Emile Durkheim created the basis for the study of sociology as an academic field and structural functionalism theory. He sought to differentiate sociology as a science separate from psychology or biology, although his theory delves into the motivations of individuals and society. Durkheim’s work influenced theorists such as Talcott Parsons and rational choice theory became a direct challenge to the emphasis on the collective.

Society is sui generis relates to several different concepts, such as the system (society as a collective versus individuals) and how norms affects each level. The literal definition means “unique” and supports how cultures have fundamental differences in moral values and norms, such as suicide rates or religion. Social facts shape society through socialization and education, creating a collective conscience. Their impact on individuals, however, is often unconscious and helps control undesirable behavior (“anomie”).  He also examined the tension in societies from the division of labor, identified as mechanical (where needs of the many outweigh the few) versus organic (promoting individualism) solidarity (creation of social bonds). Frank Elwell described the difference between the question asked as “is this decision moral?” versus “how would this decision benefit me?”

Moral machines become an example of the uniqueness of cultures within society as well as the individual’s assimilation into a culture’s shared values. While rational choice theory clearly benefits the individual in a prisoner’s dilemma, Durkheim’s world is more and less predictable. If the cultural norms dictate one outcome, individuals presumably would choose the same choice because they have internalized the same collective values and morality. However, Durkheim allowed for a disconnect between individuals and society that causes individuals to be detached enough from the collective to make a different choice. MIT’s Moral Machine project attempts to collect perspectives on how people would choose to act based on two terrible scenarios. For example, the technology of self-driving cars requires programming that might present a scenario that involves protecting its occupant or a pedestrian. What if the pedestrian is a mother with a baby in a stroller? Should the software value two lives over one? Or babies/children over adults?

Several major assumptions made seems to be about the level of culture and possibility of interaction between cultures. Families may have unique traditions (especially around the holidays), which many other families might share, but what level of commonness becomes a collective level of culture rather than more “individual” (if we count each family as an individual unit. Social facts must be considered in an objective context, however, the emphasis on morality does not have ethical implications other than what the culture collective accepts. Eating dogs as meat might exist as a norm in one culture, but horrifying in another. Eating any meat might disturb vegans who choose to avoid animal products, but is generally accepted by the majority, so the practice of cultivating animals for food continues as a robust industry.

Also, what happens when multiple cultures intersect, especially along international borders or diverse areas (such as Washington DC)? If we always exist as members of multiple groups, what happens when they conflict? For example, Democrats tend to support pro-choice legislation and side against the death penalty. Republicans tend towards the opposite and Independents claim to choose based on candidate or particular issues. “American politics” presents a neat label on this messy situation and rational choice theory starts making more sense. Durkheimian theory may not have room for “universal truths” or anything that claims to span every culture. In addition, what happens when enough deviance and anomie dominate a society? Durkheim accepted some amount of crime as a test for society to reaffirm its values. The rise of individualism logically leads to a change within society, which may become popularized into becoming accepted collectively and perhaps restarting the cycle?




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