Social Thought and Social Change: Methodological Dilemmas at the Intersection of Science and Ethics

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I argue that ethical convictions are crucial to the maintenance and transformation of social institutions. Moreover, since ethical convictions are sometimes corrigible and open to persuasive transformation, ethical persuasion can be a powerful source of social change. However, I observe that the dominant analytic techniques of the social sciences are ill equipped to understand the nature and import of ethical convictions, and even less well equipped to inform ethical persuasion. I argue this, in part, explains why social science research has often proved of little value in trying to address prominent social concerns.

This diagnosis raises a puzzle and a challenge. The puzzle is why some social scientists would wholly commit themselves to methods that cannot adequately deal with important dimensions of social structure. I show this is due to a misguided conception of science, one which seeks an "absolute perspective" that requires reducing or explaining away ethical convictions.

The challenge, once this vision of science is rejected in favor of a more pragmatic one, is 1) to understand the systematic limits of different methodological approaches and 2) to see how an account of ethics, rightly understood, can complement social scientific knowledge in service of better social outcomes.

I evaluate three dominant methodological approaches in the social sciences, namely, statistical modeling, formal modeling, and biological-behavioral research. Although all are useful within certain domains, I show that each has systematic limits relating to the dynamism of ethical convictions. I demonstrate how these methods can fail on their own terms and can blind researchers to important resources for social change, such as possibilities for persuasion.

Finally, I develop an account of the relationship between ethics, rationality, and persuasion drawing on the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor. This account rejects prominent "scientific" attempts to explain ethical allegiances as biologically hardwired or structurally determined, and it further challenges accounts of ethical naturalism and pluralistic neutrality.

I conclude by illustrating the constructive role that ethical persuasion has played in a number of development projects, which help demonstrate my thesis that debates about visions of "the good" matter profoundly for human flourishing.





English, William Edward (2010). Social Thought and Social Change: Methodological Dilemmas at the Intersection of Science and Ethics. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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