understand people in terms of social coordinates, norms and discourses, but this misses their capacity to respond to things in evaluative and emotional ways, judging how things they care about are faring and what they ought to do next. We are not merely social beings, but are evaluative beings, who deeply care about things, whether they be our family, friends, quality of work, local neighbourhood, social inequalities and the environment. Emotions are part of our everyday ethical reasoning, experience and relation to the world, because they are intelligent and highly discerning commentaries about our concerns and commitments. So what emerges is a bottom-up approach to understanding ethical life that gives attention to people’s emotions, reflexivity, interpretations and concerns, rather than viewing their practices as merely a product of socialisation, social position or abstract moral principles. This approach rejects as unsatisfactory a spectator’s view of action that draws upon concepts, such as conventions, rules, reciprocity, exchange, habits, socialisation, discourses and power, as external descriptions of people’s practices.
People’s lay morality is not merely subjective, but is usually about something outside of themselves, involving beliefs and practices about objects of value and their perceived impact on human well-being. This means that lay morality can be fallible, and open to reflections and debate through both imagined and real conversations. People can alter or modify their initial first-person evaluations about social situations and relationships. Often sociologists treat people’s moral beliefs and practices as if they were just preferences, habits or tastes and beyond reason, thereby reproducing the old dichotomy between fact and value. While much has been written to deconstruct this, in particular how values shape facts, there has been little work to examine the direction the other way.
Lay morality should not be idealised. First-person evaluative judgements can be flawed, confusing and inconsistent, because we think in a piecemeal fashion, and do not always enact what we profess to believe. While we always interpret human needs and flourishing under our own descriptions, we do not possess a penetrating discursive understanding of their situation. We can be fallible in our understanding, though we cannot be completely mistaken as this would make human survival impossible. Sayer observes how coherency and consistency can be inhibited by various factors, including power, sectional interests, petty selfishness, myopia, forgetfulness, ignorance, lack of moral imagination, selective ethical concerns and the sheer messiness of everyday life.
What are other approaches to the sociology of morality and how does investigating lay morality differ from them?
Lay morality avoids both moral rationalism and sociological reductionism. In the former, rationalism argues that moral judgements are a product of rational faculties. It promotes discursive reasoning, Platonic contemplation, universalism and abstraction, and marginalises practical reason, emotions and concrete particulars. In sociology, it imputes individuals with instrumental reasoning and a desire to maximise economic gain. For example, rational choice theory argues that moral actions are based upon mutual reciprocity, and that altruism is a disguised form of self-interestedness. Lay morality differs from moral rationalism, because it does not draw upon a body-mind dualism that mistakenly argues that emotions are irrational and lack intelligence. Lay morality also does not exaggerate individuals’ contemplative, abstract and discursive capacities to the neglect of the practical and habitual aspects of social practices.
Regarding sociological reductionism, much of contemporary sociology tends to conflate the distinct properties and powers of structure and agency to produce reductionist theoretical frameworks, where social and cultural structures determine social actors’ thinking and practices. For instance, pro-social behaviour motivated by empathy, altruism and generosity are sometimes imputed to class or normative structures. So charitable giving is determined by donors’ tastes and preferences, which are acquired as a result of socialisation and lifelong experiences, such as family and social upbringing, education and social networks. Reductionism and lack of first-person ethical evaluations are particularly evident in Pierre Bourdieu’s work and Michele Lamont’s framework on moral boundaries. While Bourdieu provides an insightful understanding of how people judge themselves and others, and the practices and objects associated with them, their evaluations are in strategic, functional and aesthetic rather than in ethical terms. Despite Bourdieu warning his readers not to mis-read him as offering a reductionist, economistic and cynical narrative of symbolic exchanges, ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ loom large in his work.
In the case of Lamont, the metaphor of moral boundaries ignores the capacity of social actors to have sympathy for others, to imagine their situations, and to approve or disapprove of their actions. Lay morality differs from sociological reductionism, because it does not deny people’s capacity and powers to think and act independently of their class positions. In his book, The Moral Significance of Class, Sayer argues that moral judgements are distinct from aesthetic and practical ones, because morality has universalising qualities that cut across class boundaries.
How does lay morality shape charitable giving?
To understand how lay morality shapes charitable giving, several interacting elements of lay morality were examined in my article: moral emotions (or sentiments), fellow-feeling (or sympathy), ethical dispositions (virtues and vices), moral norms and rules, moral and cultural discourses, stories and myths, and reflexivity. These elements are socially variable, so first-person evaluative judgements are inflected by class, gender, ‘race’, ethnicity and age. I suggested that charitable giving is not simply a result of moral norms or discursive reasoning, but is visceral and embodied, involving sympathy, sentiments and dispositions. Furthermore, charitable giving is not merely a product of moral concerns, sentiments and reflections, but is structured according to people’s relative social status and positions in the social field. While people engage in ethical reasoning, they often think and act in piecemeal fashion, so that ambivalence and contradictions can occur. This is particularly evident when gender, class and ‘race’ shape people’s emotions and evaluations of others, their attention and care for others, and their understanding of responsibility and blame for social problems.
Some readers may be dissatisfied with this eclectic account of lay morality and charitable giving, finding it a mishmash of causal powers and factors. But the nature of the object warrants a complex understanding that cannot be reducible to simple abstract ethical principles, psychological motives or social conventions. Furthermore, each element of lay morality is inadequate on its own to produce reliable ethical behaviour. Each element interacts with other elements to compensate for its specific limitations. For instance, although emotions can be intelligent commentaries about things that matter, they can also be unreliable, because excessive or volatile feelings are likely to distort judgements. Moral norms and rules can counter our tendency for self-love and self-aggrandisement.
While we are reflexive about the world in relation to our moral concerns, we are likely to be suspicious of people who always calculate and deliberate before acting; love, care and kindness are valued partly because they are spontaneous and stable. Ethical dispositions and habits allow us to act instinctively. Sympathy is a pre-condition for everyday moral conduct, but its efficacy can be restricted to close and familiar groups, thereby limiting the capacity of compassion and generosity. Moral discourses and stories can enlarge the circle of sympathy and responsibility to outsiders and marginalised groups. Morality is always mediated through cultural discourses and social structures, articulating and facilitating specific sets of moral beliefs and values, but they can also result in harm and suffering. Sensitivity to the distorting and harmful effects of cultural and social structures can be heightened by viewing social actors not merely as causal agents or self-interpreting meaning-makers, but as vulnerable, interdependent, needy and evaluative beings. Thus, the interactions of the different elements of lay morality can enrich our understanding of the ethical dimensions of ordinary life.
Balihar Sanghera is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Kent’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research.