Philosophy, Department of


Date of this Version



Ethics Jul 2014, Volume 124, Issue 4, pp. 882 - 888


Explaining Norms is a work in philosophy of social science aspiring to provide an account of norms, their general character, their kinds ðformal, legal, moral, and socialÞ, what they can explain, and what explains their dynamic ðemergence, persistence, and unravelingÞ. The authors engage with various positions in ethics, political philosophy, and ðto some extentÞ the philosophy of law. The discussion is rewarding and inventive—it provides distinctive and intriguing views on several topics ðe.g., on the distinction between moral and social normsÞ. There are a lot of ideas here. Perhaps this is predictable, given that the work is a product of four capable minds. What is surprising is the range of ideas and arguments on which the authors manage to agree and out of which they construct one reasonably cohesive account.

Given the wide range of literatures discussed, readers are likely to find much of interest. Not surprisingly, some related literatures do seem to be underplayed—treated in a few footnotes and somewhat by the way, with little development of systematic connections. There are thriving literatures in comparative psychology/ ethology, moral psychology, and cultural anthropology that are devoted to how we humans manage to cooperate and coordinate as we do. While there are footnotes to some of this literature ðsee the index for, e.g., Boyd, Bowles, Camerer, Gintis, and HenrichÞ, many readers would have benefited from a discussion that more fully related the position developed in Explaining Norms to that work in experimental economics and anthropology. Discussing the relationships with work in moral psychology and ethology would also have been appreciated ðHaidt, de Waal, and Tomasello are not mentionedÞ. Still, there is very much to like about what is treated here.

The authors seek conceptually individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for being a norm. On the account provided, norms are something on the order of normative principles accepted in some group ð3–4Þ. Thus, norms involve some normative principle, possessing “a certain generality of scope and application.” These principles need not be objectively correct or fitting, and they may be objectively “simply awful” ð3Þ. The central questions have to do with what is involved in some group accepting these normative principles. The authors locate their position in two dimensions.

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