Edouard Machery is in town, that is, Mexico City and has been a great opportunity, not only to catch up with an old friend but to think deeper about the cognitive aspects of normativity, a complex and severely understudied topic in philosophy. In particular, it made me aware of the common disregard, among many scholars, of the many role norms play in behaviour and cognition. People commonly talk of norms as if they were a single phenomenon, even though the evidence points towards there being important differences between:
- the norms we use to assess other people’s behaviour
- the norms we use to assess other people’s character
- the norms we use to assess our own behaviour and to justify it to others and ourselves
- the norms we use to assess our own character
- the norms we use to assess hypothetical behaviour, that is, how we (think we would) behave in hypothetical scenarios
- the norms that guide our behaviour
In some of my previous work with my colleague Ángeles Eraña, we used to stress the importance between making a sharp distinction between norms of assessment and guiding norms, but the evidence seems to point towards the need for making even finer distinctions. Furthermore, there remains much work to be done about the relations between norms of all these kinds. For example, when we assess hypothetical behaviour, that is, how we (think we would) behave in hypothetical scenarios, do we drop a third person perspective on our own hypothetical behaviour or is it the other way around, i.e., we assess other people’s behaviour by putting ourselves in their place, so to speak, through imagination, and then proceed to assess what we would do in such situations?
Consider the question of whether a particular norm is conventional. Is it a question about what grounds such norm or is it a question about how we go about complying to it? Or maybe we mean different things when we say that a norm is conventional. From the metaphysical perspective, we might mean that the norm is a norm – that is, that it has normative power over us, because we agreed to it, i.e., because there is a convention in our context to abide by it. From the cognitive perspective, in contrast, it might mean that it guides our behaviour by being explicitly represented as part of our knowledge on how to behave in the appropriate circunstances. This means, among other things, that we do not derive the rule from other considerations, for example, of what we value and what are our goals. At the social level, to say that a norm is conventional might only been that it is associated to a convention, but it does not tell us whether the convention is nothing but the externalisation of a rule already implicit in our common practices or the creation of a new norm.
This is something that has also been explored regarding the notion of authority, for example, when we need to explain the role of experts as epistemic authorities (this has been giving a lot of attention recently in the philosophy of science): when do we trust authorities because they have proved to be reliable and when we obey what they way just because they say so. In other words, when do authorities become authoritarian? Once again, the issue is whether authorites are playing a metaphysical role – creating norms, so to speak – and when are they playing a more pragmatic role, i.e., helping us follow some given set of rules which themselves are grounded in something different that their authority.
I certainly need to think more about this.