The Distinction Between Etiquette & Morals

Philosophy 62: Ethics


Consider the following hypothetical situation: you are preparing to travel on a long journey with a single companion. You have a choice of two companions. The first is quite mannerly, charming, handsome and courteous. However, she has one serious flaw: she is a kleptomaniac, and steals your most valued possessions during the course of your travel. The second is constitutionally morally impeccable. However she also has a major flaw: she has absolutely no versing in etiquette. She burps and farts and does whatever function her body is inclined to right there in front of you. Which of the two are the greatest evils?

This hypothetical situation has a larger question underlying it. That is, what exactly is the difference between a maxim of etiquette and a maxim of something else, such as a maxim of something which we typically associate with the word “moral?” It could be argued that questions of both etiquette and “right and wrong” are highly subjective. Certainly there is a difference though, between someone who belches at the table and someone who steals. This culture apparently thinks so, since shoplifting is a punishable offense while burping is not. The answer to the question then largely depends on what the “something else” is.

What is the nature of a maxim of etiquette? For one, it is always culturally relative; that is, certain acts will break a maxim of etiquette in some cultures, arouse no response in other cultures, and be regarded as totally appropriate in yet other cultures. The act of belching after a meal is one such example. In western society belching loudly after a meal is regarded as rude or vulgar. In many middle eastern cultures however belching after a meal is seen as a compliment to the cook and is considered very polite. Among certain subcultures it is seen as a natural function, neither explicitly rude nor polite. Another example is using a toothpick after a meal. In the United States if we have something stuck in our teeth after we eat, we just grab a toothpick and pick away, even in public. In Hong Kong that would be regarded as totally vulgar. When people in Hong Kong use toothpicks, they cover their mouths with one hand and pick with the other.

But like maxims of etiquette, most “moral” maxims are culturally relative as well. Not all people are governed by the same codes of conduct, obviously, otherwise ethnic and cultural clashes might not be as intense as they are in pluralistic societies such as the United States. Polygamy, for example, is illegal in most parts of the US and is regarded as a moral sin by some, a patriarchal institution by others, and somewhat backwards by still other Americans. In certain parts of Africa however, polygamy is seen as a sign of status, a way to maximize production and as the best possible family environment. Murder, seen by many as the ultimate moral evil

Unlike maxims of etiquette however, certain other moral maxims are not culturally relative however. For instance, there is a cultural taboo against incest in every culture known to humankind; incest is not relative to a large extent. Another example is that in every culture it is not normal for mothers to kill their babies. These may be considered laws of human nature, or even of the animal kingdom. It is important to understand though that such universal maxims are very few. “Stealing is wrong” cannot be considered one such universal maxim, since the concept of ownership is not common to all cultures.

In some cases of maxims which we typically associate with the word “moral,” many have evolved into maxims of etiquette. Take the example of shoplifting. At least one major motivation to not shoplift is the fear of the embarrassment one experiences upon being caught. Shoplifting is, in addition to being illegal, culturally stigmatized, rude even. Another example is the maxim that lying is wrong. Far more than the awareness of any dogma, people consider what is appropriate to say in making their decisions of what to say. When a friend asks, “Am I fat?” people rarely say yes, even if that is the truth, in spite of