Theory & Science (2002)

ISSN: 1527-5558

Seeking Social Grounds for Social Psychology

Edwin E. Gantt
Brigham Young University

Richard N. Williams
Brigham Young University


This paper argues that contemporary social psychological theory and method, as manifest in the mainstream of the discipline, necessarily renders an account of human nature that is fundamentally individual and non-social. The consequence of this theoretical position is that social psychology is not genuinely or importantly social psychology at all. We argue further that as long as social psychological theory is not grounded in understandings of ourselves that are inherently social and meaningful, it will be unable to provide for a discourse about human sociality faithful to our own experience of ourselves as moral and meaning-making beings. To illustrate the central problem of social psychology, the paper discusses contemporary and traditional research and theorizing in altruism, concentrating particularly on well-known work in bystander intervention. We conclude that contemporary work in this area fails to adequately capture either the phenomenon or its social nature. An alternative grounding for social psychological theory and research is offered from the work of the French phenomenologist, Emmanuel Levinas. This perspective shows that the social is not derivative from the individual nor from an aspect of individual rationality. Rather the innately social is grounded in the innately ethical obligation which forms the foundation for all human social behavior.

Seeking Social Grounds for Social Psychology

Within the broad field of contemporary psychology, social psychology long ago carved out an identity based on its taking particular account of the human social world and the influences on behavior that derive from our participation in it. According to Gordon Allport (1954), for example, social psychology is best defined as the discipline that uses scientific methods in “an attempt to understand and explain how the thought, feeling and behavior of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of other human beings” (p. 5). This definitional statement has enjoyed general agreement among social psychologists for nearly half a century. Indeed, Allport’s definition has become something of a staple in social psychology textbooks (cf., Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 1997; Brehm & Kassin, 1996; Feldman, 1995; Franzoi, 1996; Tesser, 1995).

We are aware of the obvious fact that social psychology is, at present, a theoretically diverse intellectual enterprise. In recent years a number of so-called “postmodern” perspectives (e.g., social constructionist, deconstructionist, ethnographic, critical theory, and symbolic interactionist) have found their way into the discipline and its literature. Some of the analysis and criticisms we make here of “social psychology” do not apply to all or, perhaps, any of these alternative perspectives. Rather our analysis is directed primarily to what appears still to be the mainstream of the discipline, judging from, and as represented in, the leading journals and textbooks of the field. It is this historically cohesive body of work that most directly descends from and relies upon Allport’s definitional work.

Despite the fact that Allport’s definition of social psychology has been widely adopted in contemporary psychology, we will argue that it reveals a deeply problematic theoretical misconception of the nature of human activity and social existence. Our intent in citing Professor Allport here, however, is not so much to hold him posthumously responsible for this misconceptualization, nor to make him a sinner for a word. Rather, it is to provide a reasonable point of departure for a critical discussion of some of the foundational assumptions of the field of social psychology. In particular, we wish to argue that contemporary social psychology, at least as understood in the mainstream, is not really social psychology at all. It is, rather, more straightforwardly a branch of general experimental psychology.

The inescapable result of this sort of theoretical and methodological commitment is, we will argue, that human social action comes to be seen as derivative of what are fundamentally individual, non-social phenomena (i.e., internal/external causal variables). Furthermore, we will argue that as long as social psychological theory is not grounded in the inherently social and meaningful, it will be unable to provide for a genuinely moral discourse about human sociality. By way of an alternative grounding for social psychological theory and research—an alternative that begins by articulating the congenitally ethical nature of human existence—we will briefly examine the work of the French phenomenologist, Emmanuel Levinas. We believe that this alternative provides the proper grounding for a genuinely social psychology, and helps us get the right questions in place at the beginning of social psychological investigation. Doing this will give these questions their proper place in social psychological explanation. Such a grounding will, then, make social psychology, in both theory and practice, more discernibly congruent with our lived experience as social and moral beings.

The Non-Social Nature of Social Psychology

Modernist Epistemology and the Focus on Individuals

It is clear from Allport’s statement that the principal focus of social psychology is to be the individual. Shaver (1987) has stated that social psychology is “the scientific study of the personal and situational factors that affect individual social behavior” (p. 18; our emphasis). Likewise, Stanley Milgram (1992) characterized his own work as “a social psychology of the reactive individual, the recipient of forces and pressures emanating from outside oneself” (p. xix). And, more recently, in one widely used textbook, Baron and Byrne (2000) state that “the focus, in social psychology, is squarely on individuals” and that “the field’s major interest lies in understanding the factors that shape the actions and thoughts of individual humans in social settings” (p. 9). Obviously, such accounts consider the individual to be the central and appropriate unit of analysis for social psychological theorizing and model building. Indeed, it is this focus that sets social psychology apart, in the minds of many social psychologists, from other social science disciplines, such as sociology, anthropology, political science, and history (see Baron & Byrne, 2000; Franzoi, 1996; Shaver, 1987). This assumption—that fundamental to being a human being is being an individual—is not a unique feature of contemporary social psychology. It is, rather, a pervasive assumption throughout the mainstream of the Western intellectual tradition, and has been for the last several hundred years (cf., Taylor, 1989). Indeed, our current understanding of individuality was first developed in the late Medieval Period, and later solidified in post-Cartesian philosophy (see Faulconer & Williams, 1990; Solomon, 1988). As Robert N. Bellah and his associates (1985) have stated, “Modern individualism emerged out of the struggle against monarchical and aristocratic authority that seemed arbitrary and oppressive to citizens prepared to assert the right to govern themselves” (p. 142).

