Introduction to Robert N. Bellah

Ethical Perspectives 5 (2):89-91 (1998)
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In the field of the social sciences, there exists an old and ongoing debate, circling around the question if social scientists should be concerned with the study of society, or rather with the search for the good society. Should they limit their role to the value neutral observation of social phenomena, or should they allow themselves to become fully involved in the quest for the normative conditions of the best possible society? And should they pursue the project of building a grand theory, or rather agree to become practical, moving into the tricky areas of social work, moral education and politics?Today we will not try to solve this old dispute. I only want to refer to it because today’s speaker, Professor Robert Bellah, is a clear proponent of the second alternative, of understanding social science as a moral inquiry. Sociology, in his understanding is a moral science, as it implies a practical exercise: it provides a critical observation and reflection on the structural and cultural conditions of the concrete societal projects we are engaged in as members and citizens. How can our society become and remain independent? How can it be just and fair to all its members? How can it remain innovative and democratic, true to its traditions and open to newcomers?These are core issues of sociology as a moral and humanistic discipline. In trying to answer those questions, we are standing in a long tradition, reaching back to Aristotle, including the classics of modern times, Machiavelli and Hobbes, Marx and Tocqueville, as well as the founding fathers of contemporary sociology, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber



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