‘Demoralisation’ is a concept which encompasses the perceived declining morality of individuals in modern western society. Western society’s obsession with the economy, profits and efficiency had supposedly lead to
the extinction of morals. I shall consider different viewpoints and contemporary examples to determine the extent to which this viewpoint holds truth. Firstly, I shall look at Weber’s formal rationality and Ritzier’s ideas of dehumanization, referring to Bauman’s example of the Holocaust as evidence of severe demoralisation. I shall then examine Bauman’s writings on Postmodern Ethics and how society acts to constrain our morals. Durkheim’s Anomic Suicide provides a deeper understanding of the extent of society’s regulation and then I shall consider Mestrovic’s account of the deregulation of the economy. Finally, I shall reflect on Ralph Fevre’s more contemporary description of the misapplication of rationality and how this acts to demoralise individuals.
In order to grasp the extent of the infiltration of declining ethics into our society, I shall consider the presumed cause of this situation. Rationalisation and the rise of capitalism are the core changes which have shaped individuals morals and behaviour in the modern western world. Max Weber is the key advocator of this position in his formulation of his ideas on the rationalisation process and bureaucracy.
Bureaucracy refers to a method of organisation where all action is specifically regulated by rules formulated by officials. These rules attempt to shape society in a way which eliminates chaos, free-thinking and choice in order to achieve a rational and efficient society.
Weber developed the idea of ‘formal rationality’, a key component of bureaucratic organisation, which refers to the rationalised principles individuals rely on in decision-making. Institutionalised rules curb the actions of individuals to aid them to a specific end, eliminating any reference to values or morals. Weber stated that formal rationality sees the ‘discharge of business according to calculable rules and without regard for persons’ Ritizer highlighted one of the key dimensions of rationalisation as the control it exerts over people. Human judgment is replaced by rules, regulations and structuresThis dehumanising aspect of bureaucracy links to Weber’s concern about the irrationality of rationality which Ritzier discusses in his analysis of McDonaldisation.
Ritzier turns to Ronald Takaki to demonstrate how rationalised settings can act as places in which the ‘self was placed in confinement, its emotions controlled, and its spirit subdued’ (Takaki cited in Ritzier 2004:25). Here, Ritzier is showing how despite the effectiveness of bureaucracy, the rationalised processes can act to dehumanise and alienate individuals.
Bureaucratic procedure therefore acts to demoralise individuals and places people into, what Weber calls, the Iron Cage of rationality. By this, he is referring to the extent to which bureaucracy and rationalisation dominates mankind; rather than viewing this as a step towards freedom, Weber maintains that civilization is becoming increasingly enclosed in an “iron cage”- and this acts to enclose and reduce our moral freedom.
Whilst Weber’s views on the deterioration of morals in our society can be appreciated, it is nevertheless necessary to examine some present values compared to those of the past.
All Western societies operating under capitalist principles provide some degree of welfare benefit with the generally accepted moral stance of care and concern for the disadvantaged.
However, in the pre-capitalist societies of the 18th Century and beyond, the basic rights of health care and education for all were not considered essential. If morality can be defined as the concern with right or wrong behaviour, then there is a need to question Weber’s implication that moral attitudes pre-capitalism were intrinsically superior.
The principle example of Weber’s fears of rationalisation infiltrating into civilian life was highlighted by Zygmunt Bauman, who showed how the events of the Holocaust demonstrated precisely the demoralisation invading our society.
Bauman was concerned with the apparent dismissal of the Holocaust as a one-off event, a momentary lapse of morals from one prejudice group. His belief was that the distinct lack of moral instincts were due to a malfunction of society; viewing the causes of the actions as due to the rationalisation of bureaucracy. Bauman proposed to ‘treat the Holocaust as a rare, yet significant and reliable, test of the hidden possibilities of modern society’.
The precise bureaucratic procedure carried out by the Nazis in the mass-murder of innocent individuals, demonstrated the extent to which modern civilization was, according to Bauman, the Holocausts necessary condition (Bauman 1989:13). The rationality described in detail in Weber’s writings focused on specific elements in society which can be directly seen in the processes of the Holocaust; the rational spirit, efficiency and the regulation of values. Bauman even believed, after re-reading Weber’s analysis of modern society in light of the Holocaust, that the event could have even been predicted by Weber himself!
The concept of demoralisation was important to Bauman as he posed the question of how normal individuals can be transformed into the perpetrators of mass crime.