As evidenced in the works of such Enlightenment thinkers as René Descartes (1637/1993), Benedict de Spinoza (1677/1974), John Locke (1690/1975), David Hume (1739-40/1969), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762/1979), and Immanuel Kant (1781/1990), one of the fundamental ways in which Modern thought is distinguished from ancient and medieval thought on the one hand, and postmodern thought on the other, is the emphasis given to the fundamental distinction between the subjective world of the individual person and the objective, external world of nature. However much the distinction may have been originally put forward for epistemological or analytical purposes in the writings of these thinkers, in subsequent centuries, including our own, the distinction has been afforded ontological status. While it is intuitively obvious that thoughts (or ideas) and the things of the world do not necessarily coincide, that they are not of the same ontological category, we should nonetheless exercise caution in drawing inferences about the nature of the intercourse between these two realms, and about the implications of this ontological distinction for the nature and origin of knowledge.

The consequence of the subject/object distinction for our understanding of knowledge and of other persons is two-fold. First, the individual is understood to be “over against” the external (objective) world. Knowing is problematized, in that either the world must somehow be brought into the mind, or the mind must somehow grasp and structure a world seemingly independent of it. Second, the individual mind becomes the center and point of origination of knowledge. As such, it can, obviously, know best its own contents and operations, and ultimately, only such contents and operations can be known with certainty. Because of this, each mind is understood to be private and internal, fundamentally isolated from other minds. Other persons can be known only as, and insofar as, they can be brought into the mind by some process of representation. We do not know persons directly, but merely our own ideas of persons. However, because any individual mind is cut off from direct acquaintance with what is to be represented, because the other person also exists as profound subjectivity, the process of representation is always, at worst, in principle inadequate, and at best, always in question. That is, our knowledge of another person is, in some way, a guess or an assumption made based on our own subjectivity. But, we are never confident that our own assumptions are good, and thus we are never entirely confident of the other person nor of the nature and quality of our interpersonal relationships.

From the beginning of the modern period to the present, then, the individual has been taken to be either (a) the site of sensory receptivity and reflection (e.g., empiricism) or (b) the source of meaning-giving and conceptual organization of what would otherwise be meaningless sensory experience (e.g., rationalism). Despite the differences inherent in these two epistemological positions there is a shared commitment to the primacy of the individual as individual; a commitment that is still very much alive in contemporary social psychology.

If, however, individuality is fundamental to human existence, then one’s relation to others—i.e., one’s sociality—must be seen to arise out of this very individuality. The modernist self “looks out on” other persons from the primordial giveness of private, individual consciousness and the categories of thought and understanding such consciousness makes available. Sociality must be seen to be constructed by individuals out of what is available to them (i.e., their own private experience). We are here led to ask the question of the origins of the motivation to construct sociality, or to enter into social relationships, given our essential status as individuals. Since the answer to this question must also be grounded in individualism, we are led to individualistic answers. Thus it is assumed, because it seems so obvious, that the grounding motivation for sociality is some sort of hedonistic instrumentality (cf., Richardson, Fowers, & Guignon, 1999). As Bellah, et al. (1985) point out, “The individual is prior to society, which comes into existence only through the voluntary contract of individuals trying to maximize their own self-interest” (p. 143). In this case, however, sociality must also be seen as essentially epiphenomenal, or, at least, conceptually parasitic on the private, individual self.

Individuals as Influenced

Social psychology as portrayed by Allport and others is particularly interested in explaining “how . . . individuals are influenced. . .” by others. “Influence” is most often taken by social psychologists in a rather traditional efficient-causal sense (cf., Slife & Williams, 1995). The word “influence” is usually preferred to “cause” because the field has recognized the difficulty of fully disentangling the network of causal forces—both internal and external—that ultimately gives rise to human behavior. This difficulty, it is assumed, arises chiefly from the complexities introduced into the causal system by cognitively sophisticated organisms occupying rich and varied social situations. There is nonetheless a strong thread of lawfulness and determinism running through most social psychological explanations. For example, Feldman (1995), drawing explicitly upon Allport’s definition, states that social psychology is the “study of how an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and actions are determined by others,” and, thus, social psychology “seek[s] to identify the broad, universal principles that underlie all social behavior” (p. 6, our italics). This commitment to universalist and deterministic explanation is true even of some approaches that seek to situate social psychological inquiry in a cross-cultural context that is sensitive to human diversity and variability (cf., Adamopoulos & Kashima, 1999; Moghaddam, 1998).

