Gabriel Abend

Gabriel Abend is Associate Professor of Sociology at New York University and Professor of Sociology at University of Lucerne. He studied political science and history at the Universidad de la República (Montevideo, Uruguay), and received his PhD in sociology from Northwestern University. He’s been a fellow of the Institut d’études avancées de Paris; Max-Planck-Institut für Gesellschaftsforschung; Lichtenberg-Kolleg; and Max-Weber-Kolleg für kultur- und sozialwissenschaftliche Studien. He’s the recipient of the 2017 Lewis A. Coser Award for Theoretical Agenda Setting, which “recognizes a mid-career sociologist whose work holds great promise for setting the agenda in the field of sociology.”

Abend’s book, The Moral Background: An Inquiry of the History of Business Ethics, was published by Princeton University Press (hardcover 2014; paperback 2016). It provides a novel account of the history of business ethics and corporate social responsibility in the United States. It also provides a novel approach to the scientific investigation of morality in general. He argues that morality consists of three levels. First, there is the behavioral level: moral and immoral behavior. Second, there is the normative level: moral understandings, norms, and institutions. These two levels are familiar. Abend argues that there is a third level, the moral background, which has not been properly appreciated up to now. This third level comprises: societies’ repertoires of moral concepts, the moral methods that can be used, the reasons that can be given, and the objects that can be morally evaluated at all. Through this perspective, The Moral Background examines the history of business ethicists’ work in the United States, roughly from the 1850s to the 1930s.

In a related project, Abend is empirically investigating “decisionism” qua social phenomenon. Decisions, decision-making, decision-makers, and choices are ubiquitous in contemporary societies, organizations, and scientific research. They are useful for many purposes to many people—as conceptual frameworks to represent and understand social life, and as practical tools to cope with and manipulate it. For instance, much research on morality focuses on moral decisions and choices. This includes both how choices are made (e.g., psychologists’ experiments) and how choices ought to be made (e.g., business ethicists’ prescriptions). It includes why decision-making might go awry (e.g., unethical practices in business and politics) and how to prevent it from going awry (e.g., incentives and nudges). In brief, decision/choice concepts are common in representations of moral life and social practices. Why is that so? Where are they common and prominent? What makes them useful tools? How do they contribute to accounts of economic phenomena in particular?

Abend has been also conducting research on neuroscience and its social, economic, and organizational bases. Part of this project is about neuroscientists who study topics typically associated with the social sciences and humanities. For example, there are literatures on the neural correlates of morality, empathy, love, hatred, art, beauty, trust, religion, spirituality, intention, happiness, sadness, and creativity. There are many neuro-hyphen fields, such as neuro-economics, neuro-marketing, neuro-anthropology, neuro-law, neuro-criminology, neuro-theology, and neuro-history. Abend is interested in the social life and uses of these sorts of neuroscience work. He asks what makes the neuroscience of social-psychological phenomena persuasive and successful in social, political, and organizational life; what actors support and benefit from it; and what neuroscience’s successes suggest about contemporary societies, their institutional arrangements, self-understandings, and self-representations.


Gabriel Abend takes part of the EHESS Visiting Scholar program, on proposal of Éve Chiapello (Centre d'étude des mouvements sociaux - CEMS).


What’s Wrong with the History of Business Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility?

Dans le cadre du séminaire d'Eve Chiapello et Paul Lagneau-Ymonet Current Research in Socio-Economics

  • Monday 4 February 2019, 17:00-19:00 - EHESS, 54 bd Raspail 75006 Paris, room AS1_08

This talk looks at the history of business ethics and corporate social responsibility from the moral background perspective that I’ve developed in my recent work. At the level of behaviors, beliefs, norms, and institutions, the history of business ethics and corporate social responsibility are monotonous. They are predictable. They seem to repeat themselves. I argue that the action is at the moral background level. This level comprises: societies’ repertoires of moral concepts, the moral methods that can be used, the reasons that can be given, and the objects that can be morally evaluated at all. My historical analysis focuses on the United States from the 1850s to the 1930s, and it yields two types of business ethics: “Christian Merchant” and “Standards of Practice.” More generally, the moral background is a tool to investigate morality in economic and social life.

Transcendental Arguments in Social Science: Causal Questions and What-Makes-It-Possible Questions

Dans le cadre du séminaire du CEMS (organisé par Claude Rosental)

  • Thursday 14 February 2019, 17:00 -19:00 - 54 Bd Raspail 75016 Parais, room A05_51 

I showed that business ethics and corporate social responsibility are enabled by particular moral background elements, and thick moral concepts are enabled by particular cultural and institutional facts. Drawing on these findings, I call for empirical social science research on what-makes-it-possible questions. Much of social science is about causes and effects. No doubt, understanding social life requires addressing causal questions, finding out what causes what, and what seemingly causal relationships are in fact spurious. However, a complete causal understanding of the social world isn’t a complete understanding of the social world. Something is missing. I argue that we’re missing what-makes-it-possible accounts about social phenomena, processes, interactions, institutions, and cultural arrangements. By posing a different kind of question, I offer a distinct perspective on the social world and new avenues for social science research.

Moral Judgment and Decision-Making: Social Science, Neuroscience, and Philosophy

Dans le cadre du séminaire d'Eve Chiapello et Paul Lagneau-Ymonet Current Research in Socio-Economics

  • Thursday 21 February 2019, 18:00-20:00, 54 bd Raspail 75006 Paris, room AS1_23

 Moral and immoral decision-making figure prominently in popular culture, journalism, and scientific research. They are prominent in scholarly literatures on business ethics, organizational behavior, management, and economic sociology, too. Further, these literatures draw on neuroscience studies about moral decision-making and judgment, in which experimental participants are presented with moral dilemmas, such as trolley problems, and they must judge what’s appropriate, permissible, right, or “okay.” I argue that moral judgment and decision-making aren’t neutral objects of inquiry, foci, and explananda for scientific research on morality. Rather, they’re peculiar methodological choices, due to which most of moral life is put out of sight. Social scientists should investigate other moral things, including thick moral concepts, questions, narratives, and action in the real world. It follows that scientific research on morality should be methodologically and epistemologically pluralist.

Decisionism in Social and Organizational Life

Dans le cadre du séminaire d'Eve Chiapello et Paul Lagneau-Ymonet Current Research in Socio-Economics 

  • Monday 25 February 2019, 17:00-19:00, 54 bd Raspail 75006 Paris, room AS1_08.

Decisions, choices, decision-makers, and decision-making seem to be everywhere in contemporary societies. That’s how countless things are understood and represented (not only in the moral domain). Successful businesspeople and politicians are described as excellent decision-makers, whereas the poor, criminals, and even addicts are described as people who made wrong choices. Soccer players are said to have to make soccer choices (e.g., whether to shoot, whom to pass the ball to) and jazz musicians are said to have to make musical choices (e.g., what notes or phrases to play in their solos)—whether or not the fact that they’re making choices is consciously available to them. Even nonhuman animals and plants are sometimes represented as engaging in decision-making. Why are these representations common in social and organizational life? What makes them socially persuasive? What are they useful for? What are the social and political consequences of seeing ourselves as decision-makers, who are constantly making choices, big or small, consciously or unconsciously?