Chapter 6: Quest for Moral Authority

The imperative of social engineering sought to recast human relations as a technical issue, the solution to which lay in the domain of science. John Dewey and other progressive commentators justified this approach on the ground that new technology and rapid change had created a world where people’s affairs were dominated by ‘remote and invisible organizations’ that were too complex to be apprehended by laymen.426 What followed from Dewey’s prognosis of mechanical forms of behaviour and interaction was the necessity for the project of human engineering. ‘The age of human engineering is with us’, declared one of Dewey’s supporters, who stated that ‘where it will take us no one may safely predict, but its changes promise to be more revolutionary than those science has recently introduced, and of vastly more importance for man.’427

The metaphor of engineering favoured by its advocates evoked a world where the application of science and technology would transform society and replace conflict and war with benevolent forms of management and administration. In practice, social engineering had the far more modest objectives of modifying behaviour and providing technical solutions to social problems. Social Engineering was the name of the journal of the League for Social Services. Launched in 1899, it conveyed the impression that social work and social engineering were synonymous. The self-conscious designation of social engineering for social work and family guidance continued into the 1950s.428

From its inception, the liberal sections of the self-identified social engineering movement believed that they were in the business of promoting democratic values. The historian Andrew Jewett refers to supporters of this movement as ‘scientific democrats’.429 Jewett ascribed the motive of supporting democracy to this movement, even though he recognises that many of its leading participants ‘did not necessarily’ possess a ‘lofty view of the average citizen’s cognitive capacities’ or the ‘potentialities of public deliberation as a political force’.430

From the outset, social engineering sought to de-politicise conflict and displace ideologically driven policy making with its apparently neutral scientific approach to public affairs. It sought to gain legitimacy on the ground that, unlike other institutions, it embodied disinterestedness. A key argument for its advocacy of the rule of experts was that it removed the main issues of the day from the grubby world of conflicting interests into the rational and disinterested sphere of science. One of the objectives of the turn of the 20th century progressives was to ‘remove politicians from the center of action, replacing them with social scientists who control social structures after the manner of engineers taming raging rivers’.431 The flip-side of their deification of the rule of unelected, disinterested expert was their low estimation of the value of democracy.

The radical liberal and progressive British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s The Scientific Outlook (1919) offered a paradigmatic example of how an endorsement of the authority of science coexisted with a sceptical stance towards democracy. He explained that ‘equality, like liberty, is difficult to reconcile with scientific technique’ and that though ‘democratic forms may be preserved in politics’ they will have ‘little content’. Russell indicated that since an ‘ordinary man cannot hope to understand “technical questions”, society would be ruled by experts’.432 Though Russell was more sympathetic to democracy than most of his co-thinkers, he was in no doubt that eugenic scientific principles justified preventing ‘unfit’ parents from having children.433 Moreover, his supposedly disinterested scientific point of view led him to predict that ‘as time goes on we may expect a greater and greater percentage of the population to be regarded as mentally defective from the point of view of parenthood’.434 Russell’s paternalistic impulses were and continue to be shared by all the different strands – from left to right − of social engineers.

The failure to see an inconsistency between advocacy of a paternalistic form of expert authority and genuine democracy is characteristic of an important blind spot within the outlook of social engineering. They did not regard citizens as their equals but as targets of their intervention. Many scientific democrats embraced the metaphor of ‘society as patient’ and assumed that they – and only they – possessed the insights necessary for curing the diseases of culture. They believed that ‘science could shape new kinds of citizens’.435 To achieve this objective, they adopted psychology as their main instrument and from the 1940s acted on the assumption that changing/altering/reforming/enlightening people’s personality was the precondition for reforming society.

Promoters of scientism regarded global organisations as ideal institutions to promote their project. Post-Second World War international organisations – the WHO, UNESCO, World Federation for Mental Health – publicised the use of scientific expertise to solve the problems facing humankind. They declared that their disinterested science could ameliorate the condition of humanity. UNESCO, in particular, was devoted to the project of ridding the world of prejudice and authoritarianism. The Preamble of its Constitution stated that ‘since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed’.436 The project of educating the ‘minds of men’ was, according to a study of UNESCO’s founding ideology, ‘effectively equivalent to an experiment in social engineering on a global scale’.437

Some social engineers assumed that they had the authority to mould and shape people’s opinions. Edward Bernays, a leading pioneer in the field of public relations and propaganda, was unabashed in his advocacy of engineering consent. In his influential essay, ‘The engineering of consent’ (1947), he explained that governments need to use ‘an engineering approach − that is, action based only on thorough knowledge of the situation and on the application of scientific principles and tried practices to the task of getting people to support ideas and programs’. He justified the need to use psychological techniques to engineer consent on the ground that governments could not wait until the public understood the wisdom of its proposals. He wrote:

