Civility and Morality

In a recent post on the blog called ‘Social Justice League,’ an author identified as Rachael took up what I consider an important social issue. She was addressing the potential intersection between civility (which she calls ‘niceness’ and ‘politeness’) and morality (which she calls ‘goodness’ or justness).

Though she opens her article with the claim that it is not the case that civility is a part of social justice, she does not support this claim explicitly. Rather, the central claims that she does support are that “the conflation of […goodness] and […niceness] is a big problem,” and that “being good and being nice are totally unrelated.”

I disagree with all three of these claims, but, for the purposes of keeping this post short, I’ll address only the claims that she defends explicitly.

In support of these central claims, Rachael points out that civility often is cover for interpersonal or systematic social mistreatment, particularly when social classes are at issue. She also asks us to consider that people who are civil often commit immoral acts.

She is right about this much: bad people often put on a show of acting politely. Politicians, subtle bigots, and rude family members are practiced at the art of politesse. Their superficial behaviors often misrepresent their real attitudes, which themselves may not be moral. Furthermore, some social norms have the distinct effect of carrying on and further entrenching social oppression.

So, what is the problem with the argument, if I agree with Rachael’s premises but not her conclusions?

The problem here is that Rachael has confused sufficiency and necessity in her argument. If we grant her premises, we only have support for the claim that civility is not sufficient for moral goodness. In other words, that one is civil does not guarantee that one is moral. On the other hand, that people can be both civil and immoral, or that people can do wrong while being polite, does not undermine the claim that civility is necessary for moral goodness. While she can support the weak claim that civility and moral goodness are not the same thing, she cannot support the strong claim that the two are unrelated – at least, not with the evidence she’s provided.

The real question is – just what is the extent of the relationship between morality and civility?

I tend to think that moral goodness requires some forms of politeness, or civility. In other words, some forms of civility are necessary for goodness. One reason for this is that, even if I think respectful thoughts, I do not communicate that respect by treating someone rudely. Instead, I communicate disrespectful attitudes when I treat someone rudely. I cannot simultaneously be a jerk and act in a morally approbatory manner. Again, in other words, morality requires some demands issued by civility.

This notion is similar to a (stronger) view expressed by Sarah Buss in her 1999 paper “Appearing to be Respectful: The Moral Significance of Manners” (Ethics, Vol. 109 No. 4). In that article, she argues the following:

“When we treat one another politely, we are directly expressing respect for one another in the only way possible. We are, in effect, saying: “I respect you,” “I acknowledge your dignity.” (802)

While Buss makes a stronger claim here than the one I’m making, I think the general idea is on target: we communicate respect by acting civilly toward one another.

While politeness and goodness are not the same, they certainly are not unrelated. One cannot be genuinely moral without observing at least some of the demands of civility and politeness, but being polite does not guarantee one’s being moral.

About Steve Capone

Writer hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah. Interdisciplinary teacher (read: generalist guiding inquiry) at an independent school. Adjunct instructor at a medium sized state school. Lover of learning. Favorite destination: Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany. @CaponeTeaches on Twitter M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007) B.A. Philosophy & English (Washington & Jefferson College 2006
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1 Response to Civility and Morality

  1. Sarah says:

    Yep. You nail it exactly. Treating people respectfully is in itself a moral good.

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