Manners in the Moral Life

Nancy Sherman on the Look and Feel of Virtue

| 1024 hits

WASHINGTON, D.C., JAN. 17, 2005 (Zenit.org).- What we do, how we do it and how we appear to others, often make an ethical difference, says a scholar in the field of ethics.



Nancy Sherman, author of the forthcoming "Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind" (Oxford University Press), is a philosophy professor at Georgetown University and the inaugural holder of the visiting Distinguished Chair of Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy

She shared with ZENIT how an "aesthetic of character" affects us, and how acting with good manners helps us grow in the life of virtue.

Q: What is the look and feel of virtue?

Sherman: By referring to "the look and feel of virtue," I am trying to capture the idea of the "aesthetic of character." Basically, I mean how we appear to others as conveyed through formal manners and decorum, as well as through manner in the wider sense of personal bearing and interpersonal attitude.

The latter can be a matter of looks and gesture, tone of voice and posture, facial expression, or more generally, overall emotional and physical comportment. The way we comport ourselves is often an important ingredient in formal manners, as in expressing politeness by looking a person in the eye when we greet them hello or showing gratitude through a smile.

I would say formal manners and more general comportment are part of how we convey socially sensitive behavior. Thus, it is not just what we do but how we do it and how we appear to others that often ethically matters.

Q: Why do manners matter?

Sherman: I became interested in manners during my stint as chair in ethics at the United States Naval Academy. The first time I entered the Academy gates what caught my eye -- indeed what catches the eye of any outsider -- is the attention paid to manners and decorum.

"Honor, courage and commitment" may be written on Academy walls, replacing Harvard's "Veritas." But written on the faces and bodies of the midshipmen is not just a commitment to character, but a commitment to an aesthetic of character. Indeed, the world of the military takes seriously the inner stuff of character, but also its appearance.

At the mealtime formation, visitors line up to see a brigade of crisply pressed uniforms and straight bodies. Officers and midshipmen greet civilians with a "sir" or "ma'am," locked eye gaze and firm handshake. Hair is in place and uniforms are impeccable; Marine shirts have creases like no civilian dress shirt has ever seen.

But it is not just a trim and neat uniform that conveys good conduct in the midshipman. It is the overall demeanor and bearing that the visitor notices -- a sense of politeness and respect, an air of helpfulness and civility.

As I saw this in these young officers in training, I asked myself how important some aspect of external bearing is in nonmilitary life. My answer was that it had a role that philosophers, in particular, often feel hesitant to defend.

And yet, as parents, we often insist on training our children to look others in the eye when saying hello or thank you, or to look "presentable" when going out with company, etc. We count on certain facial and bodily gestures to be part of the full package of morally good conduct. And we praise and blame accordingly.

In this sense, the outer stuff of virtue is, at times, continuous with expectations for inner character -- I wanted to write about that continuum. I found a fascinating discussion in Seneca's "On Doing Kindnesses" -- "De Beneficiis" -- and I explore that in my account.

Q: Do external conventions help cultivate authentic virtues or do they simply mask hypocrisy?

Sherman: You raise an important objection against manners -- namely that they condone, and even encourage, inauthenticity. Favors done gruffly may offend, but a veneer of politeness that masks meanness can be just as offensive in its deceit. Moreover, a false-self can alienate others, but also oneself.

But I think the charge of hypocrisy is typically overdone; I argue against the charge in several ways.

First, while the demand to fully bear one's soul may be on some occasions appropriate, to know when it is not, is itself a sign of moral sensitivity. To know when to hold back, to know when polite behavior counts for something and full disclosure for less, seems altogether a morally good thing.

Moreover, "posed" facial expressions -- or we might say, "faking it" -- may please others and express respect as well as function as self-exhortations. They are a way of coaxing along a corresponding inner change. We nurse a change from the outside in, as it were.

Current research on facial feedback mechanisms lends some support to the idea. Experimenters have shown that those who read the "funnies" with upturned lips find the cartoons funnier than those whose lips are not in the smiling position. Other studies show that overt facial expression can affect the intensity of emotional arousal.

Immanuel Kant, the great 18th-century German Enlightenment philosopher, captures the point surprisingly well in one of his writings.

He says, "Men are, one and all, actors -- the more so the more civilized they are. They put on a show of affection, respect for others, modesty and disinterest without deceiving anyone, since it is generally understood that they are not sincere about it.

"And it is a very good thing that this happens in the world. For if men keep on playing these roles, the real virtues whose semblance they have merely been affecting for a long time are gradually aroused and pass into their attitude of will."

The point is significant coming from Kant's mouth, for he is often thought of as a philosopher who is almost "moralistic" about not lying. Yet here he suggests that a bit of role playing -- a bit of "faking it" -- goes a long way both to lubricate the wheels of society and to nudge along inner character change.

Q: So, how we speak, act and comport ourselves can help shape our deeper moral selves and our character. But also it seems important in conveying the right attitude to others. Is that right?

Sherman: As I have suggested, I think "faking it," or role playing, can be terribly important in social interaction.

Erving Goffmann, a well-known sociologist who studied role playing at the University of Pennsylvania, suggested that we depend upon it for many of our social rituals, including deference behavior and attitudes of respect. But the research suggests that it may be more continuous with nurturing inner change than we typically think.

Seneca, a late Roman Stoic from the first century A.D., emphasizes the continuum between inner and outer moral behavior. His point is that kindness and gratitude are typically captured in the manner of conduct. How to play "the role of the good person" becomes key.

And surprisingly for a Stoic -- who by doctrine ought to be wary of emotional engagement -- he demands that kindness and gratitude have much to do with the emotions we express through body, facial language and voice. In shows of kindness and gratitude, he emphasizes a kind of back-and-forth loop in the language of emotional gesture.

A few quotes give the flavor of his thought. We create ingratitude when we do favors with a plaintive attitude and when we are "oppressive" and nagging in our demands: "We spoil the effect entirely, not just afterwards, but while we are doing the favor."

Nor do we typically express the right comportment if favors are extorted from us: Our reluctance is betrayed in inappropriate "furrowed brows" and "grudging words."

Nor should we give a gift in a way that is humiliating. For we are so constituted that insults "go deeper than any services" and are more "tenaciously remembered" than kindnesses.

"No one can feel gratitude for a favor haughtily tossed down or angrily thrust on him," or given with groaning or flaunting or with an "insolent expression" or "language swollen with pride" or with "a silence that gives an impression of grim severity" or in a way that is simply "irritating." It is like giving bread with stones in it.

Showing arrogance in gift giving simply undermines the deed itself: "There are many who make their kindnesses hateful by rough words and superciliousness. Their language and annoyance are such as to leave you regretting your request was ever granted."

Again, he exhorts, "Don't remonstrate when giving an act of kindness; save that for another time. No element of unpleasantness should be mixed with it." In short, gifts that are true kindnesses are bestowed "with a look of human kindness," be it in the language of words and voice, or facial and bodily expression.

Thus, the look and feel of virtue matter. They indicate attitude, even if that attitude is, at times, feigned. The point is that an important part of everyday moral interaction just is the attitude we "show" to others.