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  • Social Norms for Citizenship
  • Jonathan Baron (bio)


A social norm is a principle or rule of behavior, which is maintained among members of a group of people both by trying to follow it and by trying to enforce it upon each other. Both of these effects are contingent on the existence of the norm and on the effort of others to maintain it (Bicchieri 2006). In part because of this contingency, social norms differ from abstract moral principles. And the existence of the contingency gives social norms a kind of stickiness. It is difficult to get them started, because a group must accept them, and, once started, they tend to maintain themselves. Social norms also differ from laws, which are usually enforced by an institution dedicated to enforcement. The enforcement of social norms is dispersed. (But Ostrom 1990 has discussed many intermediate cases in which punitive enforcement of rules is also dispersed.)

Social norms are one means for mutual control and influence within groups of people. From a simple economic point of view, control is needed because of externalities, the effects of each person’s choices on others. Social norms encourage positive externalities and discourage negative ones. Other means of influence involve coordination, endorsement of moral principles, or coercion by law.

In coordination, someone states a standard or principle, and it immediately becomes to everyone’s individual advantage to comply. An example is “Drive on the right side of the road.” It is of course illegal to drive on the wrong side, but this is for those rare cases where people are too much out of control to do what is in their clear [End Page 229] self-interest, so they should not be driving at all. Another example is “We speak English here,” although this does not always work (since the costs of learning a new language are high).

Endorsement of moral principles differs from social-norm endorsement in not being understood as contingent on their general acceptance, although moral norms may in fact be generally accepted, so that the categories of moral and social norms overlap considerably. When overlap occurs, the only way to determine the difference between social and moral norms is to determine what would happen in the absence of general support. Turiel (1983) tested such a distinction by asking two questions: “Is it wrong to do X?” and “Would it still be wrong if everyone thought it was okay?” Even most five-year-old children said that it would still be wrong to push someone out of a swing because you wanted to use it, but it would not be wrong for boys to wear dresses to school if everyone thought it was okay. Turiel called rule about dresses a convention, but the same test could apply to social norms.

Moral principles themselves do not come with means of enforcement. But they can be endorsed publicly as a way of creating or strengthening social norms or creating laws. Examples of such historical change have concerned slavery, racial discrimination, and women’s rights. Eventually these historical changes have led to laws, but the social norms are still needed where the laws are not easily applied, and the idea that women are morally equal to men has yet to take hold around the world.

Coercion is usually done by a central authority. In principle, and often in fact, coercion can solve problems of externalities by threatening to punish harms and withhold rewards from failure to provide positive externalities. It is efficient to have such a central authority, both because of the benefits of specialization and because, when individuals take punishment into their own hands, they invite retaliation by those who see the punishment as excessive (which it often is), and long-term feuds can escalate over time. Thus, the centralization of the power to punish, as well as the resulting effort to suppress [End Page 230] “second-party punishment” by banning such vigilantism, was one of the advantages of government, and a state, when these came into existence in human history. The advantages were so great that states persisted for centuries, even when the central power was abused, with the “king” or...


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pp. 229-253
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