OPR, Ch.I.1: Social Morality

Section 1 has a simple aim: to introduce Gaus’s distinctive concept of “social morality” and to describe its central features. Social morality is “the basic framework for a cooperative and mutually beneficial social life” and “provides rules that we are required to act upon and which provide the basis for authoritative demands of one person addressed to another.” The authority relation is fleshed out in detail in Section 2. In this post, I will proceed by enumerating the core features of Gausian social morality.

Social Morality, the Definition:

Social morality is “the set of social-moral rules that require or prohibit action, and so grounds moral imperatives that we direct to each other to engage in, or refrain from, certain lines of conduct” (2).

Notice that Gaus emphasizes that he is not talking about the whole domain of the normative. Instead, his focus is on a particular kind of normativity, one that involves socially practiced demands and imperatives.

Social Morality, Feature #1: Coordination and Cooperation

An essential feature of social morality is that it serves a social function; it “has its roots in this requirement of social life.” The rules of social morality “structure social interaction.” Gaus emphasizes that social morality must have the practical function of making us better off: “certainly one of the things morality must do is allow us to live together in cooperative, mutually beneficial, social relations.” (4).

Social Morality, Feature #2: Extension and Restraint of Our Aims

The “Baier-Strawson” view of social morality is that social morality is a set of rules that allow us to live well together and that require our obedience. Social morality is contrasted with personal values or “individual ideals.” Social morality is comprised of rules that both “provide the conditions for the successful pursuit of these ideals” but also “simultaneously constrain our choices about how to pursue them.” (6).

Social Morality, Feature #3: Not Instrumental

Gaus will focus on this feature in Chapter 2 but he notes here that if we admit that social morality “has a job to perform” that we must ask whether it is merely a tool that we use for our benefit. Gaus thinks not. Instead, he will argue that we have independent reason to follow moral rules other than its coordinating function.

Social Morality, Feature #4: Imperatival

Social morality provides “the basis for issuing demands on others that they must perform certain actions.” Gaus contrasts this view of modern social morality with an ancient, Aristotelian teleological account of morality that understands moral rules in terms of the ends they promote. Setting aside the matter of whether Larmore and Sidgwick (mentioned in the book) have the history right (I suspect they don’t), the contrast is still useful: Gaus will argue that our reasons to follow social morality are not to promote our ends. This is the point of Chapter 2 and it crucial for the argument of the book.

Social Morality, Feature #5: Prescriptive (Though also Descriptive)

For Gaus, social-moral rules have a prescriptive function. They have their home in our social practices. Gaus is clear to emphasize that he rejects the simple contrast between descriptivist and prescriptivist accounts of the semantics of moral statements. Instead, following R.M. Hare, he claims that many moral statements have both elements. This key feature of social morality makes social morality a social phenomenon. In other words, part (though not all) of the essence of social-moral rules is that they are used to control others. We use moral rules to tell each other what to do. Morality, furthermore, makes “my action your business” because it assigns standing to you to make demands of me.

A critic might reply that the authority of morality is distinct from the authority of those who interpret it. But Gaus follows Hobbes and Kant in pointing out the fact that morality does not “fax its demands from above” but is instead often unclear. People disagree about what absolute or True morality consists in. As will become clear, social morality is a method of resolving disputes about what the True morality is. However, social morality’s claims must have authority that all can recognize despite their disagreements about what Morality-with-a-capital-M is. If social morality cannot ground authority despite disagreement about ultimate normativity then our social practices cannot be authoritative despite disagreement. The authority of social morality in a diverse world becomes impossible. But surely, Gaus suggests, this cannot be true.

Social Morality, Feature #6: Deference in Private Judgment

The sixth feature of social morality is that it is constituted by claims of moral authority, but moral authority understood as “a claim to deference in judgment.” In its most fundamental mode, moral authority is the authority to demand that others follow your interpretation of Morality-with-a-capital-M. Moral authority “qua moral power” (the Hohfeldian incident of a power-right) is important but this form authority is downstream from moral authority as a claim to deference in judgment.

