Etiquette gets a bit of a bad rap from philosophers. Part of the blame, I suspect, has to go to Philippa Foot, whose otherwise excellent article, “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives,” famously employed etiquette as an example of a set of norms with which we have only trivial reasons to comply, if any at all. But even apart from Foot’s article, philosophers – especially moral philosophers – seem to have a hard time taking good manners seriously. After all, while morality is thought to consist of principles that are universal and of the utmost seriousness and importance (“Thou shalt not kill,”) the rules of etiquette are quite clearly culturally relative and seem scarcely connected at all with any important considerations of human well-being (“Use the leftmost fork for your salad”).
I can understand why philosophers feel this way. I can maybe even especially understand why libertarians feel this way. After all, we libertarians often feel an intense distaste for authority (or so says Jonathan Haidt). And I suspect that many libertarians – long before they ever even begin to think about politics – chafe at the idea of some advice columnist telling us how to structure the finer points of our private lives. We don’t like being told what to do, not by the state, and not by Miss Manners.
But I think this is a mistake. Or, more accurately, it is a whole cluster of mistakes. 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.
I’m not the first person to note this last point. Fellow libertarian philosopher Loren Lomasky is, like me, an admirer of the great Judith Martin. And in his 1997 Reason Magazine review of one of her books, he makes it clear why. Societies, he argues, need rules to keep people from bumping in too each other too roughly. The state is one potential source of those rules. Morality is another. But we should not, he argues, neglect the importance of etiquette. Especially if, as libertarians, we want to minimize the role of the state as rule-maker and enforcer.
An order of manners substitutes for coercion the authority of custom, for external enforcement self-restraint, for central planning decentralized decision making. Its protocols, euphemisms, and ritual may seem arcane to outsiders, but their effect is to mark off and protect a private domain within which individuals enjoy a limited sovereignty over their own affairs. Rudeness, like big government, is intrusive. And like big government, it is cancerous. Just as the shortcomings of one welfare state program beget another and yet another, so too do thoughtless behavior and rude remarks metastasize. Miss Manners teaches us that “Mind your own business!” is the first principle of good manners. It is also the core of liberal political philosophy.
I would think, moreover, that libertarians would find the topic of good manners theoretically interesting. Manners and etiquette are, after all, kinds of spontaneous orders. And the nature and workings of spontaneous orders is, of course, a subject near and dear to libertarians’ hearts. Libertarians have already taken a keen interest in work like that of Robert Ellickson, who explores how “Order Without Law” can emerge through the customs and informal practices of farmers and cattle ranchers in Shasta County. And there are certainly plenty of interesting philosophical issues in the study of conventions and informal norms. The principles and rules of manners and etiquette seem a natural extension of this research programme.
If you’re interested in thinking more seriously about this, I highly recommend listening to this wonderful interview with Georgetown philosopher Karen Stohr, author of the new book in Routledge’s “Thinking in Action” series, On Manners. One of the more interesting and important distinctions she makes in the course of the interview is the distinction between the more general principles of manners, which counsel us to treat one another with respect, and the more culturally specific rules of etiquette, which Taylor the principles of manners to the specific circumstances of a particular time and place. It’s a fascinating, well-conducted, and truly enlightening conversation that left me wishing it had gone on for far longer than the hour it did. I haven’t read the book yet, but I just downloaded a Kindle version. Really looking forward to it.