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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 December 2018

John Thrasher*
Philosophy, Chapman University


Some norms are bad. Norms of revenge, female genital mutilation, honor killings, and other norms strike us as destructive, cruel, and wasteful. The puzzle is why so many people see these norms as authoritative and why these norms often resist change. To answer these questions, we need to look at what “bad” norms are and how we can evaluate them. Here I develop an integrative analysis of norms that aims to avoid parochialism in norm evaluation. After examining and rejecting several evaluative standards, I propose what I call a comparative-functional analysis of norms that is both operationalizable/testable and nonparochial, and that can sort better and worse norms. One conclusion of this approach is that norms are not so much “bad” and “good” as “better” and “worse.” This approach should be of interest to theorists and practitioners alike.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 2018 

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1 For a discussion of WEIRD morality, that is, the social morality shared by the educated classes of western democratic society, see Haidt, Jonathan, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage, 2013), chap. 5.Google Scholar

2 On the inefficiency of Christmas gift giving, see: Waldfogel, Joel, “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas,” The American Economic Review 83, no. 5 (1993): 1328–36;Google Scholar Lopez, Pedro-Jose et al., “Bacterial Counts from Hospital Doctors’ Ties Are Higher than Those from Shirts,” American Journal of Infection Control 37, no. 1 (2009): 7980;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Thrasher, John and Handfield, Toby, “Honor and Violence: An Account of Feuds, Duels, and Honor Killings,” Human Nature (Forthcoming, 2019).Google Scholar

3 See Bicchieri, Cristina, Norms in the Wild (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016);Google Scholar Bicchieri, Cristina, The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).Google Scholar

4 For a similar explanation of institutions more generally, see: Shepsle, Ken, “Rational Choice Institutionalism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions, ed. Rhodes, R. A. W., Binder, Sarah A., and Rockman, Bert A. (New York: Oxford University Press: 2006), 2338;Google Scholar Schotter, Andrew, The Economic Theory of Social Institutions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).Google Scholar

5 “China Bans Dog from Olympic Menu,” BBC News, accessed November 4, 2016,

6 For instance, “the ‘Canberra theory’ of norms” developed in Brennan, Geoffrey, Eriksson, Lina, Goodin, Robert E., and Southwood, Nicholas, Explaining Norms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

7 Bicchieri, Norms in the Wild; Thrasher and Handfield, “Honor and Violence”; Boehm, Christopher, Blood Revenge: The Enactment and Management of Conflict in Montenegro and Other Tribal Societies (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986);Google Scholar Elster, Jon, “Norms of Revenge,” Ethics 100, no. 4 (1990): 862–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

8 In Efferson, Charles, Vogt, Sonja, Elhadi, Amy, Ahmed, Hilel El Fadil, and Fehr, Ernst, “Female Genital Cutting Is Not a Social Coordination Norm,” Science 349, no. 6255 (2015): 1446–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

9 See: Deaton, Angus, “Instruments, Randomization, and Learning about Development,” Journal of Economic Literature 48, no. 2 (2010): 424–55;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Deaton, Angus, The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).Google Scholar

10 Robbins, Lionel, “Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility: A Comment,” The Economic Journal 48, no. 192 (1938): 635;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Kenneth, J. Arrow, Social Choice and Individual Values, rev. ed., (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1963).Google Scholar

11 Deaton, Angus, “Income, Health, and Well-Being around the World: Evidence from the Gallup World Poll,” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 22, no. 2 (2008): 5372;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Deaton, Angus and Dupriez, Olivier, “Purchasing Power Parity Exchange Rates for the Global Poor,” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 3, no. 2 (2011): 137–66.Google Scholar

12 Boehm, Blood Revenge.

13 Mackie, Gerry, “Ending Footbinding and Infibulation: A Convention Account,” American Sociological Review 61, no. 6 (1996): 9991017.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

14 Lewis, David, Convention: A Philosophical Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969).Google Scholar

15 Rozin, Paul, “The Process of Moralization,” Psychological Science 10, no. 3 (1999): 218–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

16 Haidt, Jonathan, “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment,” Psychological Review 108, no. 4 (2001): 814–34; Haidt, The Righteous Mind.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

17 Bicchieri, The Grammar of Society, 181; Thrasher, John and Vallier, Kevin, “The Fragility of Consensus,” European Journal of Philosophy 23, no. 4 (2015): 933–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

18 Mackie, “Ending Footbinding and Infibulation.”

19 Vogt, Sonja, Zaid, Nadia Ahmed Mohmmed, Ahmed, Hilal El Fadil, Fehr, Ernst, and Efferson, Charles, “Changing Cultural Attitudes towards Female Genital Cutting,” Nature 538 (2016): 506–9;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Bicchieri, The Grammar of Society, chap. 6.

20 See Elster, Jon, “Marxism, Functionalism, and Game Theory: A Case for Methodological Individualism,” in Theory and Society, ed. Matravers, Derek and Pike, Jonathan E. (New York: Routledge, 2003), 453.Google Scholar

21 The classic case for this kind of analysis in economic theory is made in Friedman, Milton, “The Methodology of Positive Economics,” in Essays in Positive Economics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 343.Google Scholar

22 I thank the other authors and editors from this issue for pushing me to make this point more clearly, especially Gerry Mackie.

23 Sen, Amartya, “Maximization and the Act of Choice,” Econometrica 65, no. 4 (1997): 745–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

24 I thank Jerry Gaus for raising the importance of this question.

25 See Gaus, Gerald and Thrasher, John, “Social Evolution,” in The Routledge Companion to Social and Political Philosophy, ed. Gaus, Gerald and D’Agostino, Fred (New York: Routledge, 2012), 643–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

26 The full account can be found in Thrasher and Handfield, “Honor and Violence.”

27 Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan ed. Malcolm, Noel, Clarendon edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), chap. 13.Google Scholar

28 Gaynor, Tim, “Iraqi Guilty of Murder in Daughter’s Honor Killing,” Reuters, February 22, 2011, Scholar

29 Powell, Sian, “Australian Links in Honour Killing of Pela Atroshi,” The Australian, accessed November 8, 2016, Scholar

30 Skarbek, David, The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

31 These answers are admittedly sketchy. For a more detailed analysis, see: Thrasher and Handfield, “Honor and Violence: An Account of Feuds, Duels, and Honor Killings,” Human Nature, forthcoming 2018.

32 Although, see Southwood, Nicholas and Wiens, David, “‘Actual’ Does Not Imply ‘Feasible’,” Philosophical Studies 173, no. 11 (2016): 3037–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

33 On this point see North, Douglass C., Wallis, John Joseph, and Weingast, Barry R., Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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