Social Morality, Feature #7: Non-Ontological

Gaus throws away a brief line that he follows Hare in “putting aside ontological issues about the nature of morality.” It is interesting to speculate on what this might mean. In short, I think Gaus thinks that his hybrid view of social-moral statements is compatible with a range of plausible views of the metaphysics of social morality. In other words, it is compatible with a range of views about truth-makers for moral claims (or something close to this).

In sum: social morality is the set of moral rules that:

(1) Coordinate our actions and help us to cooperate;
(2) Extend and restrain our aims;
(3) Are followed for non-instrumental reasons;
(4) Consist of imperatives issued in social interaction;
(5) Are essentially prescriptive;
(6) Command deference in private judgment;
(7) Can be characterized somewhat independently of claims about moral metaphysics;


(1) Can Morality Have a Point?

Some moral philosophers will find odd Gaus’s insistence that social morality has a social function. As he says, “certainly one of the things morality must do is allow us to live together in cooperative, mutually beneficial, social relations” (4).

But does it? Some will worry that Gaus has left this claim insufficiently defended. Perhaps morality need not perform this function but rather that we find some way of generating social cooperation from the demands of morality. Morality just isn’t the kind of thing that can have a social, natural function. Instead, morality is a set of facts about the moral world that we can use to coordinate and cooperate. So the thought here would be that Gaus commits a kind of category mistake.

Now notice that Gaus claims that morality must “allow” us to live together, but it seems like he means something stronger than “allow”. Any conception of morality, if true, will allow us to live well together. Gaus means that somehow social morality must play a role in enabling coordination and cooperation. But is that something morality can do? Must do?

(2) The Authority of Morality vs. The Authority of Persons

One of Gaus’s concerns throughout most of his work is a worry that morality can be authoritarian, that we can have too much morality or that morality can be personal and mean. Notice that Gaus is aware that some will think that only persons can be so “personal” and so “mean” or “authoritarian”. Gaus responds by turning to Hobbes and Kant, who he claims both saw why this response is inadequate. People disagree about how to interpret morality, so if we believe our moral practices have authority (in that moral rules sometimes require our obedience), then we must acknowledge some realm of normativity that applies to us despite our reasonable disagreements. That’s what social morality is: those moral practices that coordinate our aims despite our disagreements about the deep nature of normativity. But is there such a realm? What exactly is Gaus’s argument here? The appeal to Hobbes and Kant may strike some as obscure. Gaus avoids denying that there is some ultimate morality about which we are arguing. Who cares about this real-world morality if there’s a transcendent morality to be had? Why should we acknowledge any authority other than the authority of Morality-with-a-capital-M? And can the domain of social morality really be so sharply separated from Morality-with-a-capital-M (whatever that might be)?

(3) Prescriptive and Descriptive

Gaus claims that social morality is essentially prescriptive, that it is a set of imperatives and demands and orders. And yet he denies that he is rejecting a descriptivist account of moral language. Is this coherent? I suppose some metaethics people might want to raise concerns here.

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13 Responses to OPR, Ch.I.1: Social Morality

  1. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks so much for organizing this reading group on Jerry’s book.

    I had a question or a worry that is related to the first question you raise. I’m a little unsure what to make of Jerry’s view that because morality can be very onerous, “one better have good reasons for inflicting all this on one’s fellows and oneself. And, I will argue, one does: it is fundamental to large-scale human cooperation and social life” (p. 5).

    These sentences, and a couple of similar ones, make it sound as if we would not have good reasons to demand that others follow the rules of social morality if social morality wasn’t fundamental to cooperation and social life. If that’s what Jerry means, I’m not sure that I agree.

    Not all moral rules seem essential to achieve social cooperation, e.g. rules that restrict how we may treat animals, or the severely mentally disabled. But the fact that those rules are inessential to achieving social cooperation doesn’t seem to me to diminish the sense in which we have good reasons to demand compliance with those moral rules. Of course one might respond that a package of moral rules of some type is essential for social cooperation, and so it’s a mistake to pick out particular rules and point out that they are inessential. So long as the particular rules form part of a larger package that is itself essential to social cooperation, then we can have reasons to impose them on others and ourselves. But this response seems unsatisfying to me. If we endorse Jerry’s quoted comments, surely we only have reasons to embrace the minimal package of moral rules necessary to achieve social cooperation, and not any set of more extravagant moral rules that happens to perform this function?

