Damn It! Politeness is a Virtue

Politeness is a Virtue

Nobody seems to give a damn about politeness. Until, that is, they are treated rudely, ignored, made to feel ignorant or displaced, or pushed aside in a queue. Then, suddenly, we see all too clearly how much we appreciate polite society.

Those moments do not translate into the world of ideas, where “polite society” is a sneer and the polite person treated as a cipher or worse. So, I was delighted to see this most denigrated of virtues given a place in Comte-Sponville’s A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues. Politeness a great virtue? Indeed. Yet even Comte-Sponville gives politeness rather short shrift.

After all, A Small Treatise includes a robust 18 different virtues of which politeness is given the least priority. I’m okay with that. There’s no denying that for an individual, politeness is a second-rate virtue. Give me kindness and courage any day. But while it’s good to see it enshrined in a list of virtues and not treated as a façade designed to cloak our true intentions or hide the malevolent workings of class and social structure, it’s hardly exalted in A Small Treatise.

Here’s how Comte-Sponville describes politeness:

“It is the first virtue, and the origin perhaps of all the others. It is also the poorest, the most superficial, and the most debatable of the virtues, and possibly something other than a virtue as well.

That’s certainly small praise for a “great” virtue. He goes on:

“Politeness doesn’t care about morality, and vice versa. If a Nazi is polite, does that change anything about Nazism or the horrors of Nazism? No. It changes nothing, and this nothing is the very hallmark of politeness. A virtue of pure form, of etiquette and ceremony!”

Except…you know what? Nazis as a class weren’t very polite. They were not a group who delighted in civility or who were inclined to show much respect to those that weren’t in their tribe. They were, in fact, like every group of boorish, violent thugs, the very epitome of impoliteness. They detested the mannerly formalisms of society. So, while it may be possible to create moral thought experiments featuring polite Nazis (I’m sure some did exist), that isn’t quite the way the world tends to work nor is it conceivable that Nazis as a group could value politeness. There may be polite Nazis, but there is no such thing as a polite Nazi party.

But if Comte-Sponville isn’t quite as sold on the value of politeness as I am, why is it first in his list of virtues? Indeed, given those quotes, why is it there at all?

For Comte-Sponville, politeness is first in the list for purely temporal reasons. It is the virtue we learn first. It is a kind of gateway drug into the virtues. After all, a young child cannot truly understand humility or gentleness or justice. But even a young child can understand politeness — for politeness can be explained in the most traditional of parental ways: “Because I said so.”

“For children, fact precedes right; or rather, right and wrong are simply facts themselves, like any others. Some things are allowed, some are forbidden; some things are done, some are not done. Good or bad? The rule suffices; it precedes judgment and is the basis for it.”

Like all good virtue theorists, Comte-Sponville knows that we learn the form of a behavior before we have shaped a reliable disposition. He sees politeness as the seed-crystal of morality.

“But how could this morality ever come into being if politeness were not there to begin with? Good manners precede and prepare the way for good deeds…To say “please” or “excuse me” is to pretend to be respectful; to say “thank you” is to pretend to be grateful. And it is with this show of respect and this show of gratitude that both respect and gratitude begin.”

I don’t disagree, but I think that more can be said on behalf of politeness, for politeness has a role that goes considerably beyond this gateway to morality. Politeness does not just train or habituate us to moral action. It provides us with a tool for functioning in a complex society and in situations in which we may not have respect or love for others.

If you spend much time on platforms like X (which was always a very bad idea even when it was called Twitter), you will find conversations where politeness is utterly absent. In the performative art that rules the platform, an obnoxious form of cutting humor rules the day. That humor may be funny, or it may not. You’ll see plenty of both types. But funny or not, it is consistently cruel and disrespectful. It is the very personification of impolite.

It can be amusing, this brand of humor. And most people find themselves at least half enjoying it until it is turned on them or they simply sour of the endless vitriol. This is the world without politeness. It is a world where, undeniably, most of the people involved in the conversation are treated with the respect they deserve (i.e., none). For the world is filled with people who neither deserve our respect nor attach our kindness. And in the modern world, we must deal with countless such people. Without politeness, the tenor of our interactions quickly becomes corrosive in large public settings.

We do not live in a village world. We do not live within a community. Only at work do we have something resembling a traditional community, and it is at work where norms of politeness are most strongly in place. People are almost never rude to each other at work. But elsewhere? On the streets, in the subway, at the shop, or online? The difference between societies where rudeness is rare, sporadic or frequent is profound. Life is much better with politeness. And it is much better when, regardless of their other virtues, people behave politely.

In a world of billions, complex processes and anonymity are almost guaranteed. We must do a great deal with people we do not know, and we must do at least some things with people we do not like. We have reason to value a culture that provides good forms for smoothing those interactions and that uses strong feedback mechanisms to enforce those norms. That kind of culture will work better, be more livable, and probably make people better (by reducing the deleterious cognitive impact of bad interactions). Thus we have sound ethical reasons for valuing politeness — a willingness not just to follow but to enforce the social norms of politeness — as a virtue.

It is truly a modern excellence and, as such, we have our own distinct brand of politeness. As a society, we have little reason to care about a certain form of manners. Knowing which side of the plate the spoon or fork goes on isn’t much use in our culture. But civility of language and manner are, rightly, valued as true virtues. The presumption of respect that lies at the heart of politeness is vastly important in reminding us that we actually are part of some shared endeavor no matter how tenuous the threads become.

In friend groups or families, politeness is no substitute for love, humor or compassion. In the impersonal crowds that surround us, no other virtue is a substitute for politeness. I do not think we are making moral decisions when we queue well, drive within the rules, or say please and thank you.[1] I do not think that the Japanese are more moral than the French (well, maybe I do). But I do believe that Japanese culture inculcates one surprisingly important virtue much better than French culture does or, for that matter, than ours.

The virtues we care about change depending on the life we want and the culture we live in. Politeness is a peculiarly important virtue in modern, urban life. The more of our life is spent among strangers or associating with people we may not like, the more important politeness becomes. Would I, to Comte-Sponville’s point, take a polite society over a kind one? Of course not. But it is often asking too much of our makeshift communities to expect kindness. Nor does kindness translate well into 280 characters. Politeness, however, can be sustained almost to the outbreak of war and it can live in any form, even the most concise.

We may indeed learn politeness as the gateway to other, deeper, virtues. But in our kind of world, I do not think we can live well without it and we ought to regard it as the important excellence it is.

[1] Admittedly, I don’t put much stock in the idea of moral decisions anytime if we mean by morality decisions guided by an abstract intellectual system of right and wrong. But you get the idea. Within traditional folk notions of morality, these things are not moral, yet they make a profound difference to our experience of a culture.

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