Conventions and moral norms: The legacy of Lewis

Topoi 27 (1-2):73-86 (2008)
David Lewis’ Convention has been a major source of inspiration for philosophers and social scientists alike for the analysis of norms. In this essay, I demonstrate its usefulness for the analysis of some moral norms. At the same time, conventionalism with regards to moral norms has attracted sustained criticism. I discuss three major strands of criticism and propose how these can be met. First, I discuss the criticism that Lewis conventions analyze norms in situations with no conflict of interest, whereas most, if not all, moral norms deal with situations with conflicting interests. This criticism can be answered by showing that conventions can emerge in those contexts as well. Secondly, I discuss the objection that this type of conventionalism, inspired by Lewis, presents moral norms as fundamentally contingent, whereas most, if not all, moral norms are not. However, such critics fail to appreciate that conventions are not radically contingent. Moreover, if one distinguishes the question as to why an individual should comply with a norm from the question whether the norm in question itself can be justified, a core element of the complaint of contingency disappears. The third objection to conventionalism concerns the way in which conventionalists justify norms. I argue that reflection upon the way in which according to Lewis norms are justified reveals a fundamental tension in his theory. Possible solutions to this tension all have in common that the complaint of contingency returns in some form. Therefore, this third complaint cannot be avoided altogether.
Keywords Conventions  Norms  David Lewis  Conventionalism
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DOI 10.1007/s11245-008-9029-0
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