Adventures in Ethics and Science

Civility and politeness.

In a comment on a post at Henry Gee’s blog (I’d link the comment itself, but for the life of me I cannot figure out where the permalink is), Ed Yong offers his view on the relation between politeness and civility. Quoth Ed:

My objection comes when people mistake politeness for virtue rather than what it actually is – artifice masquerading as virtue. Politeness is what you teach children to tell them when and how to speak and behave before they are fully rational and capable of thinking through the moral consequences of their words and actions.

Adults, being (technically) able to do this should arrive at their words/actions through more sophisticated means. It’s the difference between “I won’t say that because it’s rude and is therefore wrong” and “I won’t say that because it has the following consequences and is therefore wrong”.

Politeness is a route towards true civility and not an endpoint in itself. It’s civility for beginners. The big problem is that when people forget this fairly basic difference and focus on the polite/pleasant aspect without the deeper, underlying stuff, all sorts of incivil behaviour goes unnoticed because it’s said under the veneer of politeness.

This has me thinking a bit about the strategy of starting with the outward form of good behavior (for at least some range of values of good). Virtue ethicists have told me that it’s a reasonable strategy to start out focusing on the external stuff — the outward patterns of behavior and interactions with others — as a way to lay the groundwork for the internal stuff that virtuous people have.

Forming a habit of taking turns with your brother rather than pounding him or bossing him around, it is hoped, makes it easier to achieve an inner state where you want to treat your brother well — where doing so is what makes you happy, rather than being something you do because it is enforced by external rules.

I don’t know the extent to which this actually works (and by what mechanism it cultivates the necessary empathy or other virtues).

And indeed, there’s a cynical voice in my head (which I swear I will not try to pin on the lawyers of my acquaintance or my blood) that wonders whether starting out by focusing on the outward form of good behavior does not encourage some people to develop a detailed map of all the loopholes present in the external standard against which one is asked to measure oneself.

Any thoughts on the matter (and especially anecdata from the field) are welcome in the comments.

Comments

  1. #1 Coturnix
    January 22, 2010

    Reminds me of the distinction between internal and external loci of moral authority from Lakoff’s “Moral Politics” on which appears to be quite a lot of literature out there. The two modes are results of style of parenting, and not easy to change with growing up.

  2. #2 Ed Yong
    January 22, 2010

    I am dubious of the “start externally” strategy. It basically requires people to reverse-engineer their politeness-enforced behaviour in order to look at the underlying morality behind them. I say it’s far better to go the other way, to look at why we bother behaving politely in the first place and learn to apply that to other areas. Fewer cognitive steps that way.

    You could draw an analogy to other areas. Science: no amount of rote-learning is going to illuminate the scientific method for you. You learn the method so you can apply it across the board. Technology: learning the exact steps needed to send an email is going to leave you totally helpless in a number of other situations. Better to learn to use the operating system itself. Fishing: oh, you know…

  3. #3 EMJ
    January 22, 2010

    I don’t know the extent to which this actually works (and by what mechanism it cultivates the necessary empathy or other virtues).

    I think there can be some explanation (or at least a working hypothesis) by viewing it as a feedback loop. Your outward behavior effects the internal experience of others. This then changes their outward behavior towards you, which effects your internal experience, etc. The shift may not be individual, from right behavior to right thought, but emerges from out of the network of social interactions. This is the way morals are developed in various societies. Peoples’ reaction to the outward behavior of other members are rewarded or punished and you internalize those values. Some values are common across societies because, as a group living species, the general tenets of “the golden rule” are universal to social living.

    I disagree slightly with Coturnix. Robert Sapolsky has a great example of a change in culture among baboons that was published in the magazine Foreign Affairs. As the result of an accident in demography, one colony happened to have many fewer aggressive members than normal. As new males migrated in they had to adapt to the local culture if they wanted to advance socially. This culture was remarkably stable and even when outside males advanced to alpha status they retained the culture of their new community. There may be hope for us yet (baboon and human alike).

