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.