Instrumental Activism

Parsons drew on German sociologist Max Weber's (1864-1920) characterization of the Puritan religious ethic as an "inner-worldly asceticism" that sought to engage the harsher realities of life to transform them into elements of the "kingdom of God on earth" (Weber, 1930). While agreeing with Weber's analysis, he preferred the term instrumental activism to characterize the basic values and worldview of American society. This term underscored that American civilization had secularized the Puritan emphasis on mastery over the given conditions of life and made it the ethical basis for a wide range of worldly social institutions. Thus, secular variants of the mastery ethic now guide the formation of institutions in science and technology, formally rational law and bureaucracy, the market system and entrepreneurship, and motives of personal self-discipline and improvement (Parsons). Highlighting consistency with this basic cultural theme, Parsons found not "denial" of death but mastery over its disrupting effects on personal and social life.

While death is inevitable, its social impact is meliorable. Parsons explored two respects in which this is true (Parsons and Lidz; Parsons, Fox, and Lidz). First, medical and public health technologies have reduced premature death and now typically enable members of society to use "God-given" talents to advance their vocations in good health over long lives. The demographic changes of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and related efficiencies in the use of human talents, thus flowed from an effort to master death. Second, when individuals die, the resulting experiences of social loss can be controlled. Measures ranging from life insurance to retirement planning in business to estate planning in personal affairs to psychotherapy for grief and loss reduce harms ensuing from death (Zelizer, 1983). Similarly, American mourning customs emphasize austerely supporting the bereaved in overcoming grief and guilt, so they are able to return to their routine social obligations without long delay.

Parsons recognized that, despite sharing the values of "instrumental activism," Americans disagree over many matters related to death. Abortion, capital punishment, licensing of firearms, euthanasia, medical care for the terminally ill, and organ transplantation, for example, were matters of public controversy when Parsons wrote and remain so today. "Death in the Western World" attempts to explain why this particular domain of contemporary culture has been chronically ridden with controversy. Parsons sought an answer in the rationalism of the Enlightenment, focusing on its synthesis in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

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