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Notes towards an Appreciation of Manners

Notes towards an Appreciation of Manners

12 Mins
June 1, 2000

Why have Objectivists written so little about manners? I am inclined to believe it is because they have accepted the common view of manners, just as Objectivists traditionally wrote little about benevolence because they had accepted the ordinary view of that virtue. And what is that common view of manners? To put a fine point on it: Manners are widely thought to involve a sacrifice of one's values and and authenticity for the sake of obeying fashions and arbitrary conventions.One reason for the belief that decent social behavior is sacrificial and inauthentic is that conservatives who recommend it and bohemians who oppose it do so in exactly those terms. Says Stephen L. Carter, a professor of law at Yale University, "Civility, I shall argue, is the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together" (Civility. New York: Basic Books [1998], 11; hereafter Civility). On the other hand, the basketball player Dennis Rodman justified bumping his head into a referee's by saying, "I was making a statement that I was free and independent and not like everybody else" (Civility, 74).

How, on Carter's approach does one respond to a person who has no wish to make a sacrifice? Carter is a Christian and so his answers trails off into theology. For example, speaking of the need to bring civility to advertising, Carter writes:

Only a mighty effort to free ourselves from the shackles of market language will enable us to create the [necessary] pressure. And only a religious understanding of the world offers us the tools we need to make the effort. (Civility, 174)

Others have claimed that good manners are justified by being aesthetically pleasing. Art in Everyday Life, by Harriet and Vetta Goldstein, was a popular work on etiquette from the 1920s to the 1960s, and the burden of its argument is that "manners are at least as much a matter of domestic good taste as duties of kindness or tact" (Mark Caldwell, A Short History of Rudeness. New York: Picador [1999], 151). But how does one reply to the person who says, "Bad manners suit my taste just fine"?

Perhaps the most sustained effort to justify etiquette in today's world is that of Judith Martin, who writes under the name of Miss Manners. She is quite explicit in adopting Carter's understanding of etiquette as the means by which society tames Hobbesian humans. The purpose of etiquette, she says, is "exactly to disguise those antipathies that arise from irreconcilable differences" (Judith Martin, Common Courtesy. New York: Atheneum [1985], 12). And why should one want to do that? Because the alternative is a war of all against all. "If rudeness begets rudeness, which begets more rudeness, where will it all end?" (Judith Martin, Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. New York: Galahad Books [1979], 4; hereafter Excruciatingly Correct).

Now, for a Hobbesian in a Hobbesian world, "Where will it all end?" is a legitimate and interesting question. But Martin intends it to be a conversation-stopper. In short, she does not defend the field. Rather, she guards it by giving her prose the tone that is so characteristic of late twentieth-century sophisticates: undisguised irony. To those who question her disapproval of egoism, her belief in a Hobbesian world, and her recommendation of manners as the solution to man's fundamental conflicts, she (in effect) rolls her eyes like the leader of a high-school clique: For those who understand, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not, no explanation is possible.

Dear Miss Manners:

Who says there is a 'right' way of doing things and a 'wrong'?

Gentle Reader:

Miss Manners does. You want to make something out of it? (Excruciatingly Correct, 12)

In this essay, I wish to set forth a hypothesis (and it no more than that) according to which religious, aesthetic, and ironic approaches to manners are avoided. To do so, I will look at some common varieties of manners and try to suggest what rational, egoistic motives might underlie them. For its philosophical framework, my attempt relies on the Enlightenment philosophy of interpersonal relationships set forth by David Kelley in Unrugged Individualism. For its inspiration, it relies on the frankly egoistic rationale for manners set forth by the greatest Enlightenment exposition of the subject, Lord Chesterfield's letters to his son.


In Unrugged Individualism, Kelley is primarily seeking to explain the egoistic motives underlying benevolence. But the work offers a good starting point for the present inquiry because in places (for instance, on page 38) it explicitly discusses the way in which benevolence underlies one species of manners, namely civility. I believe that exactly the same approach can also explain several other species of manners, which I here call decency and propriety.

Kelley develops the concept of benevolence as an Objectivist virtue by considering the nature in an Objectivist context, the values at which benevolence aims, and the facts on which benevolence is based. He then defines benevolence as "a commitment to achieving the values derivable from life with other people in society, by treating them as potential trading partners, recognizing their humanity, independence, individuality, and the harmony between their interests and ours" (Poughkeepsie, NY: The Institute for Objectivist Studies [1996], 30; hereafter UI).

