Social morality isthe set of social-moral rules that require or prohibit action, and so grounds moral imperatives that we direct to each other to engage in, or refrain from, certain lines of conduct.
Notice that Gaus emphasizes that he is not talking about the whole domain of the normative. Instead, his focus is on a particular kind of normativity, one that involvessocially practiced demands and imperatives.
An essential feature of social morality is that it serves a social function; it “has its roots in this requirement of social life.” The rules of social morality “structure social interaction.” Gaus emphasizes that social morality must have the practical function of making us better off: “certainly one of the things morality must do is allow us to live together in cooperative, mutually beneficial, social relations.”
The “Baier-Strawson” view of social morality is that social morality is a set of rules that allow us to live well together and that require our obedience. Social morality is contrasted with personal values or “individual ideals.” Social morality is comprised of rules that both “provide the conditions for the successful pursuit of these ideals” but also “simultaneously constrain our choices about how to pursue them.”
Social morality provides “the basis for issuing demands on others that they must perform certain actions.” Gaus contrasts this view of modern social morality with an ancient, Aristotelian teleological account of morality that understands moral rules in terms of the ends they promote.
For Gaus, social-moral rules have a prescriptive function. They have their home in our social practices. Gaus is clear to emphasize that he rejects the simple contrast between descriptivist and prescriptivist accounts of the semantics of moral statements. Instead, following R.M. Hare, he claims that many moral statements have both elements. This key feature of social morality makes social morality a social phenomenon. In other words, partof the essence of social-moral rules is that they are used to control others. We use moral rules to tell each other what to do. Morality, furthermore, makes “my action your business” because it assigns standing to you to make demands of me.
A critic might reply that the authority of morality is distinct from the authority of those who interpret it. But Gaus follows Hobbes and Kant in pointing out the fact that morality does not “fax its demands from above” but is instead often unclear. People disagree about what absolute or True morality consists in. As will become clear, social morality is a method of resolving disputes about what the True morality is. However, social morality’s claims must have authority that all can recognize despite their disagreements about what Morality-with-a-capital-M is. If social morality cannot ground authority despite disagreement about ultimate normativity then our social practices cannot be authoritative despite disagreement. The authority of social morality in a diverse world becomes impossible. But surely, Gaus suggests, this cannot be true.
The sixth feature of social morality is that it is constituted by claims of moral authority, but moral authority understood as “a claim to deference in judgment.” In its most fundamental mode, moral authority is the authority to demand that others follow your interpretation of Morality-with-a-capital-M. Moral authority “qua moral power” is important but this form authority is downstream from moral authority as a claim to deference in judgment.