Monday, April 4, 2011

You Ought to Ask Nicely: The Moral Core of Etiquette

Image from Legal Juice
Etiquette is a funny thing. We all act according to rules of etiquette, and are often somewhat offended if someone breaks them in our presence. At the same time, we've all run up against rules of etiquette foreign to us, and these often seem utterly alien, at times even offensive. I'll often eat with my elbows on the table, but from time to time I do so in the presence of someone brought up in a context in which that is not done. This experience of something being a thing we ought to do, combined with the realization of great variance in codes isn't something exclusive to etiquette.

On the one hand, the rules of etiquette seem to function something like a game. In games there are rules, you follow those rules so that the game is a good one, and infractions are a great offense. If I'm playing chess and I try and move my bishop forward horizontally, I'm breaking the rules of chess (at that point it might be questionable if I'm even playing chess anymore). Yet, etiquette seems importantly different than a game. Games have fixed points of beginning and ending. Outside of the game, one isn't held to their rules. No one forces the chess-playing Bishop to always move diagonally. Conversely, etiquette is a game all society plays.1

Yet, we generally seem to think etiquette is quite different on the other end from morality. There is a huge gap between "You ought to ask nicely" and "You ought not kill strangers." Though we vary on this, most people think that a prohibition against murder or slavery goes beyond society. If a society institutionalizes slavery, it has committed a moral infraction. It hardly seems possible for a whole society to breach etiquette.

So etiquette seems bigger than a game, and smaller than a moral law. It tells us things we should do, but those things often seem utterly arcane. To some, this means etiquette is at best a nuisance and at worst tyrannical fraud.

Why should we be polite?

I believe that there is a moral core to etiquette. Etiquette is a kind of language, specifically, it is a language that says "I respect you." This can work itself out in all kinds of ways, from not swearing to not putting your elbows on the table. The "grammar" of this language is always changing. You do violence to etiquette when you refuse not to swear in front of grandma, but you also do violence to it when you put it in a book and insist that these are the rules of polite society that you must always follow.

There's a darker side to etiquette though. The language of respect can become a language of despotism. Etiquette is good when the respect is equal, but it can set up one individual to be inherently over the other. It is this kind of etiquette that says the southern black man must always sit in the back of the bus. When etiquette becomes this it has subverted its purpose, it has become a moral monstrosity instead of a sign of respect.

You ought to follow etiquette, but do so only insofar as it shows respect. If etiquette in turn becomes a tool for bondage, throw it off. 
1. There are "mini societies" that have their own etiquette, such as clubs.