How does benevolence differ from justice? Kelley first observes that we can think of rationality as the virtue that declares "It is," and productiveness as the virtue that asks "What if?" Similarly, he says, "In regard to other people and their works, the realm of man-made facts, the Objectivist ethics recognizes the policy of identifying what exists, the commitment to understanding people as they are and evaluating them objectively. This is the virtue of justice" (UI, 32–33). The virtue of benevolence is the corresponding virtue of "What if?" applied to other people. Thus, the focus of benevolence is on discovering the potential of other people. I have often thought of it as the virtue of "prospecting for value" within society.


After describing benevolence as an Objectivist virtue, Kelley goes on to analyze a species of the virtue that is also a species of good manners: civility. In Kelley's analysis, civility is "the most elementary form of benevolence." Specifically, it is "the expression—chiefly through conventional forms—of one's respect for the humanity and independence of others, and of one's intent to resolve conflicts peacefully" (UI, 39). Three points of this analysis stand out. First, civility is a form of value prospecting because it treats other people as potential trading partners and open channels for further exploration. Secondly, civility is distinguished from other forms of value prospecting by the very general nature of the human attributes to which it pays respect. Thirdly, civility (like some but not all other species of manners) usually employs conventional forms. In connection with this third point, however, one should note that civility's use of conventional forms does not at all render it a mere formality, so long as the underlying respect is genuine and genuinely conveyed, any more than the conventionality of the alphabet renders love letters passionless.

But the conventionality of civility does help one distinguish between the role of ethics and manners. Kelley writes, "It is objectively important to acknowledge each other's independence in some way or other, whether by saying 'please' or 's'il vous plait,' or by some gesture understood to have that meaning" (UI, 38). Thus, ethics tells us that any gesture the other party correctly understands will do. It is the task of manners to tell us which particular gestures or words are most likely to convey our meaning in a particular social context.

Civility does not always express itself in conventional forms, however. One natural act of civility is to refrain from behaving in ways that trifle with the independence of another person. Thus, in a list of precepts he copied out as a teenager, George Washington wrote that one should not "play with any that delight not to be played with" (George Washington, Rules of Civility: The 110 Precepts that Guided Our First President in War and Peace, ed. Richard Brookhiser. New York: The Free Press [1997], Rule 17; hereafter Precepts). Likewise, he said, one should not create noise that disturbs or distracts one's fellow man. "In the presence of others, sing not to yourself with a humming noise or drum with your fingers" (Precepts, Rule 4). To which Brookhiser adds: "Don't carry a boom box either."

Although Kelley does not discuss the fact, civility has two cognitive accompaniments. After all, prior to performing an act of civility, one must recognize that the situation calls for an act of civility and one must judge which act of civility is called for, with just what tone or demonstrativeness. Competence in making the first judgment is relatively easy and it is the first step in learning manners. Competence in making the second judgement exists in numerous degrees, however, and one's training in that ability never ends.


The limiting case of civility is observing the decencies. For if the civilities entail prospecting for values among one's fellows, preserving the decencies entails preserving the bare possibility of prospecting for values. This is something one does negatively, by not outraging one's fellow citizens, and the self-interested reason for so acting is to prevent one's exclusion from all future dealings with others. Once upon a time, such exclusions took place. For example, the story is told of how in 1877 James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the wealthy owner of the New York Herald, became drunk during a crowded reception at his fiancée's home and failed (or did not care) to recognize that the fireplace was not a urinal. Not only did he get the bum's rush into the street, he was forced to fight a duel with a young man form the outraged household, and (surviving) spent the rest of his life in Europe. "Obviously," a contemporary chronicler said matter-of-factly, "every private residence in New York  was forever barred to him" (Linda s. Lichter,The Benevolence of Manners, New York: HarperCollins [1998], 111–12; hereafter Benevolence).

Preserving the decencies, then, lies at the foundations of a common society and state, which are the chief institutions through which we secure the possibility of exchange. If some groups habitually outrage others, so that future exchanges between their members are unthinkable, the institutions by which people secure the possibility of future exchange—society and state—become unnecessary. When the groups are small relative to society as a whole, their sense of a common society breaks down and a feud results. When the groups are relatively large, the state breaks down and anarchy or civil war ensues.


In Jane Austen's Emma, Mr. Knightley knows that Frank Churchill is not as good a young man as Emma believes, because Churchill has several times postponed calling on his father's new wife, although he has offered apparently strong excuses for the delays. Mr. Knightley understands the truth of what George Washington told himself: Where due, compliments and ceremony are not to be neglected (Precepts, Rule 25).

