Heidi Withers

The Ethics of Etiquette

It is of course nearly the ‘silly season’, but the amount of attention paid in recent days to Carolyn Bourne’s critical email to her future daughter-in-law Heidi Withers about her manners is remarkable.

Most of the rules Bourne mentions concern the table manners of guests:

1) Don’t declare what you will and will not eat.

2) Don’t say you haven’t enough to eat.

3) Don’t start before everyone else.

4) Don’t take extra helpings without being invited to do so.

(In case you’re interested, the others require one to send handwritten cards of thanks, not to lie in bed in the morning, not to insult one’s future family in public, not to attract attention to oneself by telling others of one’s medical condition, and not to behave brashly (e.g. by getting married in a castle).)

In reading the email, I was reminded of a passage in R.M. Hare’s fascinating ‘Philosophical Autobiography’ (Utilitas 2002), about his time as a prisoner of the Japanese:

‘When we were on our way north to work as coolies in Thailand, crammed into box cars and receiving almost nothing to eat, there drew beside us a very smart new air-conditioned Thai train. Behind one of its plate glass windows, framed as if in an aquarium, was a young Japanese officer, eating an excellent meal with an air of exquisite refinement. When I had travelled in India, the poor must sometimes, from their vantage point, have seen me myself doing the same. I have never since then been able to behave nicely at table’.

One of the several things Bourne has failed to recognize is that, even though politeness is a virtue, it is not fundamental. It is part of benevolence, involving, as Henry Sidgwick put it, ‘the expression of general goodwill and abstinence from anything that may cause pain to others in conversation and social demeanour’ (The Methods of Ethics, 7th edn., 253).

If Withers’ behaviour was really as Bourne suggests, one can imagine it must indeed have been mildly annoying (though I don’t really get the rules about hand-written cards and the castle – those, I suspect, are peculiar to the Devonian upper-middle-class Bourne is – somewhat vainly — hoping Withers might wish to join). Her reaction, however, is what one might expect from someone who has been violently assaulted. Moral indignation and blame are scarce commodities, worth preserving for the things that really matter.