The Political Theory of Social Norms

Billy Christmas (University of Manchester)

Carlo Cordasco (University of Sheffield & University of Pennsylvania)

Many contemporary liberal political philosophers argue that well-designed formal institutions are insufficient for securing the compliance required of a stable political order. Rawls for instance has argued that ‘citizens must have a sense of justice and the political virtues that support political and social institutions.’ Emily McTernan has recently suggested that social norms are better equipped, compared to liberal virtues, to ‘make citizens behave.’ She argues that compliance with formal institutions may be better secured by ‘inculcating’ social norms rather than by developing virtues.

We see social norms and their relation to just political orders as a promising and potentially productive lens through which to discuss many issues that currently under the focus of public reason, social contract theory, ideal and non-ideal theory, and thick libertarianism.

The aims of this workshop are threefold:

1. To analyse the concept of social norms: competing definitions and competing accounts of how they emerge, how they are sustained, and how they can be changed.  (Bicchieri; Brennan; Gaus; Ullmann-Margalit; Vanderschraaf.) As well as their conceptual relation to principles of justice and

2. To analyse the relevance of social norms in shaping the desirability and viability of political orders. Specifically, we are interested in how social norms interact with political orders in three

a. By determining the range of compliance with formal institutions. For example laws requiring helmets when driving motorcycles in Naples are largely undermined by the existence of informal sanctions directed towards those who wear helmets.

b. By shaping the substantive contents of formal laws. For example, the right to free speech, although protected by formal laws, is influenced by the extent to which people informally tolerate differing views.

c. And by regulating our behaviours that are not strictly disciplined by formal laws. For example, norms which regulate social group membership and conduct heavily affect people’s opportunity costs, and thus their life choices.

3. Finally, to analyse the normative questions raised by social norms. A crucial difference between social norms and formal laws consists in the latter ultimately being enforced through coercion, whereas the former are sustained by putatively non-coercive, informal sanctions. In light of this, what is the appropriate normative framework for evaluating them? Can social norms be coercive? Is it permissible to use coercive means to change immoral or harmful social norms that are not themselves coercive? If not, how can social change be achieved by individuals, groups, and states?

We welcome submissions tackling any of these three areas, and hope that this workshop will make a serious step towards carving out a central role in political theorising.