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Enquiry V

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    The Enquirer discovers that she knows some of the ‘Norms of Civility’ dictating how Person 1 ought to behave towards Person 2 in certain typical situations and wonders why these norms are observed and whether it is always good to observe them.

    I have established that I can know a few things about what is good for me and what I ought to do for my own sake. I have also discovered that arriving at reasonable decisions about what to do in my own self-interest under conditions of uncertainty requires attention both to actual features of the world and of myself and to scrutiny of my own cares and concerns for their appropriateness.

    Whenever I have to make a decision about a practical matter of self-interest—because ‘doing nothing’ is tantamount to making a decision—I ought to do what is reasonable even when I do not know exactly what is most reasonable—e.g. paying £X/pw for a flat as opposed to £X + £1/pw. To decide what to do, I ought to seek out information about what usually happens in situations like mine and to people like me when various alternative courses of action are pursued. I have to interrogate myself as to whether I have as much factual information as I need to make a reasonable decision and whether I care about the things I ought to care about. This introduces an element of indeterminacy—any decision can be regretted. Still, it would be absurd to say that no one can ever make a good decision about what it is in their self-interest to do. Further, good prudential decisions are not maximally cautious decisions. It is surely worth risking some degree of regret in case there is a reasonable chance of things working out in my interest. For I may also regret not having acted more boldly and not having taken on more risk. And some regret may be irrational, just as guilt can be irrational.

    My reasoning has also persuaded me that I can know a few things about what is good for other people and what they ought to do for their own sakes. Most people who care about their health and appearance (though perhaps not all) should quit smoking. Most people ought to save for the future and extricate themselves from intimate relationships with people who do not care about them. Accordingly, when I declare, knowing that my friend James is seriously near-sighted, that ‘James ought to get glasses,’ adding that doing so will enable him to enjoy films more, I am not simply expressing a certain feeling I have when I think about James’s optical situation. I am not merely holding up a placard expressing my preference for James to get glasses. I am also expressing my understanding of a causal relationship between enjoying films and good vision and my knowledge of how James likes to spend his evenings. Of course James might get glasses and then discover that he is not really as keen on the cinema as he formerly thought. Or perhaps, after he gets glasses, the film industry might deteriorate seriously, and there would be no more good films to see. But I think I can still claim to know what James ought to do. It can be an evaluative fact that it would be good for James to get glasses, a fact that glasses will be good for James.

    But can I ever know, not how I or someone else ought to proceed in order to make things better for themselves, but how Person 1 ought to treat Person 2? If I can sometimes know this in the general case, I can know, at least sometimes, how I, as Person 1, ought to treat Person 2, when Person 2 and I are in a certain types of situation in which normative questions about what ought to be done, or what it is right or wrong to do, arise. Perhaps I can even know how I ought to treat Person 2 in morally significant situations. But as I am not sure at this stage what a ‘morally significant’ situation is, I shall postpone consideration of that question.

    It occurs to me that I do know certain things of this type. For example, I maintain that I know that:

    If Person 1, who is lost in a large city, politely asks Person 2 the way to the nearest bus stop, and if Person 2 knows the answer and is not in a desperate hurry on account of some pressing business or some emergency, Person 2 ought to tell Person 1 the way to the nearest bus stop.

    Failure to answer Person 1’s question on the part of Person 2 would be ‘unkind’ or ‘rude.’ If I were Person 1, I would be affronted if I had good reason to believe that Person 2 knew the answer to my question and was brushing me off. I would experience the brush off as a violation of what might be called an ‘ought of civility’ or a ‘Norm of Civility.’ I hesitate to say that it would be a violation of a a ‘ought of morality’ or of a Norm of Morality as I have not yet decided what morality is all about. Yet this Norm of Civility may have some relation to moral oughts, as reflected in the phrase ‘manners and morals’ and the Latin term mores covering customs in general.10 So, pressing onwards, here are some further Norms of Civility that I think I know:

    If Person 1 is a guest in Person 2’s house, then, upon departure, Person 1 ought to thank Person 2 for entertaining and feeding them.

    If Person 1 is a guest in Person 2’s house and it is late and Person 2 begins to yawn, Person 1 ought to go home.

    Further, it seems to me that I can lay down the following as general truths about how things ‘ought to go’ in Host-Guest situations when Guest comes to a meal prepared by Host:

    Host ought to show appreciation for Guest’s coming to visit.

    Host ought to try to ensure that Guest has an enjoyable meal in comfortable surroundings.

    Guest ought to try to entertain and amuse Host.

    Guest ought to show appreciation for Host’s efforts.

    Perhaps just to be on the safe side, I should put ‘normally’ or ‘usually’ after the main verbs in each sentence, as I can imagine some exceptions to these generalisations. Normally, Guest should show appreciation for Host’s efforts.

