Manners and Morals

 

 

Manners and Morals

 

The topic of manners, good or bad, is neglected in philosophy, receiving scant attention in moral philosophy.[1]Perhaps it is felt to be trivial compared to the weighty matters of morality. But I think the topic is not without philosophical interest and I propose to explore it programmatically. First, what is meant by “manners”? The OEDprovides some useful hints: “manners” is defined as “polite or well-bred social behavior”. Turning to “polite” we find “respectful or considerate of other people” (with the word deriving from a Latin word meaning “polished or smooth”). Then “respect” is rendered as “due regard for the feelings and rights of others”.[2] Clearly the notion is normative and redolent of moral notions: good manners consist of correct actions in relation to other people concerning their feelings and their rights—actions of respect and consideration. For example, it is good manners not to interrupt people when they are speaking: this is something that a well-mannered person does not do, because he should not do it. It is good manners to greet people when you meet them and to signal to them when you are leaving, not to raise your voice unnecessarily, and to consider their feelings with respect to their appearance and deportment. In some cultures bowing is considered good manners, in others smiling is regarded as polite. Not to act in such ways is regarded as reprehensible, mildly or strongly. Children are therefore taught to behave politely.

Moving beyond the dictionary, I would say that acting politely involves three main elements: it is theatrical, symbolic, and self-referential. By “theatrical” I mean that good manners are a type of performance akin to acting on a stage: this is why they are often ritualized and stylized, and people can vary in their ability to act politely. You have to put on a good performance—it is no use giving a half-hearted bow or emitting an inaudible “hello”. In previous ages good manners were often quite elaborate, requiring much training and practice, especially court manners, or how to “treat a lady”. Even now people being presented to the Queen have to execute a series of theatrical maneuvers in order to conform to protocol. Professional actors can be expected to have excellent manners. Manners often require pretense, since one may not particularly like or approve of the person towards whom good manners are expected. The polite action may not be sincere; indeed good manners are supposed to counter the effects of social hostility or coolness. Good manners are a front we present to the world akin to the theatrical self, as explored by certain writers (Shakespeare, Erving Goffman). The smooth operator is above all a talented thespian. By “symbolic” I mean that the polite act is intended to signify something, namely that the agent is a trustworthy and safe person to deal with. The hearty handshake and accompanying steady eye contact are intended to symbolize a person who is respectful and considerate, not a shifty customer who can’t be trusted with the family jewels. Again, this is why good manners tend to be stylized and codified, like a kind of language of respect and consideration. The bow performs no genuine service, but it indicates a certain kind of reliable and deferential individual: it is symbolic. It needs to be decoded, and will not be if the recipient is unfamiliar with the culture in which it occurs. Good manners are signs, signals, messages, declarations. Third, polite behavior is self-referential in the sense that it is intended to be perceived as such: the agent wants the audience of his performance to understand that he acting politely. I don’t just intend to act in a well-mannered way but also to be seen to be so acting. Moreover, I intend that my audience should recognize this intention (shades of Grice): I want my audience, before whom I am symbolically acting, to grasp that I am intending to treat them politely. It is not necessarily so with moral action: here it is not essential that the recipient should grasp that the action was intended morally (he may not even know that he is the beneficiary of any moral action). Thus the polite person must act conspicuously politely (it’s no use bowing behind a curtain) so as to make his intention plain. Good manners thus require the ability to project good manners—to make them evident, salient. So manners require a fairly complex set of intentions as well as theatrical skill and a grasp of symbolism. We are not born knowing these things but need to have them inculcated—hence all those etiquette textbooks of yore and costly lessons in the art of behaving in “polite society”. Miss Manners earns her keep as an instructor in the Theater of Symbolic Good Impressions. Good manners are not for ignoramuses.[3]

