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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 December 2018

Chad Van Schoelandt*
Philosophy, Tulane University


This essay argues that moral accountability depends upon having a shared system of social norms. In particular, it argues that the Strawsonian reactive attitude of resentment is only fitting when people can reasonably expect a mutual recognition of the justified demands to which they are being held. Though such recognition should not typically be expected of moral demands that are thought to be independent of any social practice, social norms can ground such mutual recognition. On this account, a significant part of a society’s social norms are also properly seen as moral norms. The essay defends this overlap of social and moral norms in contrast to views on which moral norms and social norms are sharply distinguished. Lastly, the essay concludes by addressing challenges for accountability in circumstances of norm change.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 2018 

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For valuable feedback on earlier versions of this essay, I thank the other contributors to this volume, an anonymous reviewer who gave extensive constructive criticism, and the editors. I also thank the students in my seminar on social morality for insightful discussion of related material while I was revising this essay. Lastly, special thanks go to Jerry Gaus, Gerry Mackie, Cristina Bicchieri, and Oliver Sensen for extended discussion of the themes of this work.


1 I will not emphasize in this essay the fact that norms may not be precisely articulated, and in some cases may in fact be unarticulated or even not practically articulable. The non-articulation may, however, have important implications for our general understanding of social order and for any efforts to change a society’s norms. For some discussion of non-articulated norms, see Hayek, F. A., Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volume 1: Rules and Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 7478, 87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 For instance, Cristina Bicchieri writes that “[i]n all cultures, norms of fairness are local, in the sense that different situations, objects, and people will produce different interpretations of what counts as fair: In present-day America, for example, it is generally agreed that a kidney to be transplanted should not be allocated by auction, merit, or by a ‘first come, first serve’ principle, whereas merit or ‘first come, first serve’ are acceptable grounds for allocating college slots” (Bicchieri, Cristina, The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms [New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006], 83).Google Scholar

3 Strawson, P. F., “Freedom and Resentment,” in Free Will and Reactive Attitudes: Perspectives on P. F. Strawson’s Freedom and Resentment, ed. McKenna, Michael and Russell, Paul (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008), 1937.Google Scholar

4 I follow most in the literature in discussing resentment, although for the purposes of argument we may do better to focus on a broader form of anger; see Shoemaker, David, Responsibility from the Margins (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), chap. 3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Cf. Aristotle, Rhetoric, trans. W. Rhys Roberts (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004), bk. II.2. I thank Dave Shoemaker and Ronna Burger for helpful discussion of this point.

5 Although resentment is the most discussed Strawsonian reactive attitude, a number of other emotions may be considered part of our broad moral practice, such as shame and regret. As Shoemaker extensively argues, these other emotions seem to have significantly different fittingness conditions than resentment, perhaps best conceived of as reactive to different kinds of quality of will. See Shoemaker, Responsibility from the Margins; “Qualities of Will,” Social Philosophy and Policy 30, nos. 1–2 (2013): 95–120; “Attributability, Answerability, and Accountability: Toward a Wider Theory of Moral Responsibility,” Ethics 121, no. 3 (2011): 602–32. I will not here try to discern how these other emotions depend upon, or are independent of, social norms.

6 Strawson, “Freedom and Resentment,” sec. IV.

7 See Gaus, Gerald, Value and Justification: The Foundations of Liberal Theory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), chap. 2;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Hurley, Elisa A. and Macnamara, Coleen, “Beyond Belief: Toward a Theory of the Reactive Attitudes,” Philosophical Papers 39, no. 3 (2011): 373–99;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Nussbaum, Martha C., Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), chap. 1;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1999), 73;Google Scholar Rawls, John, “The Sense of Justice,” in Collected Papers, ed. Freeman, Samuel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 107;Google Scholar Rosen, Gideon, “The Alethic Conception of Moral Responsibility,” in The Nature of Moral Responsibility: New Essays, ed. Clarke, Randolph, McKenna, Michael, and Smith, Angela M. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 7072;Google Scholar Smith, Adam, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund Inc., 2009), sec. I.i.3.5-10;Google Scholar Solomon, Robert C., “Emotions and Choice,” The Review of Metaphysics 27, no. 1 (1973): 2041;Google Scholar Wallace, R. Jay, Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments, reprint edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), chap. 2.Google Scholar The cognitive content of emotions may be a non-belief-based way of “seeing as,” as when in the grip of a phobia you do not believe that the bunny is dangerous, but you see it as dangerous nonetheless. See, Calhoun, Cheshire, “Cognitive Emotions?” in What Is an Emotion?: Classic and Contemporary Readings, ed. Solomon, Robert C (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 236–47.Google Scholar

8 Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, para. I.i.3.6-7.

