Manners, morality, coordination, and order

Lynne Kiesling

Sarah’s post here on manners (including her Freeman essay and Matt Zwolinski’s BHL post) and Mike’s observations on them open up a great discussion about the importance of seemingly superficial informal norms for enabling us to live together and generate civil society. Mike’s absolutely right that the road to anarchy is paved with good manners, and that how we live together in society is through a web of institutions. Those institutions need not be formal, and they need not include what we identify as a “state”, and yet it’s possible to live together harmoniously. Anarchy is the absence of a state, not the absence of institutions or of order.

I want to riff off of one of Mike’s insights; in a comment on Sarah’s manners post he observes that “… 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, …” I associate this idea first and foremost with David Hume, who argues that our morality arises from our sentiments, not from our reason. While sentiments can be shared and common across humans who live in different environments and cultures (thus leading to the consistent moral treatment of murder, for example, across different societies), they can also differ in some dimensions, so Hume makes an ethical subjectivist argument.

Hume’s argument leads to a couple of insights that I think are related to Mike’s and Sarah’s posts. Hume’s empiricism and ethical subjectivism clearly influenced his friend Adam Smith, who made related arguments in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith combined two important empirical observations about humans that affect how we live together and form civil society — our behavior is grounded in our desire for sympathy (fellow feeling with others) and mutual sympathy (that feeling, right back atcha), which induces us to reflect on our behavior, and we are all individuals (I’m not. — Sssssh) who are diverse and heterogeneous in our desires and plans for how to thrive. How do we reconcile those different, and potentially conflicting, individual desires and plans with our desires for sympathy and mutual sympathy? We reflect on our behavior and our inner spectator judges and evaluates our behavior for how well it comports with generating sympathy and mutual sympathy. This is the internal process that disciplines our actions as we strive to maximize our well-being. Here’s the important point, though: it’s a process of coordination, of harmonization, not of a uniformity in which we all behave exactly the same way. We don’t have to all behave the same way or do the same things, or as Mike says, take actions that all conform to all moral rules in every way. But if we share a core set of moral rules that enable us to coordinate our actions and plans (don’t steal, don’t cheat, don’t murder, honor your contracts, honor your promises), even though we are all different, then we will best be able to thrive economically and sentimentally (I mean that in the Humean/Smithian sense, not the modern sense).

The other important thing that Mike’s point raises and that Hume and Smith lead to is the idea that moral rules can evolve and change over time as our environments and sentiments change. This is where, in my mind, Hayek picks up from Hume and Smith. Moral rules adapt and evolve over time, and those that have emerged over time as evolutionary robust (in the sense that they enable us to live together and thrive economically and sentimentally in civil society) become  more codified and more formal. Those that do not stand the test of time as our sentiments change erode, or are removed through conflict (violent or nonviolent). This institutional evolution model is one way to think about women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, the evolution toward codification of same-sex marriage, and so on.

Even seemingly superficial actions such as adherence to a core set of manners contribute to this coordination, this harmonization. Good manners are a decentralized system for coordination and harmonization across people with diverse goals and interests. But our sentiments evolve over time, so good manners in 1811 in Regency England and good manners in 21st century US have some similarities and some differences. Even so, they enable us to coordinate and harmonize to mutual benefit.

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