Hail Humans

Humans developed a uniquely strong and flexible capacity for social norms (see Boehm). Because of this, the praise that humans most crave is an acknowledgment that we are principled. That is, that we (mostly) adhere to the norms of our society, even when doing so is costly. And that includes the norm of calling attention to and punishing norm deviators.

In this post, I want to praise most humans for living up to this standard. This isn’t remotely a trivial accomplishment, and it just doesn’t get enough mention. Again, other animals can’t manage it. And most of us are often sorely tempted to defect.

It is much easier to embrace our society’s norms when we feel that we are winning by those norms, or at least breaking even. In this case we can each justify our norm-supporting sacrifices as the price we each pay to get others to make their sacrifices, to create a functioning society.

But much of our innate programming is tuned to watch for markers of relative status, ways in which some us seem better than others. And by this standard most of us are losers, gaining less than average relative status. (In technical terms, the median of success is well below the mean.)

When we feel like we are losers, so that others are gaining much more from society’s norms than we are, it is easier to doubt if we should continue to personally sacrifice to support those norms. Especially when we suspect that winners tend to win in part because they support some norms less than others do.

I think that in most societies, most losers do in fact suspect most winners of insufficient norm support. And there are some who use that as a justification to excuse their norm deviations. And most losers believe that there are many such deviants, and that such deviants tend to gain as a result of their failures to support norms.

And yet, even when they believe that most winners and many others gain from failing to sufficiently support norms, most losers still pay large personal costs to support most norms most of the time. Yes most everyone deviates sometimes, and yes we often work much harder to create the appearance than the substance of norm support. That is, we often attend more to what looks helpful than what is helpful.

Even so, hail to most humans for supporting their society’s norms enough to make possible society, and civilization. Yes, you might think that some societies have a better set of norms than others. And yes we might lament the lack of enough attention to preserving or inventing good norms.

But still, given that it is the praise that humans most crave to hear, and that they in fact do meet the relevant standard, we should give credit where credit is due. Hail to humans for supporting norms. At least their appearance, for most norms, most of the time.

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  • This is one of the many reasons that “virtue signaling” is a non-constructive term.

    • Disagree. While norm enforcement is essential for society, that doesn’t mean that people’s readiness to enforce norms is far in excess of the optimal, hence socially costly at the margin.

      • True. I guess there is an optimal level of calling people out for virtue signaling. My opinion — for which I admittedly have little evidence — is that the optimal level is very low, and that in the current zeitgeist a lot of people are far too eager to brandish this term.

      • rebound

        Spot on! Many who complain about virtue signalling themselves thereby engage in virtue signalling.

      • Here I agree with your conclusion, but I put the blame on the practice of “calling out” rather than on the concept of virtue signaling (just a refinement of the ordinary concept of ‘posturing’).

        People who “call out” others for virtue signaling often do so when those others have “called out” someone for racism.

        This “calling out” mania represents a way of enforcing norms that have nothing to do with us. Which is in essence why I think we need less rather than more norm enforcement. I’m for people minding their own business more.

      • spinky

        It’s not a very widespread term.

      • spinky

        I’m sorry but it’s virtue signalling all the way down. The problem is when that there isn’t even much virtue in the first place.

      • I think you’re misreading me. I’m not arguing against it being virtue signaling all the way down (although I’m not certain it is, either). I’m just saying that my preference is for more norm enforcement. Overly frequent accusations of virtue signaling — even if accurate — can undermine this.

      • Peter David Jones

        Humans aren’t eusocial insects, and aren’t particularly good at being ethical, so need an external support system of which virtue signalling and callouts are part. We are not going to get better results by putting a stop to them.

      • spinky

        “I’m not virtue signalling, I’m just genuinely disturbed!”

    • spinky

      It’s probably constructive for you, in particular.

  • Robert Koslover

    True or False?: This essay damns mankind with faint praise.

  • This applies to voluntary associations, too. When Friedman said corporations exist to earn profits for their owners, I think he was taking for granted that they also generally, naturally sacrifice in countless ways to support community norms. The debate about corporate social responsibility usually revolves around Friedman’s explicit support for profit maximization, but the important stuff is all happening in the background where firms meet a variety of norms and nobody notices. We only notice when a firm attempts to enforce a norm that doesn’t sit well with ascendant norms, like excluding birth control from health benefits or something.