9 For arguments that emotions may be fitting even when wrong in other senses, see D’Arms, Justin and Jacobson, Daniel, “The Moralistic Fallacy: On the ‘Appropriateness’ of Emotions,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 61, no. 1 (2000): 6590;CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Rosen, “The Alethic Conception of Moral Responsibility,” 69.

10 Cf. Rosen, “The Alethic Conception of Moral Responsibility,” 69.

11 Of course, we would not expect the evidence to rise to the level of perfect certainty, but we do not need to settle here just how likely the emotion needs to be fitting for it to be rational.

12 Issues regarding what an agent “should have known” are rather complex and controversial. For extended treatment of the issues, see Sher, George, Who Knew?: Responsibility Without Awareness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).CrossRefGoogle Scholar I assume that the appropriate standards regard what one would know at a moderate level of idealization on one’s level of reasoning about the issue, as in the accounts of Gaus, Gerald, The Order of Public Reason: A Theory of Freedom and Morality in a Diverse and Bounded World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), sec. 13;Google Scholar and Vallier, Kevin, Liberal Politics and Public Faith: Beyond Separation (New York: Routledge, 2014), chap. 5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar For my purposes here, we do not need a particular account of how much idealization is appropriate. A considerable range of moderate idealizations will be compatible the arguments of this essay.

13 Utilitarians appeal to the uncontroversial goodness of pleasure or preference satisfaction, Kant appeals to reasoning implicit in common sense moral thinking, and so on. See, for instance, Singer, Peter, Practical Ethics, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 1214;Google Scholar Kant, Immanuel, “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals,” in Practical Philosophy, ed. Gregor, Mary J., new edition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), vol. 4: p. 389.Google Scholar Virtue ethical approaches are an exception here, for virtues may require special development or training. Virtue ethical views (e.g., Badhwar, Neera K., Well-Being: Happiness in a Worthwhile Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014))CrossRefGoogle Scholar, however, are not so closely tied to interpersonal accountability, and Rachana Kamtekar highlights that the virtue of justice (which might be closest to the domain of accountability) is “nonrepresentative of the virtues in general” ( Kamtekar, Rachana, “Ancient Virtue Ethics,” in The Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics, ed. Russell, Daniel C. [New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013], 30).Google Scholar

14 These considerations are well known from John Rawls’s discussion of the “burdens of judgment” that lead reasonable people to endorse different and conflicting comprehensive conceptions (including moral views). See Rawls, John, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 5258.Google Scholar Cf. Besson, Samantha, The Morality of Conflict: Reasonable Disagreement and the Law (Portland, OR: Hart Publishing, 2005), chaps. 2–4;Google Scholar Gaus, Gerald and Van Schoelandt, Chad, “‘Public Reason,’” in International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2d ed. (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2015), sec. 1;Google Scholar Rosen, Gideon, “Skepticism About Moral Responsibility,” Philosophical Perspectives 18, no. 1 (2004): sec. 6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

15 Sometimes people object to the known demand condition, as well as the justification condition, by appealing to cases in which someone engages in a terrible wrong, such as murder, does not satisfy the known demand condition, and yet, it is claimed, it would still be appropriate to resent her. Our intuitions about the appropriateness of the resentment seem to me to rest on actually thinking that such people do know the demand, or reasonably should know it. Cases in which they might not would tend to involve severe mental illness, intense indoctrination, or other conditions that do tend to reduce the fittingness of resentment.