    I’m not sure if I’ve understood Jerry’s position here. I know he doesn’t endorse the Hobbesian view that moral rules are just complex instruments for achieving our aims, but it seems like he does endorse the related idea that social morality wouldn’t be normative for us (i.e. we wouldn’t have good reasons to follow it) if it didn’t help us achieve social cooperation, and this is presumably not because social cooperation is intrinsically good, but rather because it’s useful in realizing many of our aims. I guess I’m unsure if we can reject the former view while still endorsing the latter one.

  2. I have a comment on Kevin’s question # 2, concerning the argument from p. 9 to p.12.

    On p.9, Jerry takes up the “obvious objection” that in making a moral demand I am not claiming that you submit to my authority, but the authority of morality. If you have a moral duty to me, I only have authority over you in a limited sense, which is that I can waive performance of that duty, not a general right to command you to do whatever I think best. Jerry’s response to this authority-of-morality objection is that moral demands in face of disagreement involve claims to deference in judgment. Suppose Alf and Betty disagree about whether L requires ?. Alf says “you ought to do ? because L.” Betty says “no, L doesn’t require ?.” At this point Alf can continue to argue that L requires ?, or he can threaten to withdraw cooperation if Betty doesn’t do ?, but Jerry thinks that moral demands involve a third response, which is roughly this, on the part of Alf: “Despite the fact that you deny that L requires ?, you ought to ?, because you ought to defer to my judgment about what L requires.” On p.12, Jerry imagines what would be involved in abandoning this claim to deference. Suppose Alf were to say “Oh, you disagree, well in that case you have to follow your own conscience. I still think your conscience is wrongly informed, but if you truly think L does not require ?, then you need not do ?.” Jerry also imagines Alf taking a “more subtle” tack, continuing to make a demand but admitting that Betty may ignore it. His response is that morality must involve demands that others cannot simply ignore:

    But it is unacceptable to ignore moral demands. Moral demands are not simply prescriptions that you decide to give others that they are free to ignore; they are prescriptions that are made on the basis of a claim to have standing to direct the actions of others, and so cannot be blamelessly ignored.

    I wasn’t fully convinced by this response. It is certainly unacceptable to ignore justified moral demands and do whatever one feels like, without regards to morality. But it is not unacceptable to ignore moral demands one does not think justified, not unless they have been validated by a legitimate political procedure that makes them into legitimate laws. Why do we need moral authority, in this distinctive sense of a right that others defer to my judgment about what morality requires? Why wouldn’t political authority be enough, i.e. a right that others defer to the collectivity’s judgment about what morality requires, when this judgment has been made via an appropriate procedure and codified as law?

  3. Sorry, the question mark was supposed to be a theta, but it seems not to have come through, and it won’t let me edit my post because there was an error in submission.

  4. Hello all,

    Kevin, I second Jon’s thanks for organising this. It looks as if it’s going to be really interesting.

    I also second Jon’s concern with the first of your questions. My concern isn’t quite the same as Jon’s, however. Regarding that latter concern, I think that there might be scope to emphasise what Jerry says on p. 3—viz., that social morality “has its roots in” the fact that our pursuit of a wide variety of ‘ethical’ ideals (including, quite possibly, the ideal of living on humane terms with other animals, for example) “presupposes an organized social life, and for such a life there must be a system of shared expectations about what must and must not be done in our interactions with each other”—while de-emphasising the prominence that’s given specifically to cooperation in the passage from p. 5 that Jon quotes.

    This kind of approach might allow us to argue, for example, that our treatment of animals is part of the other, ‘ethical’ bit of morality, rather than part of social morality (which I take to be something like Scanlon’s what we owe to each other)—note that this is not to deny the normative force of claims about how we should treat animals—while rules concerning the treatment of the severely disabled, thanks to the reduced emphasis on co-operation alone as the root of social morality, get to stay part of the package.