    It seems to me in any case that I know all these things, and that I was taught them or learned them by watching the behaviour of other people and the effects it had. Knowing that Host and Guest ought to do these things seems tantamount to knowing how to behave as a Host or a Guest.

    Where the Norms of Civility are concerned, there seems to be a great deal of room both for local convention and for improvisation. Local convention and time of day will determine whether Host should offer Guest a cup of coffee, a cup of tea, or an alcoholic drink. The ways in which Guest tries to entertain Host will depend on Guest’s imagination, recent experiences, and sense of humour. Host will typically devote some thought to coming up with an interesting menu, which will usually contain ingredients that are mostly recognizable to Guest. Snake or snails will usually be on the menu only if Host is fairly certain of Guest’s enjoyment of these delicacies.

    Other situations in which Person 1 and Person 2 interact require the intelligent appreciation of Person 2’s likely state of mind and needs if the Norms of Civility are to be observed. Take the Strangers on a Train (or these days, the Strangers on a Plane) situation. How ought a seatmate to be treated? This seems to depend on many factors—the ages of Person 1 and Person 2, the difference in their ages, their apparent receptivity to conversation, and their overall state of mind—relaxed or tense. If Person 2 pulls out a sheaf of papers and begins to study them intently, it is a violation of the Norms of Civility for Person 1 to begin to ask Person 2 personal questions. If there is severe turbulence in the air and Person 2 appears distressed, it is civil for Person 1 to say something reassuring. If Person 1 finds Person 2 attractive and wants to start up a conversation and Person 2 pulls out a novel Person 1 has recently read, it is not uncivil for Person 1 to comment briefly on the book.

    The Norms of Civility accordingly reflect the needs, desires, and states of mind of Persons 1 and 2. The response of Person 2 to Person 1’s overture will reflect Person 2’s grasp of Person 1’s intentions and assessment of them. There are ‘scripts’ but also deviations from them. Sometimes a violation of a Norm of Civility such as asking nosy questions or interrupting someone’s concentration on a task will be resented and a rebuff issued; at other times, it will be tolerated.

    It occurs to me in this connection that when I initially decided to doubt all my evaluative beliefs, I did not consider that I knew how to do certain things in addition to knowing that certain things were the case. I believed that I knew how to rewire a lamp, how to make a cake, how to fill in a tax return. I also believed that I knew how not to do certain things—the ‘wrong way’ to rewire a lamp by attaching the green ground wire to one of the poles, and the ‘wrong way’ to bake a cake, namely at 220°C. I thought I could distinguish between a well-baked, tasty, elegant cake and a burnt, underdone, tasteless, or shapeless one. So when setting all my evaluative beliefs aside, I should have doubted that I knew how to do anything properly, correctly, elegantly, or efficiently, and that anyone else knew how to do anything properly, correctly, elegantly, or efficiently either. I should have supposed that we merely have the feeling or impression that we know how to do things as they should be done or are best done.

    However, the assumption that no one really knows how to do anything well seems implausible. I get constant feedback from the world that tells me whether I know how to do something and how to do it well. My constantly falling off and scraping my knees is information that I do not know how to ride a bicycle, or not well. My receiving a bad electric shock is information that I do not know how to do simple home wiring. My shoelaces constantly coming undone is information that I do not know how to choose shoes or shoelaces or how to tie good knots. By contrast, if I know how to ride a bicycle, I can cycle everywhere speedily without mishap. If I know how to bake a cake, I will likely receive compliments on my baking. This negative and positive feedback convinces me of what I do and do not know how to do.

    A grasp of the Norms of Civility implies the knowledge of how to do certain things, mainly in one-to-one encounters. The personal interactions involved are rule-governed but somewhat flexible ‘practices’—games of a sort. I can take personal satisfaction in the exercise of skill—social polish—in much the same way as I can take satisfaction in having mastered and being able to apply the rules of chess and poker. I am aware that I have mastered these roles somewhat imperfectly; my manners are not altogether smooth, and I make blunders from time to time, as I observe others do. There are norms I cannot be expected to have mastered. I do not know how to behave with perfect correctness as a guest in the home of a Chinese family.

    Knowing how to behave civilly towards others, it occurs to me, involves feedback mechanisms, both positive and negative, that are analogous to the feedback I receive in attempting other practical tasks. By mastering the norms, I am able to participate in the common forms of human life, and to receive the rewards of sociability and avoid the misery of social exclusion and the pain of criticism. The way others treat me should persuade me that I know or do not know how to behave as a guest in my local culture or in some other culture. If I go as a Guest to a dinner party in my own city and sit like a stick the entire evening, I may never be invited back. If as a Host my food is carelessly prepared and not very tasty, my further invitations may be declined. So it is that I slowly learn the norms of civility and how to behave when I am Person 1 or Person 2. My expectations of how Person 1 ought to behave towards me are formed as well, and I become puzzled or annoyed if they are unfulfilled.