This is a third form of manners, which one might call propriety. The proprieties are customs that a person follows based on judgments that another person is in a familiar human situation and experiencing the feelings that typically accompany that situation. These situations include an impending marriage, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one; falling ill or recuperating; joining or leaving a place of education or employment; arriving in or departing from a home; and so forth. When, in response to such events, we "pay our respects" by means of proprieties, we recognize that the person is "one of us," one of the people in whose life we take an interest. That, in turn, amounts to value prospecting because it keeps open the channels through which future value exchanges may flow.

The proprieties, notice, are based on more specific facts about an individual than are the civilities. Yet they are still broad enough to fall into the domain of manners and social convention. In the case of a friendship, which is a highly developed value exchange, the proprieties are insufficient. In a friendship, each party must be sensitive to the particular shades of feeling that his friend is experiencing and must craft a personalized response rather than relying entirely on a conventional one. If a friend's stepmother dies, one will craft a response reflecting some knowledge of how close the relationship was. a second difference of friendship is that people will perceive and respond to events that outsiders may not even recognize as emotionally significant. If a person is outbid on a house, an officemate may say, "Too bad." A friend may know that this was a "dream house," and the loss entails a substantial degree of disappointment.


David Kelley's concept of benevolence suggests an obvious counterpart. If it is useful for a person to prospect for people who may offer him opportunities for valuable trades, surely it is also useful for him so to present himself that he will be discovered by value prospectors who may offer him opportunities for valuable trades. If it is profitable to search the world for an honest man, it is profitable not to hide one's light under a bushel.

Consider again the issue of civility. When a person practices civility, as described above, he is most directly laying the groundwork for future trade opportunities. At the same time, however, he is sending a signal about the sort of person he is to any other people who may be present. Along with recognizing the humanity and independence of the person of other people. That is a valuable piece of information for those who may be prospecting for value opportunities.

To be concrete, suppose that a person is addressed by a stranger in a social situation. The party who addresses him may appear to offer little chance for valuable trade. But if the person addressed responds civilly, then other, more promising individuals may take the opportunity to address him. And that is something they might not have done had he spoken uncivilly to the first party. The plot of Pride and Prejudice turns on the fact that Mr. Darcy's haughty aloofness at a ball causes the woman he will soon love to resist being attracted to him.


I believe that much of what is commonly called etiquette is justified by this egoistic policy of self-presentation. For instance, a person who comes to the office in business dress signals that he is prepared to devote himself wholly to business; he declares that it is not merely a sideline with him. In principle, a lawyer might bring an intense seriousness to his cases even though he appeared in court dressed in a smoking jacket; within the current social context, however, that is not what he is projecting and that is not how the judge will interpret it.

But, some will ask, why evaluate his seriousness on the basis of his smoking jacket? Why not give him a chance? Why not evaluate his seriousness on the basis of his seriousness? He may prove to be serious or not, but either way the smoking jacket is irrelevant. To this, there are four answers.

1. Efficiency. Pro-market economists, such as TOC Advisor Kenneth J. McLaughlin, have argued that it is rational for businesses to employ signals in order to inform consumers about themselves.

"Plush offices and grand atriums," McLaughlin has noted, "signal that the firm expects to stay in business." In parallel fashion, it saves time and effort in personal relationships to have an outward and visible sign of inward and invisible attitude. A person who adopts the sign is, in effect, pledging that he has that attitude. A person who refuses to adopt the sign compels those around him to expend energy in gathering evidence about the inward attitude in question and also about the person's possible motives for refusing to adopt the standard, visible pledge regarding the attitude.

Moreover, a social sign generally reflects not one attitude or value but a complex of attitudes and values that together constitute a coherent ethos. Thus, a person who refuses to adopt a social sign compels those around him to expend a great amount of energy gathering evidence about numerous potential attitudes and values, and about the person's possible motive for refusing to adopt the standard, visible pledge regarding them.

2. Predictability. "By conforming to a set of what seem to be highly formalistic, more or less arbitrary rules, the polite individual signals the intention to follow other rules and norms—in short, to be a reliable member of the community that considers those norms important" (Civility, 82). The one thing we know for sure about a person who refuses to adopt a social rule is that we cannot count on him to obey social rules. He may be refusing to obey this rule. He may be refusing to obey conventional rules. He may be refusing to obey nonsensical rules. Whatever the case, we know that he is prepared to flout the rules and we know that he will decide which rules to flout. Under the circumstances, those around him are deprived of predictability regarding his behavior.

