Thursday, March 29, 2007

Killing me softly with his political theory: Social Change, Suicide and Political Theory

Political theorists typically argue that radical changes to society are necessary to achieve some goal such as justice, or the appropriate respect for freedom or minority cultures. So to take distributive justice for example just looking at the major theorists, Rawls argued that resources to be distributed via the difference principle, namely that the worst off should be as well off as possible. This would be a significant change, Nozick in contrast argues that a free market distribution is fair, if and only if the starting distribution was just. However, as Nozick acknowledges the present distribution isn't just because of historic injustice, thus he advocates an initial equal redistribution, so still radical social changes. Dworkin, in seeking a distribution which is ambition sensitive and endowment insensitive envisages a society that is equally radically different from our own.

However there is increasing evidence that there is at least a strong correlation between significant social change and increased suicide rates. This can be seen in the former Soviet States, and in Northern Ireland following the Good Friday agreement. Likewise China’s high suicide rates have been attributed to the changes following the economic reforms in 1978.

Nor is this only associated with what might be considered negative social changes, in Northern Ireland for example, the signing of the Good Friday agreement, which seems clearly a great social good, still has been correlated with an increase in suicide rates.

It should be noted that this is only a correlation it does not show causation. It might well be that actually suicide somehow drives social change or a more likely alternative is that something else is associated with both social change and suicide and is caused by or causes one and then causes the other, such as perhaps a general lack of social cohesion. A popular theory to explain this correlation is that of Durkheim’s, who holds that in times of social change the influence that society exerts on its members is weakened and people are left to their own devices. This state Durkheim calls anomie in effect normlessness. Significant social changes promote anomie because they typically represent significant changes in the norms governing a society.

This explanation, though plausible may be incorrect so it may well not be the case that social change causes increased suicide rates. However it is plausible that the correlation indicates causation, and since this is a presently unsettled (and perhaps unsettlable, given the difficulty of avoiding confounding factors in social science research) question, it is reasonable that as political theorists we ought to play it safe and for the time being treat it as if it is for the time being.

This clearly creates a problem for political theorists, considering that most of us, myself included, champion significant social changes but hardly want to cause suicides. So should we not argue for significant social changes? There are a variety of responses that can be made to this problem which I will briefly explore in my next blog entry... But for now what do you think? Is this a serious problem for political theorists?