Storm in a Teacup? A Comment on Ullmann-Margalit

Norms and Values: The Role of Social Norms as Instruments of Value Realisation
ed. Michael Baurmann, Geoffrey Brennan, Bob Goodin, and Nicholas Southwood, Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, 2010, pp. 143-48

Most of the conference was pitched at a high altitude of conceptual abstraction. This paper is a refreshing descent to a specific example of norms and values. The insufficiency of social norms to maintain a clean kitchen led someone to install a closed-circuit television camera; subsequent debate over the legitimacy of surveillance illustrates how clashing values generate social conflict. The author provides a rich and detailed description of university life (and advertises culinary facilities that most academics will envy!). My comments are divided into three sections. The first analyzes the problem of keeping the kitchen clean within the familiar framework of collective action. The second section poses the challenge of explaining long-term transformations in values, focusing on the value of privacy. The final section emphasizes the importance of emotions.

At the most basic level, the author analyzes a problem of collective action. When a kitchen is used by many people, cleanliness is a collective good. Everyone benefits from a clean kitchen, but everyone also has an incentive to leave his or her mess for others to clear up. The problem of collective action is often invoked to explain the existence of norms. Such norms are christened ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma norms’ in the author’s classic discussion of The Emergence of Norms (1977). The norm in this case would be something like ‘Clean up after yourself!’ If everyone complied with the norm rather than succumbing to the temptation to free-ride, then the kitchen would have been perfectly clean. Needless to say, some people violated the norm. The resulting lapse in cleanliness led a frustrated academic to install the camera. With monitoring, free-riders would now face the threat of public shaming—and perhaps even material sanctions.

Monitoring was strongly opposed by a minority of academics. They did not want to shame their colleagues or even to contemplate any sanction from above. Unfortunately, the author does not use her ethnographic knowledge to investigate whether the opponents of monitoring tended to be those who left the kitchen in a mess. One suspects that the free-riders were especially likely to articulate principled objections to monitoring.

The reluctance to enforce compliance seems puzzling, assuming that it was not confined only to free-riders. If we consider the larger context, however, this becomes explicable. The university already pays maintenance staff to clean the kitchen every day. This means that the norm ‘Clean up after yourself!’ remains tenable even when some people violate it. Although the kitchen becomes messier over the course of the day (dirty cups accumulate in the sink and stains on the counter top), what is crucial is that it reverts to a sparkling condition next morning. This is suboptimal for those academics who have high standards of cleanliness, but it is manageable.

Consider the pure case of collective action, where the academics would really have to clean the kitchen themselves—as in a household or kibbutz. Then the norm of ‘Clean up after yourself!’ would be severely undermined by lack of compliance. Gradually the kitchen would become messier and messier. You could not simply ignore a dirty cup till next morning. Some people would have to clean up after the free-riders as well as themselves. The norm would thus become ‘Clean up the kitchen (even if you did not make the mess)!’ Now a colleague’s failure to clean would force someone else to contribute more than their fair share. In this pure case—where there is a genuine collective action problem—I hypothesize that staff would be far more likely to support a camera for monitoring. To put this to the test, the author as Director of the Center could conduct an experiment: give the maintenance staff a holiday and tell the academics that they are entirely responsible for cleaning the kitchen. Does opposition to monitoring diminish?

Even in the pure case of collective action (without maintenance staff), monitoring can be separated from the specific technology of the closed-circuit television. There is no need for any technological solution. Create a roster where each academic is assigned to thoroughly clean the kitchen on a specific day, first thing in the morning. Now there are two complementary norms: ‘On your assigned day, completely clean the kitchen by 9am!’ as well as ‘Clean up after yourself!’ These norms are easily monitored. If at 10am you find the kitchen in a mess, you can identify with some confidence who has violated the norm—the person who was assigned to clean this morning. Moreover, whoever is rostered to clean tomorrow morning has a strong incentive to monitor and sanction violations of both norms (especially the first); any free-riding will make their task more onerous, as the kitchen will be in a worse state. Anyone tempted to violate the norm ‘Clean up after yourself!’ knows that their malfeasance will harm a specific person (the person who will clean tomorrow morning). I suggest that the identification of harm to a specific individual—rather than to a generalized collectivity—will make (at least some) people less willing to violate the norm, even if they could do so without being noticed.

