Friday, March 20, 2020

Community norms

One of our grad students brought to my attention a question I never thought about: Which communities have genuine authority? (Furthermore, this needs to be fine-grained as the question of which communities have genuine authority in which respect.)

If I move to a neighborhood with a home owners’ association, and the neighborhood tells me that zip lines are forbidden, that is presumably an authoritative norm. But if I move to neighborhood without any such association, and all my neighbors come and tell me that zip lines just aren’t done around here, and that I am not to build one, the command not to build a zip line is just bluster. I may have reasons of peaceful coexistence or prudence not to build a zip line, but the command does not constitute an authoritative norm.

The question of what conditions a state-like entity has to satisfy (say, not being radically unjust) to have authority has been very widely discussed. This isn’t my area of philosophy, but I feel that the question of which non-state communities have authority is much less discussed. Here, think of clubs, committees, religious congregations, families, neighborhoods, Internet forums, etc. And it’s not just a question of when, say, a neighborhood is being unjust. There may be nothing unjust about having a standard that forbids zip lines, but nonetheless if the community lacks authority, that standard is not an authoritative norm, and has no reason-giving force (beyond reasons of peaceful coexistence or the like).

And of course the question needs to be more fine-grained. Even with a home owners’ association, the authority of the neighborhood only applies to a limited number of things—it cannot, for instance, govern the content of private conversations inside the house.

The problem is particularly pressing for anyone who is a social relativist about some domain and thinks that norms of some sort (e.g., moral, aesthetic, or epistemic) come from community standards. For intuitively not every community standard is authoritative.

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