The Fundamental Skill of Sociology

When we think about matters relating to the operation of society - what is right and wrong, how society works, what we should do to improve our communities - we tend to think moralistically, and get very passionate about it.

This is fine; the strong feelings of moral right and wrong, when most people agree on them, are the psychological correlates and mechanisms of our ways of regulating each other's behavior so that we can cooperate. These are a necessary and healthy part of society. They are the motivating force behind any crusade for a better society.

However, they are not sufficient; they can be wrong. Our social technology, like any other technology, can be of degraded quality, or simply not as good as it could be. We are not blessed by default with correct models of our complex social world; we have to learn them the hard way. Worse, our understanding and our moral norms may even be deliberately distorted away from functionality and correctness by powerful political interests who want us to accept or take part in some tyranny that serves their own interests; they fund propaganda and intellectual work to spread and justify the moral framework they want us to have, and we grow up in that framework, internalizing it to the point of being indistinguishable from obvious intuition. So sometimes we can't trust our feelings of moral imperative.

For the everyday, we are mostly just interested in getting along with others, which mostly means following and enforcing the social rules that already exist, as implied in our and our acquaintances' moral intuitions. But even here, prudence occasionally means reflecting on what the rules ought to be, or whether some particular intuition serves our own community or is a weapon in someone else's political games.

For those of us who think bigger, who want to really understand and improve the society around us, this ability to reflect on social matters becomes paramount. We cannot understand and improve society if we cannot even temporarily step outside of our own active participation in it. Imagine trying to service or even understand an internal combustion engine while it is still running. At best you get burned, at worst, you crush your hand and wreck the engine. In neither case do you learn as much as you could if you turned it off and let it cool down first. Your moral judgement works the same way; it is the operation of a complex machine that cannot be serviced while running.

Nearly four years ago now, when I, Harold, Anton and some other friends were just starting out together on our journey to understand and debug our society, we had something like this intuition. But Anton didn't let it stay implied, and launched our first blog with these words:

This is a different world you are walking into, different norms shall apply, unspoken assumptions may be violated. The debilitating morality signaling spirals created by merely denouncing those to the right will be guarded against.

Taken as an imperative about how to approach the problem of sociology, this exhortation served me well when first exploring the work of others who were further along the same track of investigation. I remember flinching away from obvious evil in a particular body of work, catching myself with the above words, and turning that flinch into dispassionate curiosity.

I'm glad I did, because I later came to respect the author of that "evil" body of work as one of the most moral and useful and correct thinkers currently working the field. This has happened over and over; the instinct to denounce or fear replaced by reasoned consideration, replaced by insight and a stronger model of the world.

Do I always come to agree with distasteful ideas? Of course not. Sometimes apparent evil is simply evil, and an accurate comprehension just reveals the full depth of its depravity and the exact nature of its participation in the dark crusade against life. But often we are wrong, and have the opportunity to change for the better. Certainly I have very different ideas about what is right and wrong than I did when I knew much less about the nature of the world. That would not have been possible without what I now call the fundamental skill of sociology:

Don't react moralistically to ideas about society. Don't denounce or disagree or ignore just because something is distasteful. Clarify the logic for yourself, and see if it is correct. If it is incorrect, figure out why it is incorrect. If it is immoral, figure out in detail how it is immoral. If you have a negative psychological reaction to things, that only retards your own ability to see the truth.

Of course this is hard, but I don't believe it is possible to proceed without it.