The average American adult has only six years of schooling behind him. With pressing crises and decisions to be faced, a leader frequently cannot wait for the people to arrive at even general understanding. In certain cases, democratic leaders must play their part in leading the public through the engineering of consent to socially constructive goals and values.438

Bernays’ paternalistic sentiment towards the average American adult was based on two characteristic features of the ethos of social engineering: the assumption of the moral superiority of the scientific expert and a deeply held mistrust of democracy and of the ‘average’ person. Suspicion towards the politics of public life led to a preference for technical solutions to the problems facing society.

Social engineering, with its promise that science could solve the problem of human conflict, was widely disseminated in the media and institutions of education. The meaning of the term ‘social engineering’ was rarely elaborated upon. For example, in 1951 one source stated that ‘social engineering is democratic and scientific problem solving’.439 However, what was at stake was not simply the application of techniques of problem solving but of a veritable ideology for the management of society. In his influential bestseller, The Organization Man (1956), Whyte drew attention to the unstated and protean character of this ideology. He wrote of a ‘popular ideology’ that interlocked ‘separate credos’ and which was ‘highly elastic’. Whyte highlighted scientism as one of the core components of this ideology.

Whyte drew attention to the widespread interest in the science of human relationships and human engineering. He was struck by the growing cohort of social engineers busy practising their craft in different sectors of economic and public life and the similar sensibility that they tended to display. He wrote that ‘no matter what branch of social engineering a man is engaged in – “mass” communication, “the engineering of consent,” public relations, advertising, personnel counselling – he can feel himself part of a larger movement’.440

Whyte commented that some social engineers possessed a utopian vision that energised them to regard ‘science’ as not ‘merely a tool’ but as the only path to salvation in a world where ‘laymen have gone mad’.441 As experts, they felt entitled to guide or manipulate the public. He concluded that the ‘real impact of scientism is upon our values’.442 Whyte highlighted how apparently politically neutral ‘experts in human relations’ succeeded in challenging prevailing values and replacing them with their own.

Numerous social commentators in the 1950s and 1960s − Whyte, David Riesman, Herbert Marcuse − sounded their concern about the diverse forms of psychological techniques used to manipulate public opinion. Vance Packard’s bestseller, Hidden Persuaders (1957) offered a sensationalist account of the way consumers’ desires were manipulated by the advertising industry. Although many of these commentaries went far too far in their evocation of the omnipotent forces of manipulation, there is little doubt that psychology was increasingly deployed − with varying degree of success − to manage public opinion.

‘During this century we have learned to reject authority’, stated the 1962 Reith Lecturer, the psychiatrist George Carstairs, who nevertheless seized upon the authority of science to declare that ‘the explosive expansion of science’ has introduced ‘something new into human experience’; a ‘mental climate favourable to new forms of political organization, world-wide in scope’.443 Post-war scientism was drawn towards a globalist vision and often appeared to favour international institutions over national ones. Through outsourcing authority to international institutions, its advocates sought to de-politicise conflict and claimed to offer a superior alternative to the messy business of politics.

Although at times social engineers possessed an ambition to harness the power of science and technology to transform society, their main focus tended to be on the re-engineering of humans and the way they related to one another. For some of them, the vision of society as machine gave way to the person as machine. For social engineers, altering behaviour through techniques of behaviour modification appeared as the most promising way of achieving their objectives. That is why behaviourism and behaviourist psychology played such a central role in social engineering projects. The conviction that behaviour ‘could be shaped to fit social goals by those who understood the nature of those goals and the means of achieving them’ inspired social reformers and progressive activists.444 Invariably, social engineers concluded that it was through early intervention in childhood that they could realise their objective of controlling people’s behaviour. Hence the importance they attached to developing ‘appropriate techniques of socialization’ for engineering people’s personality.445

The quest for authority

The transformation of social engineering into an ideology that relied on the authority of science and of experts was accomplished through the influence and activity of a variety of diverse interests and movements. In the first instance, social engineering and its promotion of scientism aimed to establish a new, forward-looking authority to replace the different forms of traditional moral authority, which appeared to be swiftly unravelling.

