Abstract for Paper: “Etiquette (in moderation)”

I’ve submitted an abstract to the 2013 University of Arizona Workshop in Normative Ethics. I’m including it here for your consideration and feedback. I’ve been working on this topic for a few months and will be posting arguments as I polish them a bit – they still need some work.

As soon as I finish the paper – a ~3k-word close treatment of one specific problem and one related problem – I’ll be submitting it to a few other conferences, including the Northwest Philosophy Conference (Fall 2012; Corvallis, Oregon). I attended that conference last year and enjoyed it tremendously. Hopefully, I can get this ready for publication in the next 9-12 months!

Addendum: I’ve also submitted a version of this abstract to the Pittsburgh Area Philosophy Colloquium for a workgroup session. This is another conference I attended in 2011 and at which I had a really excellent experience. I love conferences at which the atmosphere is collegial and the attendees are critical and helpful at the same time – that’s the way philosophy should be done! Two conference submissions today – on a topic that is new and interesting. I call that a win!

My blog-commenting policy now includes the following (passively-voiced) statement: Any person offering constructive feedback that affects the structure or substance (in a measurable degree) of a paper project I post to this website will be acknowledged appropriately in any presentation or publication that is the product of the work on which the person offers that constructive feedback. (that’s a mouthful – i’ll work on it.)

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Title: “Etiquette (in moderation)”

Long-form abstract: 611 words

At issue in this article is whether or not etiquette provides a useful tool in one’s moral toolkit. Does the person who follows the rule of etiquette have a better shot at being moral than the person who does not follow the rules of etiquette but nonetheless tries to act morally? Another way of putting the issue is that it’s important to determine whether or not etiquette adds something that the person who wants to be moral really needs. Do the rules of etiquette give us clear direction about how we ought to live?

Consider three potential responses to this question. If all rules of etiquette are important to a person’s being moral, then following those rules adds something useful, or even necessary, to a person’s moral toolkit. Second, if none of the rules of etiquette are important for morality, then etiquette does not provide something useful from a moral point of view and ought to be set aside. An interesting question is whether the third option – a moderate hypothesis that some rules of etiquette are important to a person’s being morally good – tells us whether or not we would be better off morally by following the rules of etiquette.

While it is true that etiquette has often played a central role through the history of philosophy, ethicists paid scant attention to the role of etiquette in morality for much of the 20th century. Most assumed etiquette to be irrelevant to one’s being moral, and assumed that one can live a moral life without following the demands of etiquette. I call this view the Null Thesis (Foot 1972, Holmes 1974). Recently, the trend changed, and a few ethicists began treating the topic seriously. When Sarah Buss (1999) argued that good manners are necessary to one’s being morally good, she offered what I refer to as the Strong Thesis. Around the same time, Cheshire Calhoun (2000) argued that civility is an important element in a fully moral life but steered clear of either the Strong or the Null Theses. I call this position the Moderate Thesis. Most recently, Karen Stohr (2012) defends a version of the Moderate Thesis in a book-length treatment of the role of etiquette in a moral life.

In this article, I consider an argument against the Moderate Thesis. The central concern of the argument is that there appears not to be a clear principle distinguishing rules of etiquette that are important for morality from those that are not. I call this, for reasons I explain in the article, the problem of underspecification. A related difficulty in Stohr’s account is that her conclusions about etiquette expertise and moral expertise are practically desirable but do not follow from the moderate thesis she endorses. While the null and strong theses are not desirable for other reasons, the moderate thesis is not without its problems. We thereby seem to reach an impasse.

In light of these difficulties, I offer a solution to the impasse by way of defending the moderate thesis against the two aforementioned problems. As Buss, Calhoun, and Stohr each note, the rules of etiquette offer us a means of communicating our commitment to living a moral life, and a culturally-universal way of ordering society in terms of efficiency and interpersonal communication. Abandoning wholesale the practice of etiquette would be to abandon these moral tools. Committing blindly to all rules of etiquette would be to assume the equivalence of social norms and moral principles. Neither of these two extreme options is acceptable. I argue that, of the three positions, the moderate thesis is the most useful to a person concerned with morality and we have good reason to endorse it.

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References:

Sarah Buss, “Appearing Respectful: The Moral Significance of Manners,” Ethics, Vol. 109, No. 4 (July 1999): 795-826.

Cheshire Calhoun, “The Virtue of Civility,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 29, No. 3 (July 2000): 251-275.

