Journal of Applied Philosophy 23 (2):207–221 (2006)
The members of any functioning modern society live their lives amid complex networks of overlapping institutions. Apart from the major political institutions of law and government, however, much normative political theory seems to regard this institutional fabric as largely a pragmatic convenience. This paper contests this assumption by reflecting on how institutions both constrain and enable spheres of effective action and responsibility. In this way a society’s institutional fabric constitutes, in Samuel Scheffler’s phrase, an infrastructure of responsibility. The paper discusses three key normative aspects of this infrastructure. First, institutions define roles and rules, alongside forms of sanction and encouragement, so as to realise limited forms of practical, normative agreement. Second, institutions allocate and adjudicate distinct responsibilities. This creates separate spheres of initiative, ensuring responsibilities are fulfilled and providing for structured disagreement and change. Third, because we move through a plurality of institutions and associations, we experience varying responsibilities and forms of recognition. Individual identities thus depend on several different forms of recognition, and are well placed to resist totalising or fundamentalist temptations. In sum, the paper argues that a liberal institutional fabric provides essential moral stability, though not an undesirable fixity. By containing the fragility and dangers of individual moral judgment, our institutional fabric allows such judgment to play a valuable role in human affairs.
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