The philosopher Thomas Hobbes in his great work 'Leviathan' (1651) speaks of what he calls 'matters of the small morals, as when a man may pick his teeth.' A good example. Perhaps I am squeamish but tooth picking across a dinner table can be off-putting, unless between consenting adults.
Nowadays there are many matters of the small morals. For example, perhaps it is my age, but I feel uneasy when the unknown lady beside me on the bus pulls out her compact, studies herself in the little mirror and works remedially on what she sees there. She doesn't mind but I feel that my privacy has been invaded.
A complex set of new problems of small morals has been created by the mobile phone. There was the recent case of the shop assistant who wouldn't continue the check-out procedure because the customer was engaged with her mobile phone. The firm (Sainsbury's) took the side of the customer, as one might expect, but I wish that Sainsbury's had stood up for the shop assistant.
We are often told that employees have a right to carry on their work without abuse etc. Well, this wasn't exactly abuse, but rudeness is certainly a matter of the small morals. In this case talking to someone else on a mobile when you have face-to-face dealings with another person is a kind of snub. It conveys the message that you are insignificant in the scheme of things. The self-importance of the customer is borne out by the fact that she then went on to complain about the assistant.
More generally, the mobile phone has a cultural dominance which seems to make claims on the attention of users to the exclusion of face-to-face conversation. A GP friend tells me that she has had patients interrupt a consultation because they must answer their mobiles. Now there's a categorical imperative.
Gum-chewing while conversing is also a matter of the small morals. I had occasional experiences of that with students. Mind you, gum-chewing and conversing involves two activities at once and not everyone can manage that. The US President Lyndon B Johnson said of Gerald Ford that he was 'so dumb he can't fart and chew gum at the same time.'
Perhaps 'small morals' are just matters of etiquette and not morality proper. Perhaps, but there is a fine line between etiquette (let's call it courtesy or good manners) and morality proper. Both involve sets of rules and conventions which have evolved to assist the smooth running of society. Rules of etiquette, or good manners, can of course change more easily and vary more widely in different cultures and social settings than rules of morality. For example, the practices of shaking hands or using first names vary a lot, and my parents would have been shocked by the amiable custom which has reached Scotland in the last couple of decades of friends kissing each other on either cheek, not to mention males hugging each other. Again, the wearing of ties is a sartorial convention perhaps on the way out.
I was struck by two recent examples. The photo of the G8 leaders, wearing their business suits but all of them tie-less and looking slightly ill at ease in their open neck business shirts. They contrasted with well-known politicians and others who were wearing jackets and ties and seemed a bit hot and equally ill at ease in the high temperatures at Wimbledon. These examples are clearly on the etiquette side of the line.
Turning now to morality proper I suggest that it changes much less than rules of courtesy. For example, what we now regard as human rights – or at least the basic ones – have been around for a long time. They can be identified in the writings of the ancient Greeks. But there are borderline examples in which the case for etiquette or the case for morality could be argued. Here are two debatable examples:
A young woman wrote to the papers that she had been suspending her obviously pregnant form from a strap on the London Underground. A young man spoke to her from his seat to say that she should stand near him because he was getting off after the next three stations and she could then have his seat. She commented on the gallantry. Well, at least he noticed. A second example involved an experience I had when I was fighting my way along a crowded corridor to a lecture theatre in Imperial College, London. I held a swing door open for a young woman coming after me and she said, 'Sexist bastard!'
It is not really a serious problem that matters of good manners overlap with the small morals. The really serious problem is that politicians and other public figures, indeed perhaps all of us, tend to restrict moral responsibility to the small matters, especially sexual ones. The big issues, those involving life and death or serious hardship, are depicted as merely matters of policy, things that belong to a non-moral category. It follows that if these policies go badly wrong then it is only that a 'mistake' has been made.
A mistake can express regret, it was unfortunate, but no moral responsibility is involved. Politicians and church leaders are good at this use of words. Killing hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq, or covering up child abuse, have been described as policies based on mistakes. More recently the hardly believable abuse of patients at North Staffs and elsewhere has been described as unfortunate, there were regrettable mistakes from which we must move one. No one is morally responsible. But if a cabinet minister is caught having dinner with his mistress then this is denounced in every headline as an example of serious moral decline, even if he doesn't pick his teeth after the steak.
This article was first published in SR in 2013