Examining Social Norms in Animal Cultures

Kristin Andrews

Social norms—rules governing which behaviors are deemed appropriate or inappropriate within a given community—are typically taken to be uniquely human. Recently, this position has been challenged (Andrews 2020; Danón 2019; Fitzpatrick 2020; Kappeler et al. 2019; von Rohr et al. 2011). The view that norms are human unique stems from commitments regarding the psychological capacities required for having them, and skepticism that animals possess these prerequisites (Birch 2020; Rakoczy and Schmidt 2019; Schlingoff and Moore 2017; Tomasello 2016). However, among norm cognition researchers there is little agreement about the cognitive architecture that underpins social norms in humans. This makes empirical study of animal social norms difficult at this stage. To make progress, we can draw inspiration from the animal culture research program, and offer an operationalized account of social norms. We propose examining normative regularities: a socially maintained pattern of behavioral conformity within a community (Westra and Andrews, 2022). Using this construct, I will discuss a few cases of potential animal social norms and suggest what evidence would be needed to judge them as normative. Then I consider two objections: that social norms involve following rules (and animals don’t do that), and that having social norms requires punishing non-compliant actors (and animals don’t do that). I conclude with some practical and theoretical implications.

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