Department of Philosophy



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The Department of Philosophy Colloquium Series is pleased to present

Agnes Tam, Queen's University

Making Sense of the Authority of Social Norms

Abstract:  Our social world is made possible, for better or worse, by ubiquitous social norms, from rituals of mourning and gift-giving to practices of female genital cutting and meat-eating. As many theorists argue, social norms are not mere conventions which individuals can easily dismiss. They are “shared normative expectations” to which individuals feel they ought to conform (e.g. Brennan et al 2013, Bicchieri 2016, Sunstein 1996 and 2017, Anderson 2000). If social norms have “authority”, then (like all authority) we should evaluate if it is legitimate authority. Two broad possibilities are discussed in the literature. One possibility is that social norms have command authority (Brennan et al 2013, Anderson 2014 and 2015). By preempting deliberative control, command authority seems to threaten respect for individual autonomy. But defenders argue that it can be made legitimate if it is the result of an exercise of individual autonomy in the form of either joint commitment (Gilbert 2008 and 2013) or rational deference (Westlund 2013). However, I argue that social norms do not fit the model of joint commitment or rational deference, given their informal and sub-voluntary nature. Another possibility is that social norms have connection authority (Laden 2012). Since connection authority functions like proposals or invitations to connect rather than command, it does not undermine respect for autonomy. I argue, however, social norms do not fit this model either, since they are more binding than open-ended: people experience them as obligations not invitations.

This raises a paradox of authority: on the command model, social norms clearly have authority, but it's unclear how they could be legitimate; on the connection model, social norms can be legitimate, but unclear how they have authority. My solution is to modify the connection model and show that the authoritativeness of a social norm is a function of the connectedness among the members and the maturity of the shared expectation. Grounding the authority in this way, trust and deference are justified as constitutive virtues of social connectedness without recourse to individual autonomy, while also providing normative guidance for when and how social norms ought to be changed. Insofar as social norms have a distinct basis in connection authority, the mechanisms of norm change should also respect this basis, and this will often mean adopting strategies that rely more on trust and deference. Relying on trust and deference to change social norms, however, contradicts some recent accounts of democratic legitimacy (e.g. Pettit 2012) and epistemic egalitarianism (e.g. Anderson 2016, Buchanan 2002, 2004) of which equal inclusion and deliberation are constitutive virtues. I conclude with some reflections on the moral dilemmas that arise when we take seriously connection authority as a basis for legitimacy.

Thursday, March 8, 4:00 pm, Watson Hall 517

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