Etiquette in Moderation

What follows is a paper I developed for the “comprehensive examination” requirement at the University of Utah’s Department of Philosophy. The paper did not pass muster, but it’s worth sharing, as I don’t think I’ll be working on it for awhile and it contains what I take to be some worthwhile considerations. I’ll be very happy to receive specific feedback or general thoughts from my readers, as always. Fair warning: It’s very long, for a blog post – about 10k words.

Abstract: When it comes to considering the role of etiquette in a moral life, there are two standard positions. The Null Thesis holds that no rules of etiquette are morally required.  The Moderate Thesis holds that some rules of etiquette are morally required. In this article, I embrace the latter position. I consider a challenge facing the Moderate Theorist. Namely, the Moderate Thesis does not tell us what role etiquette rules ought to have in a moral life, given that only some of them are morally required. In part, it fails to direct us because it isn’t clear which rules of etiquette we are morally obligated to follow. In this article, I aim to solve this problem, which I label the Problem of Indirection, on behalf of the Moderate Theorist. I test three principles that might solve the Problem and conclude that the best option available at present is a principle that would have us treat all rules of etiquette as defeasibly morally binding. However, this hypothesis has its own problems, and there is more work for the Moderate Theorist to do in response to the Problem of Indirection.

Mind Your Manners:

Etiquette in a Moral Life[1]

Many 20th-century philosophers considered etiquette irrelevant to morality and assumed that living a moral life is possible without considering the demands of etiquette. I call this the Null Thesis.[2] Recently, a few ethicists have begun seriously treating the notion that etiquette may be important to morality. Sarah Buss (1999) argued that some rules of etiquette are necessary for morality and Cheshire Calhoun (2000) argued that civility is an important element in a moral life. Some rules of etiquette, they think, are important to or necessary for morality.[3] Most recently, Karen Stohr (2011) has defended a version of this thesis in a book-length treatment of the role of etiquette in a moral life.[4] This position is the focus of this paper, and I call it the Moderate Thesis.

In defending a variant of the Moderate Thesis, Buss argues that the rules of etiquette that are necessary for morality are important because they provide a manner in which we express a certain kind of respect for one another.[5] Calhoun makes a similar claim, arguing that civility, which is often codified in rules of etiquette, is for “[communicating] basic moral attitudes of respect, tolerance, and considerateness.”[6] Stohr addresses the etiquette literature more directly than Buss and Calhoun. She adopts Judith Martin’s (“Miss Manners’”) distinction between the principles of manners, which are general moral principles, and the rules of etiquette, which are particular codes of conduct.[7] She claims that rules of etiquette get their normative authority from their relationship to the moral principles of manners.

The Moderate Theorist faces a serious challenge, however, and answering the challenge is the Theorist’s requisite next step. If we accept the Moderate Thesis, we ought to be able to find out what morality requires of us, given that morality requires us to follow some but not other etiquette rules. I embrace a pragmatic notion that, in order for the Thesis to matter, we must be able to put it to use somehow. To that end, it seems that we must be able to tell the etiquette rules that are required from those that are not. If we cannot distinguish between the two in a principled manner, we at least need a principle guides behavior regarding etiquette rules considered altogether. Absent a principle either of distinction or of guidance, the Moderate Thesis does not tell us what we must know to put it to use. Thus, if we embrace the Moderate Thesis at all, pragmatic considerations demand that we identify and defend one or the other sort of principle. Because this problem regards a lack of clear direction about how we are to think of and what we are to do with the rules of etiquette, I refer to this challenge as the Problem of Indirection.

In this article, I attempt to solve the Problem of Indirection. In hopes of finding a principled solution, I test three candidate principles. Two are principles of distinction – call them D1 and D2 – and the third is a principle of guidance, G1. In §1, I consider the two principles of distinction and show why neither principle draws a satisfactory line between the rules of etiquette we must follow from those we must not or may not follow. D1 suffers some glaring defects. D2 deserves more careful consideration, as it most closely aligns with the Moderate Thesis variants held by Buss, Calhoun, and Stohr.

In §2, I offer a principle, G1, motivated by what I am calling Moral Caution and propose the following hypothesis: We have moral reason to treat the rules of etiquette as defeasibly morally binding. To put it a little differently, G1 holds that we ought to treat the rules of etiquette as a defeasible moral guide for behavior. G1 seems more promising than D1 and D2 and is pragmatic in its aim and method. It avoids some complaints to which the earlier candidates were susceptible, in part because it performs a different function. However, this hypothesis faces its own problems.

In §3, I discuss two apparent difficulties with G1 and offer a rebuttal to each. In my conclusion, I suggest what must come next for the Moderate Theorist. Throughout the article, I attempt to clarify, with greater precision than has been previously offered, the relationship between the demands of etiquette and those of morality. In the end, it turns out that the Moderate Theorist is in the difficult position of holding a normative view that most likely is correct but perhaps is inadequate unless it can secure additional, careful defense.

§1. Two Initial Attempts at Solving the Problem

The major difference between the Null Thesis and the Moderate Thesis is superficially obvious. While the Null Thesis maintains that no rules of etiquette are necessary for morality, the Moderate Thesis holds that some rules of etiquette are required for morality. Given this primary commitment, it seems that finding a principled manner of dividing those rules that we are morally obligated to follow from those that we are not morally obligated to follow is a necessary step in defending the position. Here, I identify two candidate principles of distinction – D1 and D2 – and argue that neither is satisfying. D1 describes what I think etiquette experts see themselves as applying, while D2 aligns closely with the method and approach ethicists have so far employed.

§1.1 The First Candidate (D1)

The first principle we might consider is motivated by the thought that, in establishing or identifying etiquette rules, etiquette experts are codifying or putting on display the prior codification of accepted moral norms. With this characterization of etiquette experts’ job description in mind, we might suggest the following candidate principle:

(D1) A rule of etiquette is morally required if it is a codification of the principles of manners – that is, of moral principles.

D1 assumes that some rules of etiquette originate from moral principles and so are morally required. It also assumes that others are morally arbitrary and still others may contradict moral principles. It implies that any members of the two latter classes of etiquette norms are not morally required. For those of us wondering what to make of the Moderate Thesis, describing whether and exactly how the distinctive work is done by the candidate principle D1 is important to solving the Problem of Indirection.

