nick_owen_smaller_sqPlease send me a message.

Name: (required)

Email address: (required)

Message:

In Other People’s Struggles, I define an adherent as a participant in a social movement who is not motivated as a beneficiary of the movement’s success. I contrast adherents with constituents who are motivated as beneficiaries.

The question I consider here is what motivates adherents, if not benefitting from goal accomplishment. Social movement theory, in considering the ‘conscience constituent’, which is the usual term for a participant who does not stand to benefit from the movement’s work, has had little to say about motivations. It has been mainly concerned to explain what such participants can do to get collective action going when the beneficiaries are too weak or divided to do so themselves.

The first possibility to consider is the rational self-interest proposed by rational choice theory. Most rational choice accounts of such questions treat adherence just as a matter of having a peculiar preference for the satisfaction of others’ interests. This seems to me either unilluminating or implausible. If it is no more than a peculiar preference, offered without further explanation, it is unilluminating. If, on the other hand, it is to be explained as really egoistic – that the adherent has made the satisfaction of others’ interests her own interest – it seems implausible. My other-regarding concerns are obviously egoistic in the weak self-referential sense that they are my concerns, rather than anyone else’s; or that, when I act on them, they are, presumably, compelling for me. But that does not have to mean that they are egoistic in the stronger sense that they are self-regarding concerns, that is not only my concerns, but concerns for myself rather than for others.

Egoism may be the motivation for some of the behaviour we mistake for adherence, such as that of far-sighted egoists who engage in ‘reciprocal altruism’ to accumulate credit with those who may later benefit them in return. But this sort of behaviour is better analysed as the interaction of (present and future) constituents, rather than the constituents and adherents. It certainly doesn’t adequately explain the help offered by adherents now to those who they expect never to be in a position to reciprocate. Adherents are characteristically non-reciprocal altruists. They help even when they expect to get nothing back. Rather than being motivated by what her help does for her, such an altruist is motivated by what it does for others.

Rational choice also directs our attention to selective incentives, that is, to incentives made available only to participants. Adherents, as I have defined them, cannot be motivated as beneficiaries of goal accomplishment. If they could, they would actually be constituents. But adherents might receive selective incentives as side-benefits as a reward for participation, regardless of goal accomplishment. These might include material incentives, such as pay; interpersonal incentives such as praise and social approval by others; and internalized incentives such as the sense of righteousness and efficacy (the so-called ‘warm glow’).

It seems unlikely, however, that such incentives make up much of the explanation of what motivates adherents. Material incentives are unlikely to match what adherents could make in other lines of work, and many adherents who participate in social movements are volunteers. Interpersonal incentives, such as social approval, can also often be achieved more cheaply in other ways. Indeed, adhering to other people’s struggles is often actually costly in this regard, in exposing adherents to criticism from their own communities. They often lose status through participation.

Although interpersonal incentives, and also personalised ones like the warm glow may accompany adherence, it seems unlikely they actually motivate it. One thought experiment to test that claim is to consider how an adherent would react if, after being praised by others for her help, and experiencing the warm glow, she learned that she had been tricked and her work had actually done nothing for the cause. It seems likely that she would feel that the work had not been worthwhile, despite the fact that it had delivered praise and warmth. Such explanations also seem to rely on the adherent holding herself in ignorance of her true motivations. If she knows that she is only helping others in order to gain their praise or feel good about herself, it seems unlikely that she will actually feel good about herself. There is also a growing weight of experimental evidence which suggests that when situations are manipulated so as to remove selective incentives, empathetic people are no less likely to help others, even at cost to themselves.

Another possibility is that adherents are just good people. Moral psychology has come up with persuasive accounts of why we are not just selfish and why we are moved to prosocial behaviour. But this is probably insufficient to explain adherents’ support for other people’s struggles. Our sense of altruism is fragile. It is easily swayed by irrelevant considerations, situational factors, and illogical or otherwise faulty reasoning. Notoriously it predisposes us to help the ‘in group’ (people like ourselves) rather than the ‘out group’ (those we perceive as other). So it will not readily explain why some people side with other people’s struggles.