  4. #4 John Timmer
    January 22, 2010

    I think, ultimately, it comes down to what you feel is the best way to communicate: guns blazing or clinical dissection. I prefer the latter, which is best practiced via politeness, when reading, so i generally try to practice it myself (i may also be constitutionally incapable of doing a decent job of guns blazing).

    I do think that we internalize whatever behavior we’ve standardized on through some sort of post-hoc rationalization, so i think the ethicists you’ve been talking to have a point. If we’ve gone through the effort of learning to moderate our speech, then the time and effort involved compel us to turn that into an objective standard (humans are very good at that sort of thing). I’m not so sure it’s a reverse engineering thing, as Ed’s suggesting – that would seem to imply conscious thought, and i doubt any’s really involved in this process.

    Sadly, i’m probably too old to remember how/why the process started through which i came to find spittle-flying rages as making uncompelling reading.

  5. #5 S. Rivlin
    January 22, 2010

    I tend to agree with EMJ. Politness is part of a given community’s standards. The very reason we’re discussing online civility has to do with the fact that incivility online goes against the accepted standard in our community. There are enough members in our community who find the incivility online a significant departure from our standard behavior that it has become an issue we must deal with. Not surprisingly, the strongest objectors to the discussion we have hear and elsewhere for the past few days are those who rebel against that standard being enforced online. These objectors are not different from other individuals who rebel against other social standards. The question is, should we relax or even discard certain standards because online is different from offline and some rebel against them or should we enforce these standards whether they are on- or offline?

    For instance, in certain societies it is not only acceptable, but expected, to burp loudly and publicly after one finishes his/her meal (a gesture meant to complement the goodness of the food served). Could you imagine eating at a restaurant with your spouse or date when the customers at the neighboring table begin burping loudly?

  6. #6 Noodle
    January 22, 2010

    W/R/T children, keep in mind that the “start externally” strategy is really a global strategy with kids. Their understanding of the world is necessarily limited, so it’s helpful to give them a basic framework on which to hang larger ideas as you progress. This happens in multiple areas, not just ethics (e.g. hygiene). It’s also a process, IMHO, where, as a parent, you start off with externally imposed rules and back off on the imposition as your children grow and begin to gain experience and formulate their own view of the world.

  7. #7 bsci
    January 22, 2010

    I’m in a bit of shock that in his first comment on his post, Dr. Gee segways from saying that they care about every group but the Jews and are really just a bunch of lefty anti-semites.
    What the hell happened on this panel or is Dr. Gee just a bit off his rocker?

  8. #8 Ivan
    January 23, 2010

    @7

    SEGWAY

    Dictionary entry overview: What does Segway mean?

    • SEGWAY (noun)
    The noun SEGWAY has 1 sense:

    1. (trademark) a self-balancing personal transportation device with two wheels; can operate in any level pedestrian environment

    Familiarity information: SEGWAY used as a noun is very rare.

    http://www.audioenglish.net/dictionary/segway.htm

    se·gue [ sé gwày, sáy gwày ]

    intransitive verb (past and past participle se·gued, present participle se·gue·ing, 3rd person present singular se·gues)
    Definition:

    1. move smoothly: to make a smooth, almost imperceptible transition from one state, situation, or subject to another
    segued into a discussion of the playoffs without missing a beat

    http://encarta.msn.com/encnet/features/dictionary/DictionaryResults.aspx?refid=1861715746

  9. #9 S. Rivlin
    January 23, 2010

    Janet,

    Could you elaborate a bit on bsci’s point regarding Henry G’s comment on his post? I read his post and many of the comments there and found myself asking the same question. Also, do you have any thoughts about a possible American privilege on SciBlogs, as some on Henry G’s blog have asserted?

  10. #10 bsci
    January 23, 2010

    Henry Gee’s comments would have made more sense if he was typing on a Segway