Typically this commitment to lawful determinism is couched in the language of “underlying regularities.” For example, Shaver (1987) states, “Social psychological studies are designed to measure the underlying regularities in behavior that occur across subjects despite the unique personal history that each subject brings to the research” (p. 28). Following this remark, Shaver (1987) then engages the reader in a detailed discussion of “the principle of determinism” and “complexity and statistical prediction” (pp. 28-30) in which he draws specific parallels between predicting human behavior and making weather forecasts. In both instances, he informs us, “Determinism still applies” (Shaver, 1987, p. 30) because “human social behavior is at least as complex and variable as the weather” (p. 31) -- and, it is clearly implied, just as causally and lawfully necessitated.

Any explanatory endeavor that takes this type of efficient causality seriously (as traditional mainstream social psychology most certainly does) must ultimately reduce human beings to being either (a) behavioral results, (b) the bearers of behavioral influences, or (c) some complex combination of the two. We would claim, however, that this is to make people like things, placing them in categories as “things falling prey to” particular influences or forces (Williams, 1990). Indeed, as can be seen from the Milgram citation above, the person is understood, not as an agent capable of genuine choice or meaningful action, but as “the reactive individual, the recipient of forces and pressures” (1992, p. xix). One danger of such causal explanation is that persons come to be thought of as mere instances of some more fundamental process or as particular representatives of some more basic category of things. Once the network of casual influences is laid out and fully understood, there is nothing left over to be explained. Or, if there is something left over, it is conceived to be “error variance,” rather than an essential constituting feature of human being.

Given that many social psychologists might object to our contention that their discipline is deterministic in such a hard and uncompromising way, it might be useful to approach the criticism by another route. It is clear, and we believe irrefutable, that social psychology relies heavily on “situationism” in its explanatory project. This contention is reinforced by classical (e.g., Asch, 1951; Sherif & Sherif, 1953) as well as more recent work (e.g, Ross & Nisbett, 1991; Rodrigues & Levine, 1999). If, however, human social behavior can be explained in terms of situational influences, then since situations are, at least in principle, finite and specifiable, such forms of explanation are no less reductive than other species of determinism. In such a perspective, it is the “power of the situation” (Ross & Nisbett, 1991) that determines the course of individual human behavior. The person is seen as little more than the behavioral byproduct of certain specifiable situational determinants.

Others as Sources of Influence

Referring once more to Allport’s characterization of social psychology, it is clear that other people constitute an important aspect of the social milieu that the discipline seeks to explain. However, it is also clear that, under the rubric of that conception of social psychology, others are important chiefly when understood to be purveyors of possible influence, acting in concert with a network of other influences that compose the social world. It is the presence of the other person—whether actual, imagined, or implied—that is taken to be important and influential in the thought, feeling and behavior of the individual under study. The presence of others in social psychology is not necessarily, nor even most importantly, the presence of other human beings with whom one is genuinely related in a meaningful or morally profound way. Rather, the other person is a unique sort of stimulus configuration seen to (passively) possess varying degrees of certain attributes which exert causal influence in given situations.

Mainstream social psychology, has been, and continues to be, firmly committed to the metaphysics and methods of traditional experimental psychology, which, as it evolved in the present age, has attempted to borrow methods and metaphysical assumptions from the natural sciences (cf., Danziger, 1990). These methods and philosophical presuppositions allow us to account for influence only by positing the existence of variables, which variables are assumed to constitute or, at least, correlate with aspects of the real world innately capacitated to exert causal or directive influence on persons. Thus, the influence of others is “packaged” in variables which they “possess,” and which are taken to be the agents of cause behind human social activity (cf., Rosenthal, 1995). The project of understanding the individual thus entails the fullest possible explication of the variables that influence behavior. The necessary corollary of such a project is that the other (person) can be adequately understood as being largely composed of influential variables. We can adequately capture and categorize the other by summarizing her in terms of two sets of variables: (1) those by which she is influenced and (2) those which she possesses whereby she influences others.