Moral action does not have these characteristics: it isn’t essentially theatrical, symbolic, and self-referential. When one person benefits another or keeps a promise or tells another the truth this is not a theatrical performance intended to symbolize something meritorious about the agent: it is the fulfillment of a duty, an act with real consequences, an instance of practical reason. It is not a type of play-acting calculated to create a favorable impression (this is not to say that agents never do this in the guise of acting morally). It is not merely good manners to give money to charity or to treat other people fairly. An unethical person is not one who needs to improve her manners (her manner isn’t the problem). This connects with two other features of manners that distinguish it from morality. First, good manners are not appropriate for animals and small children: we don’t have to treat our pets and babies courteously. Why? Because they don’t understand the symbolic theater of manners: good manners are lost on them. By all means treat them kindly, but there is no need to worry about hurting their feelings by social snubs or snobbish behavior (or even by leaving the house without saying goodbye). Good manners require the recognition of good manners, but moral behavior does not. We don’t need to be instructed in how to treat a dog politely at a social event. Second, good manners do not extend to ourselves: I don’t need to watch my behavior in connection with myself in case I offend myself by a lapse of politeness. Good manners are essentially other-directed: they concern social behavior not solitary behavior. I don’t need to be taught the correct way to address myself.[4] Personal hygiene may be a courtesy issue in interaction with others, but it is not impolite of me to eschew deodorant on a lone trip. I don’t have to avoid being rude to myself. Again, morality is different: I do have duties to myself as one person among many, not merely to other people. Prudence may be understood as self-directed morality. When I act so as to benefit my future self I am acting rationally and morally, but it would not be rational or moral to put on a good performance to myself of consideration and respect. Good manners are an effort to give a positive impression of myself to others and to make them feel at ease, but I don’t need to convince myself that I am a solid sort of chap; I don’t need to manage my perception of myself by deft indications of decency. I can interrupt myself in mid-sentence without incurring any self-censure regarding my manners.

Now I can discuss the question of the relation between manners and morality. I suspect I am not alone in being ambivalent about the claims of proper etiquette. On the one hand, it seems like a pretty suspect sort of business: all that contrivance, self-consciousness, self-advertising, insincerity, and brand promotion. And correct etiquette is certainly no substitute for sound morality. Just think of its associations with social rank, snobbery, the caste system, sexism, etc. Hasn’t the emphasis on good manners done more harm than good? Hasn’t it had a tendency to displace real morality? Who wants to go back to the days of, “Kind sir, may I have the honor of extending to you an invitation to partake of a libation?” and suchlike rigmarole? Must ladies be stood up for whenever they enter a room and be deemed incapable of opening doors? Must the rude rustic be condemned as a lesser being because of his rough country manners? The whole artifice can seem like a relic from the past that we could well do without. Isn’t a more relaxed view of manners more conducive to human happiness? And wasn’t it always more about social acceptance and self-advancement than genuine concern for others? Away with manners! Let morality suffice to govern human interactions—doing your duty, maximizing happiness, that sort of thing. No more bowing and scraping, but plenty of helping and giving. On the other hand, isn’t the core concept of good manners really an instance of sturdy morality? How could it be wrong to respect the feelings and rights of other people? Isn’t politeness a means to that end? It might be objected that it is really just putting on a show of such respect, a kind of pantomime, not actually making sure that those feelings and rights are respected and protected. How does bowing ensure that someone is not assaulted or wrongly imprisoned or slandered? But isn’t the show itself a valuable thing? Don’t we need to see that people care about us as beings with feelings and rights? Isn’t this a kind of social cement enabling us to function harmoniously together? Good manners are a kind of assertion of the importance of morality without themselves being morality. When you behave politely you are saying “I am a moral being” and people need to hear that. Of course, such statements can be deceptive, which is why manners can aid the villain, but they are nevertheless important ingredients in a social network. Good manners are pleasing precisely because they reassure us that morality is still in force (even if deceptively in some instances). When you stand up when a lady enters the room are you not indicating by your action that you would not sit idly by if she were in mortal danger? When you say hello to someone aren’t you letting him know that you respect him as a human being—that he is not just a piece of furniture to you? This may not be the same as actually doing something just and good, but it’s something—it’s a step in the right direction. At least you are acknowledging that you have duties towards the person in question. So manners may not be morality but they are an indicator of it—they are not an entirely separate sphere of human activity.[5] If someone shows you consideration by politely welcoming you in, they may show you consideration when things get challenging. So we shouldn’t jettison etiquette just because of its abuses and absurdities; it plays an important moral role as a symbolic recognition of the claims of morality. You may feel slighted when someone doesn’t remember your name or ignores you at a party, despite knowing that no material harm has been done to you thereby; but this isn’t irrational oversensitivity because such impoliteness indicates a person who is unlikely to treat you considerately in the event of a fire or a fight. It may not be true that “manners maketh the man”—only morality can do that—but it is true that manners indicateth the man. At least the solid core of manners has that function, putting aside all the silly rituals that are used to put down one sort of person in order to elevate another. Immoral etiquette does not rule out a morality-driven etiquette. Looking down on a stranger who doesn’t know our mannerly ways is no doubt deplorable—a case of really bad manners on our part—but it isn’t wrong to teach good manners as a token of good morals. It is just that manners should never become detached from morals, a kind of elaborate theatrical game designed to weed out the not “clubbable”; manners should be the servant of morals, never its rival. In other words, manners are a tool to be wielded responsibly, not a hammer with which to crush people socially. The ambivalence I mentioned is not unreasonable, but it is possible to preserve what is valuable in good manners while rejecting its worst excesses. I myself am fond of the bright and graceful hello, as well as the slightly melancholy but hopeful goodbye. I also like to see to it that my guest is seated comfortably without the sun in her eyes, and I make a point of not interrupting her verbal flow. It’s not much, I know, but it serves to convey my respect for the guest’s feelings and rights. So on balance I am an enthusiast of good manners, though I am sensitive to its pitfalls, and would never prefer it to morals.[6]

