The Power of the Normal

17 Pages Posted: 27 Aug 2018 Last revised: 15 Nov 2018

See all articles by Cass R. Sunstein

Cass R. Sunstein

Harvard Law School; Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Date Written: August 21, 2018

Abstract

How do judgments about law and morality shift? Why do we come to see conduct as egregiously wrong, when we had formerly seen it as merely inappropriate or even unobjectionable? Why do shifts occur in the opposite direction? Why accounts for “the new normal”? A clue comes from the fact that some of our judgments are unstable, in the sense that they are an artifact of, or endogenous to, what else we see. This is true of sensory perception: Whether an object counts as blue or purple depends on what other objects surround it. It is also true for ethical judgments: Whether conduct counts as unethical depends on what other conduct is on people’s viewscreens. It follows that conduct that was formerly seen as ethical may come to seem unethical, as terrible behavior becomes less common, and also that conduct that was formerly seen as unethical may come to seem ethical, as terrible behavior becomes more common. In these circumstances, law (and enforcement practices) can have an important signaling effect, giving people a sense of what is normal and what is not. There is an important supplemental point, intensifying these effects: Once conduct comes to be seen as part of an unacceptable category – abusiveness, racism, lack of patriotism, microaggression, sexual harassment – real or apparent exemplars that are not so egregious, or perhaps not objectionable at all, might be taken as egregious, because they take on the stigma now associated with the category. Stigmatization by categorization can intensify the process by which formerly unobjectionable behavior becomes regarded as abhorrent. There is a relationship between stigmatization by categorization and “concept creep,” an idea applied in psychology to shifting understandings of such concepts as abuse, bullying, mental illness, and prejudice. The idea of “concept creep” has large and insufficiently explored implications for law and politics.

Suggested Citation

Sunstein, Cass R., The Power of the Normal (August 21, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3239204 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3239204

Cass R. Sunstein (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1575 Massachusetts Ave
Areeda Hall 225
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-496-2291 (Phone)

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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