For him, the bureaucratic organisation of the Holocaust resulted in the social production of moral indifference and the concealment of morality in actions.
Moral indifference occurred as the perpetrators were under complete authority by a movement they were devoted to. The procedures which were undertaken were regulated and ordered into a routine, dispensing with moral obligations. The victims of the Holocaust were also dehumanized through the use of ideology, by demeaning the victims to a non-human state; the full implication of the perpetrators actions would not be acknowledged.
Demoralisation was also achieved through the ‘mediation of action’, where the casual connections between the actions of the perpetrators and the mass murder itself was concealed. Bauman demonstrated how the methods of killing increased the distance between the acts themselves and their consequences. Though the use of gas chambers, one individual was not responsible for another’s death in the way shooting an individual would harm morale. Instead, the jobs of building the chambers themselves, parading the victims into the rooms and emptying the chemicals into the roof were divided between many individuals; and therefore so was the responsibility.
Bauman successfully demonstrates the way in which bureaucratic procedure is mirrored within the procedures undertaken by the Nazi’s, however rationalisation in society may not be the sole cause of this event in history.
The suspension of moral outrage by the people who participated in the Holocaust was possibly created though fear of the repercussions of opposition.
There are examples of equivalent atrocities throughout modern history and there is scant evidence to suggest that bureaucracy was the root cause of their creation. The regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Chairman Mao and Magabe are linked by their dictatorships, subsequent misuse of power and the imposition of a climate of fear which was necessary to subjugate their people.
No modern western society is presently ruled under a dictatorship, it relies on a collaboration of opinions and the co-operation of society. The expression of opinions does not result in punishment as there is a toleration of free expression; and this toleration could be considered as an aspect of morality.
Bauman focuses specifically on ‘demoralisation’ in his writings on Postmodern Ethics (1993) where he considers the link between post-modernity and morals. Demonstrating distress for the postmodern ‘substitution of aesthetics for ethics’ he exposes how the ‘right way’ is no longer a simple path to take, postmodernity has developed numerous divides of being ‘economically sensible’, ‘aesthetically pleasing’ and ‘morally proper’ Bauman draws on Weber’s writings of the Protestant Ethic and how their compulsive emphasis on morality seeped into all aspects of life. Now, the moral guidance of the church is almost extinct and so modern legislators are attempting to ‘compose and impose… a cohesive code of moral rules which people could be taught and forced to obey’ This demonstrates the imposition of rationality on morals, no longer is morality a personal righteous decision, as free will is viewed with such caution by those in control that enforcement of what is right is essential; ‘untoward, potentially heinous impulses needed to be held in check’ . Weber’s formal rationality appears to be enforced even in our inner most decisions.
In Bauman’s opinion, rationality cannot take precedence over moral impulses, it merely can ‘silence it and paralyze’ and would therefore lead to less good being done than would otherwise have been the case. Bauman maintains that morals are precisely non-rational, the morality of a choice is lost if the choice involves a calculation of gains and losses. He advocates that only rules are universal; therefore morals should be ‘thoroughly personal’, detached from any form of rationality as true morals should rest on personal responsibility.
Bauman draws on Durkheim’s view of ‘anomie’, explaining that one can only be moral when alone and not subjected to the influence of society, as this is when ‘moral impulse makes an exit’ Bauman is therefore stating that ‘morality is the condition of perpetual and irreparable anomie’
In order to gain a deeper insight into Durkheim’s formulation of ‘anomie’ and its link to the concept of ‘demoralisation’, I shall consider his writings on Anomic Suicide.
Durkheim formulated the idea of the state of anomy in his considerations of the influence of both economic crises and ‘fortunate crises’ on suicide rates. Massive setbacks in the economy can be linked with high suicide rates, and this would presumably lead to the assumption that if circumstances were to improve then the rates of voluntary deaths should decrease.
Durkheim provided evidence to show that this was, however, not the case. He examined the situation in Rome in 1870, where a spurt of economic growth lead to an increased standard of living for the whole of society. Despite this prosperity, suicide rates soared, shattering the presumed link between poverty and suicide rates. Durkheim perceived these high suicide rates to be linked to ‘disturbances of collective order’ and formulated his concept of anomy.
Man has, according to Durkheim, material and selfish desires which provide humans with an ‘inextinguishable thirst [which] is constantly renewed torture’ In order to ever be satisfied or content, these passions require limitation and Durkheim believes that it is society which takes on this ‘moderating role’. Society provides individuals with a set of ideas concerning their upper limit of achievement and this will usually be an accessible goal, thus leading to contentment and happiness within individual circumstances.