16 Bicchieri, The Grammar of Society, 11; and Bicchieri, Cristina, Norms in the Wild: How to Diagnose, Measure and Change Social Norms (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

17 Bicchieri, Norms in the Wild, 132. For extensive discussion of scripts, the more general schemata, and their role in social norms, see Bicchieri, The Grammar of Society, chap. 2; Bicchieri, Norms in the Wild, 131–41; Bicchieri, Cristina and McNally, Peter, “Shrieking Sirens: Schemata, Scripts, and Social Norms. How Change Occurs,” Social Philosophy and Policy 35, no. 1 (2018): 2353.Google Scholar

18 Though Strawson seems to focus on regard for agents in practices of accountability, McKenna presents a Strawsonian view in which the set of beings that are properly subjects of moral concern is wider than the set of morally responsible agents, as by including animals. Strawson, “Freedom and Resentment,” sec. III; McKenna, Michael, Conversation and Responsibility (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 1112.Google Scholar Cf. Van Schoelandt, Chad, “Justification, Coercion, and the Place of Public Reason,” Philosophical Studies 172, no. 4 (2015): 1045.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

19 Strawson, “Freedom and Resentment,” 23.

20 Appeal to the considerations of a social moral code or a practice, as specifically distinct from what may be thought of as of fundamental importance, can be seen in accounts such as that of Brandt, Richard B., A Theory of the Good and the Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979);Google Scholar Rawls, John, “Two Concepts of Rules,” The Philosophical Review 64, no. 1 (January 1955): 332;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Van Schoelandt, Chad and Gaus, Gerald, “Constructing Distributive Justice,” in New Perspectives on Distributive Justice: Pluralism, Deep Disagreements, and the Problem of Consensus, ed. Knoll, Manuel, Snyder, Stephen, and Simsek, Nurdane (Berlin: De Gruyter Press, 2018).Google Scholar

21 Bicchieri, The Grammar of Society, 79.

22 Bicchieri holds that “[g]uilt, as well as resentment, presupposes the violation of expectations we consider legitimate” (The Grammar of Society, 25).

23 Van Schoelandt, “Justification, Coercion, and the Place of Public Reason.”

24 Gaus, The Order of Public Reason, sec. 13; Van Schoelandt, “Justification, Coercion, and the Place of Public Reason,” sec. 1.

25 For discussion of public goods and their mutual justification, see Gaus, Gerald, Social Philosophy (Armonk, NY: Routledge, 1998), chap. 10.2.Google Scholar

26 For discussion of these issues, see Bicchieri, The Grammar of Society, 186–93; Bicchieri, Norms in the Wild, 42–47; Kuran, Timur, Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).Google Scholar

27 Bicchieri writes: “When a practice is well entrenched, we often come to attribute to it some intrinsic value. In such cases, we recognize the legitimacy of others’ expectations and feel an obligation to fulfill them” (The Grammar of Society, 43). Cf. Bicchieri, Norms in the Wild, 135–36.

28 Kurt Baier emphasizes the importance of education in a moral order ( Baier, Kurt, The Rational and the Moral Order: The Social Roots of Reason and Morality [Peru, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, 1995], xiiv, 259, 298).Google Scholar

29 It may be hoped that norms that are harmful will tend to be eliminated so that over time there will be a disproportionate build up of norms that provide benefits rather than burdens, at least for most people. On the importance of free discussion for discovering possible objections to the norm, see Gaus, Value and Justification, 371; Gaus, Gerald, Justificatory Liberalism: An Essay on Epistemology and Political Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 166.Google Scholar

30 This potential need for updating based on changes in one’s presumptions is not at all unique to cases involving social norms or the two conditions I am emphasizing. Alice may, for instance, have to withdraw her resentment if she discovers that Bill was coerced, sleep walking, or otherwise exculpated. Other emotions too will have this feature, as you may rationally fear a lion you stumble upon, until you discover that it is merely taxidermic.

31 Bicchieri, Norms in the Wild, 33; cf., 31. Though I focus on Bicchieri’s account, similar distinctions are common in other accounts. For instance, there is the well known work on the moral/conventional distinction of Turiel, Elliot, The Development of Social Knowledge: Morality and Convention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), chap. 3.Google Scholar Likewise, Buchanan and others distinguish moral from social norms, particularly holding that the judgments constituting moral norms “may not be grounded, even in part, in presumed social practices.” See, Brennan, Geoffrey, Eriksson, Lina, Goodin, Robert E., and Southwood, Nicholas, Explaining Norms (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 71; cf. secs. 4.4-5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

32 Bicchieri, The Grammar of Society, 20.

33 Under the heading of “independent practices,” Bicchieri includes shared moral rules, collective customs (followed for individual prudential reasons), legal injunctions, and religious codes. In her account, these independent practices contrast with sources of collective patterns that are socially conditional such as self-enforcing conventions or social norms. Bicchieri, Norms in the Wild, chap. 1; cf. pp. 5-6, 41, and 71.

