Manners, Morals, and Political Correctness

Are manners and morals essentially the same?  Are manners merely "small morals," as Thomas Hobbes defines them?  Or is there a fundamental distinction?

Moral philosophy is about our understanding of virtue or righteousness.  Manners, on the other hand, focus upon public or political behavior.  We might draw the distinction between manners and morals by stating that manners are instrumental behaviors while morals are existential.  One might differentiate them by pointing out that manners are social behaviors subject to place and time.  Manners govern actions.  Morals, on the other hand, define how we "ought" to interact.

Since what we do is connected to why we should do it, manners and morals were investigated by both social scientists and philosophers.  Aristotle described manners as "practical wisdom" as opposed to philosophical wisdom.  Practical or political wisdom is devoted to man's self-interest or what is good for the individual.  But what is good for the individual must be evaluated against what is good in general.  Practical wisdom is about how a man may obtain something that is good for him.  Philosophical wisdom seeks to understand what is good.

Much of our moral awareness derives from our perceptions of what feels good.  That is why David Hume argues that we determine virtue or vice by how we feel rather than what we think.  Despite a common perceptual origin, morals and manners have developed differently.  While we may see moral intentions in a display of good manners, it is often the case that politeness as we observe in politics and diplomacy is little more than lying, obfuscating a darker intention.

We want to believe that we are basically good.  We cannot remember meeting anyone who perceived himself as evil.  There remains, as Isaiah pointed out, a profound moral confusion – people "calling good evil and evil good."  The objective of philosophy is to subject to rational analysis each contention of morality.  But since Hume was right, and people determine virtue and vice by the measure of their feelings, an objective or universal code must be found.

In response to the confusion between emotion and reason, the Hebrews handed down an apodictic moral code.  It became clear that man could not reason right from wrong.  Yet, as we know, such a code engraved in stone was far from empowering.  Jeremiah, for example, realized that man would remain "morally challenged" until that code could be internalized and rewritten upon the "tablets of the heart."

The objective of education was to instill a passion for justice or righteousness, alongside that passion for those things that make us feel good.  Man, as the rabbinic sages would say, is endowed with a good passion (yetzer tov) as well as an evil imagination (yetzer ha-rah).  The passion for righteousness is the bedrock of moral theory.  Clearly, this "passion" was contrived; it was implanted by study and education based upon role-modeling.

Both the Greeks and the Jews believed that reason might temper passion.  Goodness and justice are actually what Hume would describe as the artificial virtues that can be attained only through knowledge and critical thinking.  It was also subject to persuasive arguments, which are usually connected to our feelings.  Although what feels good is not always good, it usually is persuasive.

Political correctness has taken root because it validates an emotional approach to vice and virtue.  If some idea, word, argument, or even symbol makes one feel uncomfortable, it is bad.  Further, these days it constitutes a "micro-aggression" and imposes a subsequent censorship.  The very notion of a "micro-aggression" subverts the larger ideal of "freedom of speech."

Political correctness constitutes a worldview in which manners supersede morals in governing social relationships.  An illustration of this is the establishment of "safe spaces" and the exploration of "micro-aggressions," which imply that the subjectivity and lability of one's feelings are of greater concern that human integrity.  In a free society, we are obligated to allow those with whom we disagree to state their "disagreeable" opinions rather than be censored.

Prejudice is an ugly but genuine aspect of the human experience.  How will one learn to correct those prejudices without being forthright about them?  How will we reach truth if we cannot examine differing opinions about the facts we have at hand in the crucible of passionate debate?

Political correctness argues that politeness and sympathy are fundamental to human interaction.  What seems or "feels" right differs from what is right.  That is why so many think of manners as deceptively superficial.  Political correctness seems to have blurred the lines between sensitivity to one's feelings and acknowledgment of right and wrong.  If a Jewish student on an American campus were to wear a Star of David, any Muslim student can claim "microaggression."  Imagine the response of campus administrators if a Jewish student were to allege that some Muslim student's hijab is a "micro-aggression."

It would seem that political correctness, like manners or practical wisdom, is nothing more than a political instrument.  Because morality is derived primarily from sentiment rather than reason, it must be reviewed by logic and argument.  The natural virtues of honesty, ambition, generosity, gratitude, and courage constitute good manners.  Natural virtues are derived from sentiment, and since feelings are malleable, they can be corrupted into vices, which are also determined by emotions.

Manners are about the appearance of good taste and morals.  Appearance becomes definitive.  Cicero, in his essay on friendship, wrote that "few are those who wish to be endowed with virtue rather than to seem so."  Manners often may be an extension of our morality.  But, at other times, manners are employed to disguise ourselves and our intentions.

Esse quam videri (to be rather than to seem) remains the cry of the politically incorrect.  Unfortunately, our universities, our institutions of governance, and even our houses of worship have become echo chambers of political correctness – of appearance rather than substance.  How do we explain this?

Sympathy may be a genuine experience of standing in someone else's shoes.  Or it may actually be a bit more complicated.  How do we distinguish between sympathy and what Melanie Klein describes as the psychological mechanism of projective identification?  One situation implies allowing an individual to believe that he feels what another feels; the other is the delusional belief that they are one.

Politeness is a virtue that consists of a deception because it masks our actual feelings and thoughts.  Politeness is essential to social interaction.

The challenge before us is to carefully distill our morals from our manners.  Political correctness stifles open inquiry by choosing sentiment over reason as the hallmark of acceptable behavior.  In other words, hurting someone's feelings is a greater sin than perpetuating a falsehood.  Lies, however, constitute the grammar of tyranny.  Truth, as awkward as it may be, remains the bulwark against the mental slavery that precedes the kind of political tyranny the world knows so well.