The specific allocation of responsibility—with monitoring as a natural consequence—would not eradicate free-riding. Nevertheless, this institution plus the two complementary norms could prove resilient even in the face of a certain amount of shirking. Real problems of collective action, such as maintaining irrigation systems or preventing overfishing, have been solved in this manner (Ostrom 1990). When there is an incentive to free-ride, cooperative norms cannot survive solely by their motivational force; monitoring and graduated sanctions are also necessary.

By considering cleaning the kitchen as a problem of collective action, the vociferous opposition to monitoring and sanctions emerges as a puzzle. This puzzle is solved by examining the structure of the situation: the deus ex machina in the form of maintenance staff makes free-riding fairly tolerable to academics, even for those who follow the norm. Therefore academics have the luxury of articulating philosophical objections to the enforcement of the norm.

The debate over enforcement takes us to a second level of analysis. Here is it useful to distinguish norms from values (Parsons 1961). In this conception, norms are specific behavioral injunctions; values are abstract ends or goods which legitimize or justify norms. Some norms (‘Drive on the left!) have no need of justification by values; some values (such as aesthetic values) have no close connection with norms. But there is usually a linkage between norms and values. In the case of the kitchen, the paramount values were cleanliness and privacy (equality was also a factor, though it was less salient). While we may agree that both cleanliness and privacy are valuable, the problem comes when the two conflict: how much of one are we willing to sacrifice to gain more of the other? Some participants in the debate gave primacy to cleanliness, others to privacy. The author suggests that women give greater weight to cleanliness. Because cleanliness (in regard to housekeeping) was traditionally women’s work, it is ‘devalued’—at least by men. Presumably women were more likely to favor the camera, but no data are presented to confirm this.

I will defer to the gender stereotype and focus entirely on the value of privacy. The author takes it for granted that privacy is something inherently valuable. The claim that ‘this camera violates my right to privacy’ is a compelling argument. Even those who disputed the conclusion had to accept the premise; they could argue that the right to privacy did not apply in this particular situation (the kitchen is not a private place) or they could argue that it was trumped by some other value. Presumably no one thought of questioning the value of privacy itself. What I want to argue is that the value of privacy demands explanation; it cannot simply be taken for granted as a universal good.

The valuation of privacy is a peculiar feature of contemporary Western societies. Obsession with privacy is especially notable in the United Kingdom, where it is enshrined in legislation like the Data Protection Act. While we are sharing anecdotes of university life, let me give a trivial but revealing example. When I joined one Department (not at my current university), naturally I was asked for a photograph to add to the notice board so that colleagues and students could identify me. I had to sign a release form, giving the university permission to display my likeness. By implication, my ‘right to privacy’ encompassed the right to keep anyone from seeing my face.

We know much less about values than about norms. Norms around collective action in particular have been extensively investigated; they are suited to experimental testing. With values, however, we are looking at historical-cultural change rather than recurring patterns of social interaction. This gives rise to a formidable methodological problem: there is essentially one ‘case’ where the value of privacy has come to prominence, namely the modern West. While there is some variations across countries (I suspect that it is especially pronounced in the United Kingdom), these cannot be treated simply as ‘independent cases’. The European Union, for example, promotes privacy as a value and forces its institutionalization in member countries.

In the broadest view, the value of privacy is just the latest manifestation of a deep and powerful historical current: the increasing valuation of individual rights which has defined ‘The West’ since the late eighteenth century. One could argue that as more substantive individual rights—rights to vote, to free schooling, to decent housing, and so on—have become satisfied, then rights expand to encompass less significant domains. To put this another way, rights ascend up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In this hierarchy, privacy seems to accord roughly with the level of esteem. The value of privacy fits well with Inglehart’s (e.g. 1997) conception of a shift towards postmaterialism. This argument seems plausible; how it could be empirically tested is another matter.

Paradoxically, the value of privacy emerged when real life offered unprecedented levels of privacy. The platitude that the West is a ‘surveillance society’ is utterly false. Even leaving aside the totalitarian dictatorships of the twentieth century, surveillance was far more invasive in peasant villages or hunter gatherer bands. In the affluent West, children sleep in their own beds and often have their own bedrooms. A high proportion of adults live alone, without stigma; couples rarely live with their parents or other relatives. In cities, neighbors generally have little interest in what happens next door. The internet provides secret access to a world of information, allowing (for example) a teenager to enjoy explicit pornography or discover information on contraception or homosexuality. One might speculate that such high levels of privacy in everyday life help to explain the popularity of television shows like Big Brother; those shows tap a natural human interest in ferreting out (and gossiping about) ‘discreditable’ information pertaining to others, a desire frustrated by the extraordinary privacy granted by contemporary Western democracies.