Anomy occurs when society is ‘momentarily incapable of exercising this influence’ and the individual is thrown into a deregulated state which has no limits to bind them. Both economic disasters and increases in wealth can act to upset the scale, and force individuals into a state of anomy. The severe consequence of this state, for Durkheim, is the incident of voluntary death.
Bauman was suggesting that it is only in this state where true morals exist as this is when society loses its dominance over individuals. True free-will and independent thinking from the constraints of society, provides individuals with the ability of pure moral thought. However, Durkheim’s formulated relation between anomy and high suicide rates demonstrates the extent to which modern society constrains us. If the release from influence is so huge that it forces individuals to take such extreme action as death, then it would appear that some restraint is beneficial and thus would be instinctively sought by civilized society.
Stjepan G. Mestrovic in his book The Coming Fin de Siecle (1992) applies Durkheim’s anomie to the deregulation of the economy, and demonstrates demoralisation with particular focus on the economy and its infiltration into all spheres of social life.
Both modernity and post-modernity have resulted in a reconstruction of society which is in accordance with purely economic interests. Durkheim was concerned with how this exposes society to extreme risks of anomie, as economic crises can therefore impact on all in society in one way or another.
“Precisely because the economic functions today concern the greatest number of citizens…It follows that as that world is only feebly ruled by morality, the greatest part of their existence takes place outside the moral sphere”
Mestrovic focused on how the news in the 1980s directly portrayed Durkheim’s observations that the economic anomie is a major cause of the public’s lack of moral standards, as it showed reports of a clear decline in business ethics.
Durkheim had anticipated the postmodernist ‘success at any cost’ ethic due to society’s obsession with improving the economy and this was unfortunately demonstrated in a number of cases.
The Stock Market crash of 1987 had severe effects of demoralisation. Lack of confidence joined with periods of unemployment, welfare dependency and a sense of panic resulted in a demoralised work force meaning that regaining credibility and public trust proved difficult.
‘The economic sphere of life’ previously came second to religious or political life, however now it is such a vast aspect of society it dominates all of social life and acts to alter the actions of individuals. Modern social institutions are now, according to Mestrovic, run as if they were businesses. A key example of this are modern churches, in previous eras churches were simple and sustained from donations and charitable contributions whereas now, Mestrovic exposes how they invest in stocks and hire secretaries to increase credibility and in some cases, profit.
The fear is that the domination of the economy within all social institutions can lead to the influence of economic anomie throughout society. Durkheim highlighted that due to this social change, the infiltration of immorality will be more invasive and total.
Mestrovic was particularly concerned with demoralisation as he highlighted the three most ‘pressing and controversial modern social problems’ as the lack of business ethics, the selfishness of the ‘me generation’ and the rise of hyper-individualism.
The lack of morals which is associated with the cut-throat business world is now seeping into all of social life as the economy becomes increasingly dominant and powerful. To illustrate the way in which Durkheim’s economic anomie is infiltrating throughout modern society, Mestrovic drew on the events following the Stock Market crash of 1987.
Firstly, bankruptcies were reported to be extremely high both before and after the Stock Market crash and it is evident that Durkheim stated that bankruptcies can be an indicator of anomie. And secondly, Durkheim stated that ‘When the price of the most necessary foods rise excessively, suicides generally do the same’ and just after the Stock Market crash there were surges in prices for wheat and corn, demonstrating the presence of anomie.
Mestrovic concerned himself with the reasons why such mounting evidence of demoralisation have been ignored; he demonstrated that it was not only Durkheim who highlighted the infiltration of immorality from the economic sphere, major influential writings such as the critiques by Simmel in his Philosophy of Money and Marx’s analysis of capitalism demonstrate similar postulations. Mestrovic believed that such links have been ignored for ideological reasons. Post-modernity prevents the study of an idea which demonstrates the ‘instability of human desire-anomie’. The realization of such a concept in a post modern society could disrupt the bureaucratic system and the rationale on which it is based.
However, is the business world as cut-throat as Mestrovic is implying? Modern day businesses are now centered on policies which enforce environmental responsibility, fairness towards employees and the provision of responsible services to customers. Ethics within the business world appear to be foremost on agendas, as implementing morale within a work force is vital to ensure the well-being of employees. Although the underlying element is still increasing efficiency and profit, employees are cared and provided for by benefits and services. A key objective for companies is to raise the morale of employees to inadvertently increase business status and profits.
