Saturday, April 06, 2019

Evening Note for Saturday, April 6

Thought for the Evening: Norms of Etiquette

I was reading something or other recently and came across an argument in which it was asserted that it is a matter of social obligation that one should address people by their preferred title of address (which is not true) and, among the examples of this apparently obvious social obligation was that this would include titles like Dr. or Professor (which is very definitely not true). In any case, as titles of address are matters of etiquette, it shows the need for some understanding of the very different kinds of norms that are involved in etiquette generally.

There are probably several ways to divide up norms, but one of the more useful is to see norms of etiquette as falling into three groups:

(1) requirements of civilized life
(2) courtesies
(3) default customs.

Requirements of civilized life are known by the fact that they are justified by generalization: you don't destroy other people's property, for instance, or you don't act violently in social interaction, because it would be inconsistent with civilized society if these kinds of behaviors were to be general. Requirements of civilization are the real social obligations in etiquette. By and large, they are usually better understood by considering them as moral in the proper sense rather than as matters of etiquette ("lesser morality" in the Humean phrase), but they are nonetheless essential parts of etiquette because they establish the framework for everything else.

Courtesies are not obligations at all, but moves in a social negotiation. They are not quite optional, because failing to extend them may be ill-advised for social reasons, but they are voluntary. You are not obligated to extend a specific courtesy to anyone. The whole point is that it is supposed to be your free expression. Courtesies are extended because they are useful for social interaction, either because they make social interaction in general more mutually beneficial or because they make this particular social interaction more mutually beneficial.

In a sense, all norms of etiquette could be called default customs, but by 'default customs' I mean things that are neither requirements nor courtesies, but are nonetheless in some sense norms. In general these are a pool of standard ways of doing things that are generally safe and widely recognizable. Default customs exist primarily to make everyone's life easier, so that if you have to do something, you can fall back on them, and if someone else does them, you know exactly what they are doing. They make it possible to engage in social interaction without always doing things from scratch. There used to be a very large number of these; as etiquette has relaxed, one of the casualties has been standard ways of doing things that everybody can fall back on, with the result that social interaction, while easier in the sense that you don't have to remember as much, is harder in that you constantly have to figure out anew what the best thing to do is, and have fewer safe practices you can use to help you out. Nonetheless, there are always default customs. Examples are quite diverse; the order of forks on a table is a default custom (not a requirement), the format of a business letter is a default custom, the fact that you say 'please' when making a request is a default custom.

Activities can involve more than one norm of etiquette. For instance, it is a matter of default custom that you say 'please' when making a request, but whether you actually make a request is a matter of courtesy, and entirely your decision. Courtesies are yours to give or not, but it is in fact a requirement of civilized life that you make a reasonable effort to be courteous somehow. Requirements of civilized life are usually general and need specification by some recognizable custom. And so forth.

When we look at the matter this way, we see that actually addressing people with a title of address is a matter of courtesy, not requirement. You can have a perfectly functional civilized society in which everybody just calls each other by unadorned name. American society is actually pretty close to this; while it used to be stricter, it slid into the more informal approach to addressing people on the (generally although not universally excellent) principle that friendlier is politer. There has never been, of course, a general principle that you should use whatever title of address someone prefers; what titles of address have been acceptable has historically been a matter of default custom. In our society there are a bunch of default titles of address that are usually safe to use in their appropriate sphere -- Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms., Dr., Professor, and so forth -- but whether or not one uses them is a matter of courtesy. And the specifics of courtesy, again, are not matters of obligation: acts of courtesy are voluntary movements in a process of social negotiation.

Titles of address in particular are given for a very limited set of reasons. These used, I think, to be widely known, but as with all things that run on automatic, eventually people forget the point of them. When you address someone with a title of address, you do so either (1) in recognition or presumption of their having already given you benefit, either by having directly benefited you or by their contributions to the good of society in general or (2) on the presumption that they can do so, and in the hope that they will do so. That is pretty much it; there aren't really any other possible justifications that can explain why we take them so seriously, or why we use them in the particular ways we do. Courtesies in general exist to make social interaction mutually beneficial; any attempt to extend them beyond that is self-defeating.

If you have a doctorate, this does not give you the power to obligate people to call you 'Doctor'. It gives you the right to call yourself 'Doctor', in the sense that you can now do so without misleading people. If you are a professor, this does not mean people are obligated to call you 'Professor'; it means you can honestly call yourself 'Professor'. When other people call you by these titles, they are being courteous, in recognition of your presumed accomplishments past and future, or because they are interacting with you in a context in which they are hoping you will do something beneficial qua Doctor or Professor, and this is a fairly simple way to put the interaction on that level without a lot of explanation. You can't in general require people to call you by these titles, and you really don't have any right to expect that they will see themselves as required to do so. And failure to recognize that their calling you by title is itself a free courtesy on their part is a very serious failure, as far as etiquette goes. Treating it as a requirement is inconsistent with the purpose of making social interaction beneficial for all of those involved; you are treating yourself as having a right to exact a benefit from them regardless of whether they see themselves as receiving any benefit or potential benefit from you. That is usually arrogance.

What is true of academic titles is true of titles in general. There is no real obligation with respect to them; the only question is whether their use seems to make social interaction better for everybody. There are obligations that do occasionally come into play, indirectly, with courtesies; for instance, one that often comes into play in matters of etiquette is our moral obligation to live as peaceably as reasonably possible with those with whom we have to live, while another is basic reciprocity. But these are applicable to everyone; they don't play favorites, and it's immoral to expect other people to do all the moral work. If they ever for any particular kind of situation required people to use titles of address, they would likewise require you to be patient with people not using them. And they would never require it as a general matter, but only insofar as it intersected with other, more serious concerns.

Various Links of Interest

* It has nothing to do with any of the above, but I can hardly bear to talk about etiquette without linking to Dorothy Parker's review of Emily Post's Etiquette, which pokes fun at it, but manages to be as funny as it is because Post's book is in fact quite good.

* Roxanne Marcotte, Suhrawardi, at the SEP

* Victor Mair, Eristic Argument, at "Language Log"

* Martin van Creveld, The Strange Case of Versailles

* Catherine Hajdenko-Marshall, Believing After Darwin: the Debates of the Metaphysical Society (1869–1880)

* Jennifer Frey on Elizabeth Anscombe at 100

* Jane Alison, Beyond the Narrative Arc. I went in expecting to disagree with the argument, but actually I agree with almost all of it.

* Edward Mendelson discusses Auden's argument for publishing Pound's poetry, despite Pound's rather atrocious views.

* Peter Adamson on Avicenna

* Michael Pakaluk, Thrift as a Christian Virtue

* Steven Nicoletti, Infant Baptism in the First-Century Presupposition Pool

Currently Reading

John Milton, Paradise Lost
Plotinus, The Enneads
Katherine Addison, The Goblin Emperor
Jules Verne, L'Archipel en feu

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