The Problem of Meaning and Morality

There is no indication in Allport’s defining statement of social psychology that human social behavior is innately or fundamentally meaningful. The account of human behavior it suggests is given in terms of the influences on thoughts, feelings, and behaviors produced by the presence of others, but the model—as it has been developed—is essentially efficient-causal in the traditional sense. The field seeks to study variables that have the capacity to influence seemingly in spite of, or independent of, real human beings and their desires. In such a view, there is an assumed necessity to human behavior and social activity. Unfortunately, where such necessity is operative, human activity is not truly meaningful (see Williams, 1987, 1992). As Slife and Williams (1995) have argued, meaning requires possibility and agency—where there is no possibility and no agency, there can be no meaning. Insofar as one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are determined such that they could not have been genuinely otherwise than they were, such actions become “no more meaningful than a plant growing or a stone rolling down a hill. These things don’t mean anything, they just happen” (Slife & Williams, 1995, p. 145, italics in the original). Granted, we might try to attach some significance to such things, but the “meaning would be subjectively created and very difficult to sustain when the true story of the behavioral laws and principles is known” (Slife & Williams, 1995, p. 145-146). Only when the genuine possibility exists that a given social act could have been otherwise than it, in fact, was, can we then ascribe real meaning to it. Meaningfulness demands possibility rather than necessity. It cannot be manufactured ex nihilo within a causal system of behavior and influence.

Further, where there is no meaningfulness at the foundation of human activity such activity can have no genuine moral content. If the world of human social involvement is simply a causally necessitated one, as much of contemporary social psychology would seem to suggest, then it becomes conceptually indefensible to ascribe any differential moral worth to any human actions that happen to take place in that world. For example, as Slife and Williams (1995) point out, “We might meaningfully say that it is bad that the act happened. However, to say it is bad that an act occurred is not the same thing as saying that the act itself is bad” (p. 165, italics in the original). Indeed, even to claim that it is bad that an event occurred requires some criterion for making such a judgment. In short, if we assume, with the majority of mainstream social psychology, that human action is causally necessitated, then it is difficult to imagine any legitimate criterion by which to make such judgments. If the course and outcome of a particular event is fundamentally determined in a field of causal variables, there would seem to be no viable grounds upon which to assert that it should have been otherwise than it was—and, thus, no viable grounds for asserting the moral worth of one behavioral occurrence over another.

It should be pointed out here, however, that most social psychologists would probably exempt themselves from the criticism being leveled here. Most social psychologists are undoubtedly drawn to the discipline out of a genuine interest in human behavior as manifest in seemingly meaningful and richly varied social contexts, where other persons are woven into the behaviors they seek to understand. They rarely consider the philosophical underpinnings of the heavily situational “approach” the discipline has officially adopted, granting instead, that persons are engaged interactively with their social world, and not as mechanically determined as the present analysis suggests. The point of our critique, however, is that it is deeply problematic for a discipline such as social psychology to have, on the one hand, an “official” philosophical preunderstanding that justifies disciplinary claims to scientific status, and, on the other hand, another set of operating hypotheses that contradict those very foundational preunderstandings and regard the subject of study in a very different way. The social psychologist who may sense the mechanism and determinism at the heart of the enterprise of social psychology and try to overcome it by assuming that people are active agents in their own social behavior is left with a vexing problem: how to be true to the thesis of situational determinism that defines the discipline, and yet allow persons to be subject to such social forces, while at the same time inexplicably able to resist them. Unfortunately, in our experience, the most frequent account of how persons can resist the social forces around them simply invokes the action of other social forces which enable them to do so. Such an approach, of course, begs the question.

Two Conclusions About Contemporary Social Psychology

Contemporary Social Psychology is Inherently Neither Social Nor Moral

As our analysis of Allport’s (and others’) description of the field suggests, contemporary social psychology can arguably be seen to be not social at all, at least insofar as its theoretical accounts seem to invoke a hollow, non-social realm of causal variables as explanation of the richly social realm of human action. Of course, we are not alone in making this criticism (see, for example, Harre, 1993; Moscovici, 1972; Taylor & Brown, 1980). Still, we feel it worth repeating here because it bears so heavily on the question of what the discipline might gain from the work of Levinas. As we have seen, social psychology is essentially the study of individuals as influenced by social variables. In this sense, however, it can be considered social only in the sense that the variables come packaged in human form and in that the resultant actions take place most often in ostensibly social settings. These settings, in turn, are social only because they consist of other people—people who appear only as either (a) the purveyors of social influence or (b) responders to other social variables. Thus, as we maintained in the beginning of this article, contemporary social psychology is most properly understood as a branch of experimental psychology, a branch where the variables under consideration come packaged in human containers.