We might think of D1 as a colloquial, first-pass principle of distinction with a minimal amount of nuance. Predictably, there are obvious flaws with such a principle and it will be unappealing to many philosophers. As I argue below, ethicists are more likely to endorse, and have in fact endorsed, something like the second candidate principle (D2). However, for etiquette experts and from what is perhaps a commonsense approach, the story seems to be different for D1, and so it is worth considering.

When some etiquette experts describe the task they see themselves performing, they appeal to something like D1 in the context of the Moderate Thesis. Judith Martin, for example, claims that some rules of etiquette are morally required because they exemplify the codification of existing moral principles.[8] Etiquette experts like Martin believe that, when they establish or call our attention to already-established etiquette rules, they point to the fact that some etiquette rules come from moral principles.

As I noted above, those who endorse D1 can find instances of morally arbitrary or morally unacceptable etiquette rules, which may appear to show the principle doing its job. In A Citizen’s Guide to Civility, Judith Martin explains that, while some rules of etiquette are founded in the principles of manners, others are morally arbitrary:

Many of the rules of etiquette are almost entirely arbitrary. Miss Manners is not prepared to argue that it is more polite to slosh soup away from yourself, possibly onto the tablecloth, than toward yourself, possibly hitting others, it is just the way we do it. Other rules have deeper than surface meanings. To thank someone for hospitality is to recognize the generous intent, whether or not the steak was burned and the conversation deadly.[9]

According to Martin, there are in fact whole classes of etiquette rules that are morally arbitrary.[10] Consider also her eloquent, jovial description of a member of the class of rules she calls symbolic etiquette rules:

Spectator pumps are considered summer shoes. Dark shoes may be worn at any time of the year; white sneakers, bridal shoes, and baby shoes are exempted from the summer-only rule; saddle shoes, which are white shoes with brown trim across the middle, are considered year-round shoes. But spectator shoes, which have brown heels and toes, are considered summer shoes. Symbolic etiquette is not required to make sense.[11]

D1 says that if a rule of etiquette is not derived from a principle of morality, then it is not morally required. By definition, morally arbitrary rules are not derived from moral principles, and, per Martin’s claims, such rules exist. According to D1, these are clear examples of rules by which we are not morally bound.

We might also consider cases in which a given rule of etiquette, as dictated by social norms, flies in the face of that which moral principles require. There have existed and exist today rules of etiquette that stand as manifest contradictions to moral values. A case that meets this criterion is as follows. In the early 20th-century segregationist South, for example, local custom would have a black man step aside on a sidewalk to allow a white woman to pass. The reason for this custom might be that the white woman supposedly is owed deference from the black man by virtue of race and perhaps sex. This social norm presents a clear violation of several moral commitments, one of which is that all people are moral equals and ought to be treated as such.[12]

Similarly, imagine that Jake’s best friend Joe abuses alcohol and is engaging in self-destructive behavior patterns. In such a case, moral principles may contradict the demands of etiquette. One such moral principle, which demands that we respect one another, might have Jake confront Joe and try to convince Joe to seek help. Ignoring Joe’s problem would be disrespectful of Jake, because it is in Joe’s best interest to behave more prudently with respect to his health, and respect may demand of Jake that he take Joe’s interests to be his own. Strict observance of etiquette might demand that Jake refrain from confronting Joe, since Joe has made it obvious that he does not want to talk about his problem.[13] Jake’s confronting Joe might make Joe uncomfortable, might make Jake seem disagreeable, and perhaps Joe’s alcoholism is an implicitly off-limits topic. However, if Jake really takes Joe’s well being to be an interest of his own, as respect might demand of him, then he is obligated to speak up. The demands of etiquette, in this case, seem to contradict those of morality.

These examples demonstrate that there are cases in which rules of etiquette are morally arbitrary or in which they contradict moral principles. These are rules that do not originate from moral demands, and D1 would tell us that they are therefore not morally required. At first glance, this principle appears to draw the distinction for which it was designed.

However, only slight further investigation suggests an obvious line of criticism against D1. Namely, it is just a matter of fact that many or even most rules of etiquette are not produced from moral principles.[14] Rather, according to this line of criticism, they arise out of common social usage.[15] In employing D1, we find that many of the rules that look as though they ought to be morally binding are not. From the Moderate Theorist’s point of view, this first principle likely is counterintuitive and so unacceptable.

Along this discursive track, consider the assumption that there are etiquette rules sprung from moral principles. This assumption becomes problematic for the Moderate Thesis if it turns out that seemingly morally binding etiquette rules are mere accidents of social history rather than a conscientious development of moral conclusions about social practice from moral principles. Again, the Moderate Theorist has good reason to reject these unappealing consequences of the first candidate principle, D1.

Here is one last consideration in response to D1, and it leads us neatly toward D2. When considering whether or not an etiquette rule is morally required, that it is not derived from a moral principle or group of principles should not count against it. If a practice of etiquette aligns precisely with moral demands, or if it makes possible one’s meeting moral demands in some other manner, then even if it is not the descendent of a moral principle it seems reasonable to assert that obeying that rule of etiquette is morally required. That it is likely that one or both of these conditions are satisfied motivates my suspicions about the undesirability and counterintuitiveness of D1 from Moderate Theorist’s perspective. The Moderate Theorist ought to cast the D1 as an unworthy candidate for solving the Problem of Indirection.

§1.2 The Second Candidate (D2)

With this last consideration against D1 in mind, we come to a second candidate principle differentiating between those rules of etiquette that are morally required and those that are not. D2 is more nuanced than D1, as it is the product of concerns raised in response to that notion. This second notion strikes me not only as more palatable and intuitively grounded than the first, but also seems to be the principle by which Moderate Theorists to date have grounded their claims about the role of etiquette in a moral life.

Consider a second candidate principle of distinction:

(D2) A rule of etiquette is morally required if the rule demands behavior moral principles require – or if a rule of etiquette communicates one’s moral aims, thereby enabling one to meet moral demands.


D2 seems to be in line with Stohr’s, Buss’s, and Calhoun’s moderate positions. Because I am focusing most closely on Stohr’s position, most of the discussion here is anchored in her text. She writes that, “Acting in accordance with the rules of polite behavior operative in a given society is a way of acting on more universal moral concerns,” and that “[Rules of etiquette] are binding insofar as they are the established vehicle through which we express the important moral aims and goals reflected in the principles of manners.”[16] In other words, the rules of etiquette tell us to behave in the same manner that moral principles, expressed through the prism of a particular society or culture, would have us behave.[17]

Not only are there cases in which a rule of etiquette seems to require what morality would require of us, there are cases in which following the rules of etiquette is the only way we can meet particular moral demands. Consider that there are cases in which following a particular etiquette rule is the only way we can communicate moral aims. This function is morally important in its own right because communicating our commitment to moral aims is important to morality.

