Jack Woods (University of Leeds)
“The Authority of Formality”
Date: Wednesday 28 December, 2016
Etiquette gets a bad rap. Theorists often claim that etiquette is only formally normative whereas morality is substantively normative. Requirements of morality and belief formation are supposed to be important in some abstruse way that eludes the requirements of mere manners. These claims are often flavored with examples of the etiquette norms of our grandparents and moral norms of pressing contemporary interest. It’s hard, in the face of such a barrage, to do much but nod along. Who could seriously think that not wearing white shoes before Easter was on a par with the requirement to treat others with fairness and compassion?
Me. I think exactly this. In particular, I think that the commonly accepted distinction between substantive and merely formal obligation is an illusion. There is no particular domain of obligation where the fact that we have a domain-specific obligation to do something entails that we have normative reason to do it. Any time the fact that I’m morally obliged to do something justifies that I have reason to do it, this is because there is a lurking reason to do as morality obliges. As with morality, so with etiquette. My aim in what follows is display how attractive this view truly is.
I do not deny the importance of morality, epistemology, and other “substantive” normative domains; rather, I think that their importance is due to our reasons to be morally and doxastically sound. We have reason to be morally upstanding, doxastically reasonable, and fair. No amount of despair at how these properties fail to manifest in people’s ends should dissuade us from thinking that we take these properties seriously. Moral failure, irresponsibility in belief formation, and blatant disregard for fairness are taken to be, and thereby are, serious criticisms. This suffices to make them important and to render unto us reason to be fair, rational, and moral. However, we likewise have reason to be polite, play chess correctly, and (had reason) to wear a backpack on one shoulder (at least in the early 90s).