Philippa Foot, “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives,” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 81, No. 3 (July 1972): 305-316.

Robert L. Holmes, “Is Morality a System of Hypothetical Imperatives?” Analysis Vol. 34, No. 3 (Jan 1974): 96-100.

Karen Stohr, On Manners (New York: Routledge, 2012).

About Steve Capone

Interested in Domestic and Foreign Policy, Ethics, and Political Thought. One-time adjunct instructor and current full-time educator of small humans. Europhile, historophile, & bibliophile. M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007)
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3 Responses to Abstract for Paper: “Etiquette (in moderation)”

  1. Said Simon says:

    Rules of etiquette are both constitutive of and tokens of morality.

    Your dilemma – ‘Does the person who follows the rule of etiquette have a better shot at being moral than the person who does not follow the rules of etiquette but nonetheless tries to act morally?’ – is false. Following the rules of etiquette doesn’t help you to be moral, but establishes moral character itself. If the rules of etiquette specify that I should do X, and I do not do X, then I have actually violated social conventions. If those conventions are morally irrelevant, than the pertinent rules of etiquette are not salient to any moral discussion. If they are morally relevant, then violating them is itself morally transgressive.

    At the same time, it is possible to understand morality as nothing /but/ rules of etiquette, and so the decision to follow some rule serve to reinforce it as a community norm. If you don’t think that reinforcing it as such is a good action, then doing X is transgressive.

    • Steve Capone says:

      “Rules of etiquette are both constitutive of and tokens of morality… Following the rules of etiquette doesn’t help you to be moral, but establishes moral character itself.”

      This is a really interesting take on the role of etiquette in/for morality. Specifically, I hadn’t thought of these rules as constitutive of morality. My brain still works in the Kantian way in which I grew up philosophically, so I still think of morality in terms of abstract moral principles and then behaviors that either fulfill/match or fail to fulfill/match those principles. With that in mind, rules of etiquette do not appear to be (themselves) principles of morality – especially because they’re socially constructed and vary across cultures and over time. So then I wonder(ed) whether or not they can help us to meet the abstract moral principles that characterize morality in general. The question has been shaped by this perspective about the role of social norms in meeting the demands of abstract moral principles.

      Once I adopt this view about the connection between abstract moral principles in general and specific guidelines in particular, it then becomes pertinent to ask whether or not the rules of etiquette are useful to or necessary for morality.

      If I were to adopt the “rules of etiquette are … constitutive [of morality],” the question surely would be much simpler to answer… because the dilemma would be a false one – then it’s just a matter of figuring out whether one or another action violates an etiquette norm.

      Am I understanding you right?

      Thanks for reading and for commenting!

      • Said Simon says:

        ‘My brain still works in the Kantian way in which I grew up philosophically, so I still think of morality in terms of abstract moral principles and then behaviors that either fulfill/match or fail to fulfill/match those principles.’

        Whereas I have had my mind dashed and bludgeoned by Wittgenstein, Max Weber, and Foucault. I’m in the process of subjecting it to Nietzsche, which is like committing an act of necromancy simply to kill something again.

        ‘With that in mind, rules of etiquette do not appear to be (themselves) principles of morality – especially because they’re socially constructed and vary across cultures and over time.’

        One of the many marvelous bits of Searle’s Rationality in Action is his solution to the Lewis Carroll problem: that the ‘rules of logic’ do not appear to compel us to actually follow them. His solution was to say that we are confusing the valid operations of logic with a description of them. This works here too: following the rules of etiquette could be understood as following heuristic descriptions of actual moral imperatives. But in that case, it is trivially clear that following the rules of etiquette should enable someone to be more moral, because those rules describe riight conduct. If they don’t, it’s an epistemic issue. But it would be strange for rules of etiquette to develop which didn’t actually reflect the moral norms held by a given community. And if you’re a committed Kantian, the question is still whether we can have epistemic confidence that the rules of etiquette describe the right moral imperatives, and that strikes me as a sociological question.

        Note that I am, on a good day, a ‘Quasi-Realist’ about morality. The fact that etiquette varies per culture is unsurprising because most norms vary culturally. At the same time, I’d be stumped if you asked me to imagine a culture which lacked norms or etiquettes of hospitality, legitimate use of violence, promise-keeping, and so on. This implies to me that it is more useful to understand types of etiquette, and to view how they establish moral rules. Ethics as sociology. This obviously means that many of my arguments will be useless for someone operating from different presuppositions 😉

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