Recently, I made some suggestions about a very dark topic: moral evil
. As I said in the essay, there are many other kinds of bad behaviour, even if they are not by any means comparable to evil. One of them is bad manners. Just as moral badness has not been researched very much by philosophers, so too bad manners is a topic not regarded as appropriate for philosophical discussion. It was put to me by a reader that I should risk disapproval from my colleagues in philosophy and have a crack at discussing bad manners.
I guess philosophers don't want to write about manners in case they are made fun of. They see themselves as important researchers and do not want to be ridiculed for writing a book on etiquette. More plausibly, it might be said that investigation of good and bad manners is for sociologists or anthropologists rather than philosophers. There is some merit in that.
Nevertheless, one major philosopher did give manners a passing comment. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) in has great work Leviathan
writes about 'matters of the small morals, as when a man may pick his teeth'. I think Hobbes' example is interesting for two reasons: he notes that that there is a link between manners and morality – matters of the 'small morals' – and he suggests one link – both can have a bearing on our physical reactions – 'tooth-picking'.
But suppose someone insists that '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. It is certainly true that there are variations in what is appropriate which are matters of changing fashions and cultures, and vary among social groups.
Bertrand Russell recalled an occasion when his family entertained Gladstone. Lord Russell, Bertrand's father, was away, so when the ladies retired after dinner the 16-year-old Bertrand had to remain with the great man. They drank their port in silence until Gladstone said: 'Damn fine port, but do they need to serve it in sherry glasses?' English etiquette at its finest!
The practice of shaking hands has been affected by Covid-19, and it is a matter for individual judgement whether first names should be used or not. The wearing of ties is also a sartorial convention, perhaps on the way out. But a 'thank you' for a Christmas or birthday present is very much required.
These cases, and many others, may just be examples of changing conventions. But the important point is what lies behind at least some of them. Behind the fashion there may be an attempt not to hurt someone's feelings or to show gratitude. We are all vulnerable and the conventions of behaviour are ways in which we protect ourselves. Manners they may be but to the extent they offer some sort of social protection they are also small morals. There is a second point.
For some years, I had the honour to be the elected Vice-President of Glasgow University Union, at the time when the late great Charles Kennedy was President. There was a convention that at board meetings the members, unusually for students, had to wear jacket and tie. This re-enforced the point that we were dealing with serious business, including large sums of money. What seemed to many students as merely an outdated sartorial convention was really a way of reminding the board members that we were making important decisions. Again, for elderly relatives, the wearing of a tie at a funeral can be a way of showing respect for the elderly. The conventions of dress and behaviour can sometimes have a moral justification.
Matters of the small morals, or manners, do not involve life and death but they can affect our relationship with each other in a third respect. It is easy to trivialise the importance of the passing greetings we may exchange with a neighbour, but such small matters can affect someone's morale. We all tend to be wrapped up in our own problems but the obligation to have a little friendly conversation, say, on the telephone or at a chance meeting can shake us out of our self-obsession and make us aware that there is a world outside our personal concerns.
Matters of etiquette or manners move seamlessly into morality proper in that both involve sets of rules and conventions which have evolved to assist the smooth running of society. Whereas morality proper is concerned with matters of serious harm – physical, mental or financial – small morals exist to minimise hurt feelings or embarrassment. Hobbes' example of tooth-picking is an example of how something physical can be off-putting.
I can easily concede that the conventions of manners change and vary. But behind them there are less variable conventions for the protection of human feelings. I shall call these 'second order' rules of etiquette; they govern the ones which happen to be currently operative.
For example, I was once at a dinner party to welcome a new member of staff. (I'm glad to say it was not my own department.) The young man, perhaps through nervousness, arrived half drunk. That was obviously a case where his conduct had passed from etiquette into morality; it created embarrassment among the guests. But the situation got worse.
The dinner conversation moved to the merits of assorted universities. In a drunken voice, the young lecturer's contribution to the conversation went like this: 'When I was at Oxford I was having an affair with a woman in Cambridge'. Actually, what he did say was dimensionally cruder than I have just quoted but I do not wish to create a problem for our editor so I shall leave his form of words to your fertile imaginations. It was a posh dinner party and his graphic words might well have caused an embarrassed silence. But with no gap at all, the hostess went straight on: 'Now, there's an awfully good train!' Situation saved!
We could ignore the young man and talk about trains. The young lecturer's gross lack of etiquette had been transformed into a manageable situation by the social skill and good manners of the hostess. Manners again had become small morals.
To speak of the social skill of the hostess is to suggest that there is something to be learned. And 'communication skills' is a big industry in the training of assorted professions. But human communication, whether at the dinner table or the clinic, is not mainly, or at all, a matter of 'skills'. It is not a matter of mastering a technique but rather of being a certain kind of person. As J S Mill says: 'It is important not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it'. Experience helps of course. It can enable us to recognise where a conversation might be heading and steer it away if the context is not appropriate.
'Small morals' are not always a matter of saying something. At times, being silent and just being a good companion can be a comfort in a stressful situation. There is nothing more irritable than being the object of someone's 'communication skills' or 'empathy'.
One clue to 'matters of the small morals' (or indeed the larger ones) is to be found not in a book on etiquette but in a comment on manuals of motorcycle maintenance. Robert Pirsig writes:
… it occurred to me that there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.
Caring about what you are doing moves manners into morals.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow