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Addressing “the social” in normative theorizing


Normative theorists are not a species known for an oversupply of consensus. But one of the most heated debate of recent years has led to a kind of consensus: the debate about “situationism”, which was raised as a challenge to virtue ethics. With virtue ethicists referring to the character of virtuous agents for guidance about moral behaviour, situationists drew attention to the problem that human behaviour is greatly influenced by the situations they find themselves in. For example, they are more altruistic when exposed to the good smells of a bakery. They are more likely to cooperate in a game call “Community Game” than in one called “Wall Street Game” even if they payoffs are the same. And if they are told to play the role of “prison guards”, while others play the role of “prisoners”, the situation can easily get out of hand. Reading such accounts, one might think that all talk about individual agency and responsibility had been based on an illusion: on an account of a “Cartesian” or “Kantian” self, or on an “Aristotelian” notion of stable character, that simply do not exist. All that there is, it seems, are situational forces.

After some heated exchanges, however, a kind of consensus emerged: yes, human behaviour is influenced by situations, but this does not make the notion of individual agency and responsibility superfluous (for a summary of the debate see e.g. here). Human beings are influenced by situations when acting in the heat of the moment, but they can also sit back and think about them (psychologists distinguish between “system 1” and “system 2” thinking). They can bind themselves before entering certain situation like Ulysses did with the sirens. And they can take responsibility for shaping the situations they act in, individually and collectively.

What this means, however, is that social contexts need to be taken seriously as raising normative questions – and we might use the term “social philosophy” to describe the approach to theorizing that does so. It has a different focus than moral philosophy, with its focus on the individual and her decisions and about what makes these decisions right or wrong. It is also different from political philosophy if the latter is understood as concerning first and foremost the principles that apply to the “basic structure” of a society. In between these two fields, there is the field that we can describe, in a broad sense, as “the social”: social roles, social norms, patterns of social behaviour, social relations – all of which are related, in one way or another, to moral and political questions, but which are nonetheless somewhat independent phenomena. Social roles such as that of the “bureaucrat” have an impact on how political principles are put into practice. Social norms determine levels of trust, which can influence the distribution of opportunities in society. Sociological research provides a plethora of insights about how these phenomena function and what impact they have on individuals and societies.

If we do not take this field into account, we run the risk of overlooking phenomena that create, or contribute to, moral wrongs or injustices (and it is probably no accident that feminist and postcolonial thinkers have been most attuned to these issues). Let me provide an example. One aspect of “the social” are the numerous norms, cues, and signal that we rely on to regulate our interaction. When we move in familiar spheres, we are hardly aware of them; when we move into different spheres, however, we became acutely aware of our lack of understanding, and we anxiously watch the behaviour of others, trying to “fit in” and to behave appropriately. This is relevant for understanding the challenges of first-generation students at universities, or of migrants dealing with bureaucrats. First generation students have the same formal rights as other students, but it can be extremely difficult for them to navigate the social norms, formal and informal, of a university. “Equal opportunity” becomes an empty formula if individuals lack the cultural and social capital for taking advantage of opportunities; this is an additional obstacle above and beyond the obstacles posed by being poor at university. Or take migrants and bureaucracy. Germany has seen a huge influx of migrants this year, many of whom come from countries with less developed public services. And the German welfare state is as bureaucratic as bureaucratic can get; Weber is still very much alive! This means that there was a huge gap between the formal structures of support and the people arriving at the borders – and this gap was so obvious that many people instinctively started to help, providing their social knowledge for liaising between migrants and bureaucrats.

I am not suggesting that all normative questions that arise at the level of “the social” should be solved there, or vice versa – moral, social, and political (or legal, as political decisions take the form of laws) questions are often intertwined in complex ways. All I am suggesting is that we need to take “the social” more seriously in normative theorizing. Sally Haslanger has recently made a similar suggestion, asking about the domain of “social (not political) justice”. Her focus is on “social meaning”, i.e. – very roughly – socially constructed norms and concepts, for example the concept of “mother”, which carry normative connotations that act as constraints on how individuals imagine their identities and lead their lives. This is one way in which “the social” can play a role for normative theorizing, and it is interesting – and I think typical of many of such cases – that epistemic and normative questions are here closely intertwined: our sets of beliefs are influenced by social norms as well as facts, and all of them have normative dimensions that we may only be dimly aware of.

