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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The moral significance of social conventions MacDonald, Christopher John


This Thesis is about the role which social conventions play in shaping our moral choices, and about the possibility of a normative theory that takes such conventions seriously. It also hints at the idea of looking at conventions as a kind of moral technology. If existing conventions serve a useful function, then perhaps we can take what we know about conventions and apply that knowledge in a forward-looking manner. Chapter 1 of this Thesis outlines the shape of the project, and explains its roots in methodological individualism and a relative, subjective theory of value. Chapter 2 surveys the literature on norms and conventions, and explains why it is that despite the prevalence of the former in the literature, moral theorists should focus on the latter. Chapter 3 looks at the ways in which conventions structure strategic interaction. They do so both by providing information that served as an input to rational decision making, and by providing a more direct, non-instrumental form of motivation. In Chapter 4, we look at the relevance of the literature on public goods and the problem of collective action, and argue that beginning and maintaining conventions embodies a collective action problem. In Chapter 5, we move to examine the normative force of conventions, and suggest that conventions constitute a reasonable set of constraints on self-interested behaviour. Chapter 6 addresses the fact that a convention-based approach seems capable of endorsing asymmetrical outcomes, at least some of which seem unjust. In Chapter 7, we look more generally at the adequacy of a conventionalist account, and examine the departures which such an account seems to make from everyday morality. Finally, in Chapter 8, we put theory to practice, and examine the world of professional obligation. We offer there a meta-ethics of professional obligation that suggests that such obligations are best understood as conventions between professionals. That argument serves as a challenge to existing principle-based and virtue-based theories of professional obligation, and illustrates the practical importance of this Thesis. In Chapter 9, we summarize the ground covered, and discuss how we can apply what we know about conventions to ameliorate problematic situations.

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