Manners are moral—and so is the subversion of them. Baggini would refuse to kneel before the king. Photo: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Manners matter—philosophy tells us why

Most of the time we have a moral obligation to observe social etiquette. Occasionally we have a moral obligation to flout it
June 14, 2023

For as long as anyone can remember, each generation has seen its successors as being ruder, lewder and cruder than they were themselves. Laments over the decline of civility are more common than those over the decline of civilisation, with the latter sometimes attributed to the former. But even if the old codgers are right, there is a philosophical question worth teasing out in the way society understands manners, and it concerns their moral status.

Why fret about politeness, some may ask, when we have more serious things to worry about, from social injustices to existential threats? Would it truly matter if we lost our manners? This is a natural question to ask, and it is given some force by the influence of the Abrahamic faiths on many of our worldviews. In this tradition, ethics is about what we owe to our maker. God’s law is otherworldly, both in its origins and in its consequences. The divine will commands and our eternal salvation depends on whether we obey. Compared to this, etiquette seems to be trivial, purely conventional and lacking any moral force.

But step away from the religious outlook and one sees how ethics and etiquette are intimately linked. Both concern norms of how we should treat one another. 

In any secular framing, ethics has a much more pragmatic function than divine purpose. For the ancients, it was about how we best live together, for our own flourishing and for that of society. Pretty much everyone agrees on the most necessary rules to follow to make this possible: don’t kill, injure, steal or lie—at least not routinely. But good people do more than avoid these egregious wrongdoings. They say thank you, open doors for others, don’t interrupt and so on. 

These little acts help to lubricate our social interactions, making everyone’s lives more pleasant. They send small signals about our concern for others, our good intent, our willingness to cooperate and our lack of petty selfishness.

Confucianism is the most important moral tradition that gives this dimension of our moral lives due prominence. One of its key concepts is li, or ritual propriety. This covers what we would call etiquette. Twenty-first century li would include shaking hands, giving up a bus seat to a frail passenger or showing due respect to shop workers.

One distinguishing feature of etiquette is that much of it is arbitrary in ways that ethics is largely not. Shaking hands is no more inherently polite than bowing or bumping fists. In contrast, there is nothing culturally relative about the wrongness of causing physical harm.

But while this might make it look as though etiquette is fundamentally different from ethics, it is actually just ethics in its least serious guise. Indeed, when it comes to big moral issues, social mores make a difference. Taking what is not rightfully yours is universally thought to be wrong, but what is considered to be private property varies enormously. Prohibitions against violence are universal but the content of them is not, and what some societies consider illegitimate lynching is in others permitted—or even obligated—retribution. Likewise, all cultures value showing due respect and differ only in what they think most merits it.

Etiquette, like all aspects of ethics, varies across time and place. But its purpose remains constant: to provide a set of shared, widely understood and accepted rules that keep society functioning harmoniously, as long as most of us follow them most of the time. 

That’s why it is not foolish to be indignant about incivility. Ignoring etiquette is a peccadillo at best and a serious wrongdoing at worst. To refuse politeness is to refuse to take your place in society, to throw grit into the wheels of social interaction. Like littering and petty shoplifting, what is harmless when done rarely by a few would be harmful if done regularly by the many. 

On the other hand, rudeness can serve important positive functions precisely because it is a disruption of our social life. It can be necessary to make it clear to someone that you will not show them the respect they believe they are entitled to. It may be impolite not to kneel before the monarch, for example, but if I were ever to meet King Charles, I would be willing to offend in order to stand up for my republican principles. Boris Johnson could expect less respect and it is hard to see how I could convey my disgust for his behaviour in politics while observing the norms of politeness.

Sometimes rudeness is necessary for a more important end. The contemporary philosopher Daniel Dennett once offered a compelling defence of the alleged acerbity of the new atheists. “I listen to all these complaints about rudeness and intemperateness, and the opinion that I come to is that there is no polite way of asking somebody, have you considered the possibility that your entire life has been devoted to a delusion? But that’s a good question to ask… and of course it’s going to offend people. Tough.”

Civility is a basic duty of citizenship. But when the status quo no longer deserves respect, good manners cease to be beneficent cooperation and become instead maleficent complicity. 

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Each month Julian Baggini offers a philosophical view on current events. The idea for this month’s column was submitted by David Stanley Walsh

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