Nice Distinction


Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence, by David Kelley, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: Institute for Objectivist Studies, 65 pages, $9.95

Miss Manners Rescues Civilization, by Judith Martin, New York: Crown, 497 pages, $30.00

Benevolence is the virtue that moves us to take account of the vulnerabilities and values of others for their own sake, not merely our own. As with most virtues, the practice of benevolence does not come easily. But for followers of novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand, it seems not to be available at all. Randians are notorious for extolling selfishness, indeed nominating it for the status of virtue; they speak of altruism with all the affection that a certain ex-president reserved for broccoli. And Rand herself scarcely ever tipped her pen in the direction of benevolence. It is simply a no-show on the Randian agenda.

Or such was the case prior to Unrugged Individualism. David Kelley, arguably the most gifted living interpreter and developer of Rand's philosophy, argues convincingly that a world in which benevolence is absent would be an ugly and brutal place to live. Less convincing are his attempts to square the circle of Randian egoism with an endorsement of unreciprocated acts of kindness and a generosity that isn't incessantly calculating answers to the question, "What's in it for me?" As with Dr. Johnson's dog walking on its hind legs, the wonder is not how well it performs but that it does so at all. Can Kelley's dog get vertical?

On first blush, it seems that it cannot. Egoism is the doctrine that one should always act to advance one's own well-being. That does not mean that one ought to go around trashing the lives of others; living within society as a predatory wolf is not a strategy likely to secure self-advancement. (Well, it might if one's chosen career is subway muggings or politics, but that is a topic for another essay.) Rather, most of what makes human lives go better requires the cooperation of others, and that is most effectively elicited by being a reliable cooperator oneself. Hermits aside, we get on by repeatedly exchanging quids for quos, all parties thereby benefiting.

This is the stuff of which Econ 101 texts are made, and I pick no quarrel with it. However, it is not benevolence. An economic actor is concerned only incidentally with the interests of other parties to the exchange. The good or service one affords them is extended only to induce provision of something one values more highly. The less one gives up (or the more one receives), the better. Getting the most for the least is the essence of economic rationality. But benevolence means providing more than one must. If I have to perform some action to survive or to advance my prosperity, it is a misuse of language to speak of that action as benevolent even if it redounds to the benefit of others. Only when one voluntarily accepts a bit less so that someone else can have more does benevolence come into the picture. And the Randian scorn of altruism seems to place that venue off limits.

Kelley disputes this. Benevolence, he claims, is "a commitment to achieving the values derivable from life with other people in society, by treating them as potential trading partners, recognizing their humanity, independence, and individuality, and the harmony between their interests and ours." Trade, unlike fraudulent deception or the blunt introduction of force, evinces respect for others. They, like oneself, are bearers of rights that may not be transgressed.

Kelley is certainly correct to maintain that a disposition to seek voluntary agreements with others rather than run roughshod over their person and property is a virtue. But to label it "benevolence" is blatant misidentification. Adam Smith was not similarly confused. In The Wealth of Nations he famously observed, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." When regard to one's own interest is pursued in a manner that does not violate the rights of others, an individual is manifesting justice, not benevolence.

More on target is Kelley's observation that we all fare better in a society in which people from time to time extend acts of uncompensated generosity to others. Suppose your car breaks down on a rural road. Someone with a cellular phone in his car drives by. It would brighten your day considerably if he would stop for a moment to ascertain what's wrong and then phone in a request for emergency assistance. To do so will cost him some time in getting to his destination and a few cents in connection charges. Perhaps he calculates that if he stops now to help you out, someday you might encounter him in similar circumstances and will then volunteer your own aid. That would indeed be more than adequate compensation.

But the likelihood of such a tit-for-tat scenario playing itself out is vanishingly small: There are lots of roads out there and lots of cars. It seems, therefore, that a rationally self-interested individual will not stop to offer aid. Yet he and you, and all the rest of us, would benefit from an environment in which such small acts of kindness were common–that is, from living in a society in which most people are at least modestly benevolent. So should the egoistic motorist stop to help?

