Politeness and Objective Ethics

G. Stolyarov II
Issue XVII - August 25, 2003
Recommend this page.
A sample image

I established the foundations of philosophically verifiable etiquette in "The Public-Private Ethical Distinction." Etiquette is thoroughly grounded in rational egoism; it is a scientific classification of the instances and categories of action which are best for an individual to keep solely to himself or within a self-defined delimited circle of pertinent associates and which it is to his advantage to seek the cooperation and contribution of others toward. That former treatise had addressed with considerable specificity the alternative of withholding or disclosing and how profoundly it permeates all public discussions and endeavors. Yet another crucial part of etiquette as we encounter it (which is not to presume, at least thus far, that this is in concord with objective etiquette—that much remains to be reasoned toward) consists of expressions and gestures of politeness, including greetings and farewells, manners for all sorts of occasions: dining, gameplay, discourse, as well as the ubiquitous expectation of hospitality from a host.

            Politeness, the undertaking of a positive behavior toward another party deemed mutually proper and pleasant by both, can be traced to an essential component of rational human interaction: value-trading. The rational egoist seeks some form of value, be it material or intellectual, tangible or ideological, particular or underlying, which he can at some later instant(s) employ for the advancement of his survival and prosperity. In the realm of material skills and commodities, as well as in that of insights, systems, feedback, and constructive criticism, many of these values, optimal for the particular selfish aims of the pursuing individual, are possessed by others; they are, in other words, the property of other individuals. Those individuals' right to gain, keep, and dispose of that property prevents the agent of our deliberation from justifiably confiscating their possessions without their consent. In order to receive these values, the agent must present certain values of his own, in accordance with the material/intellectual context of the given exchange. He must also act in a manner that demonstrates his approbation of the attributes of his partner in trade (the attributes which he seeks to gain) and emphasizes his peaceful intentions in attempting to accomplish the transaction's objective. Hence, all exchanges of values should be accompanied by bilateral valuation, which is accomplished via politeness.

            An expression of greetings indicates the willingness to undertake a transaction of some sort, a universal signal (with plenty of rich stylistic variations) that directs the other party's attention toward the agent and at the same time demonstrates the friendly, appreciative conduct that befits a peaceful trader. A statement of farewell confirms that the exchange or series thereof has been concluded (with whatever result) and that each party can attend to affairs not requiring mutual presence or interaction without demonstrating a semi-oblivious contempt for the other, which latter manner is quite a hindrance to the successful outcome of any present or future cooperation. As for those instances where a short salutation is uttered to a friend or acquaintance in passing him by, but no other words are intended to follow, either due to a shortage of time or an abundance of other affairs, this is an expression of an intent to transact in the future, all the meantime maintaining cognizance and valuation of the other party. Neither philosophers nor laymen can permit themselves to think in stasis, only of the immediately accessible moment and desire. Every rational man plans ahead in his endeavors and associations alike, and so must thinkers in their interpretations of rational conduct. This planning need not be precise or even definite, but it does contain an underlying recognition that "this person and his values will be of use to me sometime, given the nature of the goals that I seek to accomplish." And all the meantime, interest will accumulate in the individual's intellectual deposit into that particular trader relationship.

            In the associations of close friends, who offer each other the means toward intellectual amelioration, it is often a proper expression of politeness to inquire of the most recent condition of one's internal state, using such phrases as "How are you?" However, in order to qualify as an objective exchange of values, this question must be sincere and in preparation for a particular, non-superficial reply. In the present state of politically-correct culture, it has been posed all too often with the expectation of a brisk "Fine, thank you," which has no relation to the actual condition of the responding individual, who may well be utterly miserable. The root of this crisis in etiquette is the neglect of the public-private ethical distinction; one's inner mental state, with its constant dynamic of creation, its saturation with the yet developing, incomplete, not yet suited for public presentation, is best kept private; a close friend or a professional psychologist, under conditions of non-disclosure, can best assist an individual in remedying confusions, removing stumbling blocks, or simply completing a thought process at a swifter pace, due to those persons' extensive acquaintance with the properties of that individual's mind. Hence the question "How are you?" is quite appropriate when posed by one of them. However, when uttered by semi-acquaintances, it loses the moral sanction. The semi-acquaintances are not interested in the individual's mental state, which they rightly should not be; they are not fit to ameliorate it. But, in the hypocritical or outright ignorant attempt to seem closer in relationship to that man than is their objective condition, they yet feign that interest in a gross violation of a key Objectivist precept, Honesty. Though there are in fact times when every individual is "fine" or even "great" in his internal functions, and does not require the assistance of others, the respondent cannot, due to the very nature of the human mind, be in such a state 100 percent of the time he so claims in such exchanges of mock courtesy. Thus, socially acceptable "etiquette" forces him to subvert Objective Etiquette and outright lie; if he refuses and comments on the inappropriateness of the inquiry in the given context, it is he who is accused of being impolite! This devious double bind of mindless irrationality can only be cleansed by means of a cultural injection of the recognition of the objectivity and egoistic foundations of etiquette. 

