Ethics & Public Policy Center

Recovering Moral Order

Published in Books & Culture on July 1, 1999


Fukuyama’s new book, just published by the Free Press, is The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order. Michael Cromartie met with him at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, at the end of April.

Francis Fukuyama, Hirst Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University and former deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff, is best known as the author of “The End of History?,” an article published in 1989 in The National Interest and, significantly expanded, as The End of History and the Last Man (1992), one of the most influential books of the decade. Fukuyama thereby joined that select group who, willy-nilly, create the defining slogans of their time. “The End of History” and variants thereon turned up everywhere in the nineties, in scholarly symposia and fashion magazines, in footnotes and punning titles. Some of the references were village-idiot derisive, along the lines of “Humph! Doesn’t look to me like the end of history!” Most people who referred to the book seemed not to have read it. But those who did read it were not agreed on where to place the author. Fukuyama argued for a Hegelian view of history, according to which liberal democracy and capitalism are the logical culmination of a long evolutionary process. Hence he was claimed by many conservative talking heads as one of their own (and vilified as such by leftish critics). Other readers, including many with religious commitments, saw in Fukuyama’s argument—subtle, at times convoluted, and heavily influenced by Nietzsche, Leo Strauss, and the French Hegelian Alexandre Kojève— a spirit deeply alien to a Christian understanding of history and the human person.

What is the “Great Disruption” in the title of your new book?

The Great Disruption is a disruption of social norms and values that has taken place all across the developed world, beginning in the late sixties and continuing through the midnineties. It is reflected by cultural indicators such as rising crime rates, family breakdown, and decreasing social trust between people. It is quite remarkable for the speed with which it has happened and the breadth in terms of the number of countries affected.

The observation that we have experienced a massive breakdown of the norms that formerly constrained moral behavior is one of those commonsensical propositions that many social scientists don’t feel comfortable making. In fact, it is not the social scientists, but the natural scientists who have been asserting, for example, that males tend naturally to be much less selective than females in their choice of sexual partners, and are, by nature, less attached to families than women are. The basic social bond within the family is that between a mother and her children. Although there is a genetic basis for the male attachment to families, that bond needs to be supplemented by a whole series of socially constructed norms, laws, customs, and the like to make sure that the male’s resources go to the wife and then to the children so that they can grow up to be viable. Therefore, the role of men in families is inherently more problematic than that of women in families, and more easily subject to disruption.

In many developed societies today, you have what the anthropologist Lionel Tiger calls “bureaugamy,” where a state welfare agency takes over the role of father, providing the resources for the mother to raise her children. In this new form of kinship, the mother is married to the state. Commonsensically, I think there are a number of reasons to expect that “bureaugamy” is not going to be a successful form of raising children. Ideally, men not only play the role of resource provider but also serve as role models and the source of direct socialization for their children.

What are the sources of social order?

It is funny: I have found that people have very strong opinions about where they think social order ought to come from. Some say religion, or the state, or some such thing. In fact, there is very little systematic study about—as opposed to the “ought” question—the “is” question: where order actually comes from in a modern society. This failure to think through what generates social rules is a big gap in the social sciences. It is one which has been filled with a bunch of opinions and instinctive reactions, but I think there is now some effort to correct that and to look a little more systematically at the origins of order.

In my view, there are really four major sources of norms. Two of them are ones that people understand right away. First, the government can simply pass a law. It is hierarchical and formal, like abolishing racial segregation or some such thing. The second is religious. In most organized religions, that is also done hierarchically. When Moses came down from on high with the Ten Commandments, he presented rules that applied to the community.

The two other sources that I think are quite important are what I would call forms of “spontaneous order.” One form of spontaneous order reflects the ability of decentralized individuals to negotiate social rules for themselves. In my book I give a rather trivial example that is nonetheless revealing. In the southern suburbs of Washington, D.C., you will find a practice called “slugging,” for sharing rides in the commuter lanes to get to work in downtown Washington. People wait in line and get into the car of a perfect stranger in order to meet the three-passenger quota to qualify to ride in the commuter lanes. This system did not come about because some agency decreed it in a hierarchical way; rather, it emerged out of the efforts of rational individuals who were trying to figure out a way to get to work a little faster. In fact, a lot of moral rules are evolved in this kind of decentralized fashion.

