Wednesday, December 7, 2011

On Politeness

The essence and implications of politeness.

Think about it for a moment. It's no secret why politeness is socially advantageous: Social creatures must deal with each other. But I’ve often wondered how polite I come off to people who I encounter. Well sure it would matter what situation I was in at the time. It would depend on whether I was working, whether I was in a social group, whether I was inebriated. I've been told that I can come off as quite a bit arrogant. I know for example that I often do not go out of my way to be accommodating, and I usually want to just keep to myself in my own little bubble when in public. And I can see how that can sometimes come off as arrogant. Not acknowledging someone can seem rude, not smiling or laughing at others and initiating small talk when it seems appropriate can sometimes seem cold.

As someone passionate about philosophy, the contemplation of politeness makes me think about ethical egoism. Ethical egoism is a philosophy constructed around the idea that it is best to consider your own benefits, both in the short and long term when making moral decisions. Under ethical egoism, politeness and generosity are good behaviors because in the long term, it will eventually come back to you, and you will benefit from it. To be selfish can be socially disadvantageous, and therefore selfishness is not in your best interests. We all practice ethical egoism in our daily lives whether we know it or not. Now it is true that it has its critics, who espouse that every act of supposed altruism by the ethical egoist, is really done out of selfishness, and benefiting their own well being. This makes me wonder about how we view politeness: Do we act polite only because we think we will ultimately benefit from it?

When I reflect on politeness, I think of how much I like a polite society, but I also think of how I may not fit into a really polite society, in light of my unaccommodating nature. I also know that feeling of elitism I sometimes get within a certain crowd, that feeling like the air I breathe is more sophisticated, and deriding things that are below me. I know how much I hate it when that is done to me by others. This sounds like a great occasion to apply the golden rule, in theory and in practice. A great piece of wisdom when applied strategically, can eradicate years of ignorant folly. If I adhere to the golden rule in principle (while acknowledging it is not perfect), mustn't I adhere to it, in practice?

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