What Makes Manners Matter?

by John Schwenkler

What is the point of being courteous, kind, and otherwise well-mannered?

I suspect that most of us are inclined toward an answer that parallels Thrasymachus’ view of justice in the early books of Plato’s Republic. For Thrasymachus, what really matters to us where questions of justice are concerned is all on the side of self-interest. We care about justice in others only to the extent that it brings benefits to us and our friends, and we care about embodying justice in our own lives only to the extent that justice wins us friends, while unjust action carries the risk of punishment and social sanction. The attractiveness of this view comes out in Plato’s famous retelling of the myth of Gyges: given the power to act either justly or unjustly without being detected by others, any of us would choose the life of total injustice. In themselves, the demands of justice are at odds with the desires of naked self-interest, and the only thing that motivates us to respect them is the fear of what will happen to us if we don’t.

An analysis along these lines is even more attractive in connection with the traditional demands of courtesy. Many of us will have the sense that there is — or at least could be — something objectively, universally wrong with stealing, lying, murdering, or imprisoning a person without proper cause. By contrast, no such status accrues to the demand to wear a collared shirt to work or put a napkin on one’s lap while eating: customs like these are contingent, local practices a large part of whose purpose is to mark off the one who observes them as a member of polite society. Meanwhile, even those aspects of good manners whose justification seems more fundamental, such as keeping disparaging thoughts to oneself and refraining from interrupting one’s conversational partners, are all such as to be dispensable in certain situations. What force do they have, then, except as the impositions of an oppressive, socially stratified culture?

This verdict is reinforced yet further by the ways we respond inwardly to public displays of rudeness, and go in for such displays ourselves to the extent that the veil of anonymity protects us from personal sanction or the praise and encouragement of like-minded spectators leads us to ignore the usual risks of cruel and impolite behavior. Thus do we delight in the decisive “owning” of a disfavored voice on television or social media, and in watching athletes rub it in the faces of their opponents after a climactic achievement. Thus do we tend to behave more rudely in public when we can do it without our own names attached or with the promise of a flood of “likes” from friends and followers. And thus does the leader of the free world use his massive public platform to mock and abuse those less powerful than he, knowing that in these actions he is protected entirely by wealth and position from the threat of any significant repercussions. Is this not the perfect freedom to be rude that any of us, given a bit of magic that allowed us to get away with it, would choose in a heartbeat to go in for?


In the Republic, Plato has Socrates respond to Thrasymachus’ challenge by arguing that a situation like the one just described is not a situation of freedom at all, and that the traditional demands of justice actually serve to keep us from becoming slaves to our own lower natures. This conclusion is illustrated in the figure of the perfect tyrant, who in casing justice aside to exercise his ruling power strictly for his own benefit ends up living “full of fear throughout his life and overflowing with convulsions and pains”, as his own life reflects the wretched state of the city that he rules over. This is supposed to show that justice is not, as Thrasymachus believed, something that we should value only for its beneficial consequences, but is also valuable in itself, as an integral element of personal well-being. Cultivating the virtue of justice makes one’s own life go better, compared to how it would go if one lived a life of mere self-gratification, because in cultivating this virtue we become able to rule over our base appetites rather than being ruled by them.

The philosopher Amy Olberding, currently Presidential Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma, offers a similar defense of the value of good manners in her new book, The Wrong of Rudeness: Learning Modern Civility from Ancient Chinese Philosophy (Oxford, 2019). Olberding is keenly aware of the pressures, both personal and philosophical, to see the conventional constraints of kindness and proper etiquette as at best a mere nuisance, at worst an alien imposition that prevents us from doing what we want and forces us to present a false face to others. In challenging this perspective Olberding draws on the resources of the Chinese philosophical tradition, exploring how for early Confucian philosophers the importance of civility and good manners was not merely superficial, but rather was a way to cultivate our best natures and form social bonds through which we flourish as members of human society. She contrasts this rich understanding of civil society with the barely transactional one that fits more easily with the traditions of modern liberalism:

We need to cooperate in order to survive, but manners promise to transform cooperation into something both more substantive and more meaningful than transactional need fulfillment. I can fulfill my biological need for nourishment by eating a messy sandwich over the sink alone, but life would be poorer if this were all I could ever do. Dining at table with finely prepared food better nurtures my well-being, well-being that includes much more than not being hungry. So too, transactionally civil interactions could plausibly work to sustain coexistence, but were all this we could expect, it would be spare and mean, failing to nurture the finer and more deeply satisfying aspects human interaction can yield. In their most robust version, then, good manners are meant to express what is rich and fine in our shared humanity. Indeed, for the Confucians, maintaining our social bonds with others is what renders us fully, magnificently human. We are, in a trivial biological sense, human, but to be a human being, in a morally and existentially significant sense, is to be a human being in relation with other human beings.

Just as Plato’s tyrant, in triumphing totally over others, eventually finds himself totally friendless and alone, so a life that was uncolored by manners would in the end be totally miserable. If the only thing that governed our relations to other people were the rules protecting life, liberty, and property, those relations would be too superficial to give our lives any real meaning. Rather than a nuisance or a source of misery and oppression, manners are an essential part of what cultivates our humanity, molding us into women and men who can relate to one another in a robustly human way.

For Plato, another central part of the value of justice was the way it enables a person to be truly self-ruled, living according to their conscious assessment of the good rather than the unruly dictates of prejudice and animal appetite. Olberding, following the Confucians, sees a similar benefit in good manners: by acting outwardly as if we were better than we really are, we cultivate our inner natures and thereby become morally better. For example, on those occasions when we give ourselves license to be rude, we usually say it will be only in a proper amount and that our targets will be those who really deserve it. In practice, however, the targets of our rudeness are usually those whom we can most easily get away with treating rudely, and our rudeness tends to stop at just the point where we no longer find it pleasurable. When these are the impulses that govern our lives, our condition is not that of a free person, as we are instead a slave to our own desires. By contrast, practicing good manners helps us to overcome these inegalitarian and self-gratifying tendencies, treating others in a way that reflects their full humanity and thereby working to develop our own.


Of course, none of this is simply a matter of acting according to the conventions of mainstream society. As Olberding acknowledges, what is accepted as part of proper etiquette may in practice be a way of denigrating the less powerful or ensuring that privileged people retain their status. But this point applies in the case of justice as well: what a given society recognizes as justice may in fact be nothing that deserves that name. In each instance, what is required is a stance of critical scrutiny toward that which is conventionally accepted. But such a stance is enabled, not foreclosed, by recognizing what justice and good manners are ultimately for. Having recognized this, we are then in a position to consider whether or not the conventions and dominant practices that we find in our own society manage to carry out this function well enough. Finding that they do not do this will not license the conclusion that the whole endeavor has been a sham, but only invites us to commit more deeply to the work of building a better society.