In order to support our assertion that contemporary social psychology cannot render a meaningful account of moral behavior, we must first clarify what we take “moral” to mean, and how we ought to talk about it. Put simply, we will speak of moral as anything that makes a meaningful difference in the lives of other persons (Williams & Gantt, 1998). Thus, all questions or acts that make such a meaningful difference are moral. Clearly, then, all fundamentally social acts are also fundamentally moral to the extent that others are necessarily and meaningfully involved. In fact, it would not be inappropriate to say that the moral and the social are really just two sides of the same coin. In this light, then, it could be argued that mainstream social psychology deals directly with the moral because many or even most acts of interest to the discipline “make a difference” to others. This seems to us to be implicit in the definition of the field offered by Allport. However, if so-called social behavior is really only the lawful and necessary result of the influences of variables conveyed by others, then it is not unreasonable to suppose that reactions to that behavior are likewise the lawful and necessary results of influences of variables. The result of this is that the difference the behavior may make to another person is, ultimately, epiphenomenal, and therefore, not genuinely meaningful nor social. The sociality is, in some sense, coincidental. The others who might be affected by the behavior are influenced by it primarily in terms of its stimulus properties, by the variables it occasions, mediated by their own cognitive capacities and their own reinforcement histories. There is nothing innately social nor moral about a behavior thus conceived. To more fully articulate this conclusion, however, it will be useful to turn attention to one of the classic areas of research and theorizing in mainstream social psychology: bystander intervention. This is a particularly appropriate phenomenon to discuss in light of the fact that the subject itself presents a clear and poignant example of a fundamentally social and moral behavior that is rendered asocial and amoral by the usual accounts of it offered within the mainstream of the discipline.

Diffusion of Responsibility and Bystander Intervention

In 1964, Kitty Genovese was beaten and stabbed to death while returning to her New York City apartment. Although certainly tragic, it was not, in itself, a novel occurrence. What was unusual about Ms. Genovese’s death, however, was that no less than thirty-eight of her neighbors came to their windows in the middle of the night heard her screams for help but did nothing. In fact, most remained at their windows watching the bloody spectacle for the full thirty-five minutes that it took the attack to end. Not once during the entire event did anyone of her neighbors come to her aid; indeed, no one so much as lifted the phone to notify the police that the attack was taking place until it was far too late (see Rosenthal, 1964).

According to Darley and Latané (1968) this gruesome and frightening event first alerted social psychologists and other researchers to the terrifying possibilities of emotional indifference or ambivalence toward the suffering of another person. Darley and Latané (1968) hypothesized that the number of people witnessing an emergency was the principal determining factor in whether or not a given individual would render assistance to someone in distress. In short, they held that the probability that a given individual would offer aid to another observed to be in need of help is inversely proportional to the number of other witnesses present at the same time (Darley & Latané, 1968; Latané & Darley, 1970; Latané & Rodin, 1969). In other words, an individual would be more likely to render assistance if he or she were the lone witness in some emergency situation than if he or she were just one of many other witnesses present at the event.

In a later piece of work on bystander intervention, Latané and Darley (1970) argued that in addition to the social-cognitive mechanisms which caused people to experience a diffusion of responsibility, the victim’s “salience of need” was also a significant factor in determining whether or not an individual would offer assistance to another in distress (see also Latané & Nida, 1981). In short, if others are ignoring a situation or acting as though nothing untoward were occurring, then any individual witness would likely assume no emergency exists and that the “victim” is not really in any need of assistance. Conversely, if others treat the situation as a serious one, then any individual witness will be more likely to respond in an empathically concerned and helpful manner.

Baumeister (1982), however, argued that “salience of need” was only part of the story in determining the strength and/or probability of bystander intervention. He suggested that when we are aware that other people are observing our behavior, we tend to act in ways we believe those others are expecting us to act in order to present ourselves to them in a favorable or positive light. Baumeister (1982) suggested that individuals’ behavior in ambiguous situations may be affected by what he termed “evaluation apprehension.” This is the notion that we act in helpful or empathic ways in order to avoid negative judgments of us by others, and we do so by presenting ourselves in socially acceptable ways. Thus, when we sense that others around us are not too concerned with or disturbed by a given situation, we tend not to intervene for fear of being thought foolish, gullible, or over-reactionary by those others.

In short, then, when considered from within the frameworks of these traditional social psychological theories, whether or not a person will offer help to another person in need is principally a function of certain specifiable, socially-mediated, cognitive processes—processes that often cause a certain “warping” of one’s perception of one’s own responsibility and obligation to that suffering other (Latané & Nida, 1981). As group size increases, it is held, one’s sense of responsibility for intervening on behalf of another is diffused throughout the group of which one is a part. The ultimate effect of this diffusion is that one is immobilized into inactivity, perhaps rationalizing that the individual is not really suffering all that much or is not really in need of help at all. Additionally, a lack of helping may be the necessitated result of faulty inferences made about the suffering other’s actual needs based on the apparent indifference being exhibited by other bystanders. Or, it may be that the desire to help is in conflict with a deeper desire to avoid the negative judgments of others who may be observing one’s actions. Whatever the precise mixture of causal influences may be, helping is ultimately seen to be the necessitated result of some combination of forces external (i.e., group size, constitution, and the ambiguities of the situation itself) and internal (i.e., perceptual biases, social expectations, self-monitoring, desire for social approbation, heuristic reasoning strategies, etc.) to the individual witness.

