The Domain of Manners and the Social Contract

I’m currently reading the third edition of Roger Kimball‘s Tenured Radicals, and while a significant portion of it is familiar ground for me, Kimball presented one idea that struck me with some force yesterday afternoon.

The range of human action is circumscribed to a greater or lesser degree by rules, with the compulsory/forbidden at one end of the range to pure caprice at the other. The area in between is what Kimball cites John Fletcher Moulton as dubbing the Unenforceable. Moulton further describes it as “the Domain of Manners”,  which encompasses “all cases of right doing where there is no one to make you do it but yourself,” but I also find Kimball’s description useful:

[It is] a place governed not by law but by virtues such as duty, fairness, judgment, and taste.

In short, it is the world of should, between the points of must and can. Kimball goes on to state that “A good index of the health of any social institution is its allegiance to the strictures that define this middle realm.” Unfortunately, he suggests (and I agree) that this middle realm is rapidly shrinking, swallowed by legalism on one end and licentiousness on the other, both in academia and in the culture in general.

On the one hand, we see this in speech codes, the phenomenon of “hate crimes” that punish offensive states of mind, and the endless array of sensitivity and harassment policing to which we are subject. On the other hand, we see it in the form of nincompoops like the would-be Koran-burners in Florida, who fail to understand the difference between what is allowed and what is wise.

What this leaves us with is an infantilizing drive toward totalitarianism on one side and infantile behavior on the other. But that puts those of us who want choice so that we may choose virtuously in an ever-dwindling middle.

If there is to be a solution, I think it has to come from culture — the mores, taboos, and yes, manners that underlie the way in which we live. But culture moves slowly, generationally, which is both a strength in the long run and an annoyance for those of us who are placed in an inopportune moment. What can the individual do in this circumstance?

I think that we have to begin by tending our own gardens, taking care of ourselves and not expecting others to do it for us, because there’s there’s a continuum between having things done for you and to you. We need to try to live virtuously and independently, in a way that makes it obvious that we don’t want or need external control to avoid lapsing into savagery. Will we always succeed? Almost certainly not — we’re human, after all. But we have to try. We have to reclaim that middle domain before it disappears altogether.

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About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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10 Responses to The Domain of Manners and the Social Contract

  1. majormaddog says:

    My question, and I’ve probably asked this before, is how do we get from here to there as a practical matter. Not just saying “mores, taboos, and yes, manners,” will do the trick I think. I think I can predict our respective arguments. I might say, that’s where a society based on the rule of law comes in. You might counter, hey but that means more government regulation, and we all know government is bad. And then I say, who’s this we you’re talking about Mondo, I think government has its place and is a-OK. Bah Humbug you say. And then I throw in something about your side obviously wants to fall back on religion – Christianity specifically – as the natural basis for these mores and taboos that you’re talking about. And you say, not necessarily Major, but what’s wrong with a little faith and manners anyway. And I say, absent implementing a theocracy, you’ll never get back to that society that has “Christian values” running all through it. And then you’ll say, you may be right, that’s why we’re doomed.

    Just thought I’d head us off at the pass. You’re welcome ;-).

  2. profmondo says:

    First of all, you’ve once again mistaken libertarianism with anarchy. Secondly, I think there’s a difference between a theocracy and a call for a return to some pre-Great Society values, such as self-reliance, a willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions (including sexual ones — see the rise in the illegitimacy rate, for example), and a turning away from the nihilistic relativism that poses as either critical thinking or multicult. And how do we do that? By living by our values, passing them to our kids, and hoping the culture regains its senses.

  3. Withywindle says:

    Coercive shaming is also needed. But most people are shameless today, and the urge to shame is evaporating.

    • profmondo says:

      You’re right, of course, Withy, and I would contend that shamelessness is another ramification of that nihilistic relativism. Where Lear only regards man as a “bare, forked animal” when he is despairing and mad, the contemporary culture is more than happy to embrace the notion, and admits no more reason to feel shame than any other animal. When humanity is no more special than bacteria on a kitchen sponge (to use MK Freeberg’s metaphor), what purpose shame, which implies an honor those bacteria lack? The death of shame is one more example of the “freedom” of the abyss.

  4. nightfly says:

    Major – if I may, I don’t think the arguments you outline need go that way. The thing is that rule of law, rather than rule of men, is itself an idea that arises from a healthy society. Law, capital L, is not the problem, but the proliferation of bad individual laws – which themselves are usually the result of the proliferation of bad individuals.

    As the Professor said, NO government is not the solution, but a proper government; of the people, by the people, and for the people. Such a government will reflect the general health of that people, that society. A society such as ours, which has for a long time had its non-governmental bonds eroded and undermined, is going to be unbalanced and create an unhealthy government system. The solution is to start exercising those other bonds – much as one would go to therapy to regain use in one’s legs after being bedridden for months. The solution is NOT a comfier bed, not if one wants to get out and run again. The worst traps are the comfortable ones.

    As culture improves, as we begin to rehabilitate our self-reliance and determination and faith and virtue, then the laws we make will be healthier, and the unhealthy ones, we will no longer need.

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  6. Mrs. Billingsworth says:

    I stumbled upon your post in the quest to find out whether or not anyone had anything to say about the deterioration of the social contract in the specific arena of manners. First, thank you for saying something!

    Two days ago, I was repeatedly rammed by the expensively dressed woman behind me in line with a grocery cart in a Safeway while attempting to help the bagger (who was admittedly painfully slow) to put my groceries in my cart. There was nowhere for me to go to get out of her way, and, as she rammed her cart into me and instructed me to “Move Aside Please” again and again, I thought to myself “What sweet fresh hell is this?” and though I repeatedly instructed her that I was in fact unable to move, (the way ahead was blocked completely) and “Please ma’am, stop ramming me with your cart, I will be out of your way in a nanosecond” she simply refused to desist until I had (literally seconds later) managed to bundle the last of my bags into the cart, murmer my thanks to the bagger, and wrench myself and the cart out of her way. At that time, I could not resist a loud and censorious “Good Lord” in her general direction.

    It bothered me. A lot. I don’t think anyone should be assaulted in the marketplace. Not even by a snottily dressed woman with very nice gold jewelry and a whole army of khaki colored clothes. I don’t think it’s acceptable. I don’t think it should even have occurred to the woman to do that. I can’t seem to find anyone who finds the collapse of manners as upsetting as I do, or who wants to do anything about it. It makes our world a wildly unpleasant place to live in!

    Hypothetically, good manners and behavior should beget good manners and behavior. But, in fact, bad manners and behavior begets bad manners and behavior far more effectively! In fact, I wanted to locate said woman in the parking lot and “teach her some manners”. Hardly productive, wouldn’t you say?

    So, barring a descent to violence, what can we do?

    • profmondo says:

      First of all, thanks for dropping in, and I hope you’ll visit often.

      As for your specific situation, I applaud your restraint. I think in circumstances like this, a question along the lines of “Do you try to bully people everywhere you go?” spoken at a level and pitch that carries (I myself have a voice that can stun a police dog), might be useful. Bullies dislike exposure, which leads us back to Withywindle’s idea of the rebirth of shame. If people lack the sensitivity to know they’re behaving shamefully, it falls to us to shame them.

      Again, thanks for dropping by. Don’t be a stranger!

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