SPIRITUAL VALUES AND SOCIOLOGY:
WHEN WE HAVE DEBUNKED EVERYTHING, WHAT THEN?
Charles L. McGehee
Central Washington University
Revised, October, 1980
Sociology is criticized for its preoccupation with debunking social myths. Limitless
debunking leaves students ill-prepared for a world where values are necessary as well as injures
their relations with others and their self-respect. It is argued that sociology must examine
concepts such as honesty, duty, responsibility, generosity, etc., as well as the existence of
consciousness, as necessary elements of an adequate understanding of society. The study of
society may not be separated from the study of the source and purpose of life even if it makes
research difficult, and to fail to seek such an integration is to add to the miseries sociology often
claims to fight.
Index headings: sociology of sociology; values; debunking.
SPIRITUAL VALUES AND SOCIOLOGY:
WHEN WE HAVE DEBUNKED EVERYTHING, WHAT THEN?
Recently I happened to read a book called The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis (1965) as
the result of a quote from it in an article by Thomas Szasz (1974) on the relationship between
psychiatry and criminal law. The point of the quote was to the effect that modern social science is
robbing us of our humanity through debunking human motives and values and substituting for
them "scientific insights" into the "real" nature of man.
Lewis, who, until his death in 1963, was Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature
at Cambridge University, and widely known for his lucid commentary and Christian apologetics,
was concerned that these "scientific insights" have had the effect of turning man into a mere
object of manipulation. For example, such human concepts as revenge, retribution, just deserts,
and even punishment have come to be dismissed as being irrational and primitive in favor of more
"scientific" concepts such as treatment, correction and therapy.
This caught my interest because I have long been uncomfortable with what I have seen to
be the direction of social science in general and my area, sociology, in particular. While sociology
has obviously done a great service through its theory and methods which have enlightened
generations about the nature of society, I have in recent years increasingly been bothered by the
fact that we seem to have accepted the process of debunking human values, motives, accounts,
and systems as the reason for our existence as social scientists. But to what end? I am no longer
sure, if indeed I ever was. Reading Lewis's book helped bring the matter into focus a little better.
In discussing the nature of explanation and the problem of social science which does not
take man seriously, he said the kind of explanation which explains things away may give us
something, though at a heavy cost. you cannot go on "ex- plaining away" forever [for] you will
find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on "seeing through" things
forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good
that the window should be trans- parent, because the street and garden beyond is opaque. How if
you saw through the garden, too? If you see through every- thing, then everything is transparent.
But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To "see through" all things is the same as not
to see. (1965:91) Sociology as a whole, and my department in particular, has prided it- self for its
ability to "see through" things. If you want to know what is "really" going on, just ask a
sociologist; and many students have come to us expecting just that, a new view of the world
because they did not like the old one. As a matter of fact, it may just be that many faculty
members got into sociology for exactly the same reason. So, what have we done to the world in
response? We have torn it up, we have shot it down, we have poked holes in it, we have
debunked it -- we have made it transparent. Making the world transparent is a heady experience.
It gives one a great feeling of power. The story we have to tell is a powerful one, and I am sure
you have heard and probably even told it. It is called, "I know something you don't know." What
we know is this: In the beginning was not the Word, but rather the Deed. Not only is man a
product of his collective deed, his very thoughts about himself are also products of his collective
life. Concepts such as "good" and "evil" are only relative to society, and in any case if the label
"good" or "evil" is placed on something, it is not a characteristic of per- sons but of systems. We
can overcome our own tendencies to label things good or bad by "looking through" them to their
social origins, which, of course, have also been made transparent. Once we have looked through
every- thing, our task, then, becomes clear, for our original motive of "not liking" which got us
into the inquiry in the first place, may now be linked with "something to do", that is, action to
change the society which we have come to see through. (Interestingly, though, the motive of "not
liking" is never debunked as being irrational or socially caused but stands, rather, as a given.
Moreover, our sudden commitment to social change suggests that we never really did believe all
that strongly in total social causation and the irrelevance of concepts such as "good" and "evil",
for now we have become prepared to fight "evil" in the name of "good".)
But, by now college has ended, and the student sets out into this now transparent world
which beckons to be changed.
While the faculty begins again with a new group of students, the graduated student finds
that he must now live in this transparent world. But, he is prepared. He knows, for example, that
there is no such things as a bad boy and that delinquents are the result of labeling or differential
association and are the products of poverty or affluence, injustice, lack of free- dom and adult
rights, and general degradation by adults. He feels sorry for the kids and has sworn to help them
in their struggle for liberation which he now understands. (Curiously enough, though, neither the
kids nor anyone else understands this struggle; it is up to him to explain it to them.)
