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August 2018: Fairness and Norms

Our August 2018 newsletter features the Spring 2018 issue of Social Research on "Changing Social Norms" and explores articles from past issues that also address this theme. In these excerpts from the article "Fairness and Norms" (Vol. 73, No. 2, Summer 2006), Jon Elster uses the work of Ernst Fehr and his collaborators to theorize the concepts of social norms and moral norms, and their relationship with fairness.

“Fehr refers to reciprocity and conditional cooperation as resulting from the operation of social norms. I want to suggest a different frame­work. First, let me state how I see the difference between the operation of social norms and of moral norms. The violation of a moral norm triggers simultaneously guilt in the violator and anger in the observer of the violation, if there is an observer. The violation of a social norm triggers first contempt in the observer, and the observation of that reac­tion triggers in turn shame in the violator. Shameful actions do not by themselves trigger shame. Six French consumers of pedophiliac mate­rial who killed themselves in 1997 did so only after they were exposed. The year before, an American admiral had killed himself after he was exposed as not entitled to the combat decorations he was wearing."

“[There are] two types of norm [that] have different substantive content. Moral norms include the norm to share equally, the norm to keep prom­ises, the norm to discover the truth when it matters to do so, the norm to tell the truth or at least not to lie, the norm to help others in distress, and so on. Social norms include norms of etiquette, norms regulating the proper and improper use of money, norms against rate busting and strike breaking, the professional norms of soldiers, lawyers, and doctors, norms against deviant sexual behavior, norms against smok­ing in the presence of nonsmokers, and many others. I propose to call norms of reciprocity and of conditional coopera­tion quasi-moral norms. They differ from social norms in the important respect that people abide by them even when they are not observed by others. They are, in that respect, unconditional. At the same time they also have a conditional aspect, in that they are triggered by the behav­ior of others. By contrast, many moral norms are doubly unconditional. They are not conditional on others observing what the agent is doing, nor on the agent observing what others are doing. Whereas moral norms can be proactive, quasi-moral norms are reactive.”

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