The other form of spontaneous order is generated not by a process of rational cooperation, as in the ride-sharing example, but rather by a rational process. For example, many folk religions around the world do not derive their authority from a hierarchical source like Moses on Mount Sinai; rather, they have evolved spontaneously as a way of organizing experience in the communities they represent. I would say further that these spontaneous sources of order tend to be relatively neglected in the academic literature because we are always looking to hierarchy as the primary source of order. If you are on the Left, you tend to look at the State, and if you are on Right, you tend to look to organized religion. In my view, the spontaneous sources of order are supported by deep human cognitive and social instincts.

Are these moral norms fixed or transcendent, as in natural law theory, or are they a product of social consensus?

I think they are both. I think that human nature establishes certain kinds of human ends and, more important, makes impossible certain kinds of socially constructed outcomes. For example, socialism assumed a much greater degree of altruism on the part of individuals than they possess by nature. It assumed that individual Cubans or Vietnamese, for example, would be just as beneficent toward the Cuban or the Vietnamese people collectively as they would be toward their own family or their own immediate friends. Socialism had a wrong view of human nature.

In contrast, a free-market society produces a set of social rules that are more in accord with human nature. That is, we don’t expect or force people to be altruistic in these rather extreme ways, but we assume that they will take care of their families and friends. There will be a kind of gradation of moral obligation to other people.

As you know, for some time the dominant school of cultural anthropology argued that everything was culturally relative. Since there is such a variety of cultural rules around the world, judging by the variety of ethnographic data that is out there, you can’t discern any universals whatsoever—or so the theory went. I think that is clearly wrong.

There is an abundance of data coming out of evolutionary biology, neurophysiology, and the cognitive neurosciences indicating that the human brain is not a tabula rasa that can be filled with just any cultural content. Within the field of anthropology you can see a kind of generational struggle between the older, tenured anthropologists who are still very much stuck in cultural relativism and the younger ones wrestling with the newer data. The more recent trend in anthropology has been to identify certain common structures that exist in virtually all cultures.

One such structure has to do with the control of young males. In a sense, the whole problem of social order, from a simple hunter-gatherer culture one to a modern postindustrial one, is how you socialize young men, who have certain natural instincts for competition, hierarchy, violence, and aggression, and how you turn that kind of aggression outward and away from the community and to ward the community’s enemies.

The cultural problem is setting up a set of rules that enable societies to turn male violence into what we would call “manly” virtue. That is invariant across cultures. Every culture must find a way of doing this. What is culturally relative is that there are actually a number of possible solutions, so that something like the American nuclear family of the 1950s is not a universal solution. There are plenty of other societies that figured out how to do this in other ways—for instance, by subsuming the nuclear family into a much larger kinship group. So in that sense, there is a lot of room for cultural variance. But the fact of human nature is still there, and what it does is to make impossible certain kinds of solutions. What it also means is that if you look deeply enough, you will see a kind of common structure to the problems that confront human societies, despite their enormous variety.

Another example is given by Noam Chomsky. His major contribution to linguistics is that underlying all human language is a common set of syntactical structures, which he argued are natural and not arbitrary or culturally relative. Grammar is not socially constructed. I think the most recent work in psycholinguistics shows that this is in fact true—that the structure of human language is under genetic control. By analogy, I think that this is what goes on in terms of social rules. The deep structures of human societies are shaped by cognitive structures in the brain that are largely invariant from one society to another. But just as human languages can differ enormously in their implementation of these deeper structures, so you have a wide variety of cultural rules.

In your book you talk about the importance of social capital. Can you define it for us and explain why it is important to a functioning society?

Social capital is simply a set of norms or values shared among a group of people that allow them to cooperate with one another. You can think about it as a kind of utilitarian understanding of moral values. The reason that I like using that term is that in public discussions of moral issues, it helps you to get past the moral relativism problem. When you talk about the importance of values, people will immediately say “whose values?” or “who’s to say that one is superior to another?” To acknowledge the importance of social capital is simply to acknowledge that one of the reasons you have values in any culture is that values are what allow people to cooperate with one another, to work together in groups, whether it be in a family or a neighborhood restaurant or a nation-state.

You argue that for contemporary liberal democracies, excessive and unbridled individualism “is perhaps their greatest long-term vulnerability.” Why is that?

Modernity, which was created in the Enlightenment, is based on individualism. You can’t have a modern economic world without having economic individualism. Entrepreneurs strike out, breaking rules inherited from the past. People rise in society based on their own skills rather than accepting the social station they were given at birth. In addition to economic individualism, you also have political individualism of the sort that is built into the Bill of Rights, which defines human rights in terms of individual rights unconstrained by duties to the community. The only time you see any constraints on those individual rights is when they bump up against the individual rights of other people. You can’t have modern democracy or a modern capital society without these principles.

