Social Conventionalism 


The premise of Social Convention Ethics is that the proper moral code is the product of a general agreement or the customary practices of a social group.  Aristotle, Locke, and Hobbes would be classed as traditional conventionalists.  Gilbert Harman(1), David Wong(2), and John Searle(3) would be among the contemporary conventionalists.  Social Conventionalism is also popularly referred to as Cultural Relativism, and sometimes Democratic Ethics.  As but one highly visible manifestation of its popularity - in most modern "democratic" political campaigns there is almost no discussion about "What is the right thing to do?" Almost all discussion is about "What is the popular thing to do?" The same is also true of most Western media coverage. Want to know what to do? Take a public opinion poll. Reasoning from, or measuring against, ethical standards is not a conceivable activity, since there are no such things as ethical standards.

According to conventionalism, morality is the product of social custom.  Contrary to the arguments of the natural law theorists, its basis is not to be found in nature or even in human nature.  Morality is an arbitrary human artifice.(4)  And contrary to the arguments of the rationalists, it is without rational basis.  The non-conventionalist theories all claim that we ought to adhere to the socially accepted rules of conduct not just because they are "the thing done" in that society, but because "on a rational and objective review of the well-being of everyone involved - the rules are judged to be in the interests of the general welfare"(5).  But the conventionalist denies that there is any objective sense of "the public good", "general welfare", or "common good" that is independent of the cultural norms.  The conventionalist argues that any person who is capable of making a moral judgment has already been conditioned into a mode of life which (at some early point at any rate) they simply accept more or less unconsciously as the self-evidently right way of living, and the self-evident standard of "the common good".  Only a very few, on rare occasions, ever seriously query this unwittingly absorbed standard of what is moral.

In this way moral knowledge is not like propositional knowledge of what is the case.  Moral knowledge is more like knowing how to play a game.  Moral insight is like skill in chess -- it is "how to" knowledge that develops with practice, and whose standards of right and wrong are defined by the rules of the game.(6)  But unlike chess, most of the rules of morality are un-codified, and conformity to those rules is mostly unconscious and habitual(7).  For most people, most of the time, being moral is more akin to riding a bike -- learned as a kid, un-thought about since, done by reflex habit.

If the assumption is that morality is a product of some actual or presumed general agreement within the social group, then in this respect, morality is in the same family with etiquette and law.(8)  It is possible, therefore, that Ann (belonging to one social group) can make a moral judgment (such as "Abortion is wrong/bad"), while Beth (belonging to another social group) can make a contradictory moral judgment (such as "Abortion is right/good) about the same thing (action, state-of-affairs, person, etc.).  According to conventionalism, they may both be objectively right.  They may each be fully informed about all the relevant facts, and each equally justified in their respective judgments.  They can both be correct in their judgments because they inhabit different socially constructed moral universes.(9)

So the conventionalist will reply to the Divine/Authoritative Command moral theorist (who claims that morality is the product of what some Supreme Authority commands) that the commands of morality simply reflect what the relevant social group has come to acknowledge as generally accepted standards of behavior.  The reply to the anti-realist moral theorist (who claims that moral language is expressive and prescriptive rather than propositional) is that this is just what you would expect if the true basis of morality is the unreasoned indoctrinated attitudes and habitual emotional responses to the standards of socially expected conduct that were learned at one's mother's knee and never since challenged.  A similar response is offered to the realist theories based on moral intuition.  And the fact that the conventionalist understanding of morality allows that morality can be fundamentally irrational and inconsistent is considered by conventionalists to defeat all those realist theories that rely on reason as their basis, such as that of Kant. 

There are a number of difficulties that must be properly managed if you choose Social Conventionalism as your system of Ethics. The most significant ones are the same two your mother provided when, as a child, you pleaded for permission to do or have something because "everybody else" has the requested permission or thing. Firstly, how do you know that "everybody else" has it? And secondly, even if they do, how do you know that having it is good for you? Although, of course, this latter challenge is begging the question - since within Social Conventionalism if everybody else has it, it is by definition good for you as well.  