    I can nevertheless ask myself ‘What reason do I have to adhere to the Norms of Civility? Why play the games, why master these rules at all? Am I not free to fail to show appreciation as Guest, or provide good food as Host, or do any of the other things that Hosts and Guests ought to do, such as leaving when my Host appears tired?’ For these things will cost me some effort: good food is expensive and takes time and trouble to prepare. Perhaps the evening went badly, and I did not enjoy Host’s presence; it will be emotionally difficult as Guest to show appreciation.

    I need to distinguish, however, between two very different questions:

    1. Why ought I to conform to any Norm of Civility ever?
    2. Why, in this particular case, ought I to conform to this particular Norm of Civility?

    The first question did not occur to me in connection with the norms of self-interest. I didn’t have to wonder why I should ever do what it is in my interest to do. However, where question 1 is concerned, I believe there are some exceptional people whose life situation is such that they have no reason to confirm to any Norms of Civility, ever, and they are not motivated to conform either. Such people have no desire ever to play such roles as Stranger on a Train or Host and Guest. They see no point in mastering the routines required. If I am a Happy Hermit, content with my own society and perhaps that of my domestic animals and the wildlife around me, there is no reason for me to learn and practice the Norms of Civility. If I am an Unhappy Hermit who, on account of madness or some grave psychological condition, is unable to master them, there would seem to be no point in my trying to do so because I could not possibly succeed.

    The second question, however, did occur to me in connection with the norms of self-interest. The fact that something is in my interest to do can help to explain why I ought to do it, and it normally constitutes a reason in favour of my doing it. However, there may be things it is in my self-interest to do that I ought not to do.11 Filching and lying can be advantageous to my interests if they are performed undetectably. As a postman or postwoman, I could decide to bin a small parcel at the nearest bus stop rather than walking through a cold rain to deliver it. The reasons I can cite to myself for doing things need not be decisive reasons and they may or may not be associated with motivations to do the thing. For a reason to do something can co-exist with many reasons not to do it, and with conflicting motivations, such as the feeling that it would be disgraceful to bin an inconvenient parcel.

    I can think of several reasons why I might disregard the usual rules of Host-Guest behaviour in a particular case or be unable to live up to them. Imagine that as Host, I have just received some terrible news and am so distracted that I fail to look after my Guests. Or that as Guest, I find that I have been invited to the home of a sadist who embarrasses and ridicules me for the first hour. I would be justified in departing abruptly and without thanks. Or maybe I am a gauche ten year old who has not yet learned how to behave. If I never take public transportation, I may never have learned the conventional behaviour of Strangers on a Train, and I don’t need to know it.

    Or what if I simply think a norm is stupid and inconvenient? Suppose I just hate writing thank-you letters for birthday presents and believe such letters to be frequently insincere, though I know it is expected of me in my culture? Suppose I just don’t do it. There is a risk that people will stop giving me birthday presents, or reproach me with ingratitude, but I may be willing to assume that risk.

    I may know or believe that I can get away with unconventional behaviour. Perhaps people are loving and forgiving and will give me birthday presents anyway. Perhaps I am such a celebrity that people will perform the Guest or Host role to my benefit despite my performing my part abysmally. As a Great Man, I might sit like a stick all evening, refusing to be drawn into conversation, either because I am shy or because I have contempt for the others and know that my presence will be prized no matter what I do. Or if I am a Spectacular Beauty and Wit, I might decide to violate the Norms of Civility by interrupting the work of the busy stranger next to me in case I find him or her intriguing and attractive. I am taking the risk of a serious rebuff, but it might be one I have decided is worth it. In all of these cases, my behaviour is explicable.

    The Shy Great Man, I think, has not rejected the norms of Host-Guest behaviour—he is simply incapable of living up to them. His behaviour is neither reasonable nor unreasonable. By contrast, the Arrogant Great Man and the Spectacular Beauty and Wit have calculated the likelihood of social punishment and decided to go ahead. The Arrogant Great Man derives personal satisfaction from his arrogance and Spectacular Wit and Beauty hopes for a bit of flirtation. Their norm-violating behaviour does not strike me as ‘irrational,’ and perhaps not even as ‘unreasonable’ But it can be ‘annoying’ and carries some risk.

    So the answer to question 2, why I should conform to particular Norms of Civility on particular occasions, even when there is some reason not to do so, can, I think, take one of the following forms:

    Because I can avoid risk, annoyance, and social punishment by living up to the norm

    Because I am able to live up to the norm without much trouble

    Because the other person is playing their part appropriately

    If none of these things is the case, I have no reason, it seems to me, to observe a Norm of Civility, though I may do so out of habit.

