9th Pavia Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy – Abstract/McTernan

Emily McTernan

How to Make Citizens Behave: Social Psychology, Liberal Virtues and Social Norms

Many liberals argue that a liberal state’s citizens must possess certain virtues because institutions alone are insufficient to ensure citizens behave in the ways required for a liberal state to flourish, be stable, or function at all. Cultivating liberal virtues is regarded as an effective way to secure patterns of behaviour from citizens that structuring institutions alone cannot. In this paper, I challenge the current near-consensus among liberals that virtue plays such an instrumental role, and suggest an empirically and normatively superior alternative to fill the instrumental role, of social norms. First, I argue that liberal virtues are a poor candidate, empirically speaking, for the instrumental role they are introduced to fill. To those aware of the discussion of virtue within ethics, that liberals think that virtue could serve an instrumental role of securing a desired pattern of behaviour from citizens may seem strange. In ethics, virtues, as dispositions towards certain patterns of behaviour, are under attack: Harman and Doris present a challenge based on social psychology’s theory of situationism. I update the psychology of Harman and Doris to the current paradigm of interactionism, and then apply the challenge from social psychology to the liberal virtues. Second, I propose social norms as a more promising candidate, empirically speaking, to fill virtue’s supposed instrumental role. Third, I consider an objection to the empirical attack on liberal virtue, that virtue was intended to refer to whatever happens to fulfil the functional role of securing certain behaviours from citizens – and if that is social norms, so be it. I reply, however, that the normative costs of social norms for liberals are very different – and potentially preferable – to those of virtue. Hence, I conclude that liberals should appeal to social norms as the way to make citizens behave, rather than liberal virtues.