In order to provide a rational foundation for Social Conventionalism, a process must be provided for determining what the Common Values and Consensus of Opinion are, and translating them into the necessary definitions of "Good". And when that is accomplished, a rationale must be provided for the assumption that "if it is good for everybody else, then it is good for me". Even if on the surface it is true by definition, it is certainly not a self-evident truth - "If all your friends were to jump into the sea, would you also?" Lemmings would say "Yes!". But most people would not. So even if a logical proof is not required, some form of rationale certainly is.   The logical answer does not appear to be a reasonable one.

Any rational person will acknowledge that long-term personal welfare is best achieved in a social setting.  For humans, personal freedom and well-being depend on cooperation with others.  But a rationally prudent person (RPP for short) would enter into cooperative enterprises only with similarly cooperative associates.  Anything less than equal cooperation would constitute an encroachment on the welfare of our RPP.  Thus even for a person completely devoid of other-regarding feelings, there is a rational basis for accepting the conventional moral rules as rules that need to be adhered to.(11)  But this means that for an RPP, moral behaviour is motivated by rational self-interest, not by the moral status of the behaviour.  Moral considerations become merely "the expectations of society".  In other words, it becomes a case of "when in Rome, do as the Romans do, or else!!"  This suggests that when there is no observer to placate, moral considerations need not apply.  If morality is just a product of local conventions, flouted at your peril, there is no independent authority for the rules beyond social condemnation (and possible punishment).  Each person is free to apply prudential cost-benefit analysis to moral choice situations, and to choose to bear the socially imposed costs associated with immoral choices as long as the personal benefits are sufficient to outweigh the costs.  Moral considerations are reduced to prudential considerations.  And this presents a problem, because Social Conventionalist Ethics is generally considered a Social conception of Ethics.  Prudential motivations are supposed to be ruled non-moral from the start.

The more widely recognized challenge to conventionalism, is the challenge of identifying the boundaries of the proper socially constructed moral universe.  Every individual is a part of a great number of different social groups, varying in size from the nuclear family all the way up to the entire human species (and perhaps even beyond).  If morality is a product of the generally accepted conventions of a society -- which "society" should one adopt as the basis for one's morality?  And why?

It is one thing for Ann and Beth to contradict each other with their moral judgments if they are on different sides of the planet, in different nations, with perhaps different religions and different cultural backgrounds.  But it is quite another if they are next door neighbours -- even if they do belong to different religions, political parties, and social circles.  There does not appear to be any restrictions within conventionalism that would constrain one's choice of which set of conventions, belonging to which social group, are to form the basis of one's morality.  Without some criteria with which to distinguish one social group from another, moral conventionalism becomes indistinguishable from moral subjectivism.

Related to this identity challenge is the consequence that all moral judgments become judgments relative to a specific set of social conventions.  All moral statements have to be understood as elliptical  --  as including the qualifier "according to this particular set of social conventions".  And that, in turn, means any moral criticism of other societies, or other moral codes, has to include this ellipsis as well.  One can only claim that it was wrong for the Greeks to practice slavery, as long as one understands that this really means that you, with your particular set of social conventions, believe that slavery is wrong.  It cannot be understood to mean that it was then, in any objective sense, morally wrong, in the Greek society of the time, for the Greeks to practice slavery.  Even more problematic, Ann and Beth, disagreeing about the moral status of abortion and yet living next door to each other, have no basis from which to argue that the other is wrong.  Their respectively different social environments means that each is correct within their own set of social conventions.

 Social Convention Ethics (Cultural Relativism) implies some consequences that, initially at least, appear to be if not counter-intuitive then at least not normally expected: 

Different societies will have different moral codes.  No two social groups will have exactly the same set of Common Values.  This is the natural result of the fact that the determination of what is socially customary will differ between any two such social groups because they will consist of separate sets of individuals each with their own individual sets of goals and priorities.

There can be no standard that can be used to judge one set of moral codes as better or worse than another set.  To a modern Canadian, to suggest that is it morally correct to eat one's dead father would seem ludicrous.  But to some former aboriginal tribes of Borneo, this would have been the proper moral thing to do.  To suggest that they should cremate or inter their dead fathers would have been regarded as highly immoral and terribly irreverent.  Therefore, the eating of the dead cannot be regarded as inherently right or wrong in and of itself.  It is a matter of social attitudes, which will vary from culture to culture.

