The Moral Sense: Etiquette & Self Control

Book Cover, The Moral Sense by Jmaes Q Wilson

An excerpt from James Q Wilson’s book, The Moral Sense. Published by Free Press

Most cultures have devoted extraordinary efforts to developing and inculcating rules of etiquette and courtesy. From a purely utilitarian point of view, it seems inexplicable that people should insist that we eat with forks rather than with hands, wipe our mouths with napkins rather than sleeves, or address strangers as “sir” or “madam.” It is not hard to imagine very different rules (which may exist in some places): certain foods ought to be eaten with spoons rather than forks or even hands in preference to either, one’s mouth should be wiped with sleeves rather than napkins, and strangers should be addressed as “stranger.” The precise content of such rules is conventional, that is, determined by the mores of a given society. But the instance on having rules, whatever their exact content, seems universal and, I suspect, natural.

The universality of rules of etiquette probably reflects their value as a way of signaling the existence of self-control. Suppose how we ate food were entirely a matter of personal preference. If I were accustomed to eating with a spoon and then met someone who ate with a knife, I might suspect that the stranger waiving a knife around the dinner table has some felonious intention and react accordingly. The meal would either degenerate into a fight or I would eat someplace else, alone.

According to the social historian Norbert Elias, Europeans in the later Middle Ages were accustomed to expressing their wants and emotions directly, immediately, and forcefully. Under those circumstances it was essential to have rules that would reduce the chances that innocent actions—reaching in front of another to grab a piece of meat or waving a knife around while cutting a piece of meat—might be seen as affronts or threats that would escalate into violent confrontations. Moreover, as feudalism weakened, to be replaced by a court-based aristocracy and a nascent bourgeoisie, one’s social standing required confirmation by outward signs. The concept of civility and the role of the gentleman (or aristocrat) were born both to control human impulses and establish social claims. “People forced to live with one another in a new way, became more sensitive to the impulses of others.” Etiquette became part of an effort, lasting several centuries, to curb self-indulgence and define social standing. Manners were taught in order to manage impulses; honor was given to those who were the most mannerly. Habits of conduct that today we take for granted required nearly three hundred years to instill, Elias suggests, from the time of Erasmus to that of Louis XIV.

A similar development can also be seen in matters of dress. Modesty is of little importance among family members living apart from other families, for numbing familiarity, incest taboos, and parental control combine to ensure that nakedness does not lead to licentiousness. We are not surprised to find that, where the climate permits, some small primitive bands are attired, if at all, in ways that by modern standards are quite immodest. But when they come into regular contact with strangers, no such information controls exist, and so revealing dress can elicit unwanted approaches: immodesty seems an invitation to indecency. Rules are therefore imposed requiring people to be fully covered, to undress alone or in the presence of members of the same sex, and to relieve themselves in private so that innocent acts do not convey ambiguous messages. One measure of how successfully such rules have been imposed is the greater freedom that has been acquired by both sexes, but especially women, in matters of dress. Writing in 1937, when bathing and sports attire were by modern standards positively Victorian, Elias remarked that “this change presupposes a very high standard of drive control. Only in a society in which a high degree of restraint is taken for granted, and in which women, like men, are absolutely sure that each individual is curbed by self-control and a strict code of etiquette, can bathing and sporting customs having this relative degree of freedom develop.” One wonders what he would be made of the bikini, nude beaches, and modern rock dances.

A display of manner and conventional attire is a signal to other people, especially to strangers, that you have self-control; you display it in small, everyday ways to assure others that it will be present in adequate degree when the stakes are much higher. The everyday display of self-control has, in any particular case, no evident moral message. You eat politely even when it would be more convenient to snatch food up and wolf it down; you put on clothes before answering the doorbell even when it would be faster to go there naked. We cannot say that wolfing down your food or answering the door unclothed are in themselves immoral actions. But we can say that the repetition of such acts will persuade others that when moral issues are front and center you do not have the state of character to restrain you from preferring you own immediate advantage over the right and more distant interests of others.

There are, of course, many ways other than manners and dress by which to assure people that you have an adequate degree of self-control. You can ignore the feelings of others in everyday matters and hope to persuade them when the time comes and the chips are down that you are a moderate and decent person. Contemporary American society is filled with examples suggesting that a lot of people, especially young ones, believe that these other ways are better. Standards of dress have become increasingly causal; getting “dressed up” is now something is done only for special occasions (if that; one young man attended my son’s formal wedding dressed in gym shorts and sneakers). People who dress up for other occasions---business, dinners, airplane travel---are regarded as stuffy, conventional, and probably uninteresting. While it is obvious that cultures differ in standards of everyday conduct and that any given culture may change its standards profoundly over several generations, those who too readily embrace the view that everyday conduct is a trivial and purely personal matter may be surprised to learn that they have paid too little attention to the signal they emit and so lack the trust of others when matters are neither trivial nor personal.

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