Challenging traditional forms of authority and moral norms, and projecting science as the legitimate foundation of authority, were high on the agenda of social engineering. Although the authority of science was frequently presented as amoral and value free, its representatives implicitly and often explicitly drew attention to its moral superiority over its competitors. This argument was eloquently outlined by the social theorist Robert Merton in his essay, ‘A note on science and democracy’. Written in 1942, in the midst of the war against fascism, Merton presented science as a moral and cultural weapon to be wielded against anti-democratic forces. In what he characterised as the ‘revolutionary conflict of cultures’, Merton drew attention to the unique moral status of the scientist. He claimed that ‘it is probable that the reputability of science and its lofty ethical status in the estimate of the layman is in no small measure due to technological achievements’. To reinforce this claim, he stated ‘every new technology bears witness to the integrity of the scientist’.446 For Merton, the normative foundation of scientific authority was constituted by its capacity to achieve results – it was true because it worked; its utility was its truth.447

At a time when traditional sources of legitimation appeared exhausted, science appeared to possess a singular capacity to provide society with an authoritative guide to the future. The vanishing of tradition was an invitation to the reconstitution of authority in a new form. In an era of scientific and technological progress, the project of reconstituting authority was drawn inevitably towards the status enjoyed by technical expertise and specialised knowledge. But unlike traditional authority, which touched on every dimension of the human experience, the authority of the expert was confined to that which could be exercised through reason. Joseph Raz writes that the ‘authority of the expert can be called theoretical authority, for it is an authority about what to believe’.448

Raz observed that unlike political authority, which ‘provides reason for action’, theoretical authority ‘provides reason for belief’.449 However, while it is valid to draw a conceptual distinction between these two forms of authority, historical experience suggests that expertise easily becomes politicised. With the passage of time, the distinction between these two forms of authority becomes blurred, and the very fragility of political authority encourages a process whereby politicians outsource their power to experts. ‘Governments find expert advice to be an indispensable resource for formulating and justifying policy and, more subtly, for removing some issues from the political domain by transforming them into technical questions’, writes Stephen Hilgartner.450

Terrence Ball suggests that the potential for the politicisation of expertise can be understood through considering the distinction between epistemic and epistemocratic authority. Epistemic authority is ‘that which is ascribed to the possessor of specialized knowledge, skills, or expertise’.451 For example, this form of authority works through deference to doctors on medical matters and lawyers on legal affairs. Epistemocratic authority, ‘by contrast, refers to the claim of one class, group, or person to rule another by virtue of the former’s possessing specialized authority not available to the latter’.452 Ball argues that:

[E]pistemocractic authority is therefore conceptually parasitic upon epistemic authority. Or, to put it slightly differently, epistemocratic authority attempts to assimilate political authority to the non-political epistemic authority of the technician or expert.453

Ball claims that the conceptual distinction between political rule and expert authority in modern society becomes ‘blurred if not meaningless’. In effect, the epistemocratic imperative extends the claim of expertise to the domain of political and public life, assimilating moral and political issues to ‘the paradigm of epistemic authority’ and asserting that ‘politics and ethics are activities in which there are experts’.454 The influence exercised by epistemocratic authority today is shown by the constant slippage between scientific advice and moral and political exhortations on issues as diverse as public health and childrearing. The influence of managerial and technocratic ideals on public life indicates that the epistemocratic ideal is one ‘to which political reality in some respects increasingly corresponds’.455

Reservations about the influence that expertise could exercise over public life coexisted with the conviction that its authority was indispensable for maintenance of order in a modern society. Many supported expertise because of its capacity for transforming moral questions into impersonal, technocratic ones. In this way scientism – the politicisation of science – promised to de-politicise the question of authority. One of its consequences was to undermine the moral foundation on which adult authority rested, which in turn had the effect of unleashing a dynamic that would turn socialisation into a site of permanent cultural conflict. The quest for a new foundation for authority was the point of departure for the eventual surfacing of the crisis of identity and its subsequent politicisation.

The re-engineering of the normative foundation of society

One of the impulses that motivated the promotion of the authority of science was the aspiration to develop a new normative foundation for human society. William I. Thomas, a leading American sociologist, declared that once ‘we have a science of rational control’, then ‘we can establish any attitudes and values whatever’.456 Social scientists possessed a firm conviction that ‘science could itself provide norms for the reconstruction of human life’.457 Social engineering was in all but name moral engineering.

