Reflections on "Normality"

by David Hartsough (2019-11-02)

What is "normal"? How do we, as a society/civilization, collectively define it? What is the impact of our definition?

Norms and expectations

Collectively, we as a society create social norms that define what it means to be normal. Society's norms place expectations on people that pressure them to conform, because without conformity people are not accepted nor regarded as appropriate, relatable, or normal. These societal expectations emphasize, encourage, advocate, promote, and enforce specific behaviors and conduct that characterize and represent society's collective definition of normal. Therefore it is imperative that the people of the society collectively create the best social norms and definitions of normal, so that the best conduct and behavior is promoted and expected. It is our paramount priority to ensure we create a society that promotes the good life, a healthy life, an ethical life, and a life of flourishing.

We should examine our society's current norms and expectations and analyze their effects and consequences on behavior and the effects and consequences of those behaviors on physiological and psychological health and well-being, on ethics, and on flourishing.

If our research and analysis concludes that our current norms and expectations promote behaviors that have negative consequences on our health, ethics, and flourishing, then we should strive to change those norms and expectations and redefine our definition of normal to make it one that more closely aligns with our idea of the good life — of flourishing.

I believe that our current social, cultural, technological, economic, and political systems do not promote the behavior that is most suitable for flourishing. To test this, I believe that we need a framework for fostering flourishing that defines, outlines, and operationalizes flourishing and the good life. This framework must have an empirical foundation on the scientific understanding of physiological and psychological health. With such a framework we could measure and test the effects and consequences of behaviors on flourishing. Then, with a knowledge and deeper understanding of which behaviors foster flourishing, we can reshape norms and redefine normal to better align with the good life. Therefore, what we need to do is (1) research the sociological and psychological effects of norms and expectations, (2) analyze current norms and expectations and their effects on behavior, (3) define the good life according to a scientific and measurable basis of flourishing, (4) create a framework for fostering flourishing, (5) use this framework to analyze the effects of expected and normative behaviors on flourishing, (6) identify behaviors that do not foster flourishing and trace them back to their social norms and expectations, and finally (7) modify those norms and expectations to ones that foster flourishing (promote physiological and psychological health).

From that point, we would then need to continually track and analyze the effects of social norms and expectations on behavior and on flourishing and continually research and refine the best framework for such analysis.

This is our imperative.

Systems and ideologies

Generally social norms and expectations arise from social, cultural, political, and economic systems and ideologies. Norms often come in sets stemming from an ideological basis. These ideologies manifest in the systems underpinning life in society and what is accepted as normal. These systems and ideologies thus provide the foundations and roots of normative behavior. In order to successfully change norms and expectations, there must be a structural change to the underlying systems and ideologies.

Ideologies are rational systems themselves that outline a series of normative beliefs and values, establishing philosophy, ontology, and worldviews. From such ideological perspectives come the rationale for social, cultural, political, and economic systems. These systems constrain and enforce norms and expectations, which in turn dictate behavior. Therefore, an ideology is the core cause of any system, any norm, and any behavior.

As we come to discover flaws in our behaviors, norms, and systems, we must uncover the ideology behind the scenes. Without effectively changing the underlying ideology, we can only address symptoms of the problem and not the problem itself. To effectively make changes and solve problems with our norms and systems, we must be able to change the root ideologies responsible for the problems in the first place.

Therefore, in order to achieve the final step of modifying norms and expectations, we need to (1) identify the systems driving those norms and the ideologies responsible for those systems, (2) identify ways to change the systems and thus change the norms, and (3) modify the ideologies underpinning the systems in need of change to ones that align with the definition of flourishing and the good life.

Ideas and ideals

Ideologies are essentially a collection of ideas and ideals about the world and our place in it. Ideas about what is good are the building blocks of our ideals and values. Under the hood of any system lies the set of ideas about what a good system should be — what the ideal system should be.

Until we take the time to discuss our ideals and values, we won't understand the reasoning behind our ideologies and systems. Opening honest conversations about our ideals allows us to understand where we're coming from and what caused the current state of our systems. By identifying and understanding our ideals, we can uncover agreements and disagreements on our expectations of systems and our ideas of progress for systems. We should acknowledge when our ideals are ill-suited for fostering flourishing and be open to seeking alternative visions and directions for better ideals. We should strive to define ideals for each system that share the common goal of fostering flourishing.

Notes

This still feels a bit incomplete of a write up. It feels more like the beginning of something larger. Perhaps I will revisit this someday and dive deeper into the questions and my proposals.

Also, thanks to Trevor Tomasic for talking through this with me over a long phone call. That conversation inspired me to write all this down.

Below are just some little left-over sentences that I tend to keep at the bottoms of my documents.

  • Normal - what is it? Collectively defined by society/civilization.
  • Relating to other people. Expectations. Pressure. Conformity. Encouragement, promotion, advocacy, emphasis.
  • What does society promote?
  • What is the normal that we want?
  • Shouldn't we just strive for a normal that is healthy both physiologically and psychologically?
  • Aspirations and personality are largely shaped by expectations.
  • What are society's current expectations for normal?
  • Explore the psychological and sociological effects of normal expectations, normativity. Explore effects on ethical behavior.
  • What do we incentivize and prioritize?
  • What is the ideal we should use to strive for? Ideally society's norms and expectations should promote the good life, a healthy life, an ethical life, flourishing.