Perhaps, however, some people are special in this respect. Perhaps adherence is motivated by people’s pure goodness, meaning their willingness to experience a net loss of welfare in the interest of others, and to do so unconditionally, without themselves expecting, or making it a condition, that others reciprocate or reward them. The idea that some people have an ‘altruistic personality’ which impels them to act for others even at high risk to themselves, has been proposed to explain those whose helping behaviour, such as rescuing victims of persecution, cannot plausibly be explained in terms of self-interest.

Pure goodness is not located in any system of giving and receiving, but stands alone as an unconditional gift of oneself to others. Yet there is a tension at the heart of such gifts. They combine both unreciprocated unselfishness – the purely good altruist cares about others rather than herself – and indifference with regard to source – she is indifferent between help she provides herself and help provided by others. Unreciprocated unselfishness is certainly possible. It is characteristic of loving and very close friendships. But love and affectionate relationships are just the sort of relationships in which we do care about the source of the unselfishness. If I love someone, then it would be more usual to say that my concern is that she is loved by me than that she should be loved by someone. Other people’s love is not a perfect substitute for my own.

This stubborn indissoluble self – that it matters that it is we who help and not just anyone – is in my view an almost unavoidable element in adherence. It is possible for an adherent to be a saint, existing only for others and reducing himself to a channel for other-directedness. But most people – even very good people – have to retain a strong sense of self in order to act in others’ interests. They cannot dissolve themselves in helping others. On the contrary, they have to preserve themselves, so that they can give of themselves. This means that their selves – their identities, needs and desires – have to be taken into account when a social movement accepts their help.

I think this implies that we should not think so much of pure goodness as of conscience. Typically, the adherent does not only want others to be helped. She feels she has a moral responsibility to help which can only be discharged by she herself helping.

We need to make an excursion into the philosophy of conscience in order to understand better what sort of motivation it is. The excursion will suggest two important things. First, conscience is not just concern for others but a concern for others which belongs to me. And secondly, my conscience does not just belong to me, but also to others outside me. Herein lies both its motivating force but also its potential difficulty for social movements.

Conscience, in philosophical writing, is usually imagined as a moral voice within us, but a voice that is not fully our own. If it were fully our own, it would not make sense to think, as we characteristically do, of it telling us what to do, or of it telling us things that we don’t want to hear. On the other hand, consciences are also personally owned. If they were not, it would be much easier to reject the voice of conscience as an outsider’s voice having no bearing on us.

But this doubleness of voice also creates dilemmas of participation. To see why, we must remember that the adherent makes two analytically distinct movements: first, the break with her present set of identities, affinities, interests, and so on; and secondly, her reattachment to a social movement made up of a different set. The conscience which speaks in our own voice (‘us speaking to ourselves’) can help to explain why adherents detach themselves from their own communities. It is a solvent not a glue. But conscience conceived in this way will not give an adherent the motivation she needs to attach herself to other people’s struggles without conditions. She will reserve to herself the right to decide what is demanded of her. Her participation must therefore be conditional, dependent on what her conscience, on which she is the acknowledged authority if anyone is, tells her she must do.

What if we think of conscience as a matter of others speaking to us, either through our own reflections on how others would judge us, or just through the obligations our communities teach us in childhood? Consciences of this kind can be the source of powerful moral obligations to help others. The problem is that they require us only to think about how people like us would reasonably judge us, or about the local standards of our own communities. Consciences formed in this way will be glue and not solvent. They will tend to hold the adherent to her own side. How will she detach herself in the first place? This leaves the constituents with the task of trying to stimulate the adherents’ consciences. Sometimes, at least when movements are ambitious, waiting on the refined conscience of the adherent, a conscience formed by judgments made without reference to the constituents, is too humiliating, and worse than relying on their own resources.

The conscience-stricken are split. If adherents ‘choose’ their consciences, they are making a gift of what they do for others, because they might have chosen otherwise. They are positioned as different both from the rest of their community (whose consciences do not prompt them to help others), and from those they help (who are deemed to be passive or motivated otherwise, principally by self-interest). That is not to say that conscience is disguised selfishness but only that it resists conjointness and solidarity. If adherents do not ‘choose’ their consciences, on the other hand, then they must be ‘called’ by something outside ourselves – what their Gods or civilised traditions require of them. Conscience again resists conjointness. These resistances are something that a social movement needs to allow or take into account when dealing with adherents motivated by conscience. Conscience cannot simply be received as free moral energy.