Image credit: Joel Kramer.

Are manners and morals essentially the same?  Are manners merely "small morals," as Thomas Hobbes defines them?  Or is there a fundamental distinction?

Moral philosophy is about our understanding of virtue or righteousness.  Manners, on the other hand, focus upon public or political behavior.  We might draw the distinction between manners and morals by stating that manners are instrumental behaviors while morals are existential.  One might differentiate them by pointing out that manners are social behaviors subject to place and time.  Manners govern actions.  Morals, on the other hand, define how we "ought" to interact.

Since what we do is connected to why we should do it, manners and morals were investigated by both social scientists and philosophers.  Aristotle described manners as "practical wisdom" as opposed to philosophical wisdom.  Practical or political wisdom is devoted to man's self-interest or what is good for the individual.  But what is good for the individual must be evaluated against what is good in general.  Practical wisdom is about how a man may obtain something that is good for him.  Philosophical wisdom seeks to understand what is good.

Much of our moral awareness derives from our perceptions of what feels good.  That is why David Hume argues that we determine virtue or vice by how we feel rather than what we think.  Despite a common perceptual origin, morals and manners have developed differently.  While we may see moral intentions in a display of good manners, it is often the case that politeness as we observe in politics and diplomacy is little more than lying, obfuscating a darker intention.

We want to believe that we are basically good.  We cannot remember meeting anyone who perceived himself as evil.  There remains, as Isaiah pointed out, a profound moral confusion – people "calling good evil and evil good."  The objective of philosophy is to subject to rational analysis each contention of morality.  But since Hume was right, and people determine virtue and vice by the measure of their feelings, an objective or universal code must be found.

In response to the confusion between emotion and reason, the Hebrews handed down an apodictic moral code.  It became clear that man could not reason right from wrong.  Yet, as we know, such a code engraved in stone was far from empowering.  Jeremiah, for example, realized that man would remain "morally challenged" until that code could be internalized and rewritten upon the "tablets of the heart."

The objective of education was to instill a passion for justice or righteousness, alongside that passion for those things that make us feel good.  Man, as the rabbinic sages would say, is endowed with a good passion (yetzer tov) as well as an evil imagination (yetzer ha-rah).  The passion for righteousness is the bedrock of moral theory.  Clearly, this "passion" was contrived; it was implanted by study and education based upon role-modeling.

Both the Greeks and the Jews believed that reason might temper passion.  Goodness and justice are actually what Hume would describe as the artificial virtues that can be attained only through knowledge and critical thinking.  It was also subject to persuasive arguments, which are usually connected to our feelings.  Although what feels good is not always good, it usually is persuasive.

Political correctness has taken root because it validates an emotional approach to vice and virtue.  If some idea, word, argument, or even symbol makes one feel uncomfortable, it is bad.  Further, these days it constitutes a "micro-aggression" and imposes a subsequent censorship.  The very notion of a "micro-aggression" subverts the larger ideal of "freedom of speech."

Political correctness constitutes a worldview in which manners supersede morals in governing social relationships.  An illustration of this is the establishment of "safe spaces" and the exploration of "micro-aggressions," which imply that the subjectivity and lability of one's feelings are of greater concern that human integrity.  In a free society, we are obligated to allow those with whom we disagree to state their "disagreeable" opinions rather than be censored.

Prejudice is an ugly but genuine aspect of the human experience.  How will one learn to correct those prejudices without being forthright about them?  How will we reach truth if we cannot examine differing opinions about the facts we have at hand in the crucible of passionate debate?

Political correctness argues that politeness and sympathy are fundamental to human interaction.  What seems or "feels" right differs from what is right.  That is why so many think of manners as deceptively superficial.  Political correctness seems to have blurred the lines between sensitivity to one's feelings and acknowledgment of right and wrong.  If a Jewish student on an American campus were to wear a Star of David, any Muslim student can claim "microaggression."  Imagine the response of campus administrators if a Jewish student were to allege that some Muslim student's hijab is a "micro-aggression."

It would seem that political correctness, like manners or practical wisdom, is nothing more than a political instrument.  Because morality is derived primarily from sentiment rather than reason, it must be reviewed by logic and argument.  The natural virtues of honesty, ambition, generosity, gratitude, and courage constitute good manners.  Natural virtues are derived from sentiment, and since feelings are malleable, they can be corrupted into vices, which are also determined by emotions.

Manners are about the appearance of good taste and morals.  Appearance becomes definitive.  Cicero, in his essay on friendship, wrote that "few are those who wish to be endowed with virtue rather than to seem so."  Manners often may be an extension of our morality.  But, at other times, manners are employed to disguise ourselves and our intentions.

Esse quam videri (to be rather than to seem) remains the cry of the politically incorrect.  Unfortunately, our universities, our institutions of governance, and even our houses of worship have become echo chambers of political correctness – of appearance rather than substance.  How do we explain this?

Sympathy may be a genuine experience of standing in someone else's shoes.  Or it may actually be a bit more complicated.  How do we distinguish between sympathy and what Melanie Klein describes as the psychological mechanism of projective identification?  One situation implies allowing an individual to believe that he feels what another feels; the other is the delusional belief that they are one.

Politeness is a virtue that consists of a deception because it masks our actual feelings and thoughts.  Politeness is essential to social interaction.

The challenge before us is to carefully distill our morals from our manners.  Political correctness stifles open inquiry by choosing sentiment over reason as the hallmark of acceptable behavior.  In other words, hurting someone's feelings is a greater sin than perpetuating a falsehood.  Lies, however, constitute the grammar of tyranny.  Truth, as awkward as it may be, remains the bulwark against the mental slavery that precedes the kind of political tyranny the world knows so well.

Image credit: Joel Kramer.