There are at least two reasons to think that, by communicating moral aims, one meets particular moral demands. The first chain of reasoning follows. If we accept that appearing to be good is important to morality, and that one appears to be good by communicating moral aims, then one meets a moral demand by communicating moral aims. By this reasoning, communicating moral aims is morally valuable. This is an argument I defend in §2 and I set it aside for now.[18] The second reason is that communicating moral aims is itself a demand of morality. This is the position that Buss, Calhoun, and Stohr adopt, so it is more pertinent at present and worth treating at some length.

Calhoun considers etiquette rules the codification of what she calls civility. In defending a variant of the Moderate Thesis, she makes a point that is similar to the second reason for thinking communicating moral aims is important to morality:

[Conformity] to socially established rules of respect, tolerance, and considerateness … is critical to civility’s moral function. The function of civility… is to communicate basic moral attitudes of respect, tolerance, and considerateness. We can successfully communicate these basic moral attitudes to others only by following socially conventional rules for the expression of respect, tolerance, and considerateness.[19]

As Calhoun points out, sometimes the best or only way of communicating moral aims, and thereby meet moral demands, is to follow a standard nearly everyone else recognizes as respectful, tolerant, considerate, or otherwise moral behavior. She explains, “Only because there are such generally agreed upon, often codified, social rules for what counts as respectful, considerate, and tolerant behavior can we successfully communicate our moral attitudes toward others.”[20] Stohr also argues that some rules of etiquette play a communicative function that cannot be performed by other means.[21] Buss makes a similar point.[22] With regard to the role of etiquette in a moral life, Buss, Stohr, and Calhoun all employ something that looks very much like D2. That is, what makes a rule of etiquette morally binding is that it communicates moral aims, thereby enabling us to meet moral demands.

Given the moral importance of communicating moral aims, the next important piece of the puzzle for D2 is establishing that following etiquette rules achieves this end. As I discussed above, there are cases in which following a particular etiquette rule is the only way we can communicate particular moral aims.

Consider the following example. If, instead of waiting his turn by standing in line at the local café, Tom shouts “I respect all of you!” and runs to the counter to demand immediate service, no one in the café is likely to interpret this as respectful behavior. Instead, to communicate respect for others, Tom must stand in line and wait his turn.[23] The only way to communicate respect in this case is to follow the social convention that applies in the context of patronizing an American café. Not only is it communicative of respect for Tom to follow the social norm of waiting one’s turn, it would be difficult to think of Tom as meeting the demands of respect if he fails to observe the practice. Stohr suggests in an example along similar lines: “[The moral significance of following a particular social norm] is both about what I intend to communicate and also what message my audience receives.”[24] In order to communicate respect, it is necessary that Tom follow cultural norms. He can follow those cultural norms by following the rule of etiquette appropriate to the situation in which he finds himself. This is one example of a case in which a person might only be able to communicate moral aims by following a particular rule of etiquette.

According to D2, etiquette rules are important to morality because the rules would have us behave just as morality would instruct – or they enable us to communicate moral aims that we would be unable to communicate otherwise. On this view, following etiquette rules is one way, and sometimes the only way, for one to meet the demands of particular moral principles.

But consider the Problem of Indirection: How are we to tell which etiquette rules are the important ones – which are morally binding? Asking this question of the second principle brings into relief its major flaw. Remember we are looking for a principle that will help us distinguish between the etiquette rules that morality requires and those that morality does not require. D2 does not achieve the sorting task for which it is designed. It merely pushes the question back one level and begs the question.

To apply D2, one must know precisely what morality demands before one can determine whether or not a particular rule of etiquette communicates a particular moral aim. If we are wondering whether morality requires Heather to set her fork to the left of her dinner plate, for instance, Heather must have at her fingertips all moral principles, such that she is able to discern the moral principles that are relevant in this case from those that are not. Perhaps she determines that the potentially relevant moral demand is that we respect one another. After identifying all of the demands of respect, she must decide whether or not placing her fork in a particular location at her table setting communicates her commitment to respecting her friends and family. If she gets through this procedure with her sanity intact, she can determine whether or not the fork placement rule is one to which she is bound morally. Without particular foreknowledge of moral demands, however, she cannot know whether that rule of etiquette communicates a particular moral commitment or aim. So it goes for the other etiquette rules: In order to determine whether or not following a given rule is morally required by D2’s lights, one must already know whether or not morality demands one follow that rule. Unless we are all moral experts, an unlikely possibility, we cannot meet this foreknowledge condition. This likelihood renders doubtful the usefulness of D2.[25]

There is a further problem for the second candidate. If, in order to save D2, we allow the possibility that we do already know what morality demands, and take following etiquette rules to be the fulfillment of that demand, etiquette would not add anything unique to our moral toolkit.[26] Perhaps we might just as well not bother with the added nuisance of etiquette and merely follow what morality would have us do. But this is just what advocates of D2 deny.

As Calhoun and the others claim, etiquette adds something uniquely morally valuable and useful, without which we could not be fully moral.[27] Per their argument, sometimes following an etiquette rule is the only way we can communicate our moral intentions and aims, which she argues, along with Buss and Stohr, is paramount to morality. When we follow the rules of etiquette, we often participate with other members of our social group in a silent though expressive dialogue demonstrating both our respect for individuals in that group and our commitment to doing what is right. We need to follow etiquette rules to be moral, but that is all we can tell from their arguments for D2. We still cannot tell which rules we ought to follow.

Thus, both candidate principles of distinction fail to make a principled distinction between those rules morality requires and those it does not. D1 fails because it seems not to pick out the right rules, or that it picks rules for the wrong reasons. D2 fails because it begs the question, or that it renders the rules of etiquette irrelevant to moral practice. The Problem of Indirection remains. Because two of the most plausible principles of distinction fail to answer the challenge, and we are looking for something that we can put into practice, I believe the solution to the Problem of Indirection is finding a practical, guiding principle rather than a theoretical, distinguishing principle. In §2, I evaluate one such practical principle.