The next morning after graduation, he awakes to challenge the transparent world only to
find the word "FUCK" painted in black spray paint across the side of his shiny new car, put there,
presumably, by some labeled, differentially associated, poor or affluent victim of injustice and lack
of freedom and adult rights who has been degraded by adults. But suddenly the world is not as
transparent as it used to be. Suddenly a concrete element emerges which was never explained (or
rather was explained away) for him by sociology -- he is experiencing the human state of being
"PISSED OFF". Oh, he knew about frustration and aggression and conflict and deviance and
norms and values and all that. But being "PISSED OFF" has only a remote connection with those
things. Moreover, a whole list of other issues now emerges which never existed in his transparent
world. He quickly finds himself examining the possibilities and means for "WRINGING THE
LITTLE BASTARD'S NECK", a clearly subjective response. He is suddenly concerned with a
deep and thought- provoking analysis of "WHO'S GOING TO PAY FOR IT?", in addition to an
assortment of other practical problems all of which are suddenly punctuated by the assertion, "I'M
GOING TO CALL THE COPS"' Suddenly, the very transparent world has become concrete and
in a way which our friend had not anticipated. Suddenly, all the irrational elements of the world
that he had debunked have become rational. Suddenly, the world he discarded has returned and
once again is made up of genuine good and evil and the desire for revenge and the demand for just
deserts. Suddenly, he finds himself responding to an immediate world, one which will not wait.
And suddenly, he realizes that he has come to understand a world from which he had excluded
himself, a world of which he was a part all along.
What does he do then? Well, after calling the police he might start feeling badly about
himself because he finds that he is incredibly like THEM, the enemy, the oppressors. But, how
else could he have acted? What were the alternatives? He simply does not know. A human world
demands human responses, responses which are appropriate for human existence. Yet, not one
person in social science ever discussed with him what was right, proper, or appropriate. They had
only poked holes in everything. In his transparent world, a world without anything concrete to
guide him, he had only his own feelings of personal pleasure as a guide. In a world of
impermanence, a world of total relativism, he seemed free to choose whatever response suited his
mood or needs at the time, responses which turned out to be totally flexible and yielding. But now
he finds himself using concepts such as deceit, malevolence, and disrespect, as well as honor,
integrity, and duty, concepts which, he had been taught, only have value in oppressing people and
which have no place in a transparent world. Now he finds that even though as standards they may
not always be adhered to, as principles they are not transparent, for now he knows that a world
without a conception of honor, integrity, and duty, or one which tolerates deceit, malevolence and
disrespect, is a world which cannot survive.@* * *
The point I am trying to make here is that we take great pains to strip away the facades,
the myths, and illusions about society which frequently serve vested interests, but in so doing we
frequently destroy students' lives in that they, as persons, are left not only with nothing of value,
they also are unprepared to deal with the world as it is. Whereas they frequently enjoyed life and
its myths before sociology, now they may have come to hate people because people will not let
them, the sociologists, understand, help, and make them as "happy" as they, the sociologists, are.
Whereas they used to sympathize with people before sociology, now they may become
contemptuous when they find that people have their own ideas about the world which frequently
differ from those of the sociologists. And whereas they had self-confidence and liked themselves
before sociology, now they may have become insecure and filled with self-contempt, for they have
found that the world does not believe it owes them a living and that in order to survive, they must
take a job which they believe is beneath them and irrelevant. What is worse, the job they must
take is undeniably PART OF THE SYSTEM which they understand so totally, see through to
clearly, and loathe so thoroughly. Any student, incidently, who has not been so affected is likely
to be judged as not having learned his sociology well, or likely to have discarded much of what he
Is this all unavoidable -- simply an occupational hazard -- or have we as social scientists done
something wrong? Well, Ido not believe that it is unavoidable, and I do believe that we have done
something wrong. In my opinion, the problem lies in our total attention to analyzing what was, is,
and ought to be in a factual sense while ignoring what was, is, and ought to be in a principled
sense. The difference here is between merely describing the world objectively and making value
judgements concerning appropriateness of conduct in that world. While there can be no more
doubt as to the value of debunking than there can be as to the value of window cleaning, at some
point we must be prepared to stop debunking and to assert that there are fundamental principles
which must guide human behavior and that this is the end of the line, the place where challenges
to reality stop, for there is no more life if we destroy these principles. We must be prepared to
take the position that the final step of an analysis is different from all of the proceeding ones, and
by taking the final step we will destroy all that we have gained (Lewis, 1965:91). And we must be
prepared to discuss and defend these fundamental principles regardless of how archaic they may
seem or whether they have ever been adhered to or used for evil ends. It may well be that such
fundamental principles must be studied, clarified, and examined, for if sociology has not been able
to talk about them, neither have many others. Indeed sociology may ultimately be able to render a
service greater than anything it has yet done if only it would start to examine such principles, not
as mere social phenomena, but as the substance of human life itself, that in which we all are
involved and of which we all are a part.
