We Miss Manners


Sarah Skwire

So Matt Zwolinski and I had a fun moment last week when we more or less simultaneously published on more or less the same topic. This either means that Matt and I need to get out more, or it means that we’re on to something. I’m going for the latter explanation. And all available evidence suggests that Matt will agree with me.

And even if he doesn’t agree with me, I know he’ll be polite about it. Matt and I both have civility on our minds.

In the current issue of The Freeman, in a piece called Reading Each Other I argue that the humanities are a useful educational tool for practicing the skill of sympathy that is a vital underpinning for the civil society. “When we’re practiced in sympathy, it is easier for us to notice “what is not seen.” When we have tried, over and over again, to put ourselves into others’ places and to see the world from where they are standing, we’re better people, living in a more civil world. …Because our children have read, and have had read to them, stories that help them think about the perils of greed, or the importance of kindness, or the dangers of drinking from bottles marked “Drink me”  they will grow up to be more considerate and more careful of themselves and others.

And over at BHL, Matt has a post called “Libertarianism and Good Manners” that argues that, “It is a mistake, first of all, to think about rules regarding the location of forks as paradigmatic of manners and etiquette. It is a mistake, too, to suppose that there is no important distinction to be made between the rules of etiquette and the principles of manners. And it is a mistake for libertarians, especially, to disdain all this business as the stuff of authoritarian busy-bodies.” Matt also, intriguingly, suggests thinking of manners as a kind of spontaneous order–an approach I like a great deal.

Why the confluence of topics? Well, there are a lot of reasons to be irritated right now. It’s hot. There’s a drought. The power is out all over the place. The government has gone and done something stupid again. It’s only July 2nd, and people are already setting off fireworks late at night and waking the kids up. That means it’s a good time to think about civility and manners. It’s a good time to take a deep breath and remind ourselves to ask “What would Miss Manners do?”

6 thoughts on “We Miss Manners

  1. Sarah, language as well as manners can be thought of as ‘spontaneous orders’ and in this frame of mind grammar and etiquette can be compared. In both cases there are rules of a sort which can guide the interested person toward making good choices, but it is also a mistake to insist that every statement (action) conform to every rule in every case.

    And in an effort to offend the sensibilities of any Objectivist reader, I’ll go ahead and say morality, too, is a spontaneous order kind of system with many rules, and yet it is a mistake to insist that every action conform to every rule of morality in every case. In fact I’d say it is impossible to make every action conform to every rule of morality, since some choices present us with trade-offs among competing values and to honor one requires us to sacrifice another. (Yes, in some cases it is moral for Heinz to steal the medicine for his sick wife.)

  2. Michael–

    I wonder if you have the same passage of Theory of Moral Sentiments in mind that I do?

    “The rules of justice may be compared to the rules of grammar; the rules of the other virtues, to the rules which critics lay down for the attainment of what is sublime and elegant in composition. The one, are precise, accurate, and indispensable. The other, are loose, vague, and indeterminate, and present us rather with a general idea of the perfection we ought to aim at, than afford us any certain and infallible directions for acquiring it. A man may learn to write grammatically by rule, with the most absolute infallibility; and so, perhaps, he may be taught to act justly. But there are no rules whose observance will infallibly lead us to the attainment of elegance or sublimity in writing; though there are some which may help us, in some measure, to correct and ascertain the vague ideas which we might otherwise have entertained of those perfections. And there are no rules by the knowledge of which we can infallibly be taught to act upon all occasions with prudence, with just magnanimity, or proper beneficence: though there are some which may enable us to correct and ascertain, in several respects, the imperfect ideas which we might otherwise have entertained of those virtues.”

    I think this passage becomes increasingly insightful when one remembers what you just said about grammar/language as spontaneous and emerging orders. That makes Smith’s point about justice both deeper and more subtle (and I think more accurate) and gives us another way to distinguish types of rules about language and etiquette. Literary styles or schools of literature have their own rules, created in top down fashion. Those often calcify, and the style/school dies out. Grammar rules, however, evolve to do a precise job with great accuracy and continue to evolve as the job changes.

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