Ethics of Manners

This has bothered me from my earliest years. When I was little, I never understood the seemingly pointless rules people had to follow called “manners.” I was going to do some research before writing this to make sure I’m not way off base. I also wanted it to be well-researched so that it would be taken seriously. Oh well, I’m more of an impromptu type of person.

I’ve had several experiences in the past couple of weeks that has brought this back into my mind. I tried to read Lynn Truss’ Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door. I became infuriated at how she was confusing and oversimplifying ethical issues to make it sound like the problem was with people’s lack of manners. In fact, I admit I never finished it due to this frustration. The second was with my whole rant on Sam Harris who basically is claiming that upholding manners is causing lots of unnecessary suffering. Let’s be rude! These two things started allowing me to notice manners in the world more.

In the beginning there was the word and according to the definitions are:

2a. “the prevailing customs, ways of living, and habits of a people, class, period.”

3. “a person’s outward bearing; way of speaking to and treating others”

I think that in 2a we immediately see a clash of interest for me. You should always have good reasons to do things. Doing something because it is the way it has always been done is not a good reason. This is why I hate that culturally imposed behavior is so hard to break. Sometimes it is not good. Slavery was socially acceptable at one time. If people hadn’t been “utter bloody rude,” then the practice would still be going on today. OK. So anyone with philosophical training is going to call a red herring on me right about now. I’m examining the definition of manners and I bring up slavery. All I’m trying to say is that according to 2a, manners are a social norm, and in the past social norms have been seen to be unethical. I’ll build the case later that manners are precisely this.

One semi-irrelevant thing to think about is that if manners are a form of ethical conduct, then we have a case of cultural ethical relativism, since every culture has different sets of manners. In fact, some sets of manners are in direct conflict with each other.

Evidence for manners being unethical: 1. they are a form of lying, 2. they are useless and waste people’s time (and hence are ironically rude), 3. they allow people to practice unethical behavior behind an acceptable name.

1. According to definition 3 (I should probably map this out visually for people who are no good at trying to follow where all these numbers are, but that would be polite and thus evidence against my case), manners are a person’s “outward bearing.” There is very explicit intonation there that this is not what the person is truly thinking. Let’s get real. Manners teach us to lie with dignity and in a socially acceptable way. You hate someone’s hair. Manners tells us to not go up to that person and say, “I hate your hair.” We’ll come back to this in 3 (not definition, but evidence 3).

2. Manners are rude. I may have accidentally constructed a zen koan on this one. I think it is rude to waste people’s time. This is probably the general consensus. Well, picture yourself in this common situation. You are passing someone you know. You have nothing to say to them. Manners says that you should be polite and make at least a little small talk. This accomplishes nothing. In fact, usually there are lies exchanged (see 1) such as, “How are you?” “Fine.” It could be the worst day of your life. You will probably say, “fine.” (see the play Wit by Margaret Edson). A few minutes later, you have exchanged absolutely no useful information, and everyone’s time has been wasted. Hmm…seems rude to have wasted that person’s time. What ever happened to that bit of manners that says, “If you have nothing useful to say, don’t say anything at all.” Erm…that’s not quite right, but a little altering of the truth can be polite we’ve already established.

3. This is a bit more serious, so I’ll drop the lighthearted tone. Now I’m talking about respect and human rights. This is where the slavery example comes back. There is a fine line between respecting a culture’s practices and allowing violations of human rights to occur. An example from all over the news recently (I think last week) was that a (the) gay Anglican bishop was not invited to the national conference. There is only one ordained gay Anglican bishop, because it is still technically against policy. The conference was holding debates about whether to allow gay people to be ordained. Don’t you think the only person with first hand experience should be allowed to state an opinion on the issue? So you might not like this example, but it was recent and it could be any of the hundreds of current examples of inequality being practiced somewhere.

We can always find a “proper manners” or respect argument to hide behind. We say that that is their culture, their belief, their faith, and if someone doesn’t like it then they shouldn’t practice that religion. What people don’t realize is that their manners are not saying what they think. If we allow a group of people to say that one type of person is better or worse than another (at a fundamental level), then this is not confined to the group. This is sending a message to what is now a globalized world that this type of practice is acceptable. The time for politeness is over. We can continue to use our excuse that we are being respectful to someone’s beliefs, but it is unethical to hide behind this cultural norm. Good manners are the cause of a lot of needless suffering and inequality.