Dewey wrote of ‘the technique of social and moral engineering’, which relied on the natural sciences acquiring a normative content.458 He hoped that in this way the ethical value of science would form the foundation for human moral conduct. Moral life comes to resemble the pursuit of science. ‘It is rendered flexible, vital, growing’, argued Dewey.459 Thus, moral reasoning turns into a species of scientific inquiry that can be tested, modified and re-engineered. For Dewey, the scientific method is the moral method used for investigation of the ‘engineering of mind’. For Dewey, the reconstruction of morality was conterminous with science acquiring a status previously accorded to religion. Decades later, one of Dewey’s disciples, the philosopher Richard Rorty, declared that his goal was to revive Deweyan ‘social engineering’, conceived as the ‘substitute for traditional religion’.460

The search for the ‘science of rational control’ invariably led progressive social engineers to the conclusion that ‘science, guided by expert minds, would enable the control of social phenomena, primarily by adjusting people to their changing environment’.461 This was to be achieved by drawing on the resources provided by psychology, a science that held out the promise of adjusting people to adopt the ethos of social engineering. Burnham depicted psychology as the scientific wing of the American progressive movement, which held the view that human beings were malleable and under the guidance of experts ‘could make and remake’ their world.462 American psychology was permeated with a technoscientific attitude that stressed the twin goals of knowledge and application, of science and practice, often employed in the service of increased order, efficiency, rationalisation and control.463 Psychology’s technoscientific attitude encouraged it to acquire a ‘social engineering function’, which to a greater or lesser extent persists to this day.464

In the interwar decades, the quest for order and control also often possessed a utopian dimension. Leading behaviourist psychologists like Watson and Skinner sought to ‘win a cultural battle’ against views that they regarded as obstacles to progress. Watson in particular promoted ideas regarding childrearing and family life with a view to bringing about social and cultural change.465

From the outset, social engineering deployed its ideology of scientism to undermine and discredit traditional cultural norms. Scientism relies on the well-earned prestige enjoyed by the sciences. However, it inappropriately expands its application to the resolution and management of problems in the moral, social and political spheres. The most effective instrument that scientism had at its disposal was psychology. Psychology offered a scientific equivalent to what was in the 19th century referred to as moral therapy. Unlike moral therapy, which conveyed explicit normative and value- related assumptions, psychology presented itself as a value-neutral science that was freed from traditional morality. Brinkmann points out that psychology sought to instrumentalise morality. For example, the ‘early methods of personality re-formation called “moral therapy” were transformed into the value neutral notion of “psychotherapy”’.466 The shift from moral therapy to a ‘nonmoral psychology’ helped to reduce morality to psychology, which meant that over time the ‘value of anything’ came to be determined by its psychological function.467 Commenting on the historical development of this trend, Justman stated that ‘nothing has done more to discredit the very language of morality than psychology’.468

In his study of the history of psychology, Danziger underlines the shift from this profession’s focus from character to personality. As Danziger explains, character, with its ‘moral overtones’, gradually gave way to a focus on personality. He suggests that ‘the decisive factor favouring the emergence of “personality” as the description of a twentieth-century psychological object was probably its preceding medicalization’.469 Unlike character, which was a moral accomplishment and was associated with ideals like, duty, courage and integrity, personality could be discussed in terms of scientifically validated traits that psychologists could treat. Psychological concepts did not merely displace moral ones; they were also deployed to pathologise forms of behaviour influenced by strongly held moral sentiments. As Justman pointed out, ‘not only’ does psychology ‘efface moral issues and unwrite the very language of moral judgment, it intimates that such judgment is a hindrance to human emancipation, even a disease’.470 In recent decades the diseasing of judgment has gained powerful cultural validation to the point that it has become the cultural norm.471

Psychology’s displacement of moral authority had a profound impact on the authority of religion. As Rieff wrote, for more than a century now, theologians have been ‘screening psychologists in the hope of finding one who could rescue theology for them’.472 The Anglican Bishop, Frank Russell Barry was hopeful and yet ambiguous about the Church’s relation with psychology. In his Christianity and Psychology (1923), he wrote of ‘the terrific strain to which all were subjected, and from which we have none of us as yet fully recovered’ and which ‘forced the mind back, as it were, upon itself, and created an unprecedented interest in the specifically mental sciences, as well as in spiritism and similar cult’. He asserted; ‘We are all psychologists today.’473 Gradually Christian theologians in the Anglo-American world came to regard psychology as an ally, that could help them to respond to a need which religion alone could not fulfil.474

Written three years before his death, Stanley Hall’s ‘The message of the Zeitgeist’ (1921) served as a call to arms for psychology to assume its role as the principal instrument for civilisational renewal. For Hall, psychology was not an instrument simply for curing individual illness but also society as a whole. In line with one of the main tenets of the ideology of social engineering, Hall called for a break with ‘the reckoning of the past’.475 Striking a modernist tone, he wrote that

there is a new discontent with old leaders, standards, criteria, methods and values, and a demand everywhere for new ones, a realization that mankind must now reorient itself and take its bearings from the eternal stars and sail no longer into the unknown future by the dead reckonings of the past.476