2. A Third Candidate (G1)

In this section, I propose a third candidate principle in response to the Problem of Indirection. In contrast with D1 and D2, this principle is one of guidance. This shift in direction may be fruitful, because what we want from almost any conversation in ethics is to find out how we ought to behave. If we approach etiquette with the right guiding principle in mind, the rules of etiquette may provide an important component of answering that question. Although the attempts at distinction failed, there still seems to be something to the notion that some rules of etiquette provide us a unique and useful moral tool. If we want to know what to make of them, it seems we need a different way of thinking about their role in a moral life.

Consider the following candidate principle:

(G1) All rules of etiquette are defeasibly morally binding.

In other words, we ought to treat all rules of etiquette as morally required but allow for exceptions in cases in which we are fairly certain that following a given rule would be immoral. In this section, I defend the hypothesis that we have good moral reason to treat etiquette rules as defeasibly morally binding.

In defending G1, I begin with the premise that we ought to endorse what I am calling the Principle of Moral Caution, which I define as follows: When we have prima facie reason to think following a particular course of action is morally right and have no compelling evidence to the contrary, we ought to follow that course of action.[28] In the context of etiquette, the Principle of Moral Caution can be particularized as follows: If it seems likely that we have good moral reason to treat the rules of etiquette as morally binding, then we ought to consider them morally binding, albeit defeasibly so.

To establish the case for my hypothesis, I first show (in §2.1) that non-moral facts can be morally relevant. A given non-moral fact can be morally relevant if it informs moral decision-making in the right context. Etiquette rules are potentially morally relevant in this manner. Next, (in §2.2) I apply the principle of Moral Caution to that which I establish in §2.1. Moral Caution would have us treat as defeasibly morally binding etiquette rules in cases in which we have moral reason to adopt that set of norms. We have moral reason to follow etiquette rules because they provide a means of appearing to be good, and appearing to be good is important to morality. Thus, Moral Caution would have us treat the rules of etiquette as defeasibly morally binding and embrace G1.

2.1 Non-Moral Facts

The easiest way to demonstrate that non-moral facts may be morally important is to consider some examples. The volume of grain produced in the United States is relevant to determining how many undernourished people we can feed, though the fact of the matter is itself not a moral fact. Similarly, that the United States spent approximately one percent of its gross domestic product in 2011 on foreign aid[29] is not a moral fact. However, if we could be giving more, and if we have a moral obligation to help those in need of our assistance, independently non-moral facts about our giving and about our ability to give become morally important. As these two examples show, what makes these non-moral facts morally relevant is their context.

Other non-moral facts can also be important to morality, including facts about social norms, which subsume etiquette norms. Facts about etiquette norms are not facts about what is right, but rather regard how people typically do things or what people expect of us. However, just like other non-moral facts, these may be morally relevant. One might know, for example, that symphony attendees are expected to remain seated until intermission, except in extreme circumstances,[30] and that a failure to abide by this rule will be taken by most everyone in the concert hall as disrespectful. In such a case, one has at one’s disposal the facts needed to conclude that a failure to remain seated would be seen as disrespectful. If one wants to communicate respect for the performers and other attendees, one should wait for an intermission to excuse oneself to use the lavatory or chat about Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan und Isolde. This is a case in which, because a non-moral fact is relevant to one’s moral decision-making, an etiquette rule is a morally relevant fact.

Etiquette rules are the standardization of cultural expectations and social norms and as such are not inherently moral. Descriptions of etiquette norms describe non-moral facts regarding the social practices in which people engage, and these non-moral facts may be morally important. They are morally relevant in the right context. Specifically, rules about social norms are morally relevant any time one is engaged in community with others. This may mean that, practically, independently non-moral facts about social norms are almost always morally relevant.

2.2 Appearing to be Good

Moral Caution instructs that if we have moral reason to follow a given set of norms, whether or not those norms independently are morally required, we ought to treat that set of norms as defeasibly morally binding. Here, I show that we have a moral reason to follow etiquette norms. The moral reason, in this case, is that it is morally good to appear to be good, and following etiquette rules is a way of appearing to be good.

In §1.2, I noted but set aside one chain of reasoning for the claim that one meets particular moral demands by communicating moral aims. As I suggested above: If appearing to be good is important to morality, and one appears to be good by communicating moral aims, then one meets a moral demand by communicating moral aims.

I shelved this argument in §1.2 because the standard picture relating the importance of etiquette to morality was tied to a different defense. Here, however, defending the claim that appearing to be good is morally important becomes necessary. It is necessary here because G1 is motivated by Moral Caution regarding the rules of etiquette, and Moral Caution would have us follow those rules if we have moral reason to do so and no compelling reason not to do so. The reason we have for following etiquette rules, in short, is that appearing to be good is morally valuable, and following the rules of etiquette is a way one can appear to be good.

§2.2.1 That Appearing to be Good Has First-Order Moral Value

The claim that we have moral reason to appear to be good deserves attention. We might take the claim straightforwardly and consider whether appearing to be good actually is good in itself.[31]

Consider that there are cases in which a thing’s appearing to be the case makes it the case. In this manner, appearances matter insofar as they shape our experiences.[32] So, let us assume that what makes a children’s book good is determined by whether or not many children wish to read it. Cheryl Rutherford is an author and illustrator of children’s books and the covers of all of her books are of terrifically frightening scenes. They are, in fact, far too frightening for most children to bear. We can imagine a conversation in which her publisher is telling her that her books are bad children’s books: “Miss Rutherford, no children wish to read your books. The children are far too frightened even to open them.” Here is a case in which something appearing to be the case makes it the case. That Cheryl Rutherford’s children’s books appear to be bad children’s books renders them bad children’s books.

We can extend to morality, and to etiquette in particular, the consideration that something’s appearing to be the case can make it the case. Take the symphony example again. Jane is attending the Utah Symphony’s inaugural performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and has neglected to switch off her phone. By leaving her phone in “loud and distracting” mode, she appears to be rude when a phone call comes in the middle of the fourth movement. Furthermore, Jane is rude because she appears to be rude. Because everyone in the theater is due respect, and because we might think treating people with kindness and consideration is a part of treating them with respect, Jane’s lack of consideration for their desire not to be interrupted and distracted is morally bad. Her behavior contradicts a demand of morality. Here is a case in which appearing to be bad is morally bad. The other patrons, on the other hand, are more conscientious and do not want to appear rude. They all turned off their phones at the start of the performance to avoid presenting such an appearance. The other patrons have thereby done something good by appearing to be good. Namely, they have treated the other attendees with respect by taking into consideration their wishes.[33] This is a case in which appearing to be good has first-order moral value.