It might be argued, contrary to our line of analysis, that Darley and Latané, Baumeister, and other social psychologists are merely formulating constructs that explain the phenomenon of bystander intervention in a strictly and innocently descriptive sense, taking “diffusion of responsibility” to be a description of what happened, rather than a directly causal force accounting for how or why it happened. However, a careful reading of the literature confirms the causal, asocial mindset characteristic of the social psychological mainstream. For example, in the conclusion to his major paper on self-presentation, Baumeister (1982) gives no hint of intending to merely describe the phenomena of interest. His language is clearly and seemingly intentionally causal in the traditional sense:

�self-presentational concerns and motivations play a central role in determining conformity and in determining whether people yield to the influence of others . . . in determining how people respond to evaluations�and in determining the level of task performance, and�in determining emotion. (p. 21)

Leonard Berkowitz (1999, p. 247) opines that Darley’s (1992, p. 204) analysis of the origins of evil action (a phenomenon relevant to that of helping behavior) would be “undoubtedly shared by most of his disciplinary colleagues” when he concludes that “when one probes behind evil actions, one normally finds not an evil individual viciously forwarding diabolical schemes but instead ordinary individuals who have done acts of evil because they are caught up in complex social forces.” In what appears to be the same explanatory spirit, Stanley Milgram (1992) comments on the Kitty Genovese case:

�events, such as the Genovese case, are the inevitable unfolding of forces that experimental analysis will frequently pinpoint first. Underlying [such events is] an important principle of social behavior; by focusing on that latent principle, and extending it through to a concrete dramatized experiment, one could foresee certain inevitable results of such a principle. (p. xxxi)

He later solidifies his causal language in a summary of the knowledge resulting from his own work in obedience and conformity:

Experiments in this series show that the physical presence of an authority is an important force contributing to the subject’s obedience of [sic] defiance. Taken together with the first experimental series on the proximity of the victim, it would appear that something akin to fields of force, diminishing in effectiveness with increasing psychological distance from their source, have a controlling effect on the subject’s performance. (p. 147, italics in the original)

Our purpose here is not to make a merely semantic argument for our contention that mainstream social psychological explanations of altruism and other phenomena are mechanistic and causal. However, our review of the literature in this area brings us to the conclusion that such is indeed the case. One interested in the phenomena must either take the explanatory language at face value or engage in a constant linguistic translation in the course of which one finally decides that either the authors did not mean what they said, or that they lacked the language to say what they meant. Our position is that the burden of proof is on those who defend social psychology as not causal and mechanistic to produce evidence from the body of social psychological literature that demonstrates that social psychologists are clear and serious about their nondeterministic theoretical proclivities. Our purpose here is to call attention to the effects of traditional causal language and explanations and, more broadly, to offer an alternative way of accounting for the sociality of the human world that does not subject it to the same fate as have the traditional causal accounts, that is, to dissolution in the fundamentally non-social.

This issue—being careful about the ontological presuppositions inherent in our explanatory language—is important because once helping behavior is thought to be the necessarily determined outcome of some combination of external and internal causal forces, its social meaningfulness, as well as inherently social and thus moral nature, disappear. Only insofar as an altruistic or helping response to another’s suffering is the result of a genuinely agentive choice by the person so responding, can that response be seen as being in any way truly meaningful. Only to the degree that we are able to distinguish an act of helping another as somehow distinct (i.e., freely or meaningfully chosen) from other genuinely available responsive possibilities does that act then obtain any genuine moral and social significance. If an act of assistance or kindness to another is simply the necessitated product of the causal interaction of a set of variables, such as group size, social expectation, norm monitoring, desire for social approbation, and so forth, and not in any real sense elected by the person him or herself, then that act lacks the possibility of having been otherwise and is thereby devoid of all but a subjective, private significance (Williams, 1987, 1992). Likewise, to the extent that a person’s responsiveness (or lack thereof) to the suffering of another person is causally dictated by the complex interplay of environmental and cognitive variables, that response cannot entail any real moral worth.

In conclusion, two observations from the work on bystander intervention are most relevant for our discussion. First, the other person as person has not been an especially important factor in explaining and theorizing about the moral act of helpful intervention. The needy one, her characteristics, and her relation to the bystander, are only sources of information to be used in the complex cognitive machinations that are the real determiners of the “moral” act. Thus, from this traditional perspective, there is nothing innately social about altruistic, helping acts. Second, and relatedly, the same sort of deliberative process must precede intervention regardless of whether the source of the information is a situational event or a person with a face. There is nothing in the theory to suggest that a bystander will respond differently to a cry for help than to a message on his e-mail, even though we have some intuitive sense that one surely would. Thus, because in these theoretical accounts, information (not faces) drives altruism, there, again, is nothing innately social about the process of helping. This is an illustration, at once interesting and troubling, that the theories of social psychology often violate our intuitions and our experience.

