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06/24/2018

Norms vs Rules: How Japanese fans embodied normative good

As with every major global sporting event, some stuff went viral. The best one so far has been this:

No one told them to do this. If they had not, there would be zero legal or monetary consequences. Moreover, any given individual could have just left and assumed the others would clean up (maybe some did!). And it’s not like these people weren’t partying during the game (see the images here) – they made the mess knowing they’d be the ones cleaning it up afterwards.

This is what norms do. There are expectations, sort of shared habits within a culture, that there are simply things you do. The way Brits queue or how Americans say, “Hi” to everyone.1 More broadly they function as a way to overcome two problems: the Tragedy of the Commons and the alienation of the modern era. This might seem dramatic, but like, all those Japanese fans knew to some degree, that their fellow Japanese fans would do something similar. In the article, they state how baked into the culture it is:

It’s a habit drilled into Japanese people from early childhood.

“Cleaning up after football matches is an extension of basic behaviours that are taught in school, where the children clean their school classrooms and hallways,” explains Scott North, professor of sociology at Osaka University.

“With constant reminders throughout childhood, these behaviours become habits for much of the population.”

Ok, fine, so why am I bringing this up in the context of bioethics? Well, ever heard the argument that “without God, people won’t be good.” This argument is generally structured around the idea that rules and punishments derived from a central, monolithic authority are where ‘morality’ comes from. The Japanese soccer fans seem to be a fairly powerful counter example of ways in which a culture has decided a thing is unacceptable, and then collectively reinforces that value. It comes from a broader sense of “this is who we are and how we are, we are proud of doing good and would be ashamed to do otherwise.”

Given all the conversations around how important norms are for good governance and, well, how many of them we’ve been violating recently (yes, we) should give us all pause.

  1. There is an amazing essay on this somewhere that I can’t find. It’s something I recall reading on / in relation to Andrew Sullivan and what it means to immigrate as a Brit. Basically it’s one of our best qualities as a people. ↩

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