    • the important stuff is all happening in the background where firms meet a variety of norms and nobody notices.

      Firms must take norms into account, but how is that “sacrifice”? It isn’t a matter of wanting to obey norms even in the face of profit loss.

  • Ronfar

    That’s a very unpleasant-sounding way of saying that most people do the right thing most of the time.

  • efalken

    Modern civilization depends on hierarchies, which imply a power-law distribution of power and thus status. Attempts to create egalitarian societies have all quickly degraded into tyrannies ruled by an elite, though the majority is then much more equal, though pathetically so (Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela). So, it’s not like the alternative to current hierarchies is remotely alluring.

  • myrealitie

    I think it is important to make a distinction between super star status and every day high status (such as that of a successful local accountant or business owner) because when it comes to the latter, norms adhere more closely to “actually being helpful.” There are no big, cryptic institutions to navigate and potentially exploit. You either have a reputation as useful to other people or you don’t.
    And when that’s true I think people, as you pointed out, have no problem adhering to norms.

    Yes people are extremely sensitive to relative status, but I suspect more so to their status relative to actual people they meet in their communities or workplaces and much less so to their status relative to remote figures like celebrities or other public figures.

    Maybe that is one reason people in the super star realm get away with so much norm deviation – normal people just accept their status as innate and don’t hold them to the same code of conduct that they hold people they meet and know in real life.

    On the other hand, maybe one reason functional communities seem to be falling apart in much of the country can be in part traced to the blowing up of celebrity culture to new heights with the advent of social media – maybe people are caring more than ever before about their status relative to previously more remote super star norm breakers. And they believe they are realistically closer than ever before to successfully emulating them (even though this is mostly an illusion), hence the failure to adhere to previously respected norms in favor of mass drug addiction and the like.

    • Romeo Stevens

      Superstars get away with lots of norm deviation? It looks more to me like they become neurotic from knowing any and all deviations will be relentlessly hounded to death.

    • blink

      It looks a lot like the signaling and counter-signaling stories to me. Sure, I may resent needing to stretch my budget to shell out thousands for an acceptable suit while Trump’s billionaire friends — who could at least afford this fashion norm — parade the White House in loafers. But I wisely adhere to the norm; I realize that, by adopting their sort of counter-signaling strategy, I would convey only the least desirable traits about myself. So, their example may “tempt” me one some level, but it is far less than might first be imagined, the temptation being more apparent than real. In the end, their deviations have no bearing on me, as if related to an entirely different domain.

  • Sam Dangremond

    “most losers still pay large personal costs to support most norms most of the time”

    I’d love to see more evidence of this.

    The argument here seems to sound like “civilization exists, so most people must be doing something right most of the time.”

    But that makes wild assumptions about the *distribution* of “doing something right.”

    What about Ayn Rand’s version: civilization exists because of the top 1%, and everyone else is break-even to negative?

    • I’d love to see more evidence of this.

      I’d love to see a single example of the “personal costs” people pay to support norms. I’m not even sure I know what Robin’s talking about.

  • OK, call me neurotic, but the misspelling is bugging me. Line 2: Boehm, not Bohm (who, of course, was a theoretical physicist).

    • Robin Hanson

      Fixed; thanks.

  • Mateo R

    What happens when the norms deviate from reality and are based on propaganda rather than facts? We get Donald Trump as a response to increasing hypocrisy.

    I’m watching a Japanese film. A teacher complains about a student reading manga and humiliates him, only to have the too-honest student mention he saw the teacher reading something worse on the train the other week. The teacher loses credibility and the students revolt. When private and public norms diverge too much, society crumbles as everyone tries to signal piety in increasingly bombastic ways.

  • “most losers do in fact suspect most winners of insufficient norm support.” Well, there is norm support, and there is cheating – fraud & violence. Dress code is a norm, business contracts are “legally binding” — or maybe not, when enforcement costs are greater than the loss from the other side cheating.

    Or, in the case of Alpha males (like Pres Clinton or Trump), who are married but cheat. There are differences between norm support and law-breaking.

    And there is norm migration in the culture — no suit Fridays became suit optional everyday for many office workers.