            Other verbal exchanges of politeness are perhaps simpler to trace to their logical roots. To say "I would like" or "please" (which is quite efficient shorthand for both "It would please me to…" and "Do this if it pleases you…") is an indication of one's desire to peacefully gain a value, with one's reciprocal payment either forthcoming or already presented. To thank an individual for his services is an indication that a value was received and that the exchange has accomplished a multifaceted satisfaction (material and intellectual); this grants the other party the fulfillment of the expectation of bilateral intellectual pleasantness as well as the hope that further value-trading of this sort shall come in the future. To apologize for an accidental transgression or intrusion on another's material or intellectual property is to declare that one's intent was not forceful/confiscatory, that one regrets the action and is prepared to remedy the damage in any manner desired by the injured party (which sometimes requires no response, if that latter party sees it optimal to correct the harm without assistance).

            In the company of others, another category subsumed by politeness is that of manners, which are to conduct what the aforementioned expressions are to language. Manners are those unspoken actions which are demonstrative of politeness. When one dines in anyone else's company, one is expected to remain tidy and constantly monitor the stainlessness of one's flesh and attire. This is because, to quote from "The Public-Private Ethical Distinction," "to shield himself from public knowledge of physical imperfections and occasional infestations with dirt or wear, the tactful man will practice proper hygiene without discussing it; he will adhere to standards of cleanliness and order both in his body and clothing; he will not deliberately brandish wounds, stains, shreds, or haphazard hairdos." To slobber over one's plate or shove chunks into one's mouth or to tolerate any accidental breach of the integrity of one's body or clothing is to flaunt bodily imperfections in public, where they, as has already been proved, do not belong. It violates not only the purpose of food (which is to be eaten, not used as coloring in the style of Jackson Pollock) but the purpose of a dinner with others, which is to share desirably public values, such as completed ideas (and, of course, completed food!).

            It is to be noted that cleanliness and auditory propriety (which is indicative of proper bodily function) in table manners are the only philosophically objective criteria as concerns etiquette. The remainder (such as whether to hold one's knife and fork in one hand consistently or to cumbersomely alternate, as many Americans do, or whether to place one's napkin under one's lap or tuck it into one's collar) is contextual and utility-based. Whichever method achieves the maximum efficiency, as concerns the cleanliness, pleasure, and unhindered nature of the consumption, under the particular circumstances, is the one that should be used. Note that this "applied logic" (as all non-dialectic, non-subjective, logical logic) is culturally independent, and does not consider any traditional formalities that have developed in regard to dining etiquette in any given society, the United States included.

            Manners also feature significantly in the playing of games, be it in the imperative to obey game rules or to demonstrate courtesy toward one's co-players. A game is a simulation of an aspect of reality or of the imagination whose general dynamic characterizes a larger world dominated by the trader principle. The players compete with each other in order to gain the most desirable result, or even to defeat other players within the parameters of the game, just as businesses and entrepreneurs seek to outcompete each other and, in certain cases, drive their competitors out of their field. Yet this rivalry is always civil and delimited; no side is permitted to initiate physical force against the other. Thus, one's success or failure is founded purely on the skill and intellect in the acquisition of any advantageous attribute, be it an economic resource, a game point, or a checkmate. The loser of the game, like the one of the business competition, is harmed only within the context of the game or the competition; he fails to gain the object of his undertaking. Yet, in a game, this object is far less substantial in terms of considerations relevant to survival and prosperity than it is in the economy. Hence, while a businessman who had driven his firm into bankruptcy may rightly be called incompetent, the loser of a game has merely been "bested." To stress his defeat in a manner that pesters him is to state that the objective of the game possesses greater import for the agent individual than interaction and value trading with his accomplice in gameplay and thus to commit a gross moral infraction upon the integrity of the relationship. After all, a game is undertaken by a multiplicity of persons only because each has an egoistic interest in mind; to develop a given skill by means of the very undertaking of the game; chess sharpens the reasoning and anticipation of both the winner and loser, Monopoly teaches both certain elementary (though imperfect) theories and concepts of business, and soccer develops the endurance and aim of all who ever contact the ball. This greater intent should always be kept in mind when a player combats the urge to shout an obscenity or to taunt an opponent. And it should be applied in full, when, at the enterprise's conclusion, the opponents part with a solemn, dignified "Good game."

