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Manners in the Moral Life

1/18/2005 - 6:00 AM PST

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Nancy Sherman on the Look and Feel of Virtue

WASHINGTON, D.C., JAN. 18, 2005 (Zenit) - What we do, how we do it and how we appear to others, often make an ethical difference, says a scholar in the field of ethics.

Nancy Sherman, author of the forthcoming "Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind" (Oxford University Press), is a philosophy professor at Georgetown University and the inaugural holder of the visiting Distinguished Chair of Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy

She shared with us how an "aesthetic of character" affects us, and how acting with good manners helps us grow in the life of virtue.

Q: What is the look and feel of virtue?

Sherman: By referring to "the look and feel of virtue," I am trying to capture the idea of the "aesthetic of character." Basically, I mean how we appear to others as conveyed through formal manners and decorum, as well as through manner in the wider sense of personal bearing and interpersonal attitude.

The latter can be a matter of looks and gesture, tone of voice and posture, facial expression, or more generally, overall emotional and physical comportment. The way we comport ourselves is often an important ingredient in formal manners, as in expressing politeness by looking a person in the eye when we greet them hello or showing gratitude through a smile.

I would say formal manners and more general comportment are part of how we convey socially sensitive behavior. Thus, it is not just what we do but how we do it and how we appear to others that often ethically matters.

Q: Why do manners matter?

Sherman: I became interested in manners during my stint as chair in ethics at the United States Naval Academy. The first time I entered the Academy gates what caught my eye -- indeed what catches the eye of any outsider -- is the attention paid to manners and decorum.

"Honor, courage and commitment" may be written on Academy walls, replacing Harvard's "Veritas." But written on the faces and bodies of the midshipmen is not just a commitment to character, but a commitment to an aesthetic of character. Indeed, the world of the military takes seriously the inner stuff of character, but also its appearance.

At the mealtime formation, visitors line up to see a brigade of crisply pressed uniforms and straight bodies. Officers and midshipmen greet civilians with a "sir" or "ma'am," locked eye gaze and firm handshake. Hair is in place and uniforms are impeccable; Marine shirts have creases like no civilian dress shirt has ever seen.

But it is not just a trim and neat uniform that conveys good conduct in the midshipman. It is the overall demeanor and bearing that the visitor notices -- a sense of politeness and respect, an air of helpfulness and civility.

As I saw this in these young officers in training, I asked myself how important some aspect of external bearing is in nonmilitary life. My answer was that it had a role that philosophers, in particular, often feel hesitant to defend.

And yet, as parents, we often insist on training our children to look others in the eye when saying hello or thank you, or to look "presentable" when going out with company, etc. We count on certain facial and bodily gestures to be part of the full package of morally good conduct. And we praise and blame accordingly.

In this sense, the outer stuff of virtue is, at times, continuous with expectations for inner character -- I wanted to write about that continuum. I found a fascinating discussion in Seneca's "On Doing Kindnesses" -- "De Beneficiis" -- and I explore that in my account.

Q: Do external conventions help cultivate authentic virtues or do they simply mask hypocrisy?

Sherman: You raise an important objection against manners -- namely that they condone, and even encourage, inauthenticity. Favors done gruffly may offend, but a veneer of politeness that masks meanness can be just as offensive in its deceit. Moreover, a false-self can alienate others, but also oneself.

But I think the charge of hypocrisy is typically overdone; I argue against the charge in several ways.

First, while the demand to fully bear one's soul may be on some occasions appropriate, to know when it is not, is itself a sign of moral sensitivity. To know when to hold back, to know when polite behavior counts for something and full disclosure for less, seems altogether a morally good thing.

Moreover, "posed" facial expressions -- or we might say, "faking it" -- may please others and express respect as well as function as self-exhortations. They are a way of coaxing along a corresponding inner change. We nurse a change from the outside in, as it were.

Current research on facial feedback mechanisms lends some support to the idea. ...

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