Against Functionalism

I want to isolate one issue in Dan’s most recent post on whether there’s hope for marriage. The larger issues are important and we’ll get to them in due course. But I think Dan has made a pretty key mistake that needs to be addressed before we carry the broader conversation further.

In social science, the mistake that I have in mind is known as “functionalism.” This is a method for explaining human behavior that was fashionable for a short period but is now generally recognized as a fallacy.

Functionalism assumes that the true meaning of human behavior is unrelated to the subjective experience of the one engaging in the behavior. My thoughts, my feelings, my understanding of what I’m doing, my motivation for doing it – all are treated as irrelevant to the question of what my behavior is really all about. Only the actual impact of my behavior is relevant.

So, for example, when explaining the significance of a social ritual (say, a rain dance) the functionalist disregards what the people carrying out the ritual believe they are doing (summoning the gods to make it rain) and looks only at the practical impact (reinforcement of the tribe’s social solidarity, transfer of wealth to the rainmaker). The reductio ad absurdum of functionalism can be seen in the old joke about the Martian who observes our world and concludes that dogs rule the Earth and humans are their slaves, because we follow them around all day picking up their poop.

Functionalism fails because it cannot account for the behavior it describes. The tribe would not do the rain dance if they didn’t believe it made rain.

Functionalism is particularly destructive to practical application. If all you want to do is describe the tribe, you can get away with a functionalist account, although it will be inferior to an alternative account that includes the subjective. But if you want to influence the behavior of the tribe, you had better know not just what the rain dance does but why they do it.

Speaking of America’s elite cultural institutions, Dan writes:

They do not see the well-being of women, children, the poor, and minorities as ends in themselves.  In fact, most often they seem to be little more than sacramental obeisances…

Let’s try out a sample conflict:  Radical Islam.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, knows that the radical thread of Islam oppresses women in unspeakable ways.  That includes these institutions.  But instead of chasing this misogynist theology to ground, they have been in full-throated defense ever since 2001.  Why?  Because finding fault with America rates so much higher on their priority list…

The poor?  Compare and contrast the wealth-creating track record of socialism and capitalism, then compare America’s poor to those of the rest of the world.  Which system do these institutions champion?  The one trapping more people in poverty, of course.  Children?  We all know that abortion kills them; even those conducting the procedures and their defenders know.  But, to these institutions, sexual libertinism is more important than a child’s life.  Or even millions of them.

I’ll leave aside the implied libel against the sacraments in the phrase “sacramental obeisances” and stick to the political questions.

I agree that our institutions are promoting policies and priorities destructive to the ends they purport to uphold. Does Dan think they do so intentionally? That seems to be the implication of both his word choices and his substantive position. But is this plausible?

Or is the real problem that our side is so sociologically incompetent that we are unable to effectively demonstrate the failure of the policies and hold our institutions accountable for results?

A final note. There’s a fascinating new group blog out there that Dan should really check out. Here’s a quote from its vision statement:

We have seen some of our fellow conservatives identify the success of conservatism with the success of America, such that progressives are viewed as alien to the polity rather than fellow Americans with whom we disagree; we will not go that way.

Words worth contemplating.

8 Thoughts.

  1. Now, now, let’s not get testy. I didn’t libel sacraments. When I described others’ behaviour as sacramental obeisances, it was to distinguish it from the thing the obeisances are meant to revere. The purpose was to acknowledge they believe the well-being of those groups is important, just not as important as their higher priorities.

    And I didn’t say our institutions are pursuing certain policies with the intent of being destructive. I used those examples to illustrate that, although those things cause problems, the higher priorities they are pursuing prevent them from addressing those harms. That doesn’t make them alien. It just means we don’t have the same priorities. We can acknowledge that and still be true to our vision statement, yes?

    I agree with you with respect to functionalism, but I think you’re missing the point. The question is not whether you can adequately describe a person or his behaviour through a functional analysis. The question is what part of the person or his behaviour may the state address. And yes, that is pretty well summed up by a functional analysis. That’s not an error, its a recognition of the jurisdictional limitations on our right to exercise coercion with respect to a co-equal human.

    That’s not really a remarkable observation, is it? The state will never comprehend all that we are as human beings. Nor should it. My fellow Americans have no right to force me to believe what they believe – on anything, be it metaphysical or otherwise. Nor do they have the right to force me to value things as they do. They may only exercise coercion over that segment of me that interferes with their rights.

    The state does not exist to make me a good person, bring me to moral entelechy, or define me in all my metaphysical attributes. It exists to prevent me from depriving someone else of his rights, and protect me from the same. If we ask it to do more, we ask for too much. And not just too much, we ask for something it should not, and cannot, do.

    But that’s okay. That’s why we have the rest of society, with all its little platoons — friendships, marriage, church, benevolent organizations, et cetera.