Whatever its historical origins, the value of privacy is not simply an ethereal abstraction. Like any other potent value, it is institutionalized. The elevation of privacy as a value goes hand in hand with the creation of official positions dedicated to its promotion. At the governmental level, this post is often called a Privacy (or Information) Commissioner. Legislation or the threat of litigation forces organizations like firms and universities to create their own specialized positions—‘data protection officers’ and the like. People occupying those positions are then motivated to emphasize the value of privacy (and the prevalence and deleterious consequences of its violations), in order to increase their status within the organization and to swell their own budget.

These are some of the broader social forces that have made the value of privacy remarkably salient in modern Western societies—as illustrated by its frequent invocation in the debate over the camera in the kitchen.

The author concludes that participants in the debate ‘made their minds up about the issue at stake instinctively and instantaneously ... It may be said that people’s instincts were made up before their minds were’ (p. [PAGE NUMBER], this volume). While the author suggests that this is somehow peculiar to issues of privacy, I argue that this is a general characteristic of debates over values and norms. One symptom is the uncanny coincidence of normative evaluations and instrumental assessments. (I owe recognition of this fact to Jervis 1976.) People who find a course of action to be normatively unjustifiable, because it violates cherished values, usually also assess that course of action to be instrumentally ineffective, in the sense that it will not achieve the desired results. Conversely, people who find a course of action to be morally justifiable usually also assess it to be instrumentally effective in bringing about the desired ends. In the case of the kitchen and the camera, I hypothesize that academics who expressed moral outrage at the violation of privacy also argued that surveillance would not actually produce a cleaner kitchen. And vice versa: academics who argued that surveillance would be effective also found it to be normatively justified.

If a person reasoned independently in positive and normative domains, then there should be as many cases of dissonance as consonance. Take a more dramatic question: whether we should torture suspected terrorists. One could evaluate torture as being normatively justified for gathering intelligence and yet judge torture as being less effective in this respect than humane treatment. Or one could judge torture as yielding valuable intelligence and yet evaluate torture as normatively unjustifiable. But these dissonant combinations are unusual: people tend to argue that torture is immoral and ineffective or they argue that it is morally permissible and effective. (Note that I am referring to the arguments of people who are not philosophers in debates outside the academic seminar.)

The consonance of normative evaluations and instrumental assessments could be explained by the pragmatics of rhetoric. If I really think that torture (or the camera in the kitchen) is immoral and therefore must be stopped, then I should argue publicly that it will also be ineffective—even if I secretly admitted its efficacy. My thinking would be as follows: if I fail to convince others with my normative argument, then I still have a chance to persuade them with an instrumental argument. Rhetoric may explain some part of the consonance, but it is implausible as a full explanation. Instead, I propose that normative questions provoke an emotional response (I would substitute ‘emotions’ for ‘instincts’ in the quotation above), which is then followed by a search for reasons to rationalize that response. In making sense of the emotional reaction to oneself, and in justifying it to others, one mentally ‘recruits’ as many reasons as possible: some involve values, others involve efficacy. Unless one is subject to conflicting emotions, all these reasons concur: either favouring or opposing a certain course of action.

We think that our reasoning explains our emotional response, but the causal order arguably runs the other way. I would end by emphasizing the importance of emotions (e.g. Prinz 2007). Emotions were almost entirely absent from the conference proceedings (from the content of the papers, I hasten to add, not the character of the discussion!), with the exception of Robert Sugden’s contribution. Yet emotions such as anger, shame, and disgust underlay the debate over the camera in the kitchen: disgust at the dirtiness of the kitchen; anger towards those who disregarded the norm of cleaning up, or towards those who violated one’s right to privacy; perhaps shame at being caught behaving discreditably. Further advances in our understanding of norms and values will require serious consideration of emotions.

Inglehart, Ronald, 1997, Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic and Political Change in 43 Societies, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Jervis, Robert, 1976, Perception and Misperception in International Politics, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Ostrom, Elinor, 1990, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
Parsons, Talcott, 1961, ‘An Outline of the Social System’, Parsons (ed.), Theories of Society, vol. 1, New York: The Free Press, pp. 30-79.
Prinz, Jesse, 2007, The Emotional Construction of Morals, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ullmann-Margallit, Edna, 1977, The Emergence of Norms, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Michael Biggs, Department of Sociology, University of Oxford