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.