Divided Loyalties

Negotiating between multiple moralities

 For a theoretical background to this page, please review Spiritual Authority: Modernity: Change in the Social Glue and the Weakening of Religion.

For the purpose of discussion, Durkheim assumed in his discussion on the collective consciousness that individuals belong to only one society. However, he acknowledges that the truth of the matter is that individuals belong to multiple societies, and are thus constrained by and responsive to multiple collective consciousnesses.

We are Members of Multiple Socities

Durkheim (1984:61) states:

Two conciousnesses exist within us: the one comprises only states that are personal to each one of us, characteristic of us as individuals, whilst the other comprises only states that are common to the whole of society. [Footnote follows:] In order to simplify our exposition we assume that the individual belongs to only one society. In fact we form a part of several groups and there exist in us several collective consciousnesses…."

Thus as individuals we exist in several normative systems or moral realms. Mechanical solidarity continues to exist within the context of organic solidarity in multiple groups. Each exercise a measure of moral authority over its members.

Examples: Occupational Groups & Political Entities

One of the clearest statements of Durkheim’s belief in multiple moralities comes in his discussion of occupational groups. Durkheim (1958:62) states, "in a great society there are always particular local or professional interests which tend naturally to bring together these people with whom they are concerned." Different occupations have different moralities. He (1958:5) writes:

…there are as many forms of morals as there are different callings, and since, in theory, each individual carries only one calling, the result is that these different forms of morals apply to entirely different groups of individuals. These differences may even go so far as to present a clear contrast. Of these morals, not only is one kind distinct from the other, but between some kinds there is real opposition.

Concentrating on professions, Durkheim (1958:7) asserts that "the ethics of each profession are localized within a limited region. Thus, centres of a moral life are formed which, although bound up together, are distinct, and the differentiation in function amounts to a kind of moral polymorphism."

Durkheim (1958:47) again applies the concept of multiple moralities in his discussion of political societies. Every political society has within it a number of more "elementary" societies, making society "polycellular and polysemental."

Mulitple Moralities Recognized by Other Researchers

Hall (1993:26) accentuates the multiple moralities of individuals evident in Durkheim’s work in saying:

Since morality, according to Durkheim, is generated by human interaction, a diversity of norms, values and ideals develops not only between societies but within the same society. Since a society has different natural and associational groups with individuals filling appropriate roles, different sets of moral norms are generated. Morality differs according to sex…, age, social status, occupation, religious status and any number of other distinctions.

Although Hall comes close to equating norms with morality, it is clear that Hall found evidence that individuals were responsible to multiple normative systems. Hall (1993:46) suggests that Durkheim took over these ideas from Wundt in asserting that "different social groups generate their own sets of moral norms, values and ideals."

The notion of multiple moralities is again reflected by Zygmunt Bauman (1993) in describing contemporary postmodern ethics. He (1993:20) writes about the "pluralism of rules" and states:

…there are too many rules for comfort: they speak in different voices, one praising what the other condemns. They clash and contradict each other, each claiming the authority the others deny. […] After all, it is each one of us on his or her own who has to decide which of the conflicting rules to obey and which to disregard. The choice is not between following the rules and breaking them, as there is no one set of rules to be obeyed or breached. The choice is, rather, between different sets of rules and different authorities preaching them.

Permeable Boundaries and Strengthened Individuality

Durkheim points out that as mechanical solidarity recedes and organic solidarity emerges, the interpenetration of moral environments create permeable boundaries. Durkheim brings in the metaphor of someone in a small town. The small town does not have exclusive claim on that person because life extends farther than the small town and the individuals interests and aspirations go well beyond it. As Durkheim (1984:136) states:

The partitions that separate the various cells of social life, being less thick, are breached more often. Their permeability increases the more they are penetrated. Consequently they lose their consistency and gradually collapse, and to the same extent environments become mingled together.

The mobility of individuals between each areas weakens all of them. In a narrow scope, the ease of mobility between churches and/or denominations weakens the traditional and normative hold of all. Durkheim even suggests that migration of individuals over a lifetime also weakens the normative hold of any individual in any context. He (1984:332-333) writes:

As evolution advances, the bonds that attach the individual to his family, to his native heath, to the traditions that the past has bequeathed him, to the collective practices of the group—all these become loosened. Being more mobile, the individual changes his environment more easily, leaves his own people to go and live a more autonomous life elsewhere, works out for himself his ideas and sentiments.

Individuals gain greater freedom from collective scrutiny as the population increases and geographic mobility heightens. The rapid migration of people accelerated in the last century then becomes a significant factor in the weaker sense of obligation, duty or obedience to any normative organization by individuals today.


In organic solidarity, individuals are members of multiple groups and thus subject to multiple normative systems. The question becomes: who wins when conflict occurs? How are moral incompatibilities resolved? Undoubtedly, normative organizations utilize tactics for resolving moral conflicts by examining a blatant incompatibility of moralities in the process of exercising authority, e.g. church discipline. Here we see a conflict between an individual and church authorities regarding an element of conduct.

No doubt, when conflicts arise, there come a questioning of moral standards, faith and tradition. The decay is chronicled by Durkheim (1984:232):

At the beginning certain articles of faith are stipulated to be beyond discussion, but later discussion extends to them. There is a desire to account for the, the reason for their existence is questioned, and however they fare in this examination, they relinquish some part of their strength.

The questioning, discussion and explanation that arises out of conflicts weakens the strength of that mechanical solidarity.

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This page created on October 25, 1996.
Most recent revision was October 25, 1996.
Copyright 1996 Gerardo Marti
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