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Against Social Domain Theory

Lecture by Joseph Heath ( University of Toronto), organised by the Department of Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy.


Among anthropologists and sociologists, it is widely believed that moral rules are best understood as a type of social norm. Many have been influenced by the thesis advanced by Emile Durkheim, that everyday social norms, such as rules of etiquette, have important features in common with moral rules.

Moral philosophers, however, have largely been hostile to this suggestion (often motivated by the concern that treating moral rules are a species of social norm will set in motion a dynamic that will lead to moral relativism). In recent years, this impulse to distinguish moral rules from others types of social norm has received what many philosophers take to be empirical support from the work of Elliot Turiel and his collaborators. Turiel is well-known for having argued that there are two distinct “domains” of social cognition, the “moral” and the “conventional,” and that even very young children are able to distinguish the two. Philosophers have been quick to jump on this, as proof that moral rules are fundamentally different from “conventional” social norms.

My own view is that Turiel’s thesis is not just mistaken, but perniciously so, because it deprives us of important insights into morality. Of course, there are going to be some differences between moral rules and other social norms – if there weren't then we wouldn't be able to distinguish moral issues from questions of propriety or politeness. Yet I will argue that the differences are much less important than the similarities, and that many of the properties that have been traditionally taken by philosophers to be specific to the moral domain are in fact generic properties of social norms.

Joseph Heath

Joseph Heath is Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto, where he is also the Director of the Centre for Ethics. He is the author of many papers on political philosophy, business ethics, action theory, critical theory, and Habermas. His academic books include Morality, Competition and the Firm and Following the Rules, and his popular books include Enlightenment 2.0, Filthy Lucre, and The Rebel Sell.

When & where?

Wednesday 7 January, 2-4pm
Room Omega, Faculty of Philosophy

Last modified:06 June 2019 12.41 p.m.