Kelley says yes. By helping, the motorist extends a share of generosity to others, the same generosity he would wish to receive if he found himself in similar straits. I endorse Kelley's moral judgment. To offer highly valued assistance to someone at minimal cost to oneself is not mandated by strict concern for rights and duties, but it is nonetheless morally indicated. My disagreement is with the contention that this conclusion follows from egoistic premises.

The example sketched out above is one of numerous variations on the interaction pattern that decision theorists have dubbed the Prisoner's Dilemma. Briefly, this is a situation in which each party will do better with regard to her own interests by acting uncooperatively. If all cooperated, however, they would each do better. In other words, the egoist will be pleased if others stop to help when her car breaks down, but if she is rational she will not stop for someone else.

That, objects Kelley, is to be a free rider. True. The problem, though, is to identify a principled reason why selfish individuals ought to decline any opportunity that comes their way to take a free ride. Kelley replies, "Someone who would accept help in an emergency but would not provide it to others is acting on the premise of seeking something for nothing. He is seeking a benefit without the effort of producing that benefit; he wants to obtain an end without pursuing the necessary means." But this is fallacious. First, it equivocates on "benefit." Either the term refers to this person's stopping to help me when I am in need, or else it means the general social practice of uncompensated assistance. But it is only the former that directly benefits me; how common such assistance might otherwise be is altogether immaterial to the consistently selfish individual.

Second, in neither event is my own co-operative activity a means to the desired end: In the former case, either the motorist stops or doesn't stop, quite independently of what I do when the shoe is on the other accelerator; in the latter case, it is about as likely that my own action will determine whether or not generosity abounds throughout the society as it is that my one vote will tip a presidential election. The game theorists were right all along: In a prisoner's dilemma, selfish participants defect.

Furthermore, the principle of not accepting something for nothing itself has dubious egoistic credentials. If some valued item just falls into one's lap, will an egoist refuse to keep it? If a trade partner is a poor bargainer and offers to sell an item at only half of the maximum price the egoist is willing to pay, will she insist on paying more? I do not think so. But, then, I am not an egoist. That is, I do not equate rationality with selfishness, and I do not identify willingness to make small sacrifices for the sake of others with the pathological syndrome known to Randians as altruism.

There is a final arrow in Kelley's quiver. One should not, he urges, treat actual and potential trading partners in the same way one deals with vending machines into which coins are deposited and from which goods are extracted. To steal from either is wrong. But toward persons one should, in addition, be courteous and accommodating. That is because they are not merely tools to be employed in furtherance of one's own projects but rather are beings with ends of their own to which they are as wholeheartedly devoted as you are to yours. Persons, unlike mere things, merit treatment that underscores their status as rational agents. It is through employing forms of behavior and speech that conventionally express respect and regard that we acknowledge the dignity that is properly theirs.

Kelley's account rings true but is somewhat off-kilter. Again he has discerned but misidentified an authentic virtue. Attentiveness to forms of civility is not benevolence but rather mannerliness. And make no mistake about it: Mannerliness is indeed a virtue, not some superfluous affectation practiced by those with too much time on their hands. Rudeness is not made good by a no-nonsense concern for the bottom line. Courtesy matters even where money is being raked in, perhaps especially there, in virtue of the heightened sensitivities that typically accompany major pecuniary transactions. Kelley's observations concerning why that is so are perceptive. They serve as a useful prologue to the important new book from the very woman who takes her name from manners–or might it be vice versa?

It is not polite to blow someone's cover, especially when that someone is a lady, nay, a veritable grande dame. But the readers of REASON deserve the complete, unvarnished truth. So here it is. You may have been told that Miss Manners (known to her auto mechanic and a few other confidantes as Judith Martin) is a syndicated advice columnist who instructs a public mystified by multiple forks, cryptic notations such as RSVP, and the rule covering how to address the Archbishop of Canterbury should he happen to take a seat on one's bus. Through the oracles she delivers in The Washington Post, readers learn to cope with etiquette's endless stream of requirements, thereby rendering themselves more fit denizens of high society.

