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On social disorder.

By Gerald Gaus.

WHENEVER SOCIETIES EXPERIENCE a breakdown in social order — when its members witness rioting, looting and widespread disregard for its social norms and laws — two apparently conflicting analyses inevitably arise.  The first is associated with ‘the right’. Shared social existence requires adherence to, and enforcement of, the basic guidelines of decent and cooperative behavior. This was the great lesson taught by Thomas Hobbes, who lived through (by fleeing) the English Civil War. Everyone gains by a social life regulated by rules and laws protecting property and the person, but each is tempted to cheat on the rules to secure additional gains. In the words of Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom and her co-author David Schwab, we are tempted to play ‘snatch’ rather than ‘exchange’:1 rather than exchanging, individuals are tempted to snatch goods and flee. Or, more generally, rather than abiding by the common rules, a person is tempted to pursue her own goals and agenda at the expense of others.

Thos. Hobbes, civil war survivor. (By JM Wringht, NPG.)

There is a paradox at the heart of a successful cooperative order. We all gain by following the rules, yet each will do even better by cheating on them. Until, that is, cheating becomes widespread and the cooperative order breaks down. Trust and commerce dries up and all are forced to defend what they now have. The ‘right’ is correct that a cooperative social life inevitably opens up the possibility of opportunistic cheating, but widespread cheating undermines the trust upon which the fruits of a cooperative social life depend.

RECENT WORK ON the evolution of cooperation also endorses another claim typically associated with ‘the right’: crucial to deterring individuals from playing snatch is some form of third-party punishment. This may, but need not, be inflicted by the state. Indeed, much escapes the attention of the state; it is, in any event, a powerful but clumsy instrument. As the political economist Charles Lindblom once said, it is all thumbs and no fingers. A great deal of effective enforcement depends on the willingness of participants in the social order to rebuke norm violation. One of the most surprising but well-supported findings of research on normative behavior shows the importance of ‘altruistic punishers’ in successful cooperative arrangements — those who are willing to incur costs in order to inflict costs on those who flout cooperative norms. A cooperative order dominated by those who will themselves cooperate but turn a blind-eye to the violations of others — they never pay to take violators to task — is fragile, as it is vulnerable to successful invasion by those devoted to snatch rather than exchange.

So far this sounds like a paean to the traditional advocate of law and order. But external enforcement, while necessary to an effective cooperative order and not to be disparaged, is insufficient. Just as the state cannot catch all violators neither can the community. Modern advanced normative orders present innumerable opportunities for unobserved, or at least untraceable, cheating. If many people are really devoted to snatch rather than exchange they will find plenty of opportunities to play it without being caught. As Schwab and Ostrom stress, successful cooperative orders require that participants internalize the norms.  Normative orders stabilize when people conceive of the social rules as not just external constraints on their action, but as constraints they endorse, and whose violations induce guilt and remorse. Unless the mass of individuals have internalized the rules of social life and experience remorse when they fail to live up to them, the social order will depend solely on external enforcement. As Hobbes recognized, such a social order must employ overwhelming force to keep its citizens in awe and discourage them from seeking out chances to play snatch. And unless at least public officials internalize the norms, how could we expect them not to use their power to play snatch from above?

This, though, raises an issue that goes far deeper than those on ‘the right’ commonly appreciate, for we need to ask for any given norm or social rule whether it is really reasonable for a free person to internalize it. To internalize a norm is endorse it as part of one’s conscience; it becomes a voice within, instructing one what one demands of oneself, as well as what society demands of one. To simply point out that a norm or rule has some social advantage is not sufficient to show a free person that she should accord it a place in her conscience. The norm must be for her good as well as society’s, and it must speak to what she considers the basic truths that must be respected. Otherwise she cannot help but view the rule as imposed by others for their good, or in the name of their truths. Or even worse, she has been so oppressed that she welcomes the alien norm, as a slave who cherishes her chains.

Our increasingly pluralistic societies are characterized by a variety of what the American philosopher John Rawls called ‘comprehensive doctrines’. We disagree about the aims of life, the place of humans in the universe, and whether we have a relation to a God, and what that relation might be. As Rawls stressed, rules and institutions that depend on a comprehensive doctrine — whether it be a religious doctrine or a secular liberalism — cannot secure a free stability under our modern conditions. Only the repressive use of state power can seek to stabilize such norms, and such orders are always fragile.

And so we come to the second inevitable analysis, that characteristic of ‘the left’. Faced with large-scale violations of norms we must enquire whether our norms are oppressive. In a free and stable normative order there will always be those tempted to violate norms and cheat on their own sense of justice, and so there will always be the need for punishment, formally by the state and informally by society at large. In the main, though, a free social order is largely a non-coerced equilibrium, where each has his own sufficient reasons for endorsing the rule as his. As violations increase, as disorder becomes a widespread social phenomenon, we need to at least consider whether part of the explanation is that some of our norms are not worthy of internalization. If the norms are hostile to a person’s way of life or his good, or based on alien comprehensive doctrines, then we should not be surprised that they are not internalized, and norms not internalized are always awaiting the moment when unpunished defection becomes an option.

The worry that gnaws after large-scale outbreaks of norm violation is that this may be one root of a doubtlessly complex event.  To be sure, we cannot simply infer that our normative order fails to be free and non-repressive when outbreaks occur. We could be witnessing a game of collective snatch, and so enforcement and education about the collectively dire consequences of snatch would then be the proper response. But before taking that route, we must assure ourselves that the norms we defend and enforce are worthy of internalization by free persons in a diverse society.


Gerald F. Gaus is the James E. Rogers Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona, where he directs the program in Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and Law. His most recent book is The Order of Public Reason: A Theory of Freedom and Morality in a Diverse and Bounded World (Cambridge, 2011). His website is For more on The Order of Public Reason, and an interview with Prof. Gaus, visit New Books in Philosophy.


[1] On the game of snatch, see Schwab and Ostrom, ‘The Vital Role of Norms and Rules in Maintaining Open Public and Private Economies,’ The Critical Role of Values in the Economy, edited by Paul Zak (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), pp. 204-227.

On this topic in The Fortnightly Review: Historicism and the great beast by Anthony O’Hear.


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