Once we have diagnosed normative problems at the level of “the social”, we need to ask which responsibilities flow from them. Sometimes, we can easily identify addressees: for example, if the social roles in a company are designed in ways that make individuals insensitive to the moral dimensions of their jobs, we can hold the management responsible. In the case of broader social norms it is more difficult to spell out who should be held responsible for what. We need to ask how to square such responsibilities with individual freedoms, and how to distribute them in a fair way. I tend to think that the notion of “imperfect duty” can play a role here, but that’s something I need to explore further. Often, there are also questions about effectiveness: how can social roles, norms, or practices be changed at all? Can this be done by a collective effort to change informal structures, or do we need changes in the legal and economic structures that underlie them? These are tricky issues, and we often need intimate knowledge of the phenomena we want to explore in order to fully understand the relevant mechanisms and to suggest solutions. But we are not only political and moral, but also social creatures. It would be surprising, in a sense, if we did not have responsibilities in this respect as well: from within our social roles, with regard to social patterns that we help form, and with regard to social norms that we uphold together with others.


PS: if readers know examples of philosophical work that fit the description I have tried to provide, please share them with us in the comment section!


Lisa Herzog

I work on various questions at the intersection of economics and philosophy, currently focussing on ethics and organizations and ethics in finance. Methodologically, I sit between many chairs and I have come to like the variety. I think of my work as critical, empirically informed social philosophy.



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  1. Dear Lisa, a brief post to thank you for raising this important issue. I think that you are very right in pointing out the important role that the social context plays for our identities and the normative constraints on decisions. It should be more relevant for normative theory and ethics, since, if you take a closer look at it, very few decisions are made individually. Thus, the question may be raised whether ethicists and normative theorists do not start at the wrong end of the spectrum by taking individual decision-making as the basis of normative judgement. This thought is found, for instance, in the work of Annette Baier who has criticised individualism and ethics and theory of action.
    Also another recent book that comes to mind which might fit your description is Judith Lichtenberg’s work on connecting psychology with ethics in a close way, for instance in “Distant Strangers” (http://www.cambridge.org/si/academic/subjects/philosophy/ethics/distant-strangers-ethics-psychology-and-global-poverty). I am looking forward to discussion these issue further with you!

    • Lisa Herzog

      Hi Rebekka, thanks for your comment. I like your way of putting it: “very few decisions are made individually”. This does not mean that we should not ask about individual decisions, it’s just that there are so many other factors coming in in real life. And this fact can create new responsibilities, for example as members of those collectives in which decisions are made – not only our own decisions, but also those of others for whom we serve as peers, role models, colleagues, friends, etc. Also, thanks for the examples! I’ve read Lichtenberg’s paper, but not the book.

  2. Thanks for the post, Lisa. Perhaps only for clarification, I wonder if you would be able to suggest the kind of literature that you think has not taken these social considerations seriously enough?

    (The context of that question is as follows. When I think about theorists who have brought attention to the significance of “social norms, patterns of social behaviour, social relations”, some of those who would come to mind are J.S. Mill and Rawls, particularly if considered through Williams’ characterisation of the latter as concerned with public rules. For this reason, it surprised me that you juxtaposed your comments with views focused on the ‘basic structure’, which I took to be a Rawls reference. It caused me to wonder whether I had misunderstood this reference or the broader course of your comments and I thought clarifying who you took to be the antagonist would help me here.)

    • Lisa Herzog

      Andrew, thanks for the question and the opportunity to clarify. Let me preface this by saying that I do NOT think other forms of theorizing should not be done, or are per se deficient – this really depends on the questions one wants to answer. Here are two examples of theories that do take social considerations very seriously: trolleology, and the Rawls-Cohen-debate. In trolleology, there is usually no reference to people’s roles (are they employed by the railway company? Are they from the same local community as the people on the track? etc.) or to whether or not they make the decision alone or in groups, or the kind of society they live in. This is irrelevant for answering certain kinds of questions, but not others. Similarly, the Rawls-Cohen-debate was conducted in quite some abstraction from sociological considerations (e.g. how is “work” seen in a society? do the “talented” feel that they have a shared identity with the less talented? etc.).
      The question then is how these different debates hang together. One possible answer is that they simply address different questions – for example, theoretical vs. applied questions – and that they have nothing to do with one another. But many “theoretical” accounts hold, implicitly or explicitly, that they aim at being “action guiding” for real life, so this is a somewhat unsatisfying answer.
      A “top down” approach would hold that once we have figured out answers at the more abstract, theoretical level, we can then ask how to translate them into social norms that makes it more likely that they will be realized – and here, contexts start to matter, e.g. specific national cultures.
      But there can also be “bottom up” approaches: we might analyze the social norms in place, see what more abstract normative content they contain, and then reflect on whether we should take it into account when trying to provide answers at the more abstract level (this is not so different from triggering intuitions by hypothetical examples, after all).
      In the end, the most plausible way to think about it is probably some kind of overarching coherentism, where we try to bring all these levels together in a “reflective equilibrium”. But this would amount to a “theory of everything” that would be hard to accomplish (unless you are called G.W.F. Hegel and have a good dose of self-confidence). So I guess it remains a matter of judgment which levels we need to take into account for answering which questions – and the proof of the methodological pudding is in the eating.