3. Connotations. Many people have adopted the curious attitude that they can use clothing and grooming as intensely personal and revealing symbols, but no one should draw on those symbols to evaluate the personality revealed. "We use our clothes to express ourselves," Lichter observes, "but we balk if others use them to judge the self we choose to express" (Benevolence, 273). Thus, if a lawyer is wearing a smoking jacket, he has chosen a garb that ineluctably connotes the relaxed, the casual, and the off-duty. If he knew what he was doing, he has no right to complain if others suspect him of being less than fully focused on business.

4. Pseudo-individualism. The violation of social conventions, though proclaimed as an expression of individualism, is frequently an expression of pseudo-individualism or one-upmanship. Adolescents commonly defend their dress and grooming on the grounds that they "just like the look." But it is more usually the case that they, in conjunction with some reference group, are striving to project the belief that they are hipper, cooler, sexier, more flamboyant, more laid back, or more aggressive than some rival clique. Thus, the chief motive for school uniforms is to shut down one major realm of status competition.

How does all this apply to that traditional bête-noir: using the right fork? I suggest that the signal one sends by using the right fork at a formal dinner is that one is able and willing to join in the ethos—the interests, concerns, and styles of interaction—typical of people who inhabit a milieu characterized by that level of formality, even if one does not actually share the ethos. Such a signal, in turn, provides one's dinner companions with a useful piece of information, namely, "He is one of us, or at least he is able and willing to get along with us." Of course, it may happen that a person does not wish to join in the ethos of his dinner companions or even put up with it. But if a person desires to be accepted as at least a temporary participant in a certain subculture, where a certain level of formality symbolizes numerous other attitudes, it is illogical for him to rail against learning those outward and visible signs by which a subculture signifies its inward and invisible attitudes.

Indeed, learning manners superior to one's station was once considered an obvious way of signaling that one was preparing to rise in the world. The heroes of Horatio Alger, for instance, were not in general young men who rose by their own exertions; they were young men who ha made themselves ready to be noticed. Learning good manners symbolized their less obvious efforts. Historian John Kasson quotes an 1879 work on etiquette as proclaiming: "A good manner is the best letter of recommendation." And Kasson adds, "Especially for young men, manners were to be regarded as social capital" (John F. Kasson, Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America. New York: Hill and Wang [1990], 69. The work he quotes is John H. Young's Our Deportment.).


Another aspect of self-presentation is personal demeanor, the general way in which a person comports himself. Although demeanor was formerly a principal subject of books on manners, it is now little discussed. As a result, the average person probably gives little consideration to the possibility of having a characteristic demeanor. Most likely, he expects it to flow spontaneously from his basic values, much as emotional expressions flow from intense feelings. But there is no reason to think that demeanor arises in that fashion. Indeed, it is only too likely that people will let transient emotions overshadow demeanor, rather than bringing transient emotions into line with demeanor.

In order to preserve his stately demeanor, Washington admonished himself to "use no reproachful language against any one, neither curse nor revile" (Precepts, Rule 49). And Brookhiser writes,

The measure of Washington's success, despite his lapses, is that we have forgotten he had a problem [with his anger]. We look at Stuart's glacial image, and a dozen other composed and almost emotionless portraits, from the face on Mount Rushmore to the bust on the quarter, and we assume that that's just the way Washington was. His contemporaries knew better; they saw the composure as an end product, the result of early training and continuous effort. (Precepts, 16)

The value of choosing one's demeanor derives, again, from the purpose of making oneself visible to value prospectors. But to serve that purpose, a well-crafted demeanor must express one's fundamental sense of one's life in relation to reality and to other people. And accomplishing that has two aspects—one cognitive and one behavioral. Both are important.

The first task for a person setting out to craft a demeanor is to discover what his fundamental self is, and that, of course, is not a matter of manners; it is a matter of inquiry and reasoning. If a person fails to introspect honestly, he is likely to replace the truth about himself with a view that he wishes were correct. And in that case, his demeanor will be superficial and dishonest. (Of course, if a person fails to introspect honestly about his character, he is going to have so many psychological problems, and of such severity, that a false demeanor will be the least of his worries.)

The second task is no less difficult and it is also not a matter of manners. Knowing oneself does not ensure that one will correctly manifest that self outwardly, and certainly not that one will manifest in a convincing and attractive way. After a person has chosen the demeanor most suited to himself, he must practice it relentlessly, until it becomes second nature. Only in that way will it be expressed automatically and authentically.

But if the preceding two steps of enacting a demeanor are not purely matters for manners, nevertheless manners do enter into the question. For whether or not it is true that certain looks and bearings express specific values in all or most cultures, it is certainly true that certain looks and bearings convey identifiable values within a given culture. No one, in Western culture, will interpret the demeanor of Queen Elizabeth II as expressing a devil-may-care spontaneity. And no one, in Western culture, will interpret the demeanor of Jesse Ventura as expressing cautious circumspection.

