Automatic Norm Lessons

Pity the modern human who wants to be seen as a consistently good person who almost never breaks the rules. For our distant ancestors, this was a feasible goal. Today, not so much.To paraphrase my recent post:

Our norm-inference process is noisy, and gossip-based convergence isn’t remotely up to the task given our huge diverse population and vast space of possible behaviors. Setting aside our closest associates and gossip partners, if we consider the details of most people’s behavior, we will find rule-breaking fault with a lot of it. As they would if they considered the details of our behavior. We seem to live in a Sodom and Gomorrah of sin, with most people getting away unscathed with most of it. At the same time, we also suffer so many overeager busybodies applying what they see as norms to what we see as our own private business where their social norms shouldn’t apply.

Norm application isn’t remotely as obvious today as our evolved habit of automatic norms assumes. But we can’t simply take more time to think and discuss on the fly, as others will then see us as violating the meta-norm, and infer that we are unprincipled blow-with-the-wind types. The obvious solution: more systematic preparation.

People tend to presume that the point of studying ethics and norms is to follow them more closely. Which is why most people are not interested for themselves, but think it is good for other people. But in fact such study doesn’t have that effect. Instead, there should be big gains to distinguishing which norms to follow more versus less closely. Whether for purely selfish purposes, or for grand purposes of helping the world, study and preparation can help one to better identify the norms that really matter, from the ones that don’t.

In each area of life, you could try to list many possibly relevant norms. For each one, you can try to estimate how it expensive it is to follow, how much the world benefits from such following, and how likely others are to notice and punish violations. Studying norms together with others is especially useful for figuring out how many people are aware of each norm, or consider it important. All this can help you to prioritize norms, and make a plan for which ones to follow how eagerly. And then practice your plan until your new habits become automatic.

As a result, instead of just obeying each random rule that pops into your head in each random situation that you encounter, you can actually only follow the norms that you’ve decided are worth the bother. And if variation in norm following is an big part of variation in success, you may succeed substantially more.

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  • cwcwcwcwcw

    When I was 10 or 11 my friend literally came up with the same plan. He told me that he had made a list of what was right and then anytime a situation came up where he wasn’t sure how to act, all he had to do was look at his list.

    He didn’t tell me what was on the list but knowing him (a guy who made list of what was right) it was things like always be honest, don’t show off, etc…

    I personally think that the best way to do this is to have a basic overarching norm that applies to most situations. That way there is a hopefully semi-rational principal animating the norm(s). Mine is something like the golden rule, or don’t hurt other people, or treat everyone the same.

    I think applying this general norm to the questions in your previous post would lead to more or less satisfactory answers.

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  • Ben Kennedy

    “But in fact such study doesn’t have that effect.”

    I think you need a more robust description of “norms”. Moral norms are not just guidelines, they feel (from the inside) as externally imposed, mind independent, non-optional rules that govern our behavior. This is why people are generally resistant to the scheme of simply prioritizing important norms – they don’t feel like things one can negotiate over, or optionally pursue. Most moral philosophy seems to be about the business of justifying the concept that norms have truth-value

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