What are these fundamental principles? It is here that the title question of "spiritual values"
enters. However, in using the term "spiritual values" let me hasten to point out that I do not
believe the issues involved are necessarily linked to religion, but rather are human universals
present in all societies, though perhaps expressed differently. Generally they are concerned with
the principle of denial of self-interest in favor of the interests of others. They are also concerned
with the idea of personal responsibility vis-a-vis others and the right of others to expect
reasonable behavior from individuals which is not self-serving. At the same time they involve an
understanding and acceptance of inherent weaknesses in humans. In short, they involve such
concepts as courtesy, respect, consideration, honesty, integrity, loyalty, fidelity, charity, duty,
responsibility, accountability, appropriateness, and desert, to name a few.
To be sure, raising the question of fundamental principles raises the specter of totalitarian
government where there is but one fundamental set of principles -- the State 's. That may well be
the case and, as such, must be dealt with in its own right. But not to raise the question is to raise
the specter of scientific totalitarianism where, under the claim of relativism or objectivism, lies
hidden a set of fundamental principles known only to and reflecting the values of the scientists.
Operant conditioning theory, remember, explains well the behavior of the mouse in the
Skinner-box while ignoring that of the creator of the experiment.
Notice that the list of fundamental principles does not include either freedom or
individuality. On the contrary, they seem to emphasize lack of freedom and lack of individuality. If
freedom and individuality are to be interpreted as "look at me, I'm important", then they are
indeed lacking. What is being called for is "look at him, her, and them -- they are important" a
principle which, if adhered to, would produce freedom, individuality, democracy, and personal
acknowledgment as a necessary outcome.
Sociologists have known this for a long time. Indeed it is at the heart of most of our
theories. Marx and Durkheim, to name two, both pointed to the relationship between the pursuit
of individualism and the state of modern society. As modern social scientists, however, our
response to what we know to be the case seems to be to generate more of the same. To the extent
that egoism, anomie, and alienation can be said to reflect a lack of "given- ness" of values in a
society, and consequently describe a state wherein a person's own values and passions come to
reign, then perhaps sociology may be said to be contributing to those very phenomena it so long
has described and presumably deplored.
This is not a plea for morality as-such. Certainly I am not in a position to plead for
anyone's morality; I have enough problems dealing with my own. It is a plea, rather, to consider
the study of man to be more than the gathering of data and building of theories that merely explain
and explain away man. It is a plea to begin the serious discussion of the values that man ought to
have as the substance of his life and to abandon the sterile discussion of values as social facts
which have no more purpose than to serve as so many balloons to be popped by our intellectual
darts. It is a plea to cease regarding man as the object of life and to begin to regard him as the
subject of life.
In losing contact with spiritual values, which is to say fundamental principles, man first
began to lose his humanity to the system which he created; now he is losing it to the intellectuals
who study him. We must help him regain it, and I think we can. A place to begin is with our
students who will all ultimately come to deal with Man in his state of diminished humanity.
Let me give you an example of how the problem appears in the area of corrections and
what students now encounter when they enter the field. It has been noted recently by persons
studying criminality (Yochelson and Samenow, 1976) that the only thing wrong with criminals is a
lack of morality and principles. Criminologists have been inclined to snicker at these men, but
perhaps they are right. The current study of corrections is essentially concerned with the analysis
of an informational model wherein the offender is to be informed of the nature of his act, why it is
wrong, and what he should do in order to act appropriately. That may sound alright from an
intellectual point of view, but the difficulty comes when teaching a prospective correctional officer
just what he is supposed to tell an offender in that regard. The argument that the offender must
decide for himself what is right, simply will not "wash", since that is precisely what got him into
trouble in the first place. Merely telling him not to get caught is no good either, since than only
encourages him to be more clever, not less harmful. Moreover, education and job training, more
often than not, merely, provide the possibility for a new setting, financing, and legitimation for
continuing offenses. The argument that the act should not be done because it is wrong may be to
the point, but a correctional officer who says that will quickly find himself in difficulty with the
offender, as well as with himself, because he, the correctional officer, and most in the society may
well be doing the very same thing. To tell a person to think of others when everyone else,
including the counselor, is thinking of himself, is patently ridiculous. And it helps not one whit to
point out that "that is the nature of our system".
