Morality and socially constructed norms
Socially constructed norms—i.e., norms that exist as a matter of social fact—are all around us: from the “ladies first” custom, to the practice of queuing; from the religious norm that prescribes chastity before marriage, all the way to the familiar demands that legal systems place on us. A constant presence in our lives, socially constructed norms elicit mixed emotions. On the one hand, we often feel their moral pull: we think that we would act wrongly if we violated them. On the other hand, we look at them with suspicion: even the most ostensibly innocuous norms may reinforce unjust power relations and surreptitiously promote the interests of the elites. The challenge, then, is to establish when and why we are correct in feeling their moral pull—because those norms have genuine authority—and when we should instead distrust them. My current work—centered around a book project—addresses this challenge. I develop a framework pinpointing when and why socially constructed norms are morally binding. In particular, I trace their moral significance to the agential commitments that underpin them. I then explore the implications of this framework for several important questions in moral, legal, and political philosophy, including the grounding of moral rights, the obligation to obey the law, the wrong of sovereignty violations, and the nature of “normative powers” (e.g., the power to promise, consent, forgive, obligate through commands, etc.). Click on the text for representative publications/papers in these areas.