Emmanuel Levinas: On Grounding Social Psychology in the Ethical

Any paper such as this, aimed at a broad analysis of a substantive issue, will be able to present only abbreviated forms of the alternative positions that respond to the analytical problems raised. Thus, we can offer here only a brief introduction to some of the ideas we have encountered in our reading of Levinas that we believe address in creative and evocative ways the fundamental inadequacies of contemporary social psychology. To do so, we will draw mostly upon themes found in Levinas’s first major work, Totality and Infinity (1961/1969). This is likely his most widely known work, and, perhaps, his most accessible.

Levinas and the Foundation of Sociality

Although the work of Levinas is not, according to many scholars (Cohen, 1994; Farley, 1996; Gantt & Williams, 2002), postmodern in its substance and intent, at least within the broad contemporary postmodern, deconstructive, and post-structuralist movements, it does address in a creative way the problems with which the postmodern “counter culture” has concerned itself. More clearly than other “postmodern” thinkers, Levinas’s work overcomes the individualism of our age and offers the possibility for a genuine and fundamental sociality (Schrag, 1997). He manages to do this in a way that preserves individuality as essential to morality and meaningful relationships, while not falling into an individualism destructive of those very things. As we shall argue, he is also able to avoid naive communalism and the relativism which so easily besets so many other theories that seek to ground our humanity solely in context, interpretation, and discourse (cf., Gantt, 1999). Levinas’s account of human life is not merely an exercise in speculative metaphysics. Rather, its foundation is a careful phenomenology of our concrete lived experience as social beings.

The hallmark of modern accounts of our human nature has been its granting of ontological priority to the personal self, manifested as mind, soul, or intellect. As an essentially private rationality, each of us encounters the other in a realm outside our own existence, as a peculiar sort of object of our perception. Because of this, the being of the other must be reconciled somehow with the immediacy of our own experience. The classical problem of “other minds” is the result of the ontological priority given to self. This problem is usually solved by inferring that the other is essentially like me, in some sense, another instance of the self—literally, an alter ego. My esteem for the other, and my concern is an inference ultimately grounded in self-esteem and self-concern. Levinas, however, reverses the ontological priority, grounding the existence of the self, and thus, in important ways, the very ontological status of the self, in the prior existence of the other. Simply put, without the otherness of the other—the other than self—preexisting the self, there are no reasons for the self to “be,” and no grounds or context within which the self can appear at all (cf., Levinas, 1978). As Gantt (1996) has stated, “one cannot even begin to recognize one’s own consciousness sufficient to comprehend and name it for oneself except in contradistinction to the absolute priority of that which is other than one’s self; the infinite surplus of the existence of an-other, in the face of whom I discover my own humanity” (p. 134). For Levinas, the essence of the humanity discovered in the face of the other is an infinite ethical responsibility to not only have our own projects and wants be called into question by them, but to care for them. Our immediate relationship to the other is one of ethical obligation. This description of the encounter with the other is in sharp contrast with the problemitzation of the other as bearer of variables and source of influence, which is the legacy of the work of Allport and other key figures in the founding of modern social psychology.

When the other (of necessity, a person) who has a face appears, she resists our efforts to “totalize”—to make the other a part of the self—in a way that other aspects of the world do not. The primordial experience of the other is not as an instrument of our own purposes. In this way, Levinas offers an alternative to hedonism as a primordial motivation. We do not derive our sociality from hedonistic concern. Rather, hedonistic concern is a response made possible by our innate sociality, by the perception, occasioned by the presence of the other, that one is in competition with others for scarce resources. Thus, in the other we do not see ourselves, but we receive the possibility for acting as selves, as oneself-for-an-othe r (cf., Levinas, 1969). Ironically, it is in this process of being thus “called out” of ourselves that the self emerges. The self—that part of us we experience as ourselves—is the product of an innately and profoundly social experience. Sociality predates individual identity and self-awareness both logically and chronologically. Sociality is not the product of our own private cognitive and rational processes occasioned by our trying to make sense of other people as “food for thought.”

Even as Levinas is describing the self as radically social in this way, he does not entirely dissolve the private self. To do so would make inevitable “diffusion of responsibility” on a grand scale. Such a radical diffusion of individual identity would obviate the possibility of moral action. It is important, therefore, that Levinas begins with and preserves interiority even in the midst of grounding our being in obligation to the other. This interiority does not, of course, reduce to the subjectivity of the isolated modern ego which we find in contemporary social psychology, and even in the work of Allport himself. Rather, for Levinas, interiority is metaphysically innocent. It is that sense, incumbent in each person, that he or she is not simply the product of larger social or moral processes, but distinctly individual, and thus ethically—because socially—responsible. In fact, it is because our ethical obligations are so exquisitely particular, they are intensely ours, and cannot be diminished by appeal to abstract principles of fairness and reciprocity, nor by shunting them off to others. It is, Levinas (1985) says, knowing that “I am I in the sole measure that I am responsible, a non-interchangeable I” (p. 101).

