Philosophy of Etiquette

BP Morton has an interesting blog post arguing that we need a philosophy of etiquette, here.  I wholeheartedly agree, but would add that were the profession even a bit more broad minded, it would discover that multiple such philosophies exist in early Chinese philosophical traditions, complete with full-throated advocacy of etiquette and some of the funniest philosophical etiquette skeptics that ever blew raspberries at all (i.e., Zhuangzi).  My own sense is that developing a robust contemporary philosophy of etiquette would require shifts in how philosophy understands itself and how it approaches its subject matter.  For something in this vein, see here.

14 thoughts on “Philosophy of Etiquette

  1. There is a brief history of etiquette in the Western canon. Hume speaks about this a bit, for example, though I had in mind Philippa Foot’s “Morality as a system of hypothetical imperatives.” I suppose the first question that leaps to mind is: is a philosophy of etiquette different from a philosophy of moral value more generally? Some recent work (and here I have in mind Kurth’s “What do our critical practices say about the
    nature of morality?”) also tries to tie moral norms to other value systems like fashion norms.

  2. I think philosophy of etiquette might be a branch of philosophy of moral value, albeit one that would be quite substantial were we to take seriously what an enormous area of moral experience etiquette practices infuse. And I think there is quite a lot in the history of western philosophy that would or could be included here. As is argued in the essay I link, etiquette was once, I think, a more respectable area of philosophical inquiry. Karen Stohr’s book On Manners covers quite a bit of ground in western philosophical sources on this – ranging from Aristotle to Hume and Kant.

    On Foot’s essay, Judith Martin (aka “Miss Manners”) actually co-authored a response to this, called “I think, therefore I thank,” that appeared in American Scholar many years ago. Martin’s reply is an ardent defense of counting etiquette as moral. And while it’s ostensibly a more academic article, it still has Martin’s really enjoyable prose style!

    More broadly, I do think there are a host of micropractices, including issues of social self-presentation through dress, that would either be subsumed under a robust philosophy of etiquette or that would be more appealing as areas of inquiry if we took more seriously the moral purchase of ordinary, banal experience.

  3. The Miss Manners article (co-written with Gunther S. Stent) is indeed terrific, and actually wipes the floor with Philippa Foot, who called etiquette a bunch of “silly rules.” The article shows precisely the moral basis even of those rules of etiquette whose content looks arbitrary. And may the (French) etymology of the word not be “small ethics,” or “the ethics of small(er) things”?

  4. Tom, having seen Philippa take various people to task for failures in etiquette, I doubt she dismissed all such rules as “silly.” Do you have a reference for the comment you attribute to her?

  5. It’s true she does not say “silly”; she calls them “nonsense”: “For instance, we find this non-hypothetical use of “should” in sentences enunciating rules of etiquette, as, for example, that an invitation in the third person should be answered in the third person, where the rule does not fail to apply to someone who has his own good reasons for ignoring this piece of nonsense, or who simply does not care about what,from the point of view of etiquette, he should do.” In fairness, it is possible to read her as dismissing just this specific rule. And, of course, her argument does not depend on the question of whether rules of etiquette are nonsense or not.

  6. It’s true she does not say “silly”; she calls them “nonsense”: “For instance, we find this non-hypothetical use of “should” in sentences enunciating rules of etiquette, as, for example, that an invitation in the third person should be answered in the third person, where the rule does not fail to apply to someone who has his own good reasons for ignoring this piece of nonsense, or who simply does not care about what,from the point of view of etiquette, he should do.” In fairness, it is possible to read her as dismissing just this specific rule. And, of course, her argument does not depend on the question of whether rules of etiquette are nonsense or not.

  7. Norbert Elias’s The History of Manners is not new, but it’s really interesting stuff, and relevant in this context.

  8. Alice MacLachlan gave a related talk about Civility and Manners at the recent meeting of the Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy (CSWIP). I’m keeping an eye out for a print version of her talk, as she had persuasive reasons for etiquette, manners, and civility to have moral import.

  9. Katenorlock, one of the most vivid cases of Philippa Foot chastizing someone for bad manners that I remember involved one person, a female philosopher who was sometimes difficult, turning her back on her commentator at a philosophy meeting. Pretty much for the whole time. Poor John Mackie. This sort of case certainly seems to blend etiquette and morality.

  10. Wow! That medical study is really shocking. What was most striking to me was the evidence that prolonged, repeated exposure to rudeness doesn’t seem to alleviate the effects, such that even where rudeness is prevalent or more commonplace, resistance to its negative effects doesn’t significantly develop and insulate the person from performance decline.

    I will say that a lot of what is attested here seems experientially accurate to me at least. Rudeness seems a kind of noise that is hard to overcome in the moment. This is one reason why I think we should set a very high priority on being polite to job candidates – the possibility of negatively impacting their ability to perform is a real risk.

  11. I’ve been giving this some thought, Anne. I honestly don’t think there’s anything that we really could do, as patients. That is, we or our advocates might try to make a positive impression on the medical staff, in an attempt to inspire them to care personally about us, which we might hope would override this rudeness issue, but I don’t think there’s any evidence that that would help them tune out this sort of cognitive distraction.

    I would think our best hope would be to change the culture of the medical profession so that there’s less rudeness and arrogance… but that doesn’t seem very promising either, does it?

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