Conclusion: the practice of good manners is unethical.


10 thoughts on “Ethics of Manners

  1. Don’t confuse good good manners with bad good manners. 🙂 Some customs actually serve the purpose of carrying out the emotional protocols established by evolutionary psychology, like that small talk thing. Doesn’t always work though.

  2. Can you recommend any studies, articles, books, or anything that deal with this? I am very interested…and willing to change my mind. I just haven’t found any convincing arguments, yet, on what purpose manners serves.

  3. Anything on evolutionary psychology. Check the heavy “The psychological foundations of culture” 1992 J Tooby, L Cosmides (online at ); “The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation” is usually recommended, although I didn’t read it. The basic idea to take out of it is to learn recognize many emotional or without-clear-rational-purpose behaviors as adaptations directed towards solving a particular problem in ancestral environment, and hopefully to learn to direct these adaptations to the right track ( ).

  4. Hey, i agree. I’ve always had trouble with the social charade, could be part of the reason i once opted out of the whole thing for awhile. From the outside i began to see new meaning that i had missed before. As language using animals we forget that body language is really what is going on socially and the words are pretty ritualized. Like ants touching antennae, the social contact may be more important than the information exchanged.

    That being said, ethics is cut from the same cloth as manners. One culture’s ethical practice… Like is there a difference between environmentally based ethics and culturally centered ethics? Political and financial ethics?

    Anyway, the practice of manners ties you to a social group… or excludes you, i guess. I’m an old guy. I’ve learned to blend in a bit by practicing the same rules for manners as the rest of the characters that hang out in this New Mexico mountain town… which is next to no manners at all. Here, things like customer service and using your turn signals are considered a sign of weakness.

    And haven’t you noticed, lying is the foundation of both our legal and political systems. Only those willing to lie and back it up with whatever it takes are successful in either. Just like manners, ethics… “…allow people to practice unethical behavior behind an acceptable name.”

    Geez, that got outta hand. 🙂


  5. I’m still a little weary about the evolutionary psychology approach. I feel that, although it may explain how these behaviors got into our practice, it doesn’t explain why we still need them.

    I guess your right that it is impossible to make that claim about manners without admitting that the same exact thing happens under the name ethics. The thing I would argue, though, is that the manners excuse is much easier to use. Even the strictest cultural relativist will draw the line when basic human rights are violated. How many times has a neighbor been peripherally aware that something fishy was going on with a family, but said, “This is none of my business. It is improper for me to interfere in their private life.”?

    I’m assuming by the political stance, you mean that it is ethical to lie there because it is “for a greater good” or something like that. So I guess I should take it down a level. It is often proper manners to lie to your friend, as in it would be improper to share your emotions at a given time and you say that your life is wonderful. There is no real “greater good” here…at least one that would outweigh the lie. At the everyday level I think it is very hard to ethically justify what manners dictates.

  6. I agree. Manners can certainly be unethical. My point is that manners, ethics and human behavior in general require a context to give them validity. For whose “greater good?” The perceived greater good for humanity may not be good at all in an environmental context.


  7. This is why I try to stay away from ethics when posting on philosophy. It is all so slippery. It usually just causes me more distress than gain to think about.

  8. I disagree. If people truly had good manners, i.e. respecting one another’s rights to their own autonomy despite colour or race, and conducted themselves in a way which is mindful not to hurt others…then slavery would never have existed in the first place. Manners keep the peace. They are self-imposed and self-regulated little rules for not hurting one another…and they work if applied properly. Manners are not intended to stop those who have been hurt from speaking up about it, but to prevent the harm in the first place…you know, so we can all “just get along”. What’s wrong with that?

  9. Manners are intended for those who have yet to encounter the need for self-reflection. The sad thing is, most interactive people have reached a point where they have, or are in need of, a change of habits and accepted the perspective of others; not as their own but as though it exists. Will the good manner abiding people awaken to the concept?

  10. I am looking up article for my documentary on this very subject and appreciate your views, you have taken the thoughts right out of my head. thank you for this blog

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