On Philosophy

September 13, 2006

The Morality of Manners

Filed under: Ethics,The Philosophy of — Peter @ 12:00 am

There are two ways to use the adjectives good and bad. One way is in an instrumental sense, which means that good and bad are being used to describe how well something accomplishes a specific result. For example, we might say “that was a good way to steal from the bank”. Clearly we don’t mean that it was right, only that it was successful. Obviously then the other sense that good and bad can used in is the moral sense, where good is taken be what is right, whatever that means.

Given this, what do we mean by “good manners”? It seems hard to defend this use of good as a case of the instrumental use, since the only the only result of good manner is, well, good manners. Unlike the case of a good bank robbery there is no product of manners, no result on the basis of which they can be judged. Of course some might say that good manners result in others taking you more seriously, or respecting you more. It might be possible to accept this, but to do so would relativize good manners. Specifically there are cases where demonstrating good manners will make people take you less seriously, or respect you less. (For example, when eating lunch in a casual setting with your friends. Unless your friends are all pompous asses they are going to think you are somewhat odd when you eat your burger with a knife and fork.) If we accept that the “good” in “good manners” depends only on the results of displaying those manners then in some situations what are normally good manners would be bad manners, and vice versa. This is of course not what most people mean by good manners, they mean a specific set of practices that are “good manners” no matter what the situation, even if you choose not to use them for other reasons.

So if we are to avoid relativizing manners we must accept that the “good” in “good manners” is in some way moral goodness. Is this plausible? For simplicity’s sake let’s understand goodness here from a consequentialist viewpoint. If manners are to be good then they must create good outcomes. And for many aspects of manners this seems possible. Specifically many of the dictates of manners are to avoid being rude to other people. Generally being rude to people, whether intentionally or unintentionally, leads to bad outcomes, and so manners, by preventing certain forms of rudeness, are good.

Even this reading of manners, however, doesn’t save them completely. For one thing good manners are still relative to how sensitive the people around you are. Consider holding doors. Some people still feel offended if you don’t hold the door for them, and thus to hold the door for them is good manners. But many modern people, myself included, don’t care if you hold the door for us, so when around us door holding isn’t good manners, it is simply a meaningless custom. This leads me to the second problem with manners, specifically that many of the dictates of manners, for example the rules about which forks do what, offend only the most ridiculous of people when they aren’t followed. And if these manners aren’t encouraging good outcomes they certainly aren’t good, they are simply valueless (in the moral sense) traditions or customs. Of course this doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with choosing to follow all the rules of etiquette, simply that they aren’t good, and failing to follow them isn’t bad.

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