Twenty years ago, Andre Comte-Sponville, a contemporary French philosopher, published a book with the English title — “A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues.” It is a book of moral instruction — each chapter devoted to an exploration of the meaning of one of the traditional virtues (courage, mercy, gratitude). The book’s first chapter however is jarring. It is entitled “Politeness.”
Is politeness a virtue?
Comte-Sponville, drawing on a long philosophic tradition, understands human virtue as “our way of being and acting humanly, in other words . . our power to act well. . . . It is what we also call the moral virtues, those qualities that make one man seem more human – or, as Montaigne would put it, more excellent — than another man. . . . [They are] the dispositions of heart, mind, or character . . . whose presence in an individual tends to increase [our] moral regard for him and whose absence tends to diminish it.”
OK. But what does politeness have to do with morality? Is politeness a quality of “heart, mind or character?” An immoral act done with courtesy and a smile is still immoral. Politeness wants not to disturb or discomfit — even a status quo that is oppressive or corrupt. And, acting out of politeness is sometimes insincere, maybe even deceptive — e.g., requiring hypocritical shows of respect towards those you dislike. If nothing else, the requirement to conform to socially-given rules of decorum stifles the human spirit of innovation.
A long tradition of French thinkers has expressed similar doubts about the value of politesse, or politeness (think Montaigne, Diderot, or Rousseau). Given the elaborate social rituals of French society in the 17th and 18th century, who can say those doubts were misplaced?
In a bow towards that tradition, Comte-Sponville acknowledges that from one point of view, “politeness doesn’t care about morality, and vice versa.” It “changes nothing, and this nothing is the very hallmark of politeness. A virtue of pure form, of etiquette and ceremony! A show of virtue, its appearance and nothing more.”
Nonetheless, he is emphatic that this is a case where appearances do matter! He tells us any conversation about virtue must begin with politeness because politeness “imitates virtue (in adults) and paves the way for it (in children).” If morality is a quality of the soul, “politeness can be likened to a morality of the body, an ethics of comportment.” He argues that only through acting as if we were virtuous do we actually build habits so that we “stand of a chance of becoming virtuous.”
Comte-Sponville begins his argument with Aristotle, who says, in the Nichomachean Ethics, “Moral virtue . . . is formed by habit. . . ., we become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage. Hence it is no small matter whether one habit or another is inculcated in us from early childhood; on the contrary, it makes a considerable difference, or rather, all the difference.”
He then notices that polite acts mimic virtuous acts. Acting politely, he suggests, becomes a training in being virtuous.
When we say, “please” and “excuse me,” we are acting the way we would act if we actually respected our fellows. In holding the door for others we are modeling kindness, acting as if we cared about their burdens and wanted to relieve them; saying “thank you,” is the behavior of someone who is grateful.
When we let others speak and hear them out, we are modeling humility — acting as if we might be wrong and they might have something to teach us. When we tell a child who was accidentally knocked down by another child, “don’t be angry, he didn’t mean it,” we are asking her to show generosity — to give others the benefit of the doubt. As children, politeness instructs. It shows you how the virtuous act. The child may not know why she is supposed to act that way, but acting politely prepares her to act virtuously when her moral reasoning matures.
As adults, developed habits of politeness make it easier for us to treat others the way a virtuous person would. And recent behavioral science supports Conte-Sponville’s thesis. If a particular neural or motor pathway is so frequently followed that the resulting behavior becomes routine we create a behavioral default for ourselves. To engage in that default behavior whenever we are confronted with a similar situation causes less of what psychologist call a “cognitive load” on us than if we have to choose how to act with all choices completely open to us – so we are apt to act the way our years of practice have schooled us.
Thus, a regular regimen of politeness can guide us to be good. It can also guard us. Since we are all prone to being triggered by emotions like anger, envy, and lust, rules of politeness act as guardrails –keeping those emotions from driving us off-track. So, the cultivation of politeness leads us towards virtue.
By contrast, if, rather than being taught to act decorously, children and adolescents have become accustomed to boorish behavior, whether through weak parenting, peer pressure or otherwise (e.g., cursing, boasting, throwing tantrums), those habits of rudeness will exercise a negative pull on their behavior when they become adults.
If this analysis is right, then we should not be surprised by the lack of virtue we see around us. Let me give three examples.