Other aspects of demeanor include posture and gracefulness. The latter issue recalls the time that Leonard Peikoff lamented his lack of savoir-faire to Ayn Rand. In a romantic setting, he said, John Galt would open a bottle of champagne with a flourish, whereas he would probably fumble the cork. Ayn Rand replied that that was an illusion of art. A real-life John Galt might also fumble the cork, but he would not let that detract from the romantic atmosphere. In art one omits the unimportant, Rand said, in life one ignores it.

It is sage advice, but it has its limits—as Lord Chesterfield knew.

When an awkward fellow first comes into a room, it is highly probable that his sword gets between his legs, and throws him down, or makes him stumble, at least; when he has recovered from this accident, he goes and places himself in the very place of the whole room where he should not; there he soon lets his hat fall down, and, in taking it up again, throws down his cane; in recovering his cane, his hat falls a second time, so that he is a quarter of an hour before he is in order again. (Philip Dormer Stanhope, Lord Chesterfield's Letters, ed. David Roberts. New York: Oxford University Press [1992], No. 9; hereafter, Letters)

It was to forestall such awkwardness that Lord Chesterfield urged his son to engage a dancing master, "not so much for the sake of dancing, as for coming into a room, and presenting yourself genteelly and gracefully" (Letters, No. 49).

In addition to these aspects of demeanor, a given culture or subculture will offer a person additional ways to express his basic values, such as dress and grooming. Thus, to supplement his stately demeanor, Washington laid down this injunction: "In your apparel be modest and endeavor to accommodate nature, rather than to procure admiration" (Precepts, Rule 52). And Brookhiser adds: "Washington cared deeply about his clothes and how he looked all his life, often designing his own uniforms." Costume is clearly not transcultural, and within a well-mannered culture, as noted above, the range of options in these areas may be relatively limited, but such a culture will also pay more careful attention to details.

Of course, demeanor cannot excuse bad manners. Etiquette demands that even a person who is characteristically grave comes to a wedding prepared to be joyful, though such a person may properly be less effervescent than a person who is characteristically gay. Likewise, etiquette demands that even people who are characteristically gay come to a funeral prepared to be somber, but such a person may properly be somewhat less somber than a person who is characteristically grave.


The forms of manners discussed so far have been limited to those justified by pre-trade strategies of value prospecting and value presentation. Yet manners also play a role in business and other forms of trade. As David Kelley writes in UI, value prospecting "does not cease to be an issue once one has formed a trading relationship; it is an ongoing commitment to realize the potential of that relationship" (36).

The difficult question is: How can one analyze good manners in the context of a trade. If a sales clerk greets a customer, rather than hanging out with the other clerks, we recognize the greeting as value prospecting in a business context. But suppose a salesman treats a regular client to an elegant lunch. Is that an act of good manners that should be viewed as value prospecting, a way of seeking to realize the trading relationship's full potential? Or is the salesman in effect lowering the cost of his goods: Total cost of the goods equals the price paid for the goods minus the price of one elegant lunch. Is the answer different if the salesman treats the client to a weekend at a fancy resort? Because of these difficulties, I have decided not to analyze here the nature of manners in a business context, but to leave those questions for a future article.


Assuming the hypotheses explored above have some truth, Objectivists who wish to apply their philosophy clearly need to think more—and do more—in the field of manners. Indeed, I believe that the movement's lack of attention to applications such as manners is one reason for Objectivism's failure to catch fire—despite the enormous popularity of Ayn Rand's novels. Too commonly, novices believe that merely changing one's views will change one as a person. If I accept rationality as a virtue, the newly minted Objectivist says, I will be rational; and if I accept productivity as a virtue, I will be efficacious. The further assumption is then made that a person who is both rational and efficacious will strike a figure like unto Francsico d'Anconia. Soon enough, of course, the novice learns it is not so and becomes disillusioned.

He should not be. Once a person embraces the virtue of rationality, he must learn the art of reasoning; Once a person embraces the virtue of productivity, he must learn the numerous arts of efficacy in the various departments of life. And once a person has learned these arts, he must practice them.

So, too, in the realm of social exchange. If one wishes to find satisfying trading partners—one must learn the arts of finding and cultivating those partners: the skills of value prospecting and self-presentation, both of which are heavily dependent on manners. And once an Objectivist has accepted the necessity of learning such skills, including manners, he must practice, practice, practice.

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