He wrote of a world that was ill and required a ‘great physician for its soul’.477 Stalin, who referred to his favourite novelists as ‘engineers of human souls’, was clearly on the same page as Hall.478

Hall wrote of the need for the ‘psychological pedagogue’ to become an ‘engineer in the domain of nature’,479 and referred to psychologists as a ‘sort of high priest of souls’, who were ‘not content merely to fit men for existing institutions as they are to-day’ but would ‘develop even higher powers, which gradually molt old and evolve new and better institutions or improve old ones’.480

Hall’s utopian vision was to be overseen by scientific experts and intellectuals:

Henceforth, as never before, progress is committed to the hands of the intellectuals and they must think harder, realizing to the full the responsibilities of their new leadership. Science in its largest sense is from this time forth to rule the world. The age of laissez faire is ended and research, discovery, investigation, and invention, which have done so much already, must now take the helm and be our pioneers in this new era. In everything it is the expert who must say the final word.481

Hall appointed the university as the ‘chief shrine’ and ‘powerhouse’ of the spirit of social engineering. He described the university as the ‘new church of science’, where intellectuals with a calling are ‘smitten with the passion of adding something to the sum of the world’s knowledge.482 Nodding in agreement, the psychologist James McKeen Cattell stated ‘scientific men should take the place that is theirs as masters of the modern world’.483

It is evident that their claim to scientific objectivity notwithstanding, these high priests of the soul often strayed into the domain of morality and their psychological language communicated values in a medicalised form. Erikson’s conceptualisation of identity crisis is instructive in this respect. He recognised that the crisis of identity had an important normative dimension. He wrote at length of a ‘normative identity crisis’ facing adolescents and, as some commentaries have indicated, some of the case studies he uses in his Childhood and Society, read ‘like a handbook of dos and don’ts for raising children’.484 Though his normative assumptions are conveyed in a medicalised psychological vocabulary, it is evident that his arguments aim to promote objectives that are value and politics related. As Giorgi contends, ‘at societal level, the objective is to promote “social health”, “cultural solidarity” and “the reduction of economic and political prejudice which denies a sense of identity to youth”’.485

The re-engineering of the moral foundation of society was and continues to be pursued through the medicalisation of human experience. In 1975, the theologian and philosopher Ivan Illich captured this trend with the phrase ‘medicalization of life’ to draw attention to the relentless ‘proliferation of medical agents’, which perversely had the effect of ‘decreasing, the organic and psychological coping ability of ordinary people’.486 Sol Cohen has argued that the ‘post-World War II climate was especially favourable’ to the promotion of psychologically informed cultural norms. He wrote that ‘the mental hygiene point of view became part of the common stock of knowledge, the “conceptual small change of the mass media,” celebrated on the musical stage, in the movies, and in literature, a language which had deeply penetrated the zeitgeist of the country’.487

As an influential cultural force, medicalisation was first institutionalised in the domain of socialisation and particularly in education. In his study of the medicalisation of American education, Cohen convincingly argues that during the interwar era progressive educators and psychiatrists advocating the ethos of mental hygiene succeeded in replacing traditional disciplinary pedagogy with a therapeutic one. They targeted ‘three sources of stress in the school that had to be rectified: failure, the academic subject-matter-centred curriculum, and disciplinary procedures’.488 To realise their aim of re-engineering children’s personality, they argued for the de-emphasis of academic subject matter. A study on progressive education theory concurs with this assessment and draws attention to its ‘intense concern for the psychological development of children’.489 Educating the personality of children also coincided with the agenda of the business community, who believed that the acquisition of traits like adaptability and flexibility would help enhance the quality of the workforce.

The crusade to transform the purpose of education towards the goal of promoting the mental health of children was ratified in 1950 at the historic Mid-Century White House Conference on Children and Youth. The conference took as its slogan ‘A Healthy Personality for Every Child’. This conference concluded with the statement that ‘the school’ must ‘assume the primary responsibility for the healthy development of the whole personality of each child’.490

Students of educational reform have argued that it takes several generations before its ideals become institutionalised. The diffusion of reforms into everyday classroom practice can take up to half a century.491 The time scale for the diffusion of therapeutic education was far more rapid. Moreover, from the mid-20th century its presence in the classroom increased decade by decade. Raising self-esteem, teaching emotional literacy, resilience, grit, wellness and mindfulness are some of the therapeutic fads adopted by schools in recent decades.