§2.2.2 That Appearing to be Good has Second-Order Moral Value

Even if it turns out that appearing to be good is not a first-order good, we might also think appearing to be good is morally valuable because it has second-order moral importance. I take it that if X is neither necessary nor sufficient for morality but has second-order importance for moral behavior, we have moral reason to do X. Perhaps appearing to be good is like this. In that case, we would say that it is neither necessary nor sufficient by itself for morality, but it has second-order importance for moral behavior. If this is true, then we have moral reason to appear to be good. Perhaps it is obvious that appearing to be good is neither necessary or sufficient for morality, as one can appear to be good but behave immorally (e.g. in cases of deceitful behavior), and one can behave morally without appearing to be good (e.g. in the case where one acts as a secret benefactor). The trickier premise is that which holds that appearing to be good has second-order moral importance.[34]

If we reject that appearing to be good is a first-order good, we ought to think of appearing to be good as having second-order moral importance because it is part and parcel of one’s promoting aims that are integral to morality. According to this view, appearing to be good serves moral aims indirectly. There are at least three reasons to think this is the case.

First, consider that we can set a good moral example for others by appearing to be good. I assume that setting a good moral example for others is a first-order good. If appearing to be good is a means to that end, then appearing to be good in the service of a moral aim is good, albeit a good of the second order. Imagine that John Sr. and Jack Sr. have recently been arguing vehemently about the household finances. Because they know they cannot keep a civil tone if they continue the argument during dinner, at which John Jr. and Jack Jr. will be present, they refrain from arguing at the dinner table and thereby appear to treat one another well. John and Jack thereby participate in the development of good morals in Johnny and Jackie. Their participation in promoting that end is morally good, and they promote it by appearing to be good. In this way, appearing to be good is morally valuable, if indirectly so.

Second, appearing to be good is a manner of demonstrating that one is committed to goodness, and such demonstrations are important to morality.[35] If appearing to be good is demonstrating that one is committed to goodness, and if demonstrating that one is committed to goodness is important to morality, then appearing to be good is important for morality, albeit indirectly so. Buss makes the following point:

There is, however, more to treating someone with respect than accommodating our ends to his. It is also essential that we more directly acknowledge that he is worthy of this accommodation; and in order to satisfy this requirement, we must treat him politely. When we treat one another politely, we are directly expressing respect for one another in the only way possible. We are, in effect, saying: “I respect you,” “I acknowledge your dignity.”[36]

Here, Buss points out that it is important to meeting the moral demands of respect that we demonstrate our respect for one another. Furthermore, we demonstrate our respect by treating one another politely. In order to satisfy the moral aim of respecting our peers, we must demonstrate respect for them. The demonstration of respect is, at least in part, an appearance of being good. In this way, appearing to be good is important for being good, insofar as being respectful is a demand of morality.

Third, Julia Driver (1992) offers a consequentialist argument to support the view that appearing to be good is morally valuable.[37] Because there are cases in which merely appearing to commit immoral action Y will produce some of the same consequences as would the actual commission of immoral action Y, appearing to commit action Y is immoral. There are in fact cases in which merely appearing to commit action Y may predictably and reasonably be interpreted by observers as the commission of action Y. In these kinds of cases, the agent has a moral obligation to refrain from merely appearing to commit action Y.[38]

My arguments above, along with Buss’s and Driver’s, amount to a case for the second-order importance of appearing to be good. According to our shared view, appearances matter to morality. That appearances do not always matter to morality does not impugn the premise that they matter in some cases. One’s following the principle of Moral Caution does not guarantee that one always will act morally, but rather that, in following its direction, one makes the safest possible moral bet.[39]

2.3 Having Moral Reason to Follow Etiquette Rules

If φ’ing is morally valuable, I take it that we have moral reason to φ. And if φ’ing is something we have moral reason to do, we have moral reason to pursue the means by which we can φ. By the arguments I have offered in §2, I have shown that appearing to be good is morally valuable, and so it is something we have moral reason to do. We thereby have moral reason to take up the means by which we can appear to be good. One of the ways in which we can appear to be good is to follow the rules of etiquette, so we have moral reason to follow the rules of etiquette, though they are not themselves moral rules.

Consider the picture I have been presenting thus far. According to the premise that non-moral facts can be morally important, whether or not a particular etiquette rule is independently morally good is moot. This suggests that the two principles of distinction were misguided. And, while etiquette rules themselves may not be moral rules, they may be important to morality. Etiquette rules can be morally important because there are cases in which they enable one to appear to be good. Appearing to be good is morally valuable because it has either first-order or second-order moral value. Therefore, we have moral reason to appear to be good, and we also have reason to pursue the means by which we can appear to be good. We thereby have moral reason to follow the rules of etiquette. Thus, Moral Caution would have us ought to treat them as defeasibly morally binding.

§3. The Third Principle: Another Look

One objection to the third principle, G1, might run as follows. Remember that Moral Caution holds that when we have prima facie reason to think following a particular course of action is morally right and have no compelling evidence to the contrary, we ought to follow that course of action. The argument in favor of treating etiquette rules as defeasibly morally binding relied on the assumption that morally relevant, non-moral facts about widely accepted norms inform us about potentially morally binding norms. Furthermore, G1 assumed that because such facts might be morally binding, we ought to treat them as morally binding except in cases where we have clear evidence that morality demands we ignore particular rules. An objection might point out that this line of argument would have us treat the rules of, say, baseball, as morally binding as well.

The implied premise in this objection is that the rules of games are not morally binding, and so an argument that would treat them as such must be mistaken. The Moderate Theorist, however, need not accept this premise. Because the rules of a game are established, in part, to make the game fairer, and because fairness is a demand of morality, it makes sense to think of the rules of games as defeasibly morally binding in the same sense that we think of etiquette rules as being defeasibly morally binding.[40]

There are good reasons to think that fairness in sport is a demand of morality. For instance, morality would have us treat one another as moral equals. In sport, moral equality means that everyone has a fair shot at competing, though not necessarily a fair shot at winning. When a player disregards a rule, she not only has made an exception of herself, thereby placing herself above the other players, but she thereby has made the game less fair to the other participants. For these reasons, it is acceptable to think of the rules of games as defeasibly morally binding. The attempted reductio does not defeat the third principle, G1.