    So far, then, I have established that in human life there are certain conventions dictating how Person 1 ought to behave towards Person 2 when they are occupying particular social roles and that there are reasons for observing them. I learn these norms through practice, imitation, instruction, and social feedback. Other people’s mastery of these norms may be different from mine. And the particular forms these conventions take will vary from society to society: burping shows appreciation for a meal in some cultures; in others it is considered rude. A thank-you note or a telephone call may be expected or not expected after a visit, etc. But insofar as I am neither a Happy Hermit nor an Unhappy Hermit, I am satisfied that there are things I ought to do that are different from those that are directly in my self-interest. I think I have established that:

    1. There are ways that Hosts and Guests or Strangers on a Train ought and ought not to behave whenever they encounter one another. These are the Norms of Civility.
    2. The reason for someone to act in accordance with Norms of Civility in general is that it is generally rewarding and easy to take part in human society, though a Happy Hermit may find satisfaction outside of it, and an Unhappy Hermit might be incapable of participating.
    3. There can nevertheless be a good reason to disregard a particular Norm of Civility in a particular case.

    I can therefore be confident that there are good reasons to observe the Norms of Civility whenever there are no special reasons not to do so. My social life will be made easier and more pleasant if I do than if I don’t. To understand the nature of the ‘oughts’ of self-interest, I had to consider such notions as: ‘needs,’ ‘comforts,’ ‘bad outcomes,’ ‘likelihoods,’ ‘available knowledge,’ and ‘reasonable concerns.’ To understand the nature of the Norms of Civility, I have to consider such notions as: ‘practices,’ ‘skills,’ ‘social roles,’ ‘social rewards and punishments,’ ‘the expectations of others,’ and ‘hermits.’

    I no longer suppose that my beliefs that there are things I ought to do and states of affairs that are better for me have arisen only because I have been brainwashed by the warning placards waved by others, who were coerced in turn by placards written and waved about merely because someone else felt strongly about them and wanted others to conform. But how shall I apply what I have discovered to morality? Morality, like civility, appears to concern relations between Person 1 and Person 2. At least this is how I understood it when I decided to assume a sceptical posture towards morality. At the same time, moral relations strike me as rather different from the formal relations of Host-Guest manners. And there are at least three reasons why morality might be very different from civility.

    For one thing, I appreciate that the Norms of Civility are local. Knowing how to behave in my home city does not ensure that I know how to behave in other countries, or other regions, or other subcultures. What is appropriate there, such as the Host’s apologising about the poor quality of the food, or burping on the part of the appreciative Guest, may not be so here and vice-versa. Further, there is no reason for me to learn and to conform to the Norms of Civility of another culture or subculture if I do not interact with its members and have no aspirations to do so. Conformity is optional and depends on my curiosity, my interest in getting along in the culture, or my needing to do so.

    The way I have always thought of morality before I decided to doubt everything was that morality was universal and applied to everyone regardless of their culture or region. Morals, I thought, involved a higher form of ‘ought’ than manners, and they were not optional. Whether to conform to morality, I thought, didn’t depend on whether I was interested in participating in the morality system or needed to do so to avoid being ostracised. So perhaps I need to rethink this old assumption. Perhaps morals are relative to times, places, cultures, and subcultures and are optional. Or perhaps morality really does have the features I naively supposed it to and is different from manners.

    A second feature that puzzles me in thinking about how the norms of civility might be like or unlike the norms of morality is the role of experts. There are experts in manners who write books and columns about how to behave in polite society. I can pretty much take their word for it about what is strictly correct in many sorts of interactions. Of course sometimes the experts admit that there is no established norm, or they suggest a new norm. The presence of former spouses at weddings is a question about a Norm of Civility. Fifty years ago, it would have been considered atrocious taste and very bad manners to issue or to accept such an invitation. Today some people might think it rude to exclude a former spouse from the guest list. But I don’t see morality as working in the same way, with experts telling us exactly how to behave in a range of concrete situations. Can moral experts suggest new moral norms and put their weight behind them?

    A third feature that concerns me is that the reasons I have identified for acting in accord with particular Norms of Civility, and for respecting the Norms of Civility of my Culture in general, were based on the relative lack of effort required and the rewards and satisfactions for me of mastering the skills involved. But morality, as I formerly understood it, is not a system of rules that is easy and pleasurable to master; indeed, it can be painful and detrimental to my self-interest to act morally. It will not be so easy, I fear, to find reasons for observing the Norms of Morality, either in the general or in the particular case.

    I will defer these questions until I have arrived at a better understanding of what makes an interaction between two people morally significant.

    This page titled Enquiry V is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Wilson (Open Book Publishers) .

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