“Eram regras de etiqueta, que provinham não de um senso de bondade, decência, humanidade, mas de um desejo egoísta de aparentar fidalgo. As damas e os cavalheiros tinham boas maneiras à mesa, falavam e escreviam corretamente. Era isso que identificava as pessoas de classe alta.” It’s all about signaling.

As Lévi-Strauss has remarked, our table manners, social etiquette, and fashions of dress, are seldom rationally examined. Herodotus wrote his The Histories recording the wild difference of custom and convention among nations. It has become commonplace for anyone acquainted with anthropology and history that the adoption of different systems of etiquette is utterly arbitrary.

That does not imply, of course, that etiquette itself is arbitrary, any more than moral codes being adopted rather arbitrarily implies that there is no objective morality. Perhaps certain customs that fit under the umbrella of etiquette are to be adopted by virtue of expediency or intrinsic worth.

Human dignity is one of the chief concepts of contemporary ethics, as are human rights. A notion of respect that is aimed at respecting human dignity and rights, forms, therefore, an imperative. (Notice the extra comma between ‘rights’ and ‘forms’. It lacks aesthetic value, but it promotes clarity.) Here are some customs that fit the description:

  • Do not impede someone’s discourse, unless, perhaps, if what they are saying can cause severe social consequences. Doing so hinders good social relationship and rational dialogue. (What if it is customary to talk over other people, and everybody doing it and nobody minding it?) (Then I should change my rule: do not impede someone’s discourse if they really don’t like it.)
  • Respect someone’s space. Everybody needs privacy to gather their thoughts, and people are not always in a non-terrible mood. (What if a given society values open talking and nobody minds it? What if it is empirically demonstrated that isolating oneself only prevents your mood from getting better??) (Then I should change my rule: respect someone’s space if they want it respected or if it brings about good consequences.)
  • Perhaps a certain respect for the elderly will diminish the intolerable arrogance of youth, which brings about both good and bad consequences. A good one is that wisdom will be exchanged more easily between generations. A bad one is that ancient customs, mistakes, and prejudices, will have more vigor. (This is a purely instrumental characterization of respect for the elderly – do they not reserve respect by virtue of who they are?)

This is getting silly. Do what Ethics tell you to do. Some customs are, just like that, directly based on Ethics: ethical customs. There are also customs worth following for their pragmatic consequences. I want to separate these customs into two categories.

First of all, some social customs might stimulate minds of the caliber of Mozart, Goethe, and Kant, without oppressing anyone. These are good customs. (Without being goods in themselves, like the custom of no sex without consent.) Educational customs, reading customs, relationship customs, lifestyle customs, institutional customs. Imposing these customs is obviously wrong. What I don’t know is if merely trying to influence your kids and your society into having it is wrong. I think not.

We also might have that following established social customs sometimes is desirable, because societies work on expectation and signaling. Customs are an arbitrary set of ways of expressing respect, desire, love, wealth, nobility, scorn, and much more. These must be expressed in some way, and perhaps there is no objective or best way to express them. So we are left with arbitrary customs that are followed for purposes of social organization and cohesion.

Recapping, we have three reasons for following a given custom. The custom of not eating meat should be followed because of ethics. The custom of teaching critical thinking should be followed because of expediency. The custom of hand-shaking is the kind of custom that should only be followed if everyone is following it, and I do not know what to call it. Only this latter one is etiquette.

This ended up being very confusing and I didn’t discuss etiquette at all. I might get back to this another day and compose a cleaner version.