Possibility of norms

Christoph Möllers




Professor Christoph Möllers’ accessible, broad-ranging book attempts to elaborate a concept of the normative – specifically social norms (e.g. legal prescriptions, or rules of etiquette). In doing so, Möllers is not concerned with whether or not those norms are justified, morally or otherwise, as this would narrow down the concept of a norm from the outset.  

His self-appointed task is more descriptive than… normative. Social norms, Möllers argues, should be conceived of as ‘positively marked possibilities’ – that is, they are possibilities that should be realised. This conception of norms allows us to view those practices we find ourselves involved in from a distance and to accommodate the possibility that norms can be transgressed. Indeed, an adequate approach to the normative must allow for breaches.

Möllers uses practical examples drawn from his experience in legal proceedings to critically assess moral philosophy’s various attempts to formulate norms (see Chapter 2) – all of which fail to account for the actual social practice of normativity.

While this is undoubtedly an academic text, its focus on social practice, use of numerous practical examples and descriptive approach give it an applicability to disciplines beyond philosophy. For the legal practitioner, Möllers’ explication of norms leads to a fresh insight into the processes with which we are all familiar, such as the trial, and sentencing and its purpose. This book also offers an opportunity to reflect on what it is that drives people to act. Interestingly, Möllers suggests that norms can derive their direction from a person’s idea of what sort of person they want to be – that is, our own conception of self drives our decisions on how to act.

The plethora of practical examples, its wide-ranging scope, and the precision of the language combine to make this book a pleasure to read. Finding the time to do so – this is not really the sort of book to be dipped into on tube/train journeys between courts – is the only potential bar to that pleasure.

Zoë Chapman is a barrister at Red Lion Chambers, London