Normally, and rightly so, we take ethics far more seriously than we do etiquette. After all ethics deals with what we take most seriously that relates to the good life, what we hold dear, our commitments to each other and ourselves, and all that is important to human life. From the Pre-Socratic thinkers forward, thinking about how we should live in order to achieve happiness and well being as a human being has been a theme of philosophical ethics, and still concerns us today in bioethics and clinical ethics.
Etiquette on the other hand, deals with more superficial matters, such as how our actions appear to others, and whether or not they conform to common social standards for acceptable behavior. Etiquette then, at a minimum, pertains to a world of appearances and social custom, more of what someone is on the outside, not on the inside.
No wonder we usually take etiquette less seriously, or should, than we do ethics. Many of us may enjoy someone showing a bit of irreverence toward social custom from time to time, especially if the social context is overly rigid and unforgiving. At times such irreverence can be not only humorous, but also important. But I want to argue that in general a certain amount of conformity to standards of etiquette is essential for any functioning society.
Placing an emphasis on how to speak and act appropriately in a social setting of diverse ideas is as old as civilized society. The ancient Greeks and Romans wrote behavior guides; our founders, including Washington and Franklin were very concerned about how individuals conduct themselves outwardly and had much to say about “rules of civility” and proper behavior during our upstart democracy; guides to etiquette and good manners have been widely discussed throughout our history.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.