The work of many sociologists reflects, at some level, a commitment to universal normative propositions. Bringing the metaethical foundations of these propositions forward for critical investigation has not been the general practice. A self-reflexive examination of their own foundational metaethical beliefs and a consideration of other approaches would seem to be the ethical thing to do. The philosophy of Gilles Deleuze offers a contrasting set of metaethical commitments.
Deleuze is suspicious of universal and sedentary moral principles. For example, he questions how we use the concept of human rights in the contemporary world. Deleuze is not opposed to rights as such, but only to the idea that there exists a definitive set of human rights grounded in some rights-bearing feature of human nature. He sees specifications of human rights as empty universals, useless because the codified rights are fixed and ahistorical, unable to evolve in accordance with the requirements of a particular case.
He argues that universal coordinates such as “rights” explain nothing; what needs to be analyzed in a concrete assemblage are the processes by which rights are both created and critiqued. It is not a question of universal rights; it is a question of a situation, and a situation that is evolving. Deleuze takes up the concept of jurisprudence as a model for the creation of rights that are not universal, but always linked to a given assemblage and the particularity of specific cases or singularities.
Human rights are axioms. Axiomatic systems of laws, once established, are fraught with undecidable cases. The law thus operates on two registers: legislators create laws and decide on axioms, rules; while the judiciary moves from case to case, from singularity to singularity. Cases that resist the imposition of axioms wind up in the courts, before a judge, who in the end must make a judgment in the absence of any rule. This is similar to moral particularism as suggested by the Apache and Aristotle.
Jurisprudence is an ongoing and open-ended creative process that leads to the modification of existing laws and the invention of new rights. Deleuze argues that situations which are targeted for intervention must be considered as cases to be decided, rather than simply subsumed under what he sees as sedentary universal codes of laws. “To act for freedom, becoming revolutionary, is to operate in jurisprudence when one turns to the justice system . . . that’s what the invention of law is. . . . It’s not a question of applying ‘the rights of man’ but rather of inventing new forms of jurisprudence.”
Sociologists do not carry guns in the front lines, nor are they asked to participate in the executions of terrorists. This is not to say that sociology has eschewed all pretensions of moral interventionism. However, if sociology seeks to oppose oppression, basing the campaign on a commitment to moral realism leaves one armed with universal, immutable, and thus “oppressive” codes.