    The hope, then, is that counterexamples of packages of moral rules which don’t serve these wider purposes (making possible the pursuit of the wide range of ethical ideals) really won’t seem compelling in the way that counterexamples of packages of moral rules which don’t serve specifically the purpose of social co-operation (on some crude understanding thereof) do.

    Still, this doesn’t do away with the problem that Jon describes at the end of his comment: how can Jerry consistently reject the view that the normative force of social morality is instrumental? Which brings me on to my own concern (although that turns out not to be a million miles away from Jon’s again)…

  5. So, my concern is as follows. Kevin, you say that “Morality just isn’t the kind of thing that can have a social, natural function.” In one way, that looks false to me: no doubt there’s some evolutionary explanation of the fact that we’re moral creatures, just as there is of the fact that other creatures too appear to have systems of norms violation of which they punish and compliance with which they reward. Such an explanation will point, I’d guess, to some evolutionarily useful purpose that having a system of morality serves.

    However, it seems to me that it would be a mistake to infer from the evolutionary purpose of morality that that purpose is the source of its authority or a constraint on its content. It would be a mistake because reasoning about the authority and content of morality is itself an exercise in moral reasoning—it’s a normative exercise—and evolutionary purposes, being without moral authority, are not sound bases for rejecting or accepting any account of moral authority or content.

    My concern, then, is that Jerry might be at least flirting with this mistake. (If it is one: I’m not altogether confident of my reasoning here.) If we argue that social morality’s function can be described in normatively neutral terms, as evolutionary purposes can, then I don’t think it’s right to use that description to generate constraints on its content. On the other hand, if we stick to the view that its function is the normative one of making space for the pursuit of valuable ideals, then it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that all of morality (not just the social bits) will be geared, instrumentally or constitutively, towards achieving those ideals, in which case discussion of social morality can’t avoid being discussion of the value of those ideals. Which is, pretty much, Jon’s concern again.

    To be fair, though, we’re only on the introduction: Jerry explicitly says that Part One is going to be devoted to showing that “Morality has a function, but our reasons to obey it are…autonomous of its ability to promote our ends an goals” (p. 6). So, I guess the response to these concerns will be forthcoming.

  6. Thomas and Jon: As you both note, Jerry’s going to expand on these matters at some length. As for the general issue you both raise, I think Jerry’s talking about the social preconditions for a system of moral norms that are circumstanced by the bounds of public reason. New non-essential norms can form, evolve and accumulate, still count as moral and bind our wills, even if they’re not necessary for social cooperation. I think of the connection between Gausian social morality and its social function as a connection not between every single norm and a particular function but a much broader systematic connection between our social practices and the norms that make them possible. We’ll see over the course of the book that Jerry is deeply Hayekian and so will tend to choose a course-grained level of moral analysis (at the level of systems rather than individual norms). So you may get norms that capture our intuitions but themselves have no obvious rationale from a social function perspective (more Hayek).

  7. Andrew: I’m not sure I understand your question but it looks like you’re worried about the way in which Jerry connects morality and politics. You’ve essentially asked why, from the perspective of social cooperation, isn’t political authority/coercion enough, right? I think the answer will become clearer in Sec. 2. But let’s wait and see!

  8. Yes, my question wasn’t clear (enough for what?). Essentially, I’m puzzled by the thesis that morality involves one person claiming authority over another. Although I can see that in particular situations of disagreement I might claim that you should defer to my judgment (perhaps because I have more experience in the area in question), I don’t see why morality generally has to involve this kind of personal authority. Why can’t we interpret moral “demands” simply as claims about what morality requires, without any suggestion that if you disagree you should nonetheless follow my judgment? The claim that you should do as I say even though you disagree about what morality requires is characteristic of political authority, not morality, at least not in general.

    On pp.8-14, Jerry rejects this position:

    “At the heart of social morality is a fundamental claim to authority over others” (8)

    “Morality, makes my action your business, and so gives you standing to tell me what I must do” (9)

    “To issue a moral imperative based on a moral rule or principle is to hold that one’s judgment of the rule’s justifiability and its proper interpretation must be deferred to by the other.” (11)

    This is what I’m struggling with.