The constant expansion of the medicalisation of education has a significance that goes way beyond its impact on the school curriculum. Compulsory education provided a ready-made target audience for the project of socialising young people to internalise therapeutic values. As Cohen concluded, ‘the body of ideas bequeathed’ to education ‘by the mental hygiene movement are now part of our “common-sense”’.492 Moreover, this common sense has over the decades become integral to the way that western culture gives meaning to human experience. The medicalisation of education has played a significant role in the transmission of therapeutic cultural norms throughout society.

The main reason why the imperative of medicalisation did not become a subject of serious deliberation until the 1970s is because its normative ideological ambitions were rarely made explicit. It is difficult to give the movement devoted to the re-engineering of socialisation a name. Cohen’s characterisation of this movement is apposite in that it

can best be understood if treated not as an autonomous medical or scientific discipline, but as an ideology with a social function, the more effective because of the assumed neutrality of the medical profession and by virtue of its scientific sounding language of health and disease.493

Its scientific rhetoric, along with its claim of professional neutrality, coincided with a ‘psychiatric vision of salvation’ from the regime of traditional attitudes and values that allegedly distorted children’s personality. In the 21st century, the ethos of medicalisation is communicated in a more downbeat language but, if anything, it exercises a far greater influence over western culture than it did during the previous century.

Displacing the political

Political ideologues and capitalist entrepreneurs alike looked to the authority of science for advancing their cause. Milovan Djilas, the prominent dissident in communist Yugoslavia, wrote in his New Class (1957) that ‘being very practical men, the Communist leaders, immediately establish cooperation with technicians and scientists, not paying attention to their “bourgeois” views’.494 Even the Nazi Government in Germany sought to legitimate is policies on the basis of its racial science. Habermas observed that in the post-war period, technology and science worked as a quasi-ideology: he wrote of the ‘scientization of political power’ and argued that politicians had become increasingly dependent on professionals.495

For businessmen, social engineering promised efficiency and harmonious relations with labour. For reformers, it held out the possibility of taming the conflicts associated with mass society and competing political interests. Scientism and moral engineering appeared as a powerful antidote to the irrational ways of traditional customs. They also served as instruments for de-politicising public life and insulating the ruling elites from the constant pressure exerted by the mass electorate. Although the aspiration for control transcended the ideological divide, the politicisation of science and its transformation into the quasi-ideology of scientism was most systematically pursued by American progressives, British New Liberals and Swedish Social Democrats. These movements sought to offer an apolitical alternative that acclaimed science the supreme authority for managing society.496

Already in the early decades of the 20th century, social psychology in the guise of a scientific analysis had served as the basis for a political critique of the irrational emotions that apparently surface in a mass democracy. The new elitist psychologists claimed that ‘democracy, equality, and liberty alike were incompatible with human nature and its instinctual crowd propensity’.497 In the decades to follow, their explicit elitist disdain for democracy became more muted. However, in one important respect their critique of democracy anticipates a recurring theme in political psychology. They constantly draw attention to the disposition of people towards the acceptance of authoritarianism.

Towards the late 1930s, because of its endorsement by authoritarian regimes, social engineering lost some of its explicit appeal. Karl Popper noted that ‘the term “social technology”’ and ‘even more the term “social engineering” is likely to arouse suspicion and to repel those whom it reminds of the “social blueprints” of the collectivist planners, or perhaps even of the “technocrats”’. Popper opted to add the word ‘piecemeal’ to his form of social engineering in order to ‘off-set undesirable associations’.498 During the 1960s the term ‘social engineering’ often tended to invite negative connotations. In a series of essays written in the 1960s titled The End of Ideology, Daniel Bell indicated that the idea of a new utopia of social harmony realised through social engineering had little appeal for intellectuals.499 In more recent decades, the term ‘social engineering’ has suffered from its association with the failure of planning in communist societies and the loss of legitimacy suffered by large-scale social programmes of the welfare state.

Nevertheless, social engineering has retained its influence, albeit in a more implicit and less utopian form than in the past. Its persistence has been underwritten by the continued demand for control. The liberal economist Friedrich Hayek, one of the most forceful critics of scientism, wrote in the early 1950s that ‘the universal demand for “conscious” control or direction of social processes is one of the most characteristic features of our generation’, for ‘it expresses perhaps more clearly than any of its other cliches the peculiar spirit of the age’.500 Hayek claimed that the ‘engineering point of view, is much greater than it is generally realized’ and that the desire ‘to apply engineering technique to the solution of social problems has become very explicit’.501 In this respect, Hayek proved to be prescient.