A more damning criticism of G1 exists, however, and it is more difficult to dismiss than the reductio. Remember that the reason we ought to reject D2 is that it begs the question by requiring that we already know what morality requires before we can put D2, which is supposed to tell us what morality requires in the realm of etiquette rules, to use. This rendered the rules of etiquette useless as a guide for moral action. G1 appears to fall prey to the same objection. Recall that G1 holds that we ought to treat etiquette rules as defeasibly morally binding. It may appear that, in order to apply G1, we must know the defeasibility conditions that would render a particular etiquette rule null from a moral point of view. In order to know those conditions, perhaps we must have knowledge of what morality demands in the same way that D2 required knowledge of what morality demands. Otherwise, we cannot tell which rules of etiquette we ought to disregard.[41] If we cannot tell which rules of etiquette we ought to disregard, we cannot know when to follow them and when not to follow them.

This objection is mistaken in its approach, as it treats a principle of guidance as a principle of distinction. The criteria by which we judge each sort of principle are different in the two cases. While D2 fails because its purpose is to distinguish, and it fails to do so on its own, G1 has a different purpose altogether. The purpose of G1 is not to provide us with a rule by which we can tell the etiquette rules that are morally required from those that are not. That a defeasibility condition is here employed does not require that we have full knowledge of what makes for a perfect defeasibility condition. As a practical principle of guidance, its purpose is not to carve distinctions, but rather to suggest to each of us how we ought to behave. The principle of Moral Caution is a practical principle for avoiding immoral behavior, and not a guarantee of moral behavior.[42] We may, in fact, never know the content of the defeasibility condition in G1. Even if this were the case, however, G1 would still direct us.

The criterion by which we should assess this principle is to ask whether or not it works, and we can employ G1 successfully without ever being certain about the judgments we are making in its employment. That we may sometimes be mistaken in our judgments regarding its defeasibility condition does not mean that we cannot put the principle to good use. We must decide how to behave, and we can only do the best we can with the capacities we have at our disposal, and we may never be certain that morality does or does not contradict a particular rule of etiquette. We may never be certain of the defeasibility conditions that the principle asks us to employ. But we can issue a judgment, and perhaps we have an independent moral reason to improve our own moral compasses.

Whether we issue moral judgments by appealing to our own moral sentiments, by a variant of the Categorical Imperative, or by some other standard, what matters for G1’s success and internal coherence is that we can employ the third principle as a guide for behavior. The principle requires that we ought to treat all rules of etiquette as required, barring compelling evidence to the contrary.[43] We need not have full knowledge of moral demands to use the third principle, and so we may not know with certainty whether a particular etiquette rule is morally required. It does not purport to provide knowledge of what is binding, but only to provide us with a useful tool for our moral toolkit.[44] Unlike D1 and D2, G1 is action guiding. It tells us what we ought to do: Follow the rules of etiquette, unless you have a compelling reason not to do so.


Because modern ethicists have only recently begun taking etiquette rules seriously as potential moral requirements, the Moderate Thesis is underdeveloped at present. In particular, it does not solve the Problem of Indirection, which demands a workable principle of distinction or of guidance.

We dismissed D1 somewhat easily as a principle of distinction. D2, which aligns with the views offered by Buss, Calhoun, and Stohr, fails to distinguish between those rules that are morally required from those that are not without either begging the question or rendering etiquette irrelevant as a moral tool. G1, which holds that we ought to treat all etiquette rules as defeasibly morally required, does not fall victim to the same criticism, as its purpose is markedly different from that of D2. My defense of G1 relies on a more careful consideration of the relationship between etiquette and morality than has previously been offered and, I hope, improves the standing of the Moderate Thesis by pointing in the direction of a solution to the Problem of Indirection.[45]

I suggested above that, even if we are not certain about the moral importance of the rules of etiquette, Moral Caution requires us to take them seriously. Because we have good moral reason to treat the rules of etiquette as morally binding, we ought to consider them morally binding, albeit defeasibly so. If we accept Moral Caution as a basic moral commitment, we have reason to treat etiquette norms as prima facie moral requirements. By the lights of Moral Caution, it seems morally risky not to do so.

All of this said, what I have shown in response to the stronger of the two criticisms in §3 is that G1 does not commit the same kind of question begging as the second principle. It avoids this criticism by a pragmatic standard that asks whether or not we can use the principle, and I maintain that we can. This does not stand as proof that the principle of Moral Caution, applied to the rules of etiquette, is the right tool for the job. However, I believe it is a step in the right direction. The Moderate Theorist has work to do. In this article, I hope to have contributed a new element to the conversation about etiquette and morality. The next necessary element in defense of the Moderate Thesis is in either bolstering G1 or in offering some other, improved principle of distinction or of guidance.

Works Cited

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.

Stephen L. Darwall, “Two Kinds of Respect,” Ethics, Vol. 88, No. 1 (Oct. 1977): 36-49.

Julia Driver, “Ceasar’s Wife: On the Moral Significance of Appearing Good,” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 89, No. 7 (July 1992): 331-343.

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

John Haldane, “Is Every Action Morally Significant?” Philosophy, Vol. 86, No. 3 (2011): 375-404.

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

Daniel Kahneman, “A Perspective on Judgment and Choice: Mapping Bounded Rationality,” American Psychologist, Vol. 58, No. 9 (2003): 697-720.

Frida Kuhlau, Anna T. Höglund, Kathinka Evers, Stefan Eriksson, “A Precautionary Principle for Dual Use Research in the Life Sciences,” Bioethics Vol. 25, No. 1 (2011): 1-8.

Judith Martin, Miss Manners: A Citizen’s Guide to Civility (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999).

Shaun Nichols, “On the Genealogy of Norms: A Case for the Role of Emotion in Cultural Evolution,” Philosophy of Science Vol. 69, No. 2 (June 2002): 234-255.

Anton Petrenko and Dan McArthur, “High-Stakes Gambling with Unknown Outcomes: Justifying the Precautionary Principle,” Journal of Social Philosophy Vol. 42, No. 4 (Winter 2011): 346-362.

Peggy Post et. al., Emily Post’s Etiquette: 18th Edition (New York: Harper Collins, 2011).

Paul Solman, “How Much Does Uncle Sam Spend on Foreign Aid?” PBS Newshour, The Rundown, accessed Sept 4, 2012:

Karen Stohr, On Manners (New York: Routledge, 2011).

Interview with Karen Stohr. Interviewer: Robert Talisse. “New Books in Philosophy” podcast, on the New Books Network. March 15, 2012.