While it is necessary that our students learn to develop systematic analyses of social
structures and processes, that alone is not sufficient. Perhaps the most important role we as
sociologists have to play in the life of a student, and hence in the re-establishment of man's
humanity, must be in dealing with the problems of his own spiritual needs such that he knows
what is necessary for truly human existence and that when he speaks to others he speaks from
conviction and the honest attempt to live those values expressed. In the absence of that, the
student we send out, whether he be a correctional officer, businessman, or even a parent, will
quickly find that the informational model will not work because he is incapable of supplying the
necessary information. If he finds himself in a position of authority, he, therefore, will likely resort
to the punishment model -- the substitution for pain for information -- in order to accomplish his
end, for pain cannot be argued with. Thus our failure to deal with the question of fundamental
values in life is most surely linked directly with the increased misery of man.
Up to this point the argument has been couched in terms of a set of fundamental principles
which derive from man's social condition, the pursuit of which have survival value. They seem to
be functional prerequisites. But while this may be true, I am no longer convinced that the issue
can rest there, for if these values exist only for the perpetuation of society, they exist only for
themselves. If that be the case, then, to follow them is merely practical and not right, and if a
person chooses hot to follow them, that is his prerogative, subject only to receiving the expected
con- sequences from others who may have been offended. But all of the concepts mentioned carry
with them the notion of obligation and not merely expediency or practicality. Perhaps the key to
understanding this lies in the recognition that acceptance or rejection of obligation is not a
function of a merely sensory organization of protoplasm; it is the response of consciousness, the
capacity to be aware, to will, and to intend.
Of all human characteristics, that of consciousness seems to be the most difficult for social
science to deal with. Theories of language, self, identity, and personality all toy with the concept.
The best they can seem to do, however, is to deal with the development of the content of
conscious ness, but not the fact of consciousness. Language, for example, may give consciousness
structure, but it cannot account for the existence of the capacity or the will to utilize language.
Whatever may be involved here underlies the principles of which I have spoken and transforms
them from being mere rules of "social insurance" into something more -- perhaps the reason for
life itself and the source of obligation.
If at this point we must speak in terms of God, or a Devine Being, of the Source of
Consciousness, or whatever, sobeit. The point is that sociology can no longer avoid the issue
merely by pointing to the abuses of those who have used the terms for their own self-centered
ends. If nothing else, recent studies of death and dying raise questions about the independence of
consciousness from the physical body as well as from social situations, questions which cannot be
dismissed simply because they are distasteful to our "scientific" mentality. The relationship of the
existence of consciousness to the question of fundamental principles must also come to be
analyzed by sociology, for if the study of man is truly intended to under- stand him, then it must
seek to understand all of him, not merely that which is most conveniently or easily observed.
Alexander Pope once said, "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, the proper study
of mankind is man." My mentors and I have always taken this mandate at face value. But it may
be that it is, after all, not possible, for it may be that the study of ourselves and the study of God,
and all that implies, are inseparable. I do not believe that students are any longer satisfied with
debunking which seems to be an end in itself, nor do I believe that they are well prepared to live in
the world, if that is all that sociology has provided them. While I do not detect the presence of the
principles I have mentioned in the lives of many students today, I do fancy that I detect a certain
longing for something to fill the void that many are experiencing, and that "something" may be a
conception of a reason, purpose, and direction of life other than the pursuit of material wants and
physical pleasure. If this be the case, then our task is clear and our work is cut out for us. The
study of mankind may not yet even have begun.
Lewis, C. S. 1965 The Abolition of Man. New York: McMillan.
Szasz, Thomas 1974 "Crime, Punishment, and Psychiatry" in Current Perspectives on
Criminal Behavior by Abraham S. Blumberg (ed.) New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Yochelson, Samuel and Stanton E. Samenow 1976 The Criminal Personality, v. I. New
York: Jason Arenson.
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