There is some truth to this characterization–some, but not much. I don't, of course, mean to suggest that Miss Manners does not know the rules or that she is not sufficiently forthcoming in her willingness to share that knowledge with others. But that no more conveys an adequate sense of her activities than does describing a librarian as someone who recites Dewey decimal numbers. Miss Manners Rescues Civilization includes some data concerning fork norms and the like, but this is not an especially good source in which to look up lists of Do's and Don't's. Many other books, including some of her own, are more comprehensive.

The present volume is, though, a splendid source of insight concerning why our society, like every other civilization, has devised such lists; what the consequences are of not affording them a conspicuous role in our own conduct and the education of our children; the substantial penalties we pay when we allow the heavy guns of law to replace the subtler constraints of etiquette; why authenticity and sincerity by themselves aren't enough (and why, indeed, they may be much too much); and considerably more.

Miss Manners is, in a word, a theorist. Indeed, I believe her to be one of the most important social commentators of our time. I do not lightly divulge this information, and I fear that she will be displeased when she learns that I have done so. (It is well-known that individuals who take on the secret identity of a mild-mannered journalist guard that subterfuge with considerable zeal.)

For one thing, syndicated columnists, especially those esteemed for making straight and sure the step of faltering yuppies, make a nice living for their troubles. Philosophers earn substantially less. Moreover, the latter typically present their ideas in a prose weightier than lead and more trackless than the Gobi Desert. I would be most chagrined if anything said here precipitated a decrease in the lady's royalties or led readers to expect her syntax to be indistinguishable from that of, say, John Rawls. Either circumstance would mean that she is being read less, and that would be a pity. More incisively and certainly more entertainingly than most academicians, and to an infinitely greater extent than anything produced by the Democrats or Republicans during their most recent traveling road show venture at persuading the public that they have a clue about the requisites of successful sociality, Miss Manners reveals how we can do better at that difficult but necessary job of living together in some modicum of peace.

Her account is too nuanced and sophisticated to be easily summarized. It is fair to say, I think, that she places herself less in the tradition of Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt than that of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Like the latter, she is vividly attentive to the fact that people's natural propensity to bias in their own favor inevitably leads to unpleasant carnage unless it is tempered by a durable social veneer. A coercively enforced legal structure represents one layer of that veneer; another is supplied by morality.

But complementary to these, insists Miss Manners, are codes of etiquette. It is all too easy to misinterpret others' intentions, to cook up from a few wisps of happenstance a bubbling brew of acrimony. In many social relationships the most common mode of understanding is misunderstanding. Anyone with children, parents, teachers, a boss, colleagues, neighbors, teachers–or just co-inhabitants of planet Earth–knows this.

Contemporary sensibilities suggest that a regimen of complete frankness and speaking one's mind is the indicated palliative. Contemporary sensibilities could not be more mistaken. To really be apprised of what others are thinking and feeling in their heart of hearts is a prescription for erupting enmity. According to Kelley, Rand rejected the proposition that the interests of rational individuals conflict in any fundamental sense. She too could not be more mistaken. It is precisely because germs of conflict are endemic that basic rights are indispensable components of our moral arsenal. They are the markers that distinguish mine from thine, thereby providing occasions for armistice in what the early liberal theorists called "the War of All against All."

Manners serve a complementary function. They are the lubricant that keeps us from chafing too severely against each other. They preserve our privacy from invasions of inquisitive eyes. They are means for announcing one's status and acknowledging that of others. They are not the fossilized relic of Victorian bygones but rather are as up-to-date as the television show Seinfeld, almost every episode of which revolves around conundrums of applying a contemporary urban, hip etiquette.

But isn't etiquette anti-democratic? Has it not traditionally served as a weapon for conducting class warfare and holding down minorities and women? Is it not the case that like those other cherished appurtenances of high society, the corset and the bustle, etiquette impedes and constricts people's freedom? Qualms such as these lead otherwise sensible people to be dismissive of etiquette. They are, though, uniformly ill-founded. Rather than being inherently undemocratic, Miss Manners rightly points out that "adherence to etiquette is a prerequisite for all the practices of a democratic state, including such governmental business as legislative sessions and judicial proceedings."