[1] Acknowledgments are due to Elijah Millgram, Cindy Stark, Karen Stohr, Daniel Capone, Margaret Battin, Joel Van Zanten, Kenneth Blake Vernon, Jonathan Peto, Jonah Schupach, Steve Downes, Bruce Landesman, Lucas Matthews, Justin Caouette, David Sackris, and William Clare Roberts. I also am appreciative of the feedback I received in the ethics workgroup at the 2012 Pittsburgh Area Philosophy Colloquium.

[2] Foot (1972) assumes the Null Thesis. Foot assumes all rules of etiquette are merely hypothetical imperatives. In other words, the rules of etiquette are imperative only for those adopting “be polite” or similar ends (308-309).

In a similar vein, Robert Holmes (1974), in a response to Foot’s article, agrees with her on this point. He assumes that etiquette is “a possibly useful but… largely adventitious embroidery to human intercourse” (96). In other words, morality does not require that we follow etiquette norms.

[3] Buss (1999) argues that some rules of etiquette regard courtesy, which is the focal point of her article. She claims that “the most important lessons in manners are the lessons in how to avoid being discourteous, impolite, rude, inconsiderate, offensive, [and] insulting,” and that “someone who flouts these lessons behaves in a manner that is immoral as well as impolite” (795-796).

Calhoun claims that civility is an important moral virtue, and that civility includes good manners (255). We know that she intends civility to include or be equated with etiquette, as she points out that civility often is codified in etiquette guidebooks (252).

[4] See explicit claims that align with the view I call the Moderate Thesis in Stohr (2011): 22-23, 34.

[5] Buss (1999): 802.

[6] Calhoun (2000): 255.

[7] Stohr (2011): 23. See also Martin (1999): “Miss Manners uses the word ‘manners’ to refer to the principles underlying any system of etiquette, and ‘etiquette’ to refer to particular rules used to express these principles. … Although [different cultures’ rules of etiquette] may differ widely, they all come from the same mannerly principles” (24-25).

[8] For instance, see Martin (1999): “”The tiniest custom may offer a glimpse into how a [principle of manners], such as fairness, has been translated into behavior” (11). She also argues that, because etiquette rules are based in moral principles, unmannerliness is bad. That is, because manners are morals, unmannerliness is immoral (16).

[9] Martin (1999): 28. Elsewhere, Martin remarks: “Symbolic rules of etiquette are totally arbitrary, which is why people often assume they can be violated with impunity. This is a mistake. Everybody scrutinizes such things as clothing, nomenclature and gesture for symbolic content all the time” (35). If what symbolic etiquette rules represent is moral commitments and communicative attitudes, it strikes me that symbolic rules aren’t precisely and generally arbitrary. For an example Martin offers that betrays this non-arbitrary element, see:

[Symbolic Etiquette rules] provide people with a tremendous fund of nonverbal knowledge about one another, helping them to deal with a wide range of social situations and relationships.

Forms of greeting, dressing, eating and restraining (or exaggerating) bodily functions can all be read as symbols of degrees of friendliness or hostility, respect or contempt, solidarity with the community or alienation from it. It is safe to assume that a person who advances on you with an outstretched hand is symbolizing an intent to treat you better than one who spits. (35)

So it seems that this class of rules often serves non-moral purposes that may be morally relevant, though only indirectly. Describing this class of etiquette norms in this fashion fits in with the picture of non-moral facts I describe in §2.1, though there, I describe all rules of etiquette as fitting in with this non-moral picture. For Martin, symbolic rules of etiquette are arbitrary because they do not tie directly to moral principles.

[10] See Martin (1999): “Symbolic rules of etiquette are totally arbitrary” (35).

[11] Martin (1999): 40.

[12] Stohr (2011) makes a similar point:

[Following a particular rule of etiquette] communicates respect. It expresses my recognition of the fact that the other person is on an equal footing with me, and that I am not authorized to command or direct her behavior (28).

[13] As Stohr (2011) notes, Emily Post defends a picture of etiquette that generally would have us make ourselves agreeable to others (52) and so would have us lie (93) – or massage the truth – in order to preserve others’ positive self-regard (110). She maintains that these cases of dishonesty are not actually lies (111). This is a point on which I disagree with Stohr, but pursuing this line of objection is outside the scope of this article. For now, I only intend to highlight the notion that etiquette might have us tell a lie to preserve someone’s self-image.

[14] Consider Shaun Nichols’ take on the source of some cultural norms: “On the Genealogy of Norms: A Case for the Role of Emotion in Cultural Evolution,” Philosophy of Science Vol. 69, No. 2 (June 2002): 234-255.

[15] Hence the title of Emily Post’s storied Etiquette: Blue Book of Social Usage (the 18th and most recent edition was published in 2011).

[16] I take Stohr here to be using the word “express” in the sense of “to communicate” rather than “to represent.”

See also Stohr (2011): 23-24.

[17] Stohr explains this position, albeit more casually than in her book, in a podcast interview (2012). She says: “The rules of etiquette are primarily [cultural] conventions for acting upon or putting into practice moral rules” and “Whether or not a particular etiquette rule is justified will depend on how well it communicates or exemplifies the underlying moral principle.”

[18] I offer an argument for this claim in §2 of this article. A defense or rejection of D2 is not contingent on a successful defense of this claim.

[19] Calhoun (2000): 255.

[20] Calhoun (2000): 260.

[21] Stohr (2011): 30-31.

[22] Buss (1999) argues that such displays of good manners are communicative displays that are important to our being treated respectfully, as morality demands. She claims that acknowledgments of our dignity achieved through mannerly displays are important because “being treated respectfully [… is] a necessary condition for the possibility of being treated with respect” (802).

[23] This is similar to Stohr’s (2011) example:

If I jump to the front of the line, I convey the attitude that I do not take myself to be bound by the same rules as everyone else. …If I have no evident reason for cutting, one that others can see and accept, they will infer that I think that I am better or more important than them. And they are right to find that offensive and disrespectful (29-30).

[24] Stohr (2011): 30.

[25] In other words: If the rules of etiquette are supposed to provide us with particularized, culturally-sensitive knowledge about what morality demands, but we need to know what morality demands in order to figure out which rules of etiquette are up to the task, then the rules of etiquette cannot achieve their supposed aim.