The moral code of your own social group has no special status.  It is merely one among many equally acceptable standards of social behaviour.  While a popular attitude among adherents of the "Multiculturalism" school of social etiquette, it tends to become less comfortable as the differences in cultural practices become wider.  Is female circumcision morally acceptable or is it morally unacceptable abuse?

There can be no "Universal Truths" in Ethics. There can be no moral standards that hold for all peoples in all social units. Each social group will develop its own ethical truth, based on its own set of Common Values. If there are any congruencies between the ethical principles of two societies, it is coincidental or historical and not the result of any basic underlying Ethical Universal.

 It is mere arrogance for us to judge the conduct of other cultures against our own moral standards. It was morally right for the Romans to keep slaves, and to hold jousts to the death in the Coliseum, and to indulge in infanticide of baby girls in favor of baby boys. That we regard these things as terribly immoral is irrelevant. The Common Values of their culture made these activities Morally correct.

While this approach to ethics may be the "best" one, and certainly has some appeal to those with a liberal political bent, the difficulty in determining what the Common Values or Consensus Opinions are with any degree of accuracy;   the problem of justifying the application of other people's opinions to individual behaviour choices;   and the counter-intuitive consequences cited above, would suggest that there might be a "better" approach.

“There’s no court of appeal higher than a democratic consensus.”  Richard Rorty(12)  

So accepting collective subjectivism is believing that these conventions or agreements are the reflections of the subjective tastes and opinions of the other members of the society.  And the most important consequence of that belief is that your own tastes and opinions are an insignificant contributor to the collective.  Which means that you are adopting a basis for your beliefs about morality that depend upon the tastes and opinions of others, and not yourself.  So you would hold as "good" that which other people believe is "good".  If other people believe that you should sacrifice your own interests, projects and welfare in order to further their interests, projects, and welfare - then you are accepting that this sacrifice is "good".  In other words, you are accepting the morality of Altruism - self-sacrifice and self-denial for the interests of others.  The net result is that in following an Altruistic morality, you are committed to suicide and possibly genocide - and sometimes not slowly.  

"Every young American should be taught the joy and the duty of serving, and should learn it at the moment when it will have the most enduring impact on the rest of their lives."     President Bill Clinton(13)

 "This state of mind, which subordinates the interests of the ego to the conservation of the community, is really the first premise for every truly human culture. . . . The basic attitude from which such activity arises, we call -- to distinguish it from egoism and selfishness --idealism. By this we understand only the individual's capacity to make sacrifices for the community, for his fellow men."       Adolf Hitler(14)  

The third criticism of conventionalism is the "deep genesis" challenge.  Even if one accepts that conventions are the basis of morality, there is the deeper question of just why the relevant conventions come to be what they are.  Is it the case, as some suggest, that these conventions are purely arbitrary -- culture-relative contingent creations that could easily have been otherwise?  If morality is contingent and arbitrary, what authority does it possess other than social condemnation?  How does moral consideration differ from prudential consideration?  And how it is possible to argue that the existing social conventions are morally wrong -- as social reformers frequently claim?

Otherwise, the question becomes why your chosen society has these particular conventions rather than those.  The suggestion here is that the conventions that society has established are those (amongst all that have been tried in this society) that have so far proven to contribute best to "the common good".  The relevant conventions evolve over time towards those that better contribute to "the common good".  This conception nicely allows for arguments that the ancient Greeks ought not to have practiced slavery, and that some features of the current moral conventions are not the best they could be.  But it runs afoul of the deeper question of just what aspects of reality constitute the "the common good".  We return to the same deep genesis question -- but one level deeper.  Is the very concept of what constitutes the "the common good" purely arbitrary -- a contingent creation that could easily have been otherwise?  If so, then we are back to the question of the authority of conventional morality, and the devolvement of moral conventionalism into subjectivity.  Otherwise, the conventionalist is admitting that there is a society-independent objective fact of the matter about what constitutes the "the common good" which is the ultimate basis of morality.  The conventionalist with this sort of answer has abdicated the field to the moral realist who argues just exactly that.