While hierarchical juggernauts can operate with no small success via command-and-control procedures, a politics among equals necessarily presupposes widespread compliance with customary forms. And although etiquette can be bent to the practice of one-upmanship, that hardly distinguishes it from virtually every other human activity. Law, religion, and celebratory post-touchdown end-zone dances can also be used to subjugate or demean. Judging a practice by its deformations is methodologically dubious. To the contrary, etiquette has always emphasized the imperative that all persons be treated with respect and consideration. (That is not, of course, equivalent to treating them exactly the same.) Indeed, the proviso that respect be displayed is more rather than less strict when one is dealing with those who are less powerful or less socially well-placed than oneself. To be sure, the rococo etiquette of Marie Antoinette turned this requirement on its head–but look what then happened to her head!

Do we find ourselves less free in a society in which the grip of manners is strong? Miss Manners persuasively argues that this is backwards. A system of regulation of everyday life by the rules of etiquette "offers more freedom than any other we have tried." When raised eyebrows and icy stares no longer suffice to restrain conduct, more intrusive devices are sure to take their place. Consider, for example, the legal bludgeons currently deployed against smokers and those who incautiously step on land mines while wandering across gender frontiers. Much of the area now patrolled by the law was formerly under the jurisdiction of manners. Results were not perfect then, but neither are they now. What is indisputable, though, is that the transition has served up bigger dollops of heavy-handed coerciveness. Nor is it always the state that rushes into the vacuum created by retreating manners: In California, aggrieved motorists with shotguns emphatically correct rude freeway behavior, in a way that generates little recidivism. Where California leads, can the rest of us be far behind?

I have done enough harm to the lady's reputation by characterizing her as a theorist; I shall not compound misprision by adding the label libertarian. Still, whatever her own political views may be, the account of etiquette offered in Miss Manners Rescues Civilization neatly plugs into libertarian thought. Classical liberals have traditionally been big on attending to the scope of the state–limited!–but have given short shrift to the customary forms that sustain and vivify civil society. (Tocqueville is a conspicuous exception.) It is all well and good to proclaim the credentials of the minimal state, but absent means to keep it minimized, such proclamations are vain.

Enter etiquette. An order of manners substitutes for coercion the authority of custom, for external enforcement self-restraint, for central planning decentralized decision making. Its protocols, euphemisms, and ritual may seem arcane to outsiders, but their effect is to mark off and protect a private domain within which individuals enjoy a limited sovereignty over their own affairs. Rudeness, like big government, is intrusive. And like big government, it is cancerous. Just as the shortcomings of one welfare state program beget another and yet another, so too do thoughtless behavior and rude remarks metastasize. Miss Manners teaches us that "Mind your own business!" is the first principle of good manners. It is also the core of liberal political philosophy.

I fear that I am perilously close to gushing. Miss Manners tends to have that effect on impressionable gentlemen of a certain age. I therefore hasten to note that she falls short of perfection, if only by the diameter of gnat's eyelash. She admits that she has still not come up with an appropriate term to refer to unmarried persons who openly share their living quarters and lives. That is one small blot on her escutcheon.

Another is a lack of sure-footedness in expressing the relationship between etiquette and morality. Sometimes she runs them together. In other passages she tries to distinguish them in terms of respect for human life's sacredness versus its dignity and by distinguishing behavior from expression. I thank Miss Manners for putting forth the effort, but honesty compels me to admit that these dichotomies afford little clarification.

No blame is ascribed to her on account of this failure. I choose to believe that, as with almost every other problem that weighs heavily on the American mind, she could if she wished put forth a solution. Instead she graciously refrains from doing so in order not to usurp the title and vocation of her friend and accomplice, Miss Morals. Always the complete lady!

Contributing Editor Loren E. Lomasky (llomask@opie.bgsu.edu) is a professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University.