34 Similar transformations happen in the formation of social norms themselves. See, Bicchieri, The Grammar of Society, 41. Cf., on descriptive norms, Muldoon, Ryan, Lisciandra, Chiara, and Hartmann, Stephan, “Why Are There Descriptive Norms? Because We Looked for Them,” Synthese 191, no. 18 (2014): 44094429;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Muldoon, Ryan, Lisciandra, Chiara, Bicchieri, Cristina, Hartmann, Stephan, and Sprenger, Jan, “On the Emergence of Descriptive Norms,” Politics, Philosophy and Economics 13, no. 1 (2014): 322.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

35 Elizabeth O’Neill writes: “Depending on our goals, it may be useful to focus on different features of norms, and as a result, it will be useful to categorize norms in multiple ways” (O’Neill, Elizabeth, “Kinds of Norms,” Philosophy Compass 12, no. 5 [May 1, 2017]: sec. 1).Google Scholar

36 For instance, Bicchieri, Norms in the Wild, chaps. 2–4.

37 Ibid., 35, 72.

38 Ibid., 72; cf. p. 62. Baier likewise writes that we typically “appear to think that the imposition of corrective sanctions on irrationality is unjustified. We tend to think it solely our own business whether we are rational or irrational, but not whether we are moral or immoral” (Baier, The Rational and the Moral Order: The Social Roots of Reason and Morality, 18).

39 Bicchieri, The Grammar of Society, 8, 23–25, 41–42. Bicchieri specifically indicates that “[g]uilt and remorse will accompany transgression [of a social norm], as much as the breach of a moral rule elicits negative feelings in the offender” (ibid., 8).

40 Sanctioning behavior may arise without resentment and for reasons independent of resentment or other emotions, such as cases of purely strategic sanctioning in repeated interactions. It is worth noting, however, that Strawson holds that there is a significant connection between punishment and the reactive attitudes, specifically in that “the preparedness to acquiesce in that infliction of suffering on the offender which is an essential part of punishment is all of a piece with this whole range of attitudes of which I have been speaking.” According to Strawson, even though such acquiescence may come without “indignant boiling or remorseful pangs[,] . . . we have here a continuum of attitudes and feelings to which these readinesses to acquiesce themselves belong” (Strawson, “Freedom and Resentment,” 34).

41 Bicchieri, The Grammar of Society, 21. She also writes that “[t]heir legitimacy may stem from recognizing how important it is for the good functioning of our society to have such norms, but of course their ongoing value depends on widespread conformity.”

42 We expect norms to be clear for common, but not necessarily exceptional, cases. As Stanley Benn argues, it “is not just a fortunate accident that agonizing dilemmas such as Agamemnon’s are not features of the daily lives of ordinary people.” This is because “our preference structures, which include religious, political and aesthetic rankings . . . are related to the standard situations that confront us in daily life.” We may not have ready answers for situations far outside those we actually face, but “if such decision situations were a feature of our common culture, we should have to come to terms with them, and settle how the values trade-off under comparable conditions” ( Benn, Stanley I., A Theory of Freedom [Cambridge University Press, 1988], 62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Cf. D’Agostino, Fred, Incommensurability and Commensuration: The Common Denominator [Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003], 40).Google Scholar

43 To make this concrete, consider an example from academia. Rebecca Tuvel sparked impassioned criticism and an open letter calling for Hypatia to retract the article for, among other things, “deadnaming a trans woman”—specifically by having a parenthetical reference mentioning Caitlyn Jenner’s former name. It seems highly plausible that Tuvel, whose central argument and broader work is completely supportive of transgender individuals, simply did not recognize exactly what this very new norm against deadnaming required in her circumstances (e.g., that it prohibited even mere parenthetical mention of the former name of a completely public and out person). With a new norm, it is all too easy for a good-willed person to not know the relevant demand to which others may wish to hold her, even if she is enmeshed in the relevant community. See, Tuvel, Rebecca, “In Defense of Transracialism,” Hypatia 32, no. 2 (May 1, 2017): 263–78;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Weinberg, Justin, “Philosopher’s Article On Transracialism Sparks Controversy (Updated with Response from Author),” Daily Nous, May 1, 2017, Scholar

44 Cf. Bicchieri, Norms in the Wild, 134–35.