Have you ever spoken to someone and realised that they’re standing a little too close for comfort?

Personal space isn’t something we tend to actively think about; it’s usually an invisible and subconscious expectation or preference. However, when someone violates our expectations, they suddenly become very clear. If someone stands too close to you while talking, you might become uncomfortable or irritated. If a stranger sits right next to you in a public place when there are plenty of other seats, you might feel annoyed or confused.

That’s because personal space is an example of a norm. Norms are communal expectations that are taken up by various populations, usually serving shared values or principles, that direct us towards certain behaviours. For example, the norm of personal space is an expectation that looks different depending on where you are.

In some countries, the norm is to keep distance when talking to strangers, but very close when talking to close friends, family or partners. In other countries, everyone can be relatively close, and in others still, not even close relationships should invade your personal space. This is an example of a norm that we follow subconsciously.

We don’t tend to notice what our expectation even is until someone breaks it, at which point we might think they’re disrespecting personal or social boundaries.

Norms are an embodiment of a phenomenon called normativity, which refers to the tendency of humans and societies to regulate or evaluate human conduct. Normativity pervades our daily lives, influencing our decisions, behaviors, and societal structures. It encompasses a range of principles, standards, and values that guide human actions and shape our understanding of what’s considered right or wrong, good or bad.

Norms can be explicit or implicit, originating from various sources like cultural traditions, social institutions, religious beliefs, or philosophical frameworks. Often norms are implicit because they are unspoken expectations that people absorb as they experience the world around them.

Take, for example, the norms of handshakes, kisses, hugs, bows, and other forms of greeting. Depending on your country, time period, culture, age, and many other factors, some of these will be more common and expected than others. Regardless, though, each of them has a or function like showing respect, affection or familiarity.

While these might seem like trivial examples, norms have historically played a large role in more significant things, like oppression. Norms are effectively social pressures, so conformity is important to their effect – especially in places or times where the flouting of norms results in some kind of public or social rebuke.

So, norms can sometimes be to the detriment of people who don’t feel their preferences or values reflected in them, especially when conformity itself is a norm. One of the major changes in western liberal society has been the loosening of norms – the ability for people to live more authentically themselves.

Normative Ethics

Normativity is also an important aspect of ethical philosophy. Normative ethics is the philosophical inquiry into the nature of moral judgments and the principles that should govern human actions. It seeks to answer fundamental questions like “What should I do?”, “How should I live? and “Which norms should I follow?”. Normative ethical theories provide frameworks for evaluating the morality of specific actions or ethical dilemmas.

Some normative ethical theories include:

  • Consequentialism, which says we should determine moral valued based on the consequences of actions.
  • Deontology, which says we should determine moral value by looking at someone’s coherence with consistent duties or obligations.
  • Virtue ethics, which focuses on alignment with various virtues (like honesty, courage, compassion, respect, etc.) with an emphasis on developing dispositions that cultivate these virtues.
  • Contractualism, informed by the idea of the social contract, which says we should act in ways and for reasons that would be agreed to by all reasonable people in the same circumstances.
  • Feminist ethics, or the ethics of care, which says that we should challenge the understand and challenge the way that gender has operated to inform historical ethical beliefs and how it still affects our moral practices today.

Normativity extends beyond individual actions and plays a significant role in shaping societal norms, as we saw earlier, but also laws and policies. They influence social expectations, moral codes, and legal frameworks, guiding collective behavior and fostering social cohesion. Sometimes, like in the case of traffic laws, social norms and laws work in a circular way, reinforcing each other.

However, our normative views aren’t static or unchangeable.

Over time, societal norms and values evolve, reflecting shifts in normative perspectives (cultural, social, and philosophical). Often, we see social norms culminating in the changing of outdated laws that accurately reflected the normative views of the time, but no longer do.

While it’s ethically significant that norms shift over time and adapt to their context, it’s important to note that these changes often happen slowly. Eventually, changes in norms influence changes in laws, and this can often happen even more slowly, as we have seen with homosexuality laws around the world.

Join the conversation

What kind of norms can you think of?