Back in the late 1960s, writing about the ‘scientization of politics and public opinion’, the political philosopher Jürgen Habermas wrote that, as an ideology, scientism permeated all social institutions, leading to the ‘depoliticization of the mass of populations’.502 Since Habermas wrote those words, the scientisation of political life has gone much further than at any time during the modern era. The past 40 years has seen the institutionalisation of a form of technocratic governance that justifies its legitimacy on the ground that it eschews all ideology and that its policies are evidence based. The very fragility of political authority encourages a process whereby politicians outsource their power to experts.

A radical illustration of the outsourcing of decision making to science occurred during the Covid pandemic, when governments constantly asserted that their policies were ‘following the science’. The representation of scientific activity as a stand-alone The Science constitutes an important development in the narrative of scientism. The rhetorical mutation of science into what is referred to as The Science highlights the ideological turn towards scientism. Unlike genuine science, which subscribes to the ethos of open-ended experimentation, ‘The Science’ is an ideological and political construct. The placing of a definite article, ‘the’, before science represents a slippage from a scientific fact that can be questioned to an unanswerable moral dogma.

Though in theory technocratic governance presents itself as apolitical and untainted by moral assumptions, its ideological preference becomes exposed whenever its theory is put into practice. Take the science of parenting and of socialisation and its claim of professional disinterestedness. Experts constantly claim that their science entitles them to be the authoritative voices on issues that were hitherto perceived as strictly pertaining to the domain of personal and family life. From their perspective, childrearing, education and relationships needed to be reorganised in accordance with the latest finding of scientific research. However, these experts possessed a powerful crusading ethos that went way beyond the findings of scientific research. Kessen wrote that:

Critical examination and study of parental practices and child behaviour almost inevitably slipped subtly over to advice about parental practices and child behaviour. The scientific statement became an ethical imperative, the descriptive account became normative.503

Nor did experts merely provide advice. Often with the backing of official institutions they could impose their policies on schools and directly influence the conduct of family life. As against the authority of science, the insights and values of ordinary people enjoyed little cultural valuation.

Decades of parental advice of a scientific and psychologically informed pedagogy have failed to live up to their promise of producing well-adjusted children with healthy personalities. Indeed, the medicalisation of socialisation has had the perverse effect of intensifying the sense of emotional disorientation among young people and creating the conditions for the flourishing of a crisis of identity.

Backlash against moral engineering

The project of social engineering, which was devoted to providing a scientific solution to the problem of control and order, frequently strayed into the domain of moral norms. The politicisation of expertise rarely confined itself strictly to technical matters. From the outset of its emergence in the 19th century, expert authority claimed a moral status that was superior to the rest of society. ‘Precisely because there were truths that no honest investigator could deny, the power to make decisions had to be placed in the hands of experts whose authority rested on special knowledge rather than raw self-assertiveness, or party patronage, or a majority vote of the incompetent’, wrote Haskell.504 The work of science was often associated with the ‘purity of the scientist’ and a ‘refined moral sensibility’.505

The case for affirming the unique moral status of the expert was clearly stated by E.A. Ross in 1906, when he wrote of the need for moral experts on the ground that the ‘judgments’ of ‘the average man’ are ‘inconsistent and thoughtless’.506 During the decades following Ross’ call for moral expertise, many psychologists rose to the occasion. Some, like B.F. Skinner, argued that behavioural engineers are the one group of scientists whose purview includes making value judgments. He asserted that scientists like biologists and physicists may not have more wisdom than their fellow citizens but ‘behavioural scientists apparently do’.507 Unlike Skinner, most social engineers eschewed to explicitly adopt the role of moral expertise. However, in practice, through their critique of traditional morality, they contributed to its de-legitimation.

Chisholm took pride in his profession’s refusal to acquiesce to the demands of traditional morality. ‘The fact is that most psychiatrists and psychologists and many other people have escaped from these moral chains and are able to observe and think freely from the magic fears of our ancestors’.508 Calling on his profession to accept its responsibility ‘to remodel the world’, Chisholm sought to create a new moral order. To realise this objective, people had to be taught ‘to put rational thinking in place of obsolete concepts of right and wrong’.509 The casual manner with which Chisholm indicted moral values with which he disagreed indicated that he was no less a moralist than those who he accused of promoting values he opposed. He was a fervent advocate of world government and world citizenship, which he perceived as morally superior to a national one.510 He was also a ‘naïve moralist’, who according to one of his critics considered his ‘own system of values not morality but rationality’.511