  2. Dan’s reply to Greg Forster’s post is, it seems to me, entirely correct.

    As a human being, I have an intrinsic worth that is an inseparable part of my humanness. That intrinsic worth is also an inseparable part of every other human being, past, present, and future. Whether one chooses to describe that intrinsic worth as having been instilled in humanity by a Judeo/Christian God (my personal belief–but I have no right to impose that belief on another) or by nature (hence the term natural right), the result is the same.

    That intrinsic human worth gives me the right to do as I wish with myself and my property, and imposes on me the obligation to exercise my right only to the extent that my doing so does not infringe the same right of another. Since no other person has a right to impose upon me or infringe my rights, and since I have no right to do the same to another, neither does the state have any right to do what another person may not.

    The state may neither compel nor restrain me, except and only to the extent that my action infringes on another’s right to person, property, and freedom of action. The state’s one and only function is to protect me from others and others from me. It is the extent to which that protection may go that is the true source of much of the debate about the role of government. What should be very clear, however, is that the state can have no legitimate role in protecting me from myself.

    I own me, the government does not. As my self-owner, I have an inherent inalienable right to do with, to, and for myself whatever I want–again with the caveat that my doing so cannot infringe upon the same rights of another.

    The state cannot, should not, and must not try to legislate morality. When it does, it steps beyond the bounds set for it by our Constitution’s First Amendment, and ventures into territory that will inevitably lead to a dark night of terror for its citizens. I believe it is our individual moral obligation to ensure that our government does not cross that line–but I will not try to force you.

    • “What should be very clear, however, is that the state can have no legitimate role in protecting me from myself.”

      What about suicide? Do we then have a legal right to kill ourselves?

      • Kyle Ferguson asks, “What about suicide? Do we then have a legal right to kill ourselves?”

        A legal right? In short, yes.

        I want anyone who reads this to understand, however, that by saying we have a legal right to commit suicide, I am NOT saying that I think people should kill themselves, nor am I saying that I personally believe there is no moral imperative against taking one’s own life.

        What I AM saying is that the state has no right to interfere with my decision. Passing a law against suicide is the ultimate exercise in futility. For any other law the trespass of which may lead to punishment meted out by our judicial system, the law dispenses justice against the successful perpetrator, and sometimes against those who are unsuccessful in their criminal activity. It may even be that the threat of punishment deters some who otherwise would turn to crime.

        But it strains credulity to believe that a person contemplating suicide will refrain from an attempt because the attempt is illegal. What punishment could be meted out to those who successfully kill themselves? Whether they are forgiven, or are held to account for their act, is beyond the capability of mortal man to determine this side of death.

        What about the person who commits suicide by blowing up a bomb in a crowded marketplace, or on a city street, and takes the lives of innocent people? Rather than suicide, such a person has committed an act that infringes on the most basic and important of human rights of those others who are killed–their right to life.

    • Should government make laws for (sorry, no better term) stupid people, such as teenagers who will take drugs and abuse alcohol if it were legal? Or, are you suggesting that this idea of a legal right to do what I want that does not hurt anyone else is for adults only?

      • The right and the power to prevent minors from engaging in self destructive behavior rests with their parents, or if their parents have died or have otherwise become legally or physically absent from a minor’s life, their legal guardian. It does not rest with the state.

        I submit that the state’s usurpation of both the parents’ rights AND the parents’ responsibilities is a major, though not the only, cause of the breakdown of families and the moral degeneration of a significant portion of our youth. The state is not a parent, cannot replace a parent’s role in the upbringing and socialization of a child, cannot instill in a child a sense of selfworth, cannot provide the child with a sense of the difference between right and wrong.

        The state cannot do so because it is distant, amorphous, and cold. A parent is present, distinct, and passionate. A child, even an infant, can relate to and draw lessons from the actions of a parent, it cannot do so from the actions and pronouncements of the state. The state is a social construct, a parent is a fellow human being. A child may look into the eyes of a parent, recognize a parent’s face or voice, feel a parent’s touch. It can have no such interaction with the state.

        Having brought a child into the world, it is a parent’s responsibility to provide the child with its physical needs, e.g., food, shelter, and clothing. It is also the parent’s responsibility to provide for the child’s emotional and psychological needs by giving it love and treating it with respect, by instilling in the child a strong sense of self worth, by educating the child so that it can support itself as an adult, and by providing it with moral instruction.

        All of these are the parent’s responsibility, not society’s and not the state’s. When the state intervenes between a child and its parents, save only when the parent is a direct and imminent threat to the wellbeing of the child, the state engages in activities for which there is no sanction in natural law, and exercises power not delegated to it by our Constitution.

  3. Pingback: Ain’t No Functionalism Here | Hang Together

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