For quite some time I have considered Miss Manners to be one of our great moral philosophers.
Hopefully, you will not be smirking or thinking that I am setting you up; I am entirely serious.
Many of us have been led to believe that etiquette-- the field in which Miss Manners has excelled-- is just a trivial aspect of ethical behavior. If we have accepted that idea, we need but remind ourselves that George Washington-- yes, that George Washington-- consumed etiquette books with uncommon ardor.
Washington believed that he could only found a Republic if he knew the proper rules for kindness, consideration, and courtesy. He also believed that etiquette books would help him to create rituals and ceremonies that would allow citizens to participate in it.
Today‘s thinkers tend to believe that America was founded on ideas. George Washington understood that a nation cannot live on ideas alone.
Even if that were not true, etiquette would, Miss Manners has been at pains to teach us, make life more pleasant and enjoyable.
The word ethics comes from the Greek word “ethos” which means character. Ethics is about how to build good charcter, the better to have more harmonious personal interactions and to live in a more functional community.
Ethics aims at social ties. It concerns what happens between friends, not what happens in the family.
The basic ethical principles were written down in religious texts and by philosophers like Aristotle. No one has really added anything substantive since. Principles have been disputed, especially by those who want to rationalize unethical behavior, but they have not been expanded or revised in any significant way.
The basic ethical principles are relatively easy to understand. Problems arise when it comes to their practical application.
Knowing the principle of negotiated compromise is one thing. Knowing how to effect a compromise between two parties who are lunging at each other’s throats is quite another.
Which leads us to Miss Manners. She does not express her ethical thought via a philosophical treatise, but in newspaper columns where she examines specific problems offered by individual readers and tries to shed some ethical light on them.
They are, as a young therapist once told me, essential reading for anyone training to do therapy or coaching. Isn’t it better to learn how to evaluate real moral dilemmas than to ram a patient’s experience into a grand narrative where he is enacting his one true Freudian desire-- to copulate with his mother?
Wouldn’t it be better for therapists to see their patients as normally constituted human beings confronting difficult, even insoluble, moral dilemmas? Wouldn’t that be better than assuming that they are sick or deranged or perverted?
Not because mental illness does not exist. It does and it should be taken seriously. Yet, most people who consult with therapists and coaches are not sick; they need moral guidance more than they need medicine.
In her column this morning Miss Manners confronts the kind of problem that arises for people who live in a society that does not value privacy. Link here.
A woman writes in to explain that she is dating and loves a man who does not belong to her social circle. She is shy, a prim and proper church-going lady. Her boy friend is a self-described red neck.
People who come from different communities often have different values. How can this young couple reconcile theirs?
The man in question seems to feel that their bedroom antics are worthy of public display. When he exposes them to her circle, she gets angry and embarrassed. He dismisses her concern as a symptom of her feeling embarrassed to be dating a red neck.
Her evident discomfort has not caused him to refrain from continuing to spill their intimate secrets.
Despite it all, she loves him, and she has come to believe that once she figures out how better to express her feelings to him he will naturally want to stop.
Of course, Miss Manners will have none of it. Basing her thinking on the venerable idea that we should respect the feelings of other people, she expresses her dismay that the woman’s boyfriend would not cease and desist as a gesture of respect for his girlfriend’s feelings.
She writes: “Meanwhile, he should be restraining himself, whether he understands or not, because it is important to you. That much anyone ought to be able to do out of love.”
A wonderful response, most especially because Miss Manners is also saying that doing the right thing does not require you to understand why. As I have been discussing the past few days, insight should never be a precondition for good behavior.
The boyfriend should do it here and now, because it will take too much time for this woman to offer him a long course in basic ethical principles. How can you explain to someone who lives in a “tell-all” culture, why privacy matters? And why in a culture that honors intemperate self-expression over all other social values, you should respect the feelings of other people?
In her words: “It will be quite a job for you to explain, in a tell-all society, that there is dignity in reticence, beauty in modesty and pleasure in having your own intimate world for just the two of you. These are subtle concepts which will take a while to get across as you point out examples in others and in your own lives.”
Miss Manners does not tell this woman what to do about her relationship. She merely tells her what she has a right to expect from a man who loves her.
Happily, she also corrects the woman’s therapy-induced misapprehension: that the man needs to understand the basic principles of privacy before he shuts up about their private life.