Adherence can be understood as arising from a mix of motives: from rational self-interest, and from goodness and from conscience. But in no case does this involve individuals simply deciding for themselves as individuals. They do so interactively with others, according to generally held expectations about what they and others should do. Such expectations can harden into social norms.

In explaining adherence, we are interested in one particular set of social norms, which I term norms of service. Norms have both targets, whose behaviour they seek to modify, and beneficiaries, who gain from observance of the norm. When the targets and beneficiaries overlap, the norm is conjoint. When they do not overlap, the norm is disjoint. A norm of service is disjoint. It seeks to alter the behaviour of some people for the benefit of others.

Often, collective action in social movements is guided by conjoint norms. You, I and others observe a norm of mutuality or reciprocity for our mutual benefit. For example, we might look after each other when we need each other’s help. The norm might take the form: ‘Help others who in turn help you.’

Disjoint norms are more puzzling. Sometimes they are enforced by the socially powerful on weaker targets, as when parents oblige their children to do as they are told. But sometimes socially powerful targets bind each other to act for the benefit of others. These are norms of service. An example of a norm of service is, ‘We should help those who cannot help themselves even if we do not expect to need or get their help in return’. Another example of a norm of service is the knightly code of chivalry which enjoined knights to ‘protect the weak’.

The crucial point to note is that creating and sustaining disjoint norms of service it is the targets who matter, not the beneficiaries. Peasants who got kicked rather than helped could not challenge the knight for unchivalrous behaviour. Only other knights could do that.

Following my definitions of constituent and adherent, the social norms in play in collective action may therefore vary between participants. Recall that a constituent is someone whose participation is grounded in their standing to gain significantly from the accomplishment of the movement’s work. She may therefore be both a beneficiary and a target of a conjoint norm that enjoins conditional co-operation with other constituents to achieve it. But this conjoint norm will have no pull on adherents. They are not motivated as beneficiaries, so they will not be capable of forming the pattern of beliefs and expectations that prompt following the norm. For adherents, conjoint norms of mutuality and reciprocity point in the direction of loyalty to their own social groups, and away from support for other people’s struggles. However, adherents might be prompted by disjoint norms of service.

Consider familiar social norms concerning duties to others, such as ‘Help those weaker than yourself who deserve to be helped’, or ‘Help those in serious need who cannot help themselves’. These might be conjoint norms, if the target contemplated being weak or needy at some point in the future, and therefore a deferred beneficiary. There might be moments of localised social stress, such as those created by communicable disease or civil war, when ‘anyone’s future might be one’s own’ and when such norms would be both conjoint and widely shared. The same might be true in communities of fate, such as those idealised by Alasdair MacIntyre, in which shared dependence, experienced most fully in childhood and old age and in vulnerability to illness, generates conjoint, unconditional moral obligations to others. A needy individual in such a community, MacIntyre argues, is readily integrated into networks of receiving and giving, because she is ‘ourselves as we have been, sometimes are now, and may well be in the future’.

But if these feelings were not shared, then such norms would be disjoint norms, with relatively little, if any, overlap between targets and beneficiaries. Communities of fate, for example, may feel that as well as the obligations they owe to each other, they also owe obligations to strangers outside the community. They may require each other to offer hospitality to strangers in urgent need, even if they themselves have never been, and never expect to be, vulnerable in that way themselves. But these obligations to strangers differ from the obligations which they hold with regard to each other. They cannot be grounded in the community’s capacity to see itself in the stranger’s place: to believe that her distress might as easily have been theirs. To the degree that members of the community cannot see themselves in the strangers’ place, their obligations will be grounded in pity rather than fellow-feeling, and ratified within the community itself as part of their commitments to each other rather than the stranger. ‘This is what people like us do to help others’, they may say to each other as they help the stranger. Their actions are, in other words, regulated by disjoint norms of service.

