What Is Normal

12 Pages Posted: 21 Jun 2021 Last revised: 28 Oct 2021

See all articles by Cass R. Sunstein

Cass R. Sunstein

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

Date Written: June 12, 2021


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. There are plausible evolutionary explanations for these findings. As behavior in general regresses, actions that were previously seen as bad or as terrible may come to be seen as fine or mildly bad. Call this “opprobrium contraction.” As behavior in general improves, actions that were previously seen as fine or as mildly bad may come to seem bad or terrible. Call this “opprobrium expansion.” Because law has a signaling function, it can heighten or diminish these phenomena.

Keywords: civil rights, authoritarianism, normal, perception

JEL Classification: D60, D80, D9, D91

Suggested Citation

Sunstein, Cass R., What Is Normal (June 12, 2021). Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 21-24, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3865681 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3865681

Cass R. Sunstein (Contact Author)

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

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