  9. Andrew, I think in those passages that Jerry is talking about “social morality” and simply using the term “morality” to refer to that subset of moral talk. So you can disagree about the content of morality without having a disagreement about the content of social morality. OPR is really only about social morality. Does that help?

  10. Yes, emphasizing the fact that he’s talking about social morality, and putting this together with the discussion of Mill on social tyranny, makes me think that my neat picture left something out.

    My picture was (1) rational argument about what is right, involving no deference in judgment, (2) political authority, involving deference in judgment on the issue at hand, but with rational warrant for the authority itself. However, a lot of ordinary social morality consists in the expression of approval and disapproval, without argument. This praise and blame may not have serious sanctions attached to it, just the sanction of opinion, but we all know how powerful that can be, given that we are social creatures who care about the opinions of others. So a lot of morality as it is actually lived does not consist in an argument that morality requires X, but simply a raised eyebrow, a tut-tut, or even an indignant ‘hey, no cutting in line!’ The question Gaus is forcing us to consider, I think, is by what right do I impose those attitudinal or expressive sanctions, and with what reason can others take such sanctions as reasons for changing conduct.

    If these thoughts are on track, I am starting to see the problem.

  11. Andrew, I think that’s a fine way to understand the problem, though I wouldn’t cast that attitudinal expression net too broadly, as Jerry is interested primarily in intentional attempts to ostracize others into comply with rules they (ostracizer and ostracizee) regard as justified. The class of these statements seems like a subset of statements you’ve delineated.

  12. Hi Kevin,

    I’d like to make sure that I have an adequate grasp of what Gaus means by ‘social morality’ in order to avoid future confusion. Hence I have a brief question concerning this chapter (and the preface).

    Is Gaussian ‘social morality’ specifically a form of justice? I have in mind Rawls’s account of the concept of justice first advanced in his 1958 article (“Justice as Fairness”). According to this account, the concept of justice is distinct from other moral concepts (like benevolence) in that it based on the idea of ‘fairness’ or ‘reciprocity.’ Very roughly, principles of justice are rules that regulate a particular practice (e.g., game, enterprise, or social system) that the participants in that practice recognize as fair to all (given the nature of the practice, their respective interests, their appreciation of the legitimate interests of others, and so forth).

    Different conceptions of justice (drawing on Rawls’s/Hart’s distinction between ‘concepts’ and ‘conceptions’) can concern different subject matter (e.g., Rawls’s conception of ‘justice as fairness’ with respect to a society’s domestic ‘basic structure’, his conception of the ‘law of peoples’ with respect to the international domain, and his brief remarks on ‘local justice’ as a conception [or set of conceptions] appropriate for voluntary associations). Different, rival conceptions of justice also can apply to the same subject matter (e.g., ‘justice as fairness’ is not the only ‘reasonable’ political conception of domestic justice; other reasonable conceptions exist, although all such conceptions must satisfy the criterion of reciprocity, and Rawls of course maintains that ‘justice as fairness’ is the most reasonable such conception).

    Gaussian social morality seems like a form of justice in this sense. More specifically, ‘social morality’ is the kind of justice that applies to citizens’ interactions with each other in the general, broadly ‘public’ domains of their lives (in contrast to, say, conceptions of political justice, which apply only to the domestic ‘basic structures’ of societies). That is, social morality consists of the set of acceptable conceptions of ‘social’ justice, the label ‘social’ indicating that the principles of such conceptions apply to citizens’ overall social relations with one another (not merely their formal ‘political’ relations, or their relations as members of particular associations or communities).

    Am I right in understanding Gaussian social morality in this way?

    And my apologies for not posting this query last week, when it would have been timely.

  13. Blain, as far as I can tell, you’ve just about got it. Social morality, though, is I think broader than the class of norms of justice. But I think the ideas of social morality and rules of justice are very close, even the the latter are a sub-set of the former.

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