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(1)   Harman, Gilbert;  The Nature of Morality: An Introduction to Ethics, Oxford University Press, New York, New York, 1977. ISBN 0-19-502143-6.
        Harman, Gilbert;  "Is There a Single True Morality" in Relativism: Interpretation and Confrontation, M.Krausz (ed.), University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1989, pp 383-386.
                    "My theses is that morality arises when a group of people reach an implicit agreement or come to a tacit understanding about their relations with one another.  Part of what I mean by this is that moral judgments -- or, rather, an important class of them, make sense only in relation to and with reference to one or another such agreement or understanding.  . . .  It makes no sense to ask whether an action is wrong, period, apart from any relation to an agreement."  (Harman, 1989, p 33)

(2)   Wong, David;  Natural Moralities: A Defense of Pluralistic Relativism, Oxford University Press, New York, New York. 2006. ISBN 978-0-19-538329-4.

(3)   Searle, John;  The Construction of Social Reality, The Free Press, Simon & Schuster Inc., New York, New York, 1995, ISBN 0-684-83179-1.

(4)   Oddie, Graham;  "Moral Realism, Moral Relativism and Moral Rules (A Compatibility Argument)" in Synthese, Vol 117, No 2 Rules in Practical Reasoning (1998/1999), pp 251-274. URL=<>
                    "The moral relativist . . . claims that judgments of right and wrong, permissibility and obligation, and so on, are in an important sense socially constructed; that they are human artefacts, perhaps of a very sophisticated sort; that they depend on the existence of human institutions, agreements and conventions, tacit or explicit, and vary from one set of such institutions and agreements to another."  (Oddie, 1999, p 251)

(5)   Nielsen, Kai;  "Conventionalism in Morals and the Appeal to Human Nature" in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol 23, No 2 (Dec 1962), pp 217-231

(6)   Firth, Raymond;  Elements of Social Organization, Watts & Co., London, England. 1951.
                    "It will be useful to put this analysis of morality briefly again in its general anthropological perspective. The anthropologist is not discussing the existence of ethical notions on the philosophical plane. But what he does show . . . is the existence of standards of right and wrong, and sensitive judgments in their terms, in all human societies studied. These standards vary greatly in differentiation and in social range. They are in obvious relation to the structure of the societies where they are found. But behind this variation is a real measure of uniformity. Moral judgments spring immediately from individual emotion fused with a component of reasoning. But they are based ultimately on social inoculation, especially in childhood. Morality has important social functions, and exists in virtue of them. Right and wrong, good and evil, justice, duty, conscience, are operational concepts, gripped into social action. Morality, then, is that system of rules and standards which gives significance to the activity of individuals in relation to one another in society. It gives meaning and value to conduct. It justifies conduct, even in opposition to major structural principles. . . .  Morality is a social cement between individual means and social ends." (Firth, 1951, p 213)

(7)   Kekes, John;  "Moral Conventionalism" in American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol 22, No 1 (Jan 1985) pp 37-46 URL=<>.

(8)                 "Moral relativism denies that there are universal basic moral demands and says that different people are subject to different basic moral demands depending on the social customs, practices, conventions, values and principles that they accept."  (Harman, 1989, p 363)

(9)   Tannsjo, Torbjorn; "Moral Relativism" in Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, Vol 35, No 2 (Sep 2007), pp 123-143, URL=<>.

(10)   Rescorla, Michael;  "Convention" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=<>.
                    "A distinctive thesis shared by almost all conventionalist theories is that there exist alternative conventions that are in some sense equally good. Our choice of a convention from among alternatives is undetermined by the nature of things, by general rational considerations, or by universal features of human physiology, perception, or cognition. This element of free choice distinguishes conventionalism from other moral doctrines such which hold that, in one way or another, moral properties are 'due to us.'"

(11)   Nielsen, Kai;  "Appraising Doing the Thing Done" in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol 57, No 24 (Nov 1960), pp 749-759, URL=<>.

(12)   Rorty, Richard ; "The Next Left" in Atlantic Unbound, April 23, 1998. interview by Scott Stossel.  

(13)  President Bill Clinton, radio addresses to the nation, April 5 and July 26, 1997.  

(14)  Hitler, Adolf;  Mein Kampf, trans. Ralph Manheim. Houghton Mifflin: New York, 1971, pp. 297--98. 


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