            Of course, each participant undertakes a game with the expectation of something particular and something definite. A game being a simulation of a rational reality, rules and their obedience are of the utmost import. A bishop cannot suddenly shift its movement pattern to that of a knight; a helicopter cannot arbitrarily be introduced into a basketball court to lift the ball and drop it into the hoop. Nor can a game precept be violated simply because its dynamic produces a result which is counter a given player's intentions. Of course, if the unanimous body of the game participants resolves to alter the rules in such a manner as to better fulfill each member's interests, then they are free to play this modified version, or to create an entirely new game of their own, without breaching proper etiquette. After all, the rational purpose of a particular game is to enhance the skills of the participants, not to follow the instructions on the game box to the letter.

            Discourse, an undertaking inevitably involving a multitude of persons, is, too, thoroughly guided by objective manners. Discussion as such, be it verbal, written, printed, or electronic, is a prime example of intellectual value trading; one person's ideas are exchanged for those of the other. Each side gains values, and—which is most attractive about this form of trading—does not lose the values that it presents, excepting one, time. To partake in a discussion implies that one's valuation of one's partner(s) and his/their ideas is prioritized over all other accessible undertakings, so that one is willing to spend one's present time in the acquisition of such pertinent intellectual commodities. As this valuation is present, in a world of honest traders, it must be expressed by means of tactful, courteous dialogue, which takes care not to spew insulting phrases onto the person uttering the ideas, even if the ideas themselves are false. Denunciation of false ideas is permissible and even necessary at times; this is a case of constructive criticism, encountering which should be an expectation for anyone who discloses his thought to another person. Likewise, so is express disapprobation of questionable actions; this is always undertaken with the underlying presumption that the erring individual is capable of volitional amelioration, that he is amenable to reason, and that the agent of the critique is willing to offer him valuable suggestions for improvement. However, at no time, if the discourse is intended to continue, is it permissible to sincerely state to the other, "You are a foul person." Whereas this remark may be deserved by a brute, vulgar, savage enemy, a partner in consensual discourse cannot be a foe by definition; he, too, non-forcefully seeks some value for himself from the interaction. If the content of his suggestions seems repugnant or intended to doom the other individual to failure; then that other can thoroughly demolish them and expose their probable consequences, while still refraining from insults and preparing to utter a courteous farewell at the conclusion of the exchange.

            This does not, however, imply that all discourse must proceed in a timid, even tone of voice. Passionate emphasis, variation, and even outright booming proclamation are permissible, so long as they are kept within the bounds of the subject matter discussed and are not aimed against the other person(s). Screaming to insult and raising one's voice to reinforce a principle are a world apart; I would even venture to contend that they are diametrical opposites. The former destroys a value exchange by means of its impropriety, the latter seeks to amplify the exchange by employing the entire arsenal of persuasive tools legitimately available to the individual. The former is an example of unrefined savagery, the latter—a signal of oratorical finesse.

            Lastly, in the realm of public manners, whenever a party coordinates a gathering for any purpose, it, as the host, is expected to provide a contextually adequate level of comfort, aesthetic satisfaction, and material necessities and introduce them into the vicinity of the guests that partake in the occasion. The host usually being the initiator of the gathering, it is his prerogative to offer additional values to his companions so that they would consider their time best spent and their own material/intellectual commodities presented to amplest selfish gain. He is not morally obliged to bring about any state of luxury, though he should rightly be thanked if he does. It is, however, imperative, for him to assure his guests' freedom from unease. They must not remain hungry, be shoved into a dank cellar, or experience any other facet of deprivation, if they had chosen to yield their time in search for some positive, constructive gain. Depending on the duration and other contextual circumstances of the occasion, the host must ensure that his guests are endowed with a standard of living that is at least the minimum of their expectation of a life proper to a human being. He seeks to gain values from the guests, but in the process he must ensure that they are not drained of theirs.

            By now, the fact that rational egoism is the only legitimate foundation for mutual politeness should be evident; the altruist has no need for manners or courtesy. If his purpose is to pander to others' whims, he will do so as a selfless drone, uncaring of whether he is treated like a beneficent servant at best, or a lowly slave at worst. And no recipient of values permeated by the philosophy of altruism will respond with any manner of tact; he has been taught that values must be surrendered without expectation of reward, and, in the most consistent instances of altruism, without expectation of even gratitude. And if, according to this conception, it is unnecessary to express, why should he undertake the effort to do so? The philosophy of sacrifice will also inevitably bring about relationships other than that which exists between traders. When men are not consensual value-exchangers, they become inevitably split into two categories, the slaves and the dependents, the former being the coerced agents of selfless surrender, the latter being its thankless beneficiaries, each inextricably linked to the other by a web of suffering and lack, of streams of tears and rivers of blood. What honest civility can possibly exist in a world guided by such a philosophy?

            The rational man will practice proper etiquette because he is dependent on no one else for the determination of his goals and pursuits. He will respect others because he loves himself and constantly endeavors toward selfish gain. He will deem all property rights sacred because his is the most sacred property of all, the autonomy and functionality of his rational mind.

Recommend this page.

This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA Statement of Policy.

Click here to return to TRA's Issue XVII Index.

Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.