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At the Heart of the State

Exploring the moral world of institutions

By Didier Fassin Published 2016

Didier Fassin
Inside a French Tribunal de grande instance (district court): “It is to the Law that Men Owe Justice and Liberty.”

Moral economies represent the production, circulation, and appropriation of values and affects regarding a given social issue. Consequently, they characterize for a particular historical moment and a specific social world the manner in which this issue is constituted through judgments and sentiments that gradually come to define a sort of common sense and collective understanding of the problem. Thus, one can speak of the moral economy of asylum to characterize the transformations of values and affects around the question of refugees: positively valued and emotionally charged in the 1970s and 1980s, when persecutions by Latin American and Southeast Asian dictatorships turned them respectively into heroes or victims, the figure of the asylum seeker was gradually modified to make way in the 1990s for the image of the “fake refugee,” stirring mistrust whether he or she came from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Chechnya, Bangladesh or Haiti. Obviously, it is less the objective reality of the persecutions that has evolved than the subjective approach that one has of it. In the same way, the moral economy of punishment involves the appropriateness and fairness of the sentence, which change over time: the rehabilitative paradigm of the sanction, which was dominant until the 1970s, has been replaced by a retributive one, but this punitive turn has disproportionately affected disadvantaged minorities by focusing repression on certain types of offenses, such as drug use, while overlooking others, such as financial crime. As can be seen, moral economies do not characterize a specific group or activity––we do not speak of the moral economies of judges or of justice––but of a social fact––here, asylum or punishment.

Moral subjectivities refer to the processes by which individuals develop ethical practices in their relationships with themselves or others. They attest to the autonomy and freedom of agents, notably within contexts in which opposing values can come into conflict, contradictory sentiments can create tensions, or political injunctions can run counter to professional ethos. They may be conscious exercises stemming from reflections on a dilemma or they may be ordinary gestures stemming from a sense of care. Thus, the members of a prison disciplinary board can decide not to apply sentencing guidelines to an inmate who is found in possession of a telephone or who angrily replied to a guard by taking into account both the necessity to recall the authority of the rules and the singularity of the individual situation; likewise, the police can lend a sympathetic ear to the plight of an undocumented immigrant whom they have arrested or psychiatrists can express their concern with regard to an African father destabilized by his son’s delinquent behavior. In discussing subjectivities, we do not seek to encroach upon the field of psychology, which is not ours, but to signify the sociological production of subjects both as subjection and subjectivation.

Relating these two concepts, as we propose to do here, allows us to combine the two major approaches to moral questions in the social sciences inspired by Kant and Aristotle, namely the ethic of duty and the ethic of virtue, respectively. According to the first paradigm, any society is characterized at a given moment by a set of norms and values which defines a moral code to which individuals must submit themselves either out of an obligation to accomplish their duty or out of a desire to do good. According to the second paradigm, any individual can develop virtuous practices with respect to him or herself and with respect to others independently of the rules that are collectively imposed. The first approach underscores constraint, the second freedom. But moral economies and moral subjectivities offer insights into the moral world of institutions that differ in some way from these philosophical legacies. Unlike codes, which are fixed and stable, moral economies permit us to grasp the changes in time and the appropriations by agents: norms and values are not simply imposed upon them, and furthermore they are associated with emotions and sentiments. Unlike virtues, which ultimately refer to practices focused on seeking to do good, moral subjectivities integrate all forms of practices having moral content whatever their valence and thus include resentment or indignation as well as compassion or admiration.

Moral economies and moral subjectivities are connected in the daily activities of institutions through the values and affects which crystallize around social issues and the responses that are given in concrete situations: for the law enforcement agent, the immigration judge, the probation officer, and the job counselor, they are, respectively, the insecurity embodied in the adolescent from the projects, the suspicion in the asylum seeker, the dangerousness in the inmate considered for parole, the unemployment in the discriminated young adult. These professionals face each of these cases through evaluations and emotions, judgments on what is a true refugee or a good prisoner and indignation over a lack of respect or a need for justice. To describe the moral work of institutions is therefore to account for both the tensions within the public sphere surrounding these problems (moral economies) and the actions in the professional world charged with resolving them (moral subjectivities). This moral work is therefore inseparable from the political stakes which underlie both of them––at the heart of the state.

This article is an excerpt of Didier Fassin’s introduction to At the Heart of the State: Exploring the Moral World of Institutions (Pluto Press, 2015). The book is the result of a five-year European Research Council project led by Didier Fassin, James D. Wolfensohn Professor in the School of Social Science since 2009, with the collaboration of Yasmine Bouagga, Isabelle Coutant, Jean-Sébastien Eideliman, Fabrice Fernandez, Nicolas Fischer, Carolina Kobelinsky, Chowra Makaremi, Sarah Mazouz, and Sébastien Roux.

Published in The Institute Letter Spring 2016