The authority of science, particularly through the influence exercised by psychology, proved relatively successful in gradually eroding the influence of traditional morality. Its cultural appeal first emerged in higher education and among the professions, and gradually expanded to elite cultural institutions. From the 1930s onwards it came to dominate school pedagogy, and through the media its influence over popular culture increased incrementally. Even sections of the Church were prepared to give way to psychology’s promise of moral authority. In October 1919 a Protestant Pastor, Dr William Rosecrance Prince, informed his audience at New School of Christian or Applied Psychology in Los Angeles that with ‘perfection of psychology mankind will reach the perfection predicted for the millennium’.512

The challenge that moral engineering posed to the way of life of most people was frequently remarked on by commentators who were uncomfortable with this development. It was in the domain of religion and in schooling that the introduction of anti-traditionalist practices and norms periodically provoked a backlash. In Britain, religious leaders attempted to forge an amicable relation with psychology, until it became clear that they were expected to make most of the concessions. It was only when ‘some hardline psychoanalysts adopted an explicitly anti-religious stance’ that Church leaders became wary of psychology’s impact on their authority.513 In 1939, Reverend J.C.M. Conn of Kelvinside Old Parish Church, Glasgow, sounded the alarm:

Make no mistake, contemporary psychology, in some of its forms, has taken the field as an enemy of the Christian religion, making the boldest tremble for his faith in spiritual reality, and offering its own cures for moral ills. The greatest issues of faith are being decided on this front. Is theology or psychology to have the last word as the supreme authority in matters of faith and morals?514

As it turned out in the decades to follow, theology came under the influence of psychology far more than the other way around.

It was in education, particularly in the United States, that the backlash against the mounting challenge against traditional values and modes of socialisation was most noticeable. Schooling became the terrain where the earliest traces of what would crystallise into the culture wars of the late 20th and 21st centuries can be located. In American education, the ideology of social engineering through the progressive invisible pedagogy had acquired an authoritative status within the teaching profession. The invisibility of its pedagogic influence was important because through its practice it could substantially alter the regime of socialisation without appearing to directly challenge pre-existing norms. As Zilversmit’s study of progressive educational theory indicates, its prescription ‘led to an unattractive reliance on manipulation’ of children in the classroom. So-called ‘child-centred learning’ meant that though children were ‘supposedly making their own choices’ what they ended up doing was determined in advance; ‘the hand of authority was there but so disguised that it could not be readily recognized’.515

Through the application of the invisible pedagogy, progressive teachers sought to shape the personality of children in accordance with their own attitude and values. At times sections of the teaching profession became so confident of their authority that they lectured parents not to interfere in the education of their children because they might actually harm them.516 To many it seemed that progressive education was not only undermining the traditional ethos of socialisation but was also ‘Un-American’. During the Cold War in the early 1950s a backlash against progressive education meshed with a wave of anxiety about the influence of communism over American cultural institutions. In response to hostility provoked by progressive education, many of its supporters changed their language and began to refer to it as ‘modern education’.517

Though the backlash against progressive educated resonated with millions of people it failed to dent its influence over the field of pedagogy. Despite the hostility of successive Republican Governments in the US and of Conservative ones in the UK, in all but name some version of a psychologically informed invisible pedagogy retained influence over the teaching profession.518 With hindsight, one is struck by the flexibility and adaptability of this pedagogy. For over a century educational psychology held out the promise of the certainty of science and the claim that it could transform children’s personality, and make them more adaptable and efficient. Its utilitarian objectives have resonated and continue to resonate with sections of the Establishment concerned about creating a skilled labour force. Others are interested in using invisible pedagogy to alter cultural attitudes in society through cultivating personality traits that distance children from the values of the past. In this way a marriage of convenience between a technocratically driven skills agenda and a psychologically informed promotion of therapeutic values had succeeded in establishing a hegemonic influence over the socialisation of children in schools.

Moral engineering through the application of a rationalised and medicalised ethos has successfully weathered periodic backlashes to its authority. In part its success has been underwritten by the weakening of other sources of authority and the de-politicisation of public life. Yet, though its outlook exercises a powerful influence over society, its inability to offer a coherent normative foundation for society ensures that it will be continually contested. In spite of considerable efforts, it has failed to become a moral authority in its own right. This was a point that Max Weber, one of the founders of sociology, clearly understood. He approvingly cited the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy: ‘Science is meaningless because it gives no answer to the question, the only question important to us: “What shall we do and how shall we live?”’519

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