10 Implications of Automatic Norms

My last post observed that we seem to have a meta-norm that norm application should be automatic and obvious. We are to just know easily and surely which actions violate norms, without needing to reflect on or discuss the matter. We are to presume that framing effects are unimportant, and that everyone agrees on the relevant norms and how they are to be applied. If true, this has many implications:

1) We rarely feel much need to think about or discuss with others whether our own behavior violates norms. We either feel sure that we are innocent, or we feel at risk of being guilty. If we end up being seen as guilty, we’d rather be able to claim that we forgot, were distracted, or were overcome by passion. Any evidence that we discussed or thought carefully about the choice would instead suggest that we consciously choose to be guilty.

2) We aren’t much interested in ethics and misbehavior discussion or training for the purpose of helping us to figure out what to do personally. We may, however, be interested in using such things as a way to show others that we are devoted to good norms, and that we despise those who violate them. We are far more interested in norm preaching than learning or analysis.

3) We feel justified in accusing others of bad motives when they seem to us to violate norms. It seems to us that either they intended to be guilty, or they were inexcusably sloppy or lacking in control of their passions. We usually don’t need to wonder how they framed the situation, what norms they applied, or how they interpreted those norms. Of course we may not feel obligated to point out their violation, but we’d feel justified if we did.

4) We feel justified in describing those who claim to disagree with us about particular cases as either stupid or mean, or perhaps lacking a proper moral upbringing. With a proper upbringing, they are probably trying to excuse what they know to be their own guilty behavior.

5) We actually face a high risk of framing effects when interpreting particular acts as norm violating. We first learn norms by examples, and then we later apply learned norms to new examples. In both situations the result can depend on the particular examples, their context, and how we framed all this in our minds. If these were the main cognitive processes that produced norm application, then we’d all need to learn from a lot of pretty similar examples in order to reasonably have much confidence that we were all applying the same norms the same way.

6) In a relatively simple world with limited sets of actions and norms, and a small set of people who grew up together and later often enough observe and gossip about possible norm violations of others, such people might in fact learn from enough examples to mostly apply the same norms the same way. This was plausibly the case for most of our distant ancestors. They could in fact mostly be sure that, if they judged themselves as innocent, most everyone else would agree. And if they judged someone else as guilty, others should agree with that as well. Norm application could in fact usually be obvious and automatic.

7) Today however, there are far more people, and more intermixed, who grow up in widely varying contexts and now face far larger spaces of possible actions and action contexts. Relative to this huge space, gossip about particular norm violations is small and fragmented. So it isn’t very plausible that we’ve all converged on how to reliably interpret most norms in most contexts. Thus today we must quite frequently make different judgements on whether actions violate norms. We may converge in judgement with our closest associates and gossip partners, at least on our most common topics of gossip. But for everyone else, if we consider the details of most of their behavior, we will find fault with a lot of it. As they would if they considered the details of our behavior. We are usually sure that we are innocent, but in fact that’s not how many others would categorize us.

8) We must see ourselves as tolerating a lot of norm violation. We actually tell others about and attempt to punish socially only a tiny fraction of the violations that we could know of. When we look most anywhere at behavior details, it must seem to us like we are living in a Sodom and Gomorrah of sin. Compared to the ancient world, it must seem a lot easier to get away for a long time with a lot of norm violations. Selection effects in who chooses to complain about which violations, and which violations others are willing to punish, may seem plausibly to make a big difference to who actually gets punished how much.

We must also see ourselves as tolerating a lot of overeager busybodies applying what they see as norms to what we see as our own private business where their social norms shouldn’t apply. They may not complain out loud about us each time, but we know that they often judge us privately as violating norms, and for no good reason from our point of view. They should just butt out, we think.

9) Random effects of who frames which particular actions as norm violating or not may contribute substantially to who succeeds or fails overall. Some people don’t see a serious violation, and then find themselves punished for what they consider a triviality. They conclude someone had it in for them. Others see a serious potential violation, and pay substantial costs to avoid it, when they in fact faced little risk of punishment. Compared to the ancient world, today larger gains go to those with the social savvy to discern what norm violations others can more easily observe and are likely to punish, and the moral flexibility to act on that savvy.

10) Many norms apply only to particular professions, and are mainly intended to protect outsiders from those professionals. For example, norms about how teachers should treat students, or how bankers should treat customers. Strong competition to become a professional can easily select for those with the ambition and social savvy to pretend to follow all such norms, but to only actually follow the norms with sufficient enforcement. Outsiders may then consistently be fooled to mistakenly believe that these professionals follow certain norms, as those outsiders believe that they would naturally follow such norms, if they had been assigned to be such a professional.

In the next posts: examples of all this, and life lessons to learn from it.

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  • Ronfar

    This reminds me of the outrage I see when someone suggests that the rules around sexual harassment and consent are too vague to be useful except as a weapon…

  • You’re overgeneralizing in speaking of “norms.” As naive moral realists, we tend to think moral norms are self-evidently true. The role of forethought follows from that. But where humans don’t see the norms as being somehow true, as in the case of social manners, we think of the impulsive faux pas as less culpable.

    Also, we don’t think the norms governing specific professions should be automatic. Law students are taught in their legal ethics courses that legal ethics requires that lawyers think carefully about their conduct.

    • Robin Hanson

      In the main example of the last post, Robert was a professional acting in his professional capacity.

      • Robert’s decision was one of ordinary morality. Some professional ethics are like that. In law, for example, you’re not supposed to steal from your clients. ( See also “What happened to lawyers’ amoral ethical role?” – http://kanbaroo.blogspot.com/2010/06/80th-installment-what-happened-to.html )

        You mention in another post that professional ethics are often designed to prevent professional competition. In that realm, deliberate decisions look better when the conclusion is correct.

      • You mention in another post…

        I misread #10; actually, you were saying rather the opposite of my interpretation.

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  • Zvi Mowshowitz

    When you say that X implies Y, as in automatic norms imply these ten things, do you mean it in strong form (if X then Y) or do you mean this in weak form as a thought experiment where if X was the primary or only motivation behind actions, then Y, or alternatively that X raises the probability/importance/size of effect Y?

    In this case, the thought experiment seems right and interesting enough to consider writing about it, but this is not at all my default parsing of ‘imply’ and I want to make sure I understand and properly state your claims.

    In general, I see these situations of automatic norms as people not being angry about the behavior itself, but instead as taking the behavior, including the amount of analysis you used, as evidence for what your true motivations, norms and loyalties are. Thus, they’re outraged that you’re a person who would think about such a question, rather than being mad about the actual thinking. Not knowing not only isn’t an excuse, it’s actually the crime itself.

    • Robin Hanson

      Logical implication is rare enough in the real world that my default sense of “imply” isn’t logical, but an uncertain inference. Yes, the crime is people’s eyes is your not feeling sure you know.

  • overmash

    Easy stuff, don’t be a selfish ass. Ethics aren’t that hard. If what you do harms someone else in a tangible way, don’t freakin’ do it

    • Smalo

      “Don’t be a troll”

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