First, over the last several decades, polite conversation has disappeared from the public commons. We have lost the art of civil discourse – listening quietly and with an open mind, assessing the other’s motives generously, and showing respect in our choice of words and tone of voice. Instead, we have a President who mocks his opponents with schoolyard names, a newly-elected House member who publicly calls the President a “mother***” and a daily diet of discourtesy directed towards us by opinion makers over traditional and social media. Is it any wonder that truthfulness has now become less important than winning, that everyone in public life seems angry or that tolerance of those with whom we disagree has almost disappeared?
Lest someone object that one shouldn’t be polite to a tyrant, I remind him that politeness is less about the message than about the mode of its delivery. Every day, judges sentence criminals convicted of heinous crimes and do so in a polite and reserved manner. And anyone familiar with the work of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois or Martin Luther King, Jr. knows that the harshest possible condemnations can be delivered in a dignified fashion — all the more powerful because of the manner in which it is delivered. Compare their denunciations of America’s treatment of African-Americans with the vulgar (as well as vain, misogynist, anti-Semitic and violent) manner in which some of today’s award-winning rappers express themselves.
Is there any question which style has been more effective politically?
As a second example, the public commons is not the only place in which good manners have disappeared. The Baby boomers and their progeny have destroyed traditional limitations on boasting. Two generations ago, ostentatious displays of wealth were viewed as rude and impolite. In the intervening years we have seen the “do your own thing” generation, the “me” generation, and a focus on success above all else (what David Brooks calls resume values over eulogy values).
Now, social media has supercharged our ability to be immodest, e.g., by allowing people to use their Instagram accounts to parade their latest purchases and vacation homes before their social circle. We “humble brag,” a practice by which self-deprecating statements are thinly-veiled boasts. Professional athletes regularly taunt their opponents on national television. The rich and famous live lifestyles that rival those of Roman Emperors in their decadence and profligacy. Once boasting became widely accepted and we lost the virtues of simplicity and humility, is it any surprise that the vices of greed, pride and envy became ascendant?
A final example: In matters of sex and romance, we were long-governed by rules of modesty designed to put a bit of necessary distance between the sexes in order to try to check the libido. In the last quarter century, however, these rules have been largely brushed aside — or perhaps even erased. Sex now plays a central role in courtship, highly personal details of sexual behavior are routinely talked about in public settings, mainstream advertisers fill the streets and storefronts with sexually provocative photographs, dance routines that openly mimic sexual acts have been normalized (Jennifer Lopez and Shakira’s sexually suggestive Superbowl 2020 show was seen by over 100 million viewers), and vulgar sexual slang is a part of everyday conversation. While sexual harassment has had a long and sordid history, isn’t it possible that some portion of the vices highlighted by the #MeToo movement resulted from the decades-long destruction of the guardrails that the traditional rules of sexual decorum previously provided to keep aggressive sexual impulses in check?
I know that some defend what I might call crassness by saying we need to “keep it real.” But each of us is a mix of swirling impulses, some for good and others for ill. Part of what makes us good friends, colleagues, neighbors and citizens is the ability not to be “real” all the time, but rather to treat others — individually or collectively — with the kind of honor and respect that polite behavior embodies. And, despite the drumbeat of our culture to go to extremes, most of us intrinsically understand — whether through natural sentiments of fellow feeling or otherwise — what behaviors respect for others requires.
Some might point out that — despite the cultural trends I point to — the current generation may actually be more altruistic (concerned about wealth inequality and the environment) than previous generations, and that perhaps the ultimate measure of anti-social behavior — crime — is at an all-time low. So, they might argue, politeness is overrated.
But at the same time, the growing cracks in the social fabric — which the moral virtues are there to nurture — are there for all to see in the increasing distrust within and between communities, increasing levels of teen suicides and in drug use among the young.
So, where are we?
No one of us can turn back to the tide of social trends, but each of us can each make a small contribution, by making sure we are modeling in all of our contacts and interactions those simple rules of politeness that we all know — at some level — but have gotten out of the habit of practicing.
One small practice I have developed along these lines is to read out loud each year to my millennial-age children, nephews and nieces, the lyrics of the songs nominated for Best Rap Song of the year. My goal, sometimes successful, is to spark a conversation about how they reconcile their personal ethics with the misogyny, avarice, or violence the song is often celebrating.
Who knows whether this is a waste of time? But at a minimum, everyone gets a good laugh out of my polite effort to find moral meaning, even in our own rude times.
Robert Mass is a PhD candidate in the Philosophy Department at the New School for Social Research.