The question which arises here is whether morale has in fact taken the place of morality? (A point made by David Riesman in the 1950s). Ralph Fevre, in his book The Demoralisation of Western culture, is particularly concerned with what has taken the place of our ‘hollowed-out’ morality. Drawing on Riesman’s idea of the replacement of morale with morality, Fevre demonstrates how Riesman believed demoralisation had occurred as individuals relentlessly followed the crowd for guidance on values and discovering the ‘right way’ of doing things. Riesman perceived how individuals no longer exercise autonomy in decision-making.
In relation to business, the replacement of morality with morale would be beneficial to a rational business system. Autonomy in choices could potentially lead to chaos and irrationally, which bureaucracy is compelled to avoid at all costs. By subjecting employees to a specified morale, limiting choices and moral consideration, order and efficiency can be achieved.
Ralph Fevre provides an up-to-date consideration of the issues surrounding demoralisation, directly contemplating its influence on Western society. In his opinion, common sense is the form of reasoning which has led to our demoralisation and has taken the place of morality.
Common sense is the ‘general level of knowledge which may be derived from a variety of sources’ but, Fevre, in addition to this, explains that common sense also has a ‘sense-making function’ which appeals to our confused state in relation to our limited access to morality.
Emotions and religious feelings previously guided our actions, meaning that decisions were made from a basis of moral integrity. Now, common sense appears to be a more “reasonable” guide for our actions; ‘it is now established as the standard by which we believe we are required to explain ourselves’.
Emotions have become vacant because they are no longer considered to be a reliable basis for reasoning. Common sense, on the other hand, is in conjunction with our rational society as it relies on hard evidence, through senses and experience, to explain things.
Common sense therefore demotes emotions to ‘useless sentiment which can simply be expressed but never acted upon’. In society’s adoption of common sense as our sole form of reasoning and in the disregard of emotions, morality ceases to exist in numerous aspects of our lives. Fevre therefore places the blame of demoralisation on our reliance on common sense in reasoning.
Fevre holds that an individual’s application of rationality and reason is occurring in the wrong place and as a result demoralisation occurs . Through our experience of society, rationality does prove successful in business and in achieving certain aims. The richest people of the world are particularly aware of this, as it may be the rational processes and scrupulous efficiency that gained them their riches and status. It is not a coincidence therefore that a common conception of rich people is their unhappiness as a result of their ‘losing touch with fundamentals’. The perceived effectiveness of rationality seeps into all aspects of life, demoralizing all where it is applied- particularly in relation to personal relationships.
Fevre demonstrates his argument by use of an example of a widespread dilemma concerning childcare; whether to continue working and pay for childcare, or to abandon work and stay at home to look after the children. If the dilemma is considered with reference to a cost-benefit calculation and treated as a purely economic decision, as opposed to being considered with the moral reference it deserves, then the application of rationality is inappropriate and morality is lost.
Fevre accepts the difficultly of such a situation and that ‘whatever we decide, we are left with feelings of doubt and unease’ but he is demonstrating what demoralisation feels like as ‘in our hearts we know we have put our children into an instrumental calculation and weighed their worth’ Our most intimate, personal and moral decisions are now, in modern western society, being considered with the structure and processes used in the business world- as this is all we know. We strive for efficiency and rationality to such an extent that we no longer know how to apply morality and emotions to day to day decisions.
Demoralisation is a negative consequence of the way our economy and our society has been built, but there are key positive consequences of our development. Efficiency and rationality has provided us with a strong and reliable structure which has enabled us to gain from a high standard of living. Profit provides us with money which is required for survival; giving us access to basic needs such as food, shelter and health provisions- therefore is profit really such a dishonorable term?
From a negative viewpoint, profit motivation has lead to the exploitation of labour in developing countries as the western world seeks to cut expenses and gain access to cheap commodities and services- we utilize their poverty for our own interests. This is an example of severe demoralisation, as despite this fact of which we are all aware, we relentlessly continue to buy into such services for a more “reasonable” price to increase our own means. Profit is consistently sought after, however much we wish to prevent any exploitation; our economy has meant that exploitation has become inevitable. This demoralizes modern western society as a whole.
In conclusion, demoralisation is a concept evident in many areas of society. Weber and Durkheim predicted the suspension of morality in a bureaucratic society and contemporary examples have demonstrated the truth of their insights- The key issue is whether it is a necessary evil, the unavoidable product of the way in which modern western society has been developed.
The question posed to our society is whether morality can return.