Adherents, I think, are often moved by disjoint norms, of which they are targets but not beneficiaries. This may make an important difference to the pattern of conflict within the movement, and especially to those dilemmas arising from the presence and positioning of adherents. In a movement comprising solely those responding to conjoint norms (which I will term a combination), we might expect friction over specific instances of compliance with the norm – identifying and punishing defaulters, for example – but little friction over the authority of the norm itself or the identities of those expected to follow it. Conjoint norms are self-regulating. What I am obliged to do follows conditionally from what you do, and vice versa. The norms themselves are created, maintained, and die through the working of reciprocity. Everyone is simultaneously a target and a beneficiary, so everyone is similarly placed.

Furthermore, in a movement made up solely of those responding to the prompting of disjoint norms (which I will term a cause), everyone would again be similarly placed. There might be criticism of personal defaulting, but it would take the form of mutually committed participants keeping each other up to the mark, in the manner of knights under a code of chivalry. As long as the beneficiaries of the norm remained themselves outside the movement – as would characteristically be the case in a chivalric order (or a metropolitan anti-slavery movement or Amnesty International) then internal conflict would be self-regulating. It is important not to dismiss such horizontal accountability as necessarily inefficacious. Peers may be quite effective in keeping each other honest. But their accountability is owed to each other, and not to beneficiaries outside the movement.

However, few social movements are pure causes or pure combinations. In mixed cases, when both types of norm are in play, we might predict a further type of friction. We might expect to find conjoint norms of mutuality and reciprocity among the constituents, and disjoint norms of service among the adherents. As in any other movement, there would be doubtless be primary resentments over the application of the norms to specific cases. But there would also be scope for additional, secondary resentment over the content, making and enforcing of the norms. The more obvious difficulty would arise over the disjoint norms, whose nature and meaning would be reserved for the adherents alone. The constituents would either have to rely on their own conjoint norms to sustain them without the help of adherents, or accept the benefits that the adherents’ disjoint norms of service delivered to them.

Constituents can appeal in the name of the disjoint norms. As I show in other chapters of Other People’s Struggles, they do: when, for example, Edwardian women appealed to chivalrous men to help them get the vote, or the colonised to British norms of civilised fair play, or when the poor appealed to the rich to fulfil their charitable obligations. Such appeals were not always easy to ignore. They forced adherents to concede something of what the constituents demanded, or deny something important about themselves: their respect for the disjoint norm of service. They could not easily treat the appeal as alien to them. Adherents could not fully secure their own identities without acknowledgment by others – which might include constituents – that they lived according to a norm of service to others. In some cases, the withholding of this recognition, by pointing out the gap between the norm and present behaviour, could be deeply unsettling. However, ultimately such appeals could only invoke obligations under which adherents had placed themselves; rather than, as would be the case with conjoint norms, obligations which depended on the beliefs, expectations and preferences of everyone.

This is not always a very serious problem: the beneficiaries of a disjoint norm are, after all, still beneficiaries, and that may be what matters most to them. The practical benefits derived by the beneficiaries of a cause may be considerable. Constituents who are poor might prefer to be the beneficiary of someone else’s (strong) disjoint norm of service than of their own (weak) conjoint norm of reciprocity. True, they get little say over what the norm and its accompanying obligations are, but they gain from the strength with which it is felt by their benefactors. The potential problem in a cause is that the constituents are passive beneficiaries and not co-makers of the rules by which they benefit. Sometimes that matters more. It is often perceived as a fatal weakness in more ambitious struggles. Even though they are the beneficiaries of what the adherents do, the constituents play a lesser part in making, controlling or applying the disjoint norms by which they benefit. paperdartlogo750_turqThey cannot take an equal part in framing the norm, judging when it has been breached, or sanctioning non-observance. The forces behind the disjoint norm of service are the beliefs, expectations and preferences of the targets, that is, of adherents.

IMAGE CREDIT: CORNELIA PARKER, DETAIL FROM A FEATHER FROM FREUD’S PILLOW (1997) (SCREENPRINT, ED. 100), PUBLISHED BY THE THE FREUD MUSEUM, LONDON, TENTH ANNIVERSARY PORTFOLIO.