 

[1] How would the standard types of normative ethics treat manners? Presumably the utilitarian would say that manners are good or bad according as they increase or decrease total utility or something of the sort. On this account they may turn out to be immoral, since poor manners (by some standard) often lead to unjust discrimination and consequent suffering. Deontological ethics would need to include a specific set of duties listing all the forms of politeness that exist. Interestingly, no such thing is ever attempted, and standard theories don’t even include manners as belonging to our moral duties. Generally, normative ethics steers clear of the ethics of politeness (though I am sure someone must have talked about it).

[2] The word “courteous” is defined as “polite, respectful, and considerate”, and we learn that it derives from a Middle English word meaning “having manners fit for a royal court”. Today the word has lost its royal connotations but survives in humbler environs such as shops and buses. The vocabulary surrounding this universal human institution seems notably thin and lacking in descriptive power (the French word “etiquette” had to be adopted rather late in the game).

[3] There is no name for the field of study that focuses on good manners, politeness, or etiquette—nothing analogous to “ethics” or “morality”. My suggestion for such a name is “politics” but pronounced like “polite-ics”. Admittedly the written form is easily confused with another field of studies with that name, but we can remind ourselves that the words “polite” and “politic” have different roots: the former comes from a Latin word meaning “polish” or “smooth”, while the latter comes from a Greek word for “city” (“polis”). In any case, we do well to have a name for this neglected field of study and I think “politics” will do nicely, properly pronounced (po-light-ics). We can then form derivatives such as “politically correct”, using the recommended pronunciation.

[4] A lot of etiquette concerns the proper rules governing polite speech—not too loud, no profanity, no mumbling, speaking only when you are spoken to, etc. But inner speech is subject to no such prohibitions—the idea of impolite inner speech sounds like a category mistake.

[5] Might it be that we are far less polite than we should be—as it has been argued that we are far less moral than we should be? Is a form of skepticism possible that questions our normal politeness assumptions? Is our perception of the norms governing polite behavior radically mistaken? The idea seems preposterous, but perhaps something can be made of it. Maybe we should be far more attentive to our guests than we are.

[6] I was tickled to discover recently that Philip Stanhope, the Fourth Earl of Chesterfield, shared my view of laughter as bad manners, especially when loud and “merry”; we both, however, thoroughly approve of smiling as an instance of good manners. See his Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman(1774).

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6 replies
  1. Joseph K.
    Joseph K. says:

    A nice essay. I would prefer to act in a way that reflects my real feelings and judgment, which certainly includes plenty of respect, consideration and good-will for others. Don’t we make it difficult for other people to understand human nature by deluging them with so much artificiality and being very careful always to conceal our true selves from their gaze? An enlightened manners, I feel, would allow much more latitude for individual peculiarity, and honest, forthcoming, authentic behavior, than manners hitherto generally have.

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      I completely agree: manners should be much more open to personal idiosyncrisy and transparency. The Sixties made a move in that direction but still a long way to go. But trying to improve manners in this way will get you into trouble!

      Reply
  2. jeffrey g kessen
    jeffrey g kessen says:

    Always appreciative of a reference to Erving Goffman. He got a lot of it right. “Presentation of self” and all that. Yet he was rather a crafty creature himself by all accounts— seldom would he allow himself the burden of sincerity.

    Reply
  3. Joseph K.
    Joseph K. says:

    Some thoughts just occurred to me. We can’t deceive others for long without ourselves also becoming deceived; we can’t by habit project an artificial self in society without our self becoming to some degree artificial. We lose touch with that core of reality in our being which, I suppose, enables us to perceive truth. Also, successful imposition requires the suppression of feelings, which, if done habitually, must negatively affect the force and frequency with which they bubble up. So manners alienate us from the reality of our being, make it more difficult to perceive truths, and have a deadening effect on our mental lives.

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      I think this is right, which is why ambivalence about manners makes sense. They are a form of artificiality and if they dominate one’s personality they undermine authenticity. The difficult thing is to balance this negative effect against the virtues of good manners–not a tivial task.

      Reply

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