Norms: What are they Good For?

A culture of political debate and dissent, free and fair elections, and the peaceful transition of power are among the goals of contemporary American democracy. Contested elections and revolutionary fervor in other countries serve as a reminder that democratic self-governance is a challenging collective project.

Researchers have identified norms as a key part of the explanation why a group of people is able to succeed in carrying out a shared endeavor. A norm sets out a standard for how a person should behave. Norms matter because we care about how people act. We hold ourselves accountable for our actions to ourselves and to others. We expect the people with whom we interact to abide by various norms, and we disapprove when a person falls short of the standard of action that we think is appropriate in the situation.

Norms come in different kinds. Legal norms, also known as laws, are made through a formal process and are enforced by government agents. Social norms and moral norms, in contrast, are not established by a singular source that everyone recognizes as authoritative. Although people disagree about whether particular social norms and moral norms deserve to be accepted as legitimate, there are many basic rules for acting well towards others that have developed over time and upon which we agree. All three kinds of norms help us to coordinate our actions and minimize unnecessary conflict.

Some commentators contend that we are seeing less norm-following behavior by elected officials under the Trump administration than we have under previous administrations. Examples abound in the news of instances in which a government agent is described as acting in a way that falls short of a legal, social, or moral norm.

Practitioners and social scientists, such as the lawyer, political scientist, and rhetorician who will participate in the January 18 Nevada Humanities Salon: Norms and Why They Matter, have the expertise and experience to make informed assessments about whether current government agents and leaders of political parties are violating norms more or less than they have in the past.

When a new administration enters office, it makes sense that policies and practices will change. Democracy is a form of government in which elected officials are expected to be responsive to what their constituents believe is in the common good of the country. All politicians, regardless of their political party, take as their goal improving on the status quo once they take office. Changes in the content of political decisions and in the style in which political power is exercised should be par for the course if we have a democracy in which power is exchanged by political parties over time. What may look like a violation of a norm may actually be a legitimate norm change or a competing interpretation of what following the norm entails.

While it is appropriate to criticize government officials for falling short of what we think a norm requires, I encourage critics to spend as much time explaining the importance of the norm as we do gathering the factual evidence that the norm violation has occurred.

Katharine Schweitzer will be participating in the Nevada Humanities Salon: Norms and Why They Matter. You can join in this Salon on Friday, January 18 at 6 pm at Sundance Books & Music in Reno.

Maren Rush