The problem is that there is a kind of inherent logic to individualism that keeps driving toward more and more extreme forms. This leads to a lot of very problematic outcomes. Communities cannot keep homeless people out of the public library because that would be a constraint on the rights of the home less people; individual rights trump community rights. The theory of community in an individualistic society is that you replace what sociologists call “scripted” communities, that is to say, communities that are based on things you can’t do anything about—your race or your ethnicity or, in many societies, your religion—with “voluntary associations,” where people choose their affinities. In an individualistic society, people pick and choose their marriage partners in stead of letting their parents decide who they are going to marry. They choose their jobs. They can often choose their religion now as well. That is fine in theory, but in practice, once people decide that individualism is the name of the game, they carry it to its logical extreme, so that even voluntary communities are incapable of sustaining the social norms that nurture cooperation.

Interestingly, people really hate this situation of normlessness. People are social creatures by instinct; they like to live by rituals and rules, and they like to be connected to neighborhoods, families, and a lot of other things. On the one hand, they prize their individual autonomy, but at the same time, they desire community. This tension is clearly expressed in the contradictory nature of American individualism.

Historically, many expressions of American individualism have actually been very communitarian in a certain sense. You rebel against Rome or an established religion back East and then you go out to Utah or some other place and you set up your own community—one that has tighter rules than the community you left! Is that individualism or is that communitarianism? It is both simultaneously, because even as you are defying existing social rules you are creating new ones in their place.

Can we rebuild social capital in the future?

Sure. One of the problems in the early social capital debate was the idea that it had to be inherited from some traditional source, centuries in the past. If you didn’t have it, you were never going to get it. In fact, social capital is created all the time on a whole variety of different levels. An organization creates an organizational culture—a form of social capital. More broadly, even the hierarchical state can create social capital.

The American public school system, for example, used to take seriously the business of assimilation. My own grandfather emigrated from Japan at the turn of the century, and my father went to public schools in Los Angeles in the twenties and thirties. They made no bones about the fact that you had to Americanize, which meant learning English and wasp kinds of rules of social behavior. The problem is that now we don’t take that role seriously. We think of education as a matter of transmitting skills and knowledge and not a matter of socialization. We have these other trends like bilingualism and multiculturalism, which create unnecessary barriers between ethnic and racial communities. In fact, social capital is something we could be creating, but we are doing a very bad job of it.

Can you tell us a little more about your own background and how it influenced your intellectual development?

My father was a Congregationalist minister, which, of course, is one of the most liberal Protestant denominations. He was also a sociologist. In many ways, I found his position very contradictory. On the one hand, he was full of a kind of Protestant moralism, but he didn’t really believe in religion, and he felt that the Bible was just a kind of made-up story. I remember having a lot of arguments with him about how you can believe in both of these simultaneously. If the rules are made up by people, what gives them their authority?

I think I inherited from him a proclivity for moralism, but also an intellectual fascination with moral issues. It was only later in my career that I began to realize that the question of the source of moral order was not simply an interesting issue but, in a way, one of the most important ones. Religion shapes culture, shapes our moral rules; it has not disappeared from modern technological societies by any stretch of the imagination. In some sense you have to wrestle with questions of religion to answer the fundamental questions about social order.

What do you see as the possible implications of the Great Disruption for religious communities and churches?

I think that the Great Disruption is probably driving religiosity, in a certain sense. I suspect that many people come to religion, not so much because they have been “born again” or have had a conversion experience, but because they face very disorderly lives and they lack any sense of meaningful community. What religion offers them is a set of rules that they can teach their children and order their own lives by. It also gives them access to other people with whom they can share something deeper than you get from relationships in the marketplace or the workplace. That is not, perhaps, the deepest form of religious belief, but realistically, that is really what has driven the “revival” of interest in religion.

It is a utilitarian approach to religion. But once people get involved, they may begin to consider religion’s truth claims, as well.

That has happened in earlier phases in history. A huge religious revival took place in the middle of the nineteenth century, and I think that was driven by a similar reaction to social disorder. The temperance movement was a response to the high rates of alcoholism in the first three decades of the nineteenth century, which disrupted families and produced violence and crime. In a sense, religious revival rode on the back of that reaction against social disorder.

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