[26] Calhoun (2000) considers this problem in the following form: “The question, ‘What should a civil person do?’ appears to be interchangeable with” questions about what “tolerance, respect, and considerateness” demand of us. If this is the case, “then civility does not name a distinct virtue and there is no reason for moral philosophers to mention civility in a catalogue of moral virtues” (259). She answers this problem by differentiating between civil acts and acts of other moral virtues:

Because civil and uncivil acts are essentially communicative acts, while simply treating people with respect or tolerance does not always involve communicating our moral attitudes, civil behavior is not coextensive with respectful, tolerant, and considerate behavior (260).

Judith Martin (1999) makes a similar point, arguing that communicating respect is what is important about etiquette: “Showing respect for human beings […] is not, itself, a frivolous virtue. It is essential to peace and harmony” (70).

[27] Buss (1999) claims that, given that morality requires that we treat other people with respect, it is enough to establish the status of etiquette to show that respecting others requires that we treat them politely (796-797). She claims that, “Being treated with courtesy [… is a] necessary condition for the possibility – of being treated with respect” (802).

[28] What I call the Principle of Moral Caution seems to be an underlying assumption of what often is called the Precautionary Principle. This principle appears both in environmental ethics and in other areas of applied philosophy. For examples of applications and for a defense against criticisms of the principle, see Kuhlau et al (2011) and Petrenko and McArthur (2011). However, exploring practical applications of my principle outside of the scope of etiquette is beyond the scope of this paper.

[29] Paul Solman (2012).

[30] Martin (1999): 187.

[31] That a person is morally good insofar as he appears to be morally good is not a judgment about all of his actions or his character. There may be other ways in which such a person is not morally good. Consider the person who appears to be good but who is not good in other ways. If we accept the claim that appearing to be good has first-order moral value, we would simply say that such a person is good in one way but not in others.

[32] We might consider empirical evidence describing the multifarious ways in which appearances matter to one’s experience. For a short review of some of the effects of what he calls “framing,” see Kahneman (2003): 702-703.Usually, behavioral economists like Kahneman are interested in the ways in which the way environments affect our decision-making lead us astray in making factual judgments. What matters here is not whether we make accurate or inaccurate factual judgments as a result of the effects of framing, but rather simply that our first impressions do in fact shape our opinions, e.g. about whether a thing is good or bad.

[33] We might think of this kind of self-constraint out of respect for other people as fitting the description of Darwall’s (1977) notion of moral recognition respect: “To respect something [including a person] is to regard it as requiring restrictions on the moral acceptability of actions connected with it” (40). Incidentally, Darwall assumes that having respect for a person’s feelings is more important morally than following social conventions (46). I would deny this claim, and the clear distinction between the two realms it implies, though I am setting the issue aside in the context of this article.

[34] Stohr (2011) highlights a point Hume made in this vicinity: appearing to be good is a means of making oneself agreeable to others, which Stohr notes that Hume thought was important to morality. She writes: “For Hume, what makes a character trait a virtue is that it is either useful or agreeable to oneself or to others” (52).

[35] This line of argument is the same as that which Moderate Theorists offer in defense of D2. I discussed this position in greater detail in §1.2.

[36] Buss (1999): 802. Emphases are Buss’s.

[37] Driver (1992) argues: “Actions immoral due to their resemblance to independently immoral actions I call mimetic immoralities,” (335) and “The explanation for why [some] mimetically immoral actions are immoral is that these actions, because they are open to reasonable misconstrual, lead to bad consequences” (338).

[38] Driver endorses a kind of Moral Caution as well in her argument, and she explains that others’ misinterpretations matter to the moral status of one’s own actions:

In most of our interactions with adults, relevant facts are clear, such as the assumptions and beliefs it would be reasonable for a person to make in a given clear context. Context usually is pretty clear for the purposes of moral evaluation. But not always. Thus, care needs to be taken because a bad example can and will have a bad effect on others. This consideration becomes stronger the more the agent is in the public eye; that is, the larger her audience is. A police officer, a judge, and a senator must avoid even the appearance of immorality (ibid., 341).

[39] In §1.1, I offered examples of cases in which acting according to the demands of etiquette is not to act morally. They were instances in which, by one’s following etiquette rules, one’s appearing good does not generate good behavior. Because the principle of Moral Caution does not seek to guarantee moral behavior in all cases, we should consider these examples to be outliers on a general principle of moral risk-reduction. By adopting Moral Caution, one does not eliminate moral risk, but rather reduces it. Per my argument above, we may consider appearing to be good not as necessary or sufficient for morality, but as having second-order moral importance for morality. Because appearing to be good by itself may be neither necessary nor sufficient for morality, examples of individual cases in which one appears to be good but is not moral do not defeat this argument. All I need show here is that we have moral reason to appear to be good – not that it guarantees moral behavior.

[40] There is, perhaps, a stronger case to be made that the rules of games are morally binding, because all of the players usually are informed of the rules and agree to them when they begin to play. The rules of etiquette, on the other hand, are not the subject of explicit agreement among all participants. In any case, the rules of games may be reasonably seen as morally binding, so the objection fails.

[41] I thank Elijah Millgram for raising this objection.

[42] In other terms, the benefit of G1 is not that it provides the correct moral determination, but that it provides the safest (moral) bet.

[43] What counts as compelling evidence to the contrary? Consider the examples from §1.1 of etiquette demands that run counter to (other) moral demands. These cases exist. It seems that the weight of Moral Caution’s direction that we follow etiquette rules may be compared to other moral demands on a sliding scale. I do not offer or evaluate such a scale in this article, but providing seems to be the next necessary step in defending G1. An account and defense of the appropriate method of reasoning regarding competing moral demands will be a part of this story, and it would need to specify the defeasibility conditions of G1 in detail.

[44] Perhaps, in effect, G1 would have us treat all rules of etiquette as morally binding at all times. When we get clearer about the conditions under which a particular rule of etiquette is rendered null, we will be in a better position to grant exceptions. Until then, however, we ought to do what etiquette would have us do. If one adopts a skeptical position regarding moral knowledge, we may always find ourselves morally bound to follow etiquette rules.

[45] One of the consequences of adopting G1 is that almost every action turns out to be morally significant, a weaker version of a claim proposed and defended by John Haldane (2011):

I wish to consider the possibility that the problem of identifying distinctively moral aspects of conduct is explained not by the suggestion that they are nowhere to be found, but rather by the thesis that the moral is ubiquitous; that every human action is (not ‘may be’) morally significant. (379)

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)
Aside | This entry was posted in Civility, Etiquette, Manners, Rough Ideas and Arguments and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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