Good News About Bad Habits

Eighty percent of Americans think a lack of courtesy is a serious national problem, and 61 percent say people treated each other with more respect in the past. But when properly deployed, rudeness might actually be worth preserving, the philosopher Emrys Westacott argues in The Virtues of Our Vices (Princeton), along with gossip, snobbery, bawdy humor, and disrespect. Pointedly not using someone’s proper title is rude, for example, but it could serve the larger purpose of eroding unearned aristocratic privilege. Gossip counteracts secrecy in hierarchical societies, disseminating information about the failings of the powerful.

Perhaps most controversially, the book wraps up with a case for “withholding epistemic respect” from certain beliefs, among them Holocaust denial and a belief in miracles. Throw in a couple of dead baby jokes, and you’ve got a quick and engaging read. —Katherine Mangu-Ward

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