Social Norms & Independent Normativity: Moving Beyond the Moral/Conventional Distinction

A venerable tradition in philosophy sees significance in the fact that, from a subjective viewpoint, some rules seem to impress themselves upon us with a distinctive kind of authority or normative force: one feels their pull and is drawn to act in accordance with such rules unconditionally, and violations strike one as egregious. Though the first person experience of it can be mystifying, I believe this phenomenology is just one aspect of the operation of a psychological system crucial to morality. Building on previous work, I’ll call this property of certain rules independent normativity. After describing that property, I situate it with respect to earlier work done on the so-called moral/conventional distinction, and suggest new questions it raises about morality and emotion. Sripada and Stich (2006) posit a model of the cognitive architecture underlying an important element of human rule cognition.1 Following them, I’ll call this the norm system, and the rules cognized by it social norms. One feature of this system is that it imputes those rules it processes with independent normativity. Understood this way, those rules that enjoy independent normativity do so not in virtue of any particular content, but because the mental representations that express them occupy a certain functional role in human minds (that I’ll call SN-functional role)
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