Manners in a Civil Society-Shoots from the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii – Jan. 26, 2005

article top

There is an oft quoted paraphrase of a statement by Miss Manners that goes along the lines, “manners are the grease of civilization.” The idea seems simple but is truly a profound one with deep implications. As members of a society, a civilization, we can go about crashing into one another with reckless abandon; or we can treat one another with courtesy and respect. One has to ask which is the better course. The answer is obvious.

In a machine, grease is used to lubricate parts that must mesh together, making them work more smoothly. This makes the machine operate more efficiently, increases its performance and, ultimately, endure for a longer time. This is a perfect analogy concerning the function of manners and civility facilitating the machinery of civilization.


It is also the true function of laws. To provide the framework by which we know how to deal civilly with one another. Within certain proscribed limits we are free to act, as along as we don’t violate the rights of others. This safeguards the property rights of each individual which is the predicate upon which a civil society operates. Otherwise society is the mere coercive competition of the separate interests of individuals. That we all agree to adhere to certain rules is what makes culture and ultimately, the betterment and prosperity of its individuals, possible.

In the mission statement for the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii it says: “The individual and his or her search for meaning and happiness in a civil society is stressed.” It is only in the context of a civil society, one that is greased by manners and agreed adherence to law, that such meaning and happiness can be found. As Lord Acton succinctly put it:

“Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for the security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.”

For there to be liberty a society must also be civil. And civil in this context means, “adequate in courtesy and politeness,” which is also one way to define “manners.” They are all of a piece, one cannot have one without the others.

It is only within the context of a civil society where an individual is exercising his or her liberty that moral actions can take place. Coercion is not moral and a moral act cannot be coerced. Only an individual acting in liberty can freely chose to commit a moral act. This is why giving to charity to help the poor is a moral act but taxing the populace to provide welfare is not. They are fundamentally different acts.

This isn’t just some lofty issue, it applies to the everyday mundane choices we all face countless times a day. To run the red light or not. To let the pedestrian cross in the crosswalk or dart through first in our car. To cut in line or not. To speed down the crowded school street or observe the speed limit. To sneak a piece of candy from the bulk bin at the store.

We normally don’t think of these everyday choices as moral but they all are. We only come to grips with that fact when it goes awry and someone gets injured or killed. Then it comes home that a wrong has been committed but we usually only see this wrong in legal terms, not moral ones. This is a mistake.

It is this loss of seeing the moral side of these everyday issues that puts pressure on everyone to have such angst and contention over what are considered the “big” ones. Having felt the loss of everyday civility we seek to regain it by making big public stands on the major public issues. Sadly, if in daily life the small moral decisions we must all make are overlooked as being such, then the battle is already lost and it doesn’t matter if you win the big ones.

Part of the problem is government usurping individual choice with mere legal definitions. Increasingly society has become a place where all behavior is legally defined and the wisdom of the choice is no longer left up to the individual. You will pay taxes to help the poor. You can only put in your body what the state says you can. If the state decides to pull your feeding tube then that is what shall be done.

In such a society the option, the possibility for making a moral choice is negated. The government decides for you. Why be civil when the government tells you what you can and cannot do? It all becomes a matter of what you can get away with. Thus liberty becomes doing whatever you want and not the freedom to do the proper thing, the courteous thing, the right thing, the moral thing.

This is where we find ourselves today in much of society. We have lost our civility. This is the degradation of “Rap” music or “Hip Hop” music videos. This is the football player mock mooning the stadium crowd. It is the activist destroying decades of research “saving” the animals or setting fire to a car lot full of SUVs. It is also the endless stream of emails advertising everything from bootleg prescription drugs to a tryst with your next door neighbor’s wife.

Who would have thought that a loss of manners could mean so much? That the loss of manners leads to a loss of civility which leads to a loss of true liberty which leads to a loss of morality. Without the grease of manners a civil society cannot be maintained. Liberty can only exist when people are civil enough with one another that they extend the same courtesy of its existence to one another. This is the meaning of a “civil society.” And for that, one must have manners.

”’Don Newman, senior policy analyst for the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, Hawaii’s first and only free market public policy institute focused on individual freedom and liberty, can be reached at:”’

”’This editorial is intended to provoke thought, discussion and an examination of issues. It does not reflect official policy of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. See the GRIH Web site at:”’

”’ reports the real news, and prints all editorials submitted, even if they do not represent the viewpoint of the editors, as long as they are written clearly. Send editorials to”’