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Manners: insignificant social customs at the outer orbit of ethics?
by Graeme J. Davidson,
2 December 2006

.What we value most about someone’s life is how considerate, caring and loving the person was. We remember simple acts of hospitality, kindness and friendship that show a pattern of contributing over the years to the happiness and wellbeing of others. And, surely, that principle is at the heart of what makes for a happy and healthy society.

....Manners an important ethical issue? You’ve got to be kidding. Aren’t they about trivial stuff like turning the cell phone off at a show and teaching kids when to say please and thank you until they’re old enough not to bother. And, of course, in the good old days, it used to mean kids giving up their seat to an adult and men opening doors for women, who smiled and said thank you.
....Surely, ethics is about weightier issues of justice, codes of practice and the rights and wrongs of euthanasia, abortion, gay marriage or whatever is currently top of the morality hit parade? Isn’t it ultimately the ivory tower province of philosophers pondering ethical systems and theories they call normative ethics and meta-ethics?
....But manners shouldn’t be like the dwarf planet Pluto – insignificant social customs at the outer orbit of ethics. Courtesy and manners – the small ways in which we consider the needs of others – belong at the nucleus of our ethical thinking.
....Just apply the funeral test of what people say about the departed. How often do you hear about how much money the deceased made; how smart they were, how high they climbed corporate and social ladders; what kind of property and other gizmos they owned or what their golf handicap was? Friends and relatives eulogise about these things when they can’t think of anything better to say.
....What we value most about someone’s life is how considerate, caring and loving the person was. We remember simple acts of hospitality, kindness and friendship that show a pattern of contributing over the years to the happiness and wellbeing of others. And, surely, that principle is at the heart of what makes for a happy and healthy society.
....Maybe I’m getting old but I’m noticing how we’re becoming less considerate. Many of us aren’t bothering with important courtesies anymore. I think of those who leave emptying the dishwasher to others – usually to one kind person who always does it. Or those who say they’ll come to your social function then forget to tell you they got a better offer. Or those who never bother to thank you for a present or the help you gave them.
....And it seems some regard assertiveness as a virtue to the point of rudeness or even bullying. Typical are those impatient and irate drivers who hassle us, and the way some of Radio New Zealand’s interviewers behave.
....Others assert their interests at the expense of yours – like those who park across my garage and arrogantly insist they have every right to have a coffee at the local café while I wait.
....Then there are those who look down their noses at you or never return calls or reply to emails. I once wrote a letter to most of the Roman Catholic and Anglican bishops critiquing a joint public statement they’d made. Of all those prelates – who are the very people who should have known better – only two replied. Cardinal Tom Williams not only thanked me for the letter, but also said he would use it as the basis for discussion. He had taken me seriously and treated me with respect. That made such an impression I nearly joined the Roman Catholic Church by return email.
....Why have our standards slipped? Baby Boomers who grew up during the prosperity of the post war years are regarded as materialistic and selfish. The X-Generation that followed learnt from the conservative economics of the Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher eras to look after number one in a transitory job market. They’re cynical about religion and previously held values, including traditional family values. Add to that an attitude that relationships are disposable and a trend toward people preferring to live as singles and we have a recipe for less concern for others. All of this contributes to a dysfunctional and unhealthy society.
....Most of us appreciate it when others show kindness and consideration towards us. And I’m not referring to “have a nice day” commercialised consumer politeness. I think of the kind of etiquette that consists of people putting themselves out in small ways in everyday situations for our welfare. These manners are attractive and catch on. Soon they cumulatively change attitudes, turning us into a more caring and healthier society.
....It’s what William of Wykeham had in mind back in the 15th Century when he coined his famous motto: “Manners maketh man”.



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