This distinctiveness in interiority, however, does not resist others. It does not manifest itself as a fundamental tension between the individual and the society. Rather such interiority and distinctiveness—our very individuality—requires other people. It requires sociality. One can only be an individual by virtue of occupying a unique situation—being called into relationships uniquely by others to whom one is uniquely confronted: I am who I am by virtue of my relatedness with others; I am the father of this child, the husband of this wife, the teacher of this student, the neighbor of this stranger, and so on. Each of these relationships calls me, and only me, to ethical response. My identity is my responsibility, and my responsibility is the fundamental feature of a shared, primordial sociality.

In summary, then, isolated subjectivity is not the beginning point of human experience. Rather it is a response to the presence of the other. In fact, as Levinas shows, both subjectivity and objectivity derive from the Other (cf., Levinas, 1969, pp. 194-240). One important benefit of beginning in and preserving interiority is that it makes it clear whose obligation it is when one is confronted with and called into relationships of obligation. The obligation, for Levinas, cannot diffuse because the interiority, wherein we are distinct, is never compromised. We do not diffuse into the other and thus lose our sense of obligation. The other makes clear both the obligation, and the fact that it is mine.

Since the other occasions our speaking of the world at all, and thus occasions our being who we are, we are not, in that important sense—at all—without those others to whom we stand in obligation. For Levinas, the obligation is infinite and asymmetrical. Contemporary social psychological thinking, when it does take up the problem of the other, generally, because it begins with an assumption of the primacy of individual egos, must explain our sense of obligation in one of two ways. First, contemporary social theory can suggest that we feel such obligation to others because we recognize them as being “like us,” and therefore, our obligation is really self-interest. Or, alternatively, we assume that if we fulfill our obligations to them—treat them well—they will fulfill a similar reciprocal obligation to us, and thus our sense of obligation is, again, merely self-interest.

In contrast, Levinas proposes that we are who we are by virtue of our ethical relatedness to the other, and since that relation is not based on any assumptions of reciprocity, it is, in effect, an infinite obligation. It transcends those others with whom we may just happen to come into direct conflict, and extends beyond them, to yet others before whom any particular other might stand in relationships of obligation. We are fundamentally social beings, not by virtue of social structures in which we find ourselves, nor by virtue of rationally appealing commitments, but by virtue of a fundamental and infinite obligation. Because this obligation is the source of identity, and lies prior to conceptualization, sociality is genuinely fundamental. Grounded in this obligation then, a social psychology might be truly and non-trivially social.

If sociality and morality (manifest in ethical obligation) are connected as we have argued earlier, then a social psychology grounded in a genuine sociality will be a genuinely ethical discipline. It would be a social psychology that would seek to articulate the fundamentally ethical character of our relations and social exchanges with one another, opening a discourse within which the parameters of ethical life would emerge as the primary subject matter. Since Levinas’s understanding of our sociality begins in a pre-reflective ethical obligation, a social psychology faithful to that understanding would not privilege the cognitive and the rational in accounting for the influence of other beings in our social responses. At the same time, this understanding would erase the barriers that have long insulated the individual ego from others. As we have argued elsewhere (Williams & Gantt, 1998), the recognition of ethical obligation as the grounds for selfhood makes genuine human intimacy possible. A social psychology thus grounded would not begin with the thesis that individuality must be overcome in order to establish intimacy, but that the false consciousness of individualism must be overcome so that intimacy may reveal itself.

In this light, altruism in its meaningful form becomes not merely possible at times of extreme duress or environmental emergency, but it becomes the essential prototype of human social interaction. This turns the tables on contemporary social psychology. Under the regime of current theorizing, the question has been how to understand and arrange the conditions under which altruism is likely to emerge. Or, more generally, how can altruism exist in the context of theories that presuppose an indigenous selfishness and a universe of social variables acting upon us at the level of this very nature (cf., Gantt & Reber, 2000). Altruism, for these reasons, is a problem. Given a new grounding in the ethical phenomenology of Emmanuel Levinas, however, altruism is the expected response to the call of the other, which call predates our own sense of self as self. The problem then is understanding how people come to be oblivious to the ethical obligation to act in the interest of others, and the elaborate social and personal machinations by which the sense of obligation is extinguished. Put in its harshest terms, for contemporary social psychology the problem is how to explain altruism. For social psychology informed by Levinas, the problem is, as it should be, how to explain murder.


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