January 13, 2010
SOCIAL CONVENTIONS ARE ARBITRARY
Marmor, Andrei, Social Conventions: From Language to Law (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton U. Press, 2009) (This is a interesting read, especially for those with a philosophical bent. “This is a short book, and there is no need to give it a long introduction. There are, however, two related points I need to clarify in advance. First, I take it that conventions are a species of norms; they are rules that regulate human conduct. As such, conventions pose a problem that is best cast in terms of practical reasoning. If there is anything unique about conventional norms, there must be something unique about the ways in which they figure in our practical reasons. The second assumption is precisely the idea that conventional norms are unique. In spite of the great diversity of domains in which we follow conventions, they share an essential feature, namely, their arbitrariness. To suggest that a certain norm is conventional is to suggest that in some sense it just happens to be the one we follow, that we could have followed a different norm instead, that is, without any significant loss of purpose. This arbitrary feature of conventional norms is both a challenge and the beginning of an explanation. It is a challenge to explain the practical reasons for following a rule that is, basically, arbitrary. But the arbitrary nature of conventions is also the beginning of why it matters, philosophically speaking, to determine whether a certain domain, or type of norms, is conventional or not. It matters precisely because conventionality entails a certain arbitrariness, suggesting that the way things are could have been different in a real sense. . . . More precisely, . . . the conventionality of a domain is closely tied with crucial elements of contingency, path dependency, and underdetermination by reasons, These are the features that make it philosophically interesting to determine whether a certain set of norms is conventional or not. . . .” Id. at x-xi.).