  3. Jesper L Pedersen

    Hi Lisa, thanks for the post. I was wondering with regards to your final point, if you could clarify about social roles being defined in ways that are detrimental to morality, and how we can hold management responsible. I’m wondering if perhaps management, too, is simply acting within the social roles of the industry? For instance, you move through the ranks to become part of management precisely by adopting and internalising the language and customs of the industry, and then reproduce them when you get to the top. (In the same way that you learn a language without questioning why things are called what they’re called, and then reproduce that language in your day-to-day life, and teach it to your children.) As such, the stakes might be higher but ultimately there might not be any particular reason to expect a higher moral standard from (the individuals that make up) management than from the lowly employee tasked with implementing the morally dubious commercial strategy? Do you think we can expect management to be able to look above the institutional context and take a broader view of morality? Or does the change not have to come from outside?

    (Sorry if that’s a bit of a muddled question. Hopefully you can make some sense of it.)

    • Lisa Herzog

      Hi Jesper, thanks for the question. I did not mean that we should expect managers to have higher moral standards – but they have more power than other people, and we can hold them accountable for using it responsibly. One dimension of this power is that they help design the roles for others in an organization.
      The problem you mention is a very real one, though: if we assume that organizations select for members that play by the rules of the game (adopt the values, use the jargon, “fit in”…), then it is likely that the higher up in the hierarchies you look, the more well-adapted people you will find. This creates epistemic problems (this is related to the brief comment I posted a while ago on the responsibility of leaders for knowledge, http://justice-everywhere.org/general/leaders-and-their-responsibility-for-knowledge/), but it also leads to questions about whether or not we can expect change to come from within organizations, or from outside pressures. I guess often it is a combination of outside pressure and inside agents who have kept *some* independence. After all, a difference to learning a language is that organizations (most organizations, let’s say), have an “outside”, and that members do not live exclusively within organizations, so they can maintain *some* distance to what is going on in the organization. For that reason, however, organizations that expect their members to spend almost all of their waking life at them, or in the same social circles, are probably at a much greater danger to get morally off the rails.

  4. Hi Lisa,

    Thanks for a very interesting post – I thought it was a very interesting idea to situate this discussion within the debate about how to treat moral intuitions (the bakery, prison guard, and game examples in the beginning). I think there is a parallel move that starts from political philosophy and moves “inwards” – especially, I think, much social egalitarian theorizing takes this route.

    They do so, however, in a quite different way (and it might be interesting to think about the connections between the two) – namely, by claiming that political philosophers are not theorizing (sufficiently) in a way that connects to the struggles of social movements and the way in which injustices and disadvantages are experienced.

    This is especially clear in very recent work by Anderson and Wolff:

    • Lisa Herzog

      Hi David,
      thanks for your comment. I know Wolff’s paper, still have to read Anderson’s. There is a really interesting convergence between non-ideal political theory and critical theory going on at the moment, it seems. There are also very interesting issues about what kind of knowledge we need in order to proceed in this way (for example the knowledge of those who experience injustices or biases first hand).
      One more sobering thought, though, is that we might be at a point in history (or maybe this is always true to some extent) in which what is most needed in public discourse are reminders of things that are relatively well-known in philosophy/political theory, and in that sense not very interesting as fields of research. For example, it’s a very clear thing, from a theoretical perspective, that we need a legal system that is not biased towards those with more money – I don’t know of any theorist who would hold the opposite (well, maybe there are some economists who claim to build an argument from “efficiency” for why it should be possible to buy judges… but within political theory, there is a strong consensus around this claim). And yet this topic would very well deserve more attention in public discourse (or if you disagree about this specific example, insert another topic of your choice for which this is true). So there is a real question about the division of labour between academic philosophers, public intellectuals (these two groups can of course overlap), and journalists. Maybe this is no practical problem as long as everything “gets covered”, as it were. But it raises questions about how the philosophical community views outreach work that seems “unoriginal” from the point of view of theoretical research…

  5. Awareness of these pitfalls has helped several of them increase the effectiveness of their interventions addressing social norms in the field. We are confident that others will benefit from these reflections as well.

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