Social Action and Social Norms

solidether / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Every acting being has a morality, that is, has preferred ends and acts on those preferences. The ultimate end which lies behind every action is that end which is never a means to any other end – this ultimate end can be called satisfaction, happiness or pleasure.

Social norms should not be confused with asocial morality, that is, the correct choice of means to the attainment of the ultimate end. Of course, the majority of the problems associated with attaining satisfaction are social in nature. It is fairly straightforward for Crusoe to build a shelter in order to get relief from the elements which, in turn, will bring him satisfaction. The branches of a tree will never retaliate against him.

But it is more difficult to attain satisfaction through social relations. For instance, think of your parents, friends, spouses, employers, employees, bill-collectors, police, judges, Presidents, and so on. These people are all imposing their will upon you and resisting the imposition of your will upon them. And, unlike tree branches, they have a memory, they can connive and they retaliate or even aggress.

Just like there are right and wrong ways to build a shelter, there are right and wrong ways to interact with other human beings. But the end in either case is always the same: my satisfaction.

For me you are nothing but–my food, even as I too am fed upon and turned to use by you. We have only one relation to each other, that of … utility.

Max Stirner The Ego and His Own, Chapter 2

The majority of what people mean when they talk about “right and wrong” or “morality” is this question of the right and wrong ways to interact with other human beings. But what most discussion of morality leaves out is the crucial question: to what end? The end is my satisfaction. And the rightness or wrongness of a course of action can only be judged with respect to its suitability for bringing about my satisfaction. How should I treat others? In that way which brings about my satisfaction.

Nearly every end which an individual may pursue is entangled with the social order. If you want to cook yourself a meal, you will need groceries. To get the groceries, you will need money to buy them from the grocer, who is a human being. To get money, you will need to sell something you have (perhaps your labor). And to sell something, you will need to find a buyer, who is a human being. The simple act of cooking a meal involves social interaction with people.

Some people might object that this moral principle is simple-minded and would justify murder if, for example, you are someone who gets a kick out of killing. But this objection falsely imagines that the only thing stopping people from going on murderous rampages is the will to do so.

The fact is that people push back against me as a consequence of my behavior – reciprocation, retaliation, and so on. They obstruct my choices – for example, with deadbolts or entrance fees. They impose costs on me – for example, lawsuits and bill collectors. These examples are only the grossest means by which people push and pull against one another. The most subtle and pervasive forms of push and pull are invisible: guilt, fear, love, shame, and so on. We are able to impose intangible penalties and rewards on one another. These are the warp and weave of the social order.

Accordingly, because each thing cares for itself and at the same time comes into constant collision with other things, the combat of self-assertion is unavoidable.

Max Stirner, The Ego and His Own, Chapter 1

Social norms should not be confused with the bare logical structure of morality that we built under asocial conditions because asocial morality has no compulsive force. Or, stated differently, the compulsive force of asocial morality is identical to the self-interest of the individual: the attainment of satisfaction and the renunciation of suffering.

It is a mistake to think of norms as arising from contemplation. Theft is not considered immoral because, a long time ago, philosophers sat down and thought about a society where theft is permitted and realized that such a society would break down. They then expounded the idea that “theft is wrong” and the people found this persuasive and began to believe and teach their children “theft is wrong” and so it is today. This is a caricature of the ideological theory of morality.

Norms arise instead from interpersonal conflict. Social norms are nothing more or less than the patterns of compulsion within the social order: dispute, threat, retaliation, and so on.

Once we introduce the possibility of conflict (that is, other people) on the island, the question of how conflicts will be resolved arises. Regardless of who is right or wrong, the problem is that one individual’s chosen course of action involves obstructing another individual’s chosen course of action. One individual can only be happy by frustrating another. Disputes arise whenever two courses of action come into conflict, that is, whenever the desired ends of two individuals are mutually exclusive.

When a dispute is so serious as to require arbitration, it becomes a matter of law. I will return to this later. The conventional wisdom places a wall between law and morality: they are separate domains of thought. In fact, law is a natural extension of social norms – it differs from social norms only in the magnitude of what is at stake and it differs in the specialization and division-of-labor involved in the settlement of the dispute.

What gives social norms their compulsive force? Threats or use of unilateral punishments: public humiliation, snitching, nagging, guilt, family estrangement, hazing, petty vandalism, shunning, ostracism, and so on. Since everyone but sociopaths finds these outcomes highly unpleasant, such threats can be effective even though they do not rise to the level of violent threats.

As individuals act, they are forced to weigh the satisfaction they expect to receive from a given end against the retaliation which may be taken against them by someone else as a result. The attainment of ends which leave an individual vulnerable to retaliation (in accordance with social norms) by someone else who has a mutually exclusive end becomes more onerous by virtue of the added risk of retaliation. The crucial point, however, is that there is a distinction between the norm itself and the rights ends of the individual as he weighs them in terms of his own satisfaction.

The natural habitat without other human beings can be unequivocally dominated by Crusoe because he is armed with a human brain. But once we introduce other people onto the island, Crusoe’s environment is fundamentally altered – he must now contend with other human brains. He cannot treat them as simple, cyclical or highly predictable functions, as he can treat the rest of the environment. Instead, he must attribute agency to them, in the game-theoretic terminology. In other words, Crusoe is unable to unequivocally dominate this new part of his environment.

This line of reasoning naturally raises the question of whether such a conception of social norms entails a psychological stance towards others merely in terms of their utility. I contend that we can and must distinguish the psychological stance of the individual from the formal analysis of the social relations involved. In other words, while Stirner is right that we stand in relation to each other merely in terms of our utility, it is nevertheless the case that we do not maintain a psychological stance of mere utility towards one another, nor is such a stance entailed by the formal relation of utility or even conducive to the individual’s own ends. In other words, Kant’s exhortation that we not treat others as “mere means” is redundant and unnecessary:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

Kant Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

The fact is that we are unable so to treat others and others will see to it that we do not treat them merely as a means. Of course, we can find specific exceptions to the rule – say, a serial killer or serial rapist and their victims – but their scarcity only goes to prove the effectiveness of the social order in strictly limiting the horizons of such behavior. As a rule, people do not let others take advantage of them very much for very long.

A final note on the nature of social norms is in order. Social norms cannot be deduced from armchair reflection alone. Instead, we must go out and observe what sorts of norms actually come about in real society. Evolutionary psychology has filled in our understanding of how some specific norms arose over the course of our evolutionary history. Every human has been born into a pre-existing fabric of social norms and laws that alter the costs of acting to attain his ends vis-à-vis the costs that would obtain in the situation of asocial action. And not only is the ordinary individual placed in a situation where he is unable to treat his fellows as “mere means”, but even political, social, military and academic leaders commanding vast resources cannot cause the fabric of social norms to be re-woven at will.


[1] It must not be misunderstood that the ultimate end is a particular kind of pleasure (such as, the pleasure of eating delicious food). The correlation is formal – what we mean by satisfaction is that end which every acting being is always seeking. It is a tautology.

One thought on “Social Action and Social Norms

  1. […] I pointed out in Social Action and Social Norms, the social order is the expression of human nature in regards to interpersonal interaction and […]

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