Arguements for and Against Morality

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1. Introduction

Philosophy, psychology, and the social sciences have not yet produced a consensual theory about the nature of norms. As is often the case with categorization, some authors approach the phenomenon as “lumpers” and others as “splitters.” Lumpers tend regroup norms under a comprehensive definition, generally centered on the way in which norms match actions with permissibility judgments. Heath (2008, 66), for instance, considers norms to be social rules that “classify actions as permissible or impermissible; they do not specify which outcomes are more or less desirable.” Similarly, Sripada and Stich (2006, 281) define a norm as a “rule or principle that specifies actions that are required, permissible, or forbidden independently of any legal or social institution.”

In contrast, splitters consider that types of norms can be identified and consistently distinguished. Several independent typologies of norms have been proposed, often based on unrelated criteria. The most influential of these typologies was initially proposed by Turiel (1983) and distinguishes “moral,” “conventional,” and “personal” norms. The distinction, which has received much attention in subsequent research in philosophy and psychology, is based on people’s dispositions to judge whether the validity of a norm is dependent or not on authority and context.

An alternative typology has been proposed by Shweder et al. (1997) and includes what they call norms of “community,” “autonomy,” and “divinity.” Their so-called “CAD model” distinguishes norms on the basis of their content: community norms include prescriptions about the function of an individual within a social group, autonomy norms about an individual’s preferences and rights, and divinity norms about interactions with supernatural beings, which they take to include different sexual or food taboos. Rozin et al. (1999) have extended the CAD model to link types of norms with types of emotional reactions to norm violations. In their view, violations of community norms elicit contempt, violations of autonomy norms anger, and violations of divinity norms disgust.

This article is about two new typologies of norms that have been proposed recently by Cristina Bicchieri (2006, 2008) and Jon Elster (2007, 2009). The reason why we have decided to assess these typologies jointly is twofold. The first is that they have been developed independent of previous typologies and can thus be assessed independent of them. The second is that they are based on similar criteria. Instead of focusing on the content of norms (as Shweder et al. 1997) or on the way people assess the validity of norms (as Turiel 1983), they focus on the way in which context, and especially other agents’ expectations and behaviors, shapes one’s preference to comply with norms.

We begin this article with a presentation of Bicchieri’s distinction between social and moral norms (1) and Elster’s distinction between social, moral, and quasi-moral norms (2). After having highlighted the similarities between the two typologies (4), we explain why neither Bicchieri’s (5) nor Elster’s (6) offers a consistent distinction between types of norms. We conclude by arguing that both typologies do not capture causally relevant features of norms and should be abandoned (7). Despite this judgment, we emphasize that both authors correctly identify causally relevant features of human psychology that should figure in any account of the motivational infrastructure underlying norm compliance.

2. Bicchieri’s typology: Social norms versus moral norms

Cristina Bicchieri is a philosopher of economics whose interest in norms is strongly influenced by research in experimental economics and, especially, by the way in which compliance can be elicited in experimental settings. According to Bicchieri (2006), preferences for compliance with social norms are conditional on the satisfaction of two types of expectations: normative and empirical. In contrast,...
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