Making Citizens Behave

Just ran across this article by Emily McTiernan in the new Journal of Political Philosophy entitled “How to Make Citizens Behave: Social Psychology, Liberal Virtues, and Social Norms.”  The essential point of the article is to argue that liberals who suggest the state should inculcate various kinds of virtues – say, toleration – as a means of making liberal society “work” are, empirically speaking, all wet.  Social psychology shows that we’re really not very good at inculcating virtues.  Instead, she suggests we focus on “social norms,” views held by most people to be authoritative.  If we can make it so most people take some norm – don’t drink and drive, recycle, avoid reality tv – to be something that most of their fellow citizens believe to be right, folks will behave.

Frankly, the whole thing sounds rather creepy to me.  But maybe that’s because I had Mayor Bloomberg in my mind as I read it.  I don’t at all object to the idea that the proper sorts of social norms are crucial for making free societies work.  To take a rather trivial example, if we were always (sincerely) worried that people walking by us on the sidewalk might randomly take a whack at us, we’d hardly be willing to be in public.  But McTierney’s article is all about the ways in which liberal states could employ their communicative, fiscal, and police powers to reshape social norms to putatively good ends.  She of course focuses on all the sorts of norms that her fellow liberal theorists like to talk about, but I wonder how the conversation would go if we talked about, oh I don’t know, norms of sexual fidelity?  Or attachment to a particular place?  Or familial nurture?  I suspect that those conversations would go much differently.

But this raises a very important question.  Suppose it’s the case that evangelicals (and Christians more broadly) can roughly agree on the shape of what constitutes the best sort of family and social life.  And suppose further that what the state does in its various aspects has some effects on family and social life.  To what degree should we be in favor of having the state act to what we think of good effects?  More thoughts along this line coming…


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