Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Has cultural relativism about norms of etiquette really been established?

Imagine a philosopher who argued that the norms of assertion are relative to culture on the grounds that in England we have the norm:

  1. Only assert “It’s snowing” when it’s snowing

while in France we have the norm:

  1. Only assert “Il neige” when it’s snowing.

This would be silly for multiple reasons. Foremost among these is that (1) and (2) are mere consequences of the norm of assertion:

  1. Only assert what it is true.

(Of course, you may disagree that truth is the norm of assertion. You may prefer a knowledge or justified belief or belief or high credence norm. But an analogous point will apply.)

It is widely held that while the norm of assertion is essentially the same across cultures, norms of etiquette vary widely. But the main reason people give for believing that the norms of etiquette vary widely is akin to the terrible argument about norms of assertion I began the post with. People note such things as that in some countries when one meets acquaintances one bows, and in others one waves; or that in some one eats fish with two forks and in others with a fork and knife.

But just as the fact that in England one should follow (1) and in France (2) is compatible with the universality of norms of assertion, likewise the variation in greeting and eating rituals can be compatible with the universality of norms of etiquette. It could, for instance, be that the need to eat fish with two forks in Poland and with a fork and knife in the USA derives simply from a universal norm of etiquette:

  1. Express respect for your fellow diners.

But just as one asserts the truth with different words in different languages, one expresses respect for one’s fellow diners with different gestures in different cultures.

Indeed, presumably nobody thinks that the fact that in France one says “Merci” and in England “Thank you” implies a cultural relativism in etiquette. In both cases one is thanking, but the words that symbolize thanks are different. But what goes for words here also applies to many gestures (there may turn out to be universal gestures, like pointing).

One object that among the norms of etiquette there are norms that specify which gestures signify, say, respect or thanks. But a specification of what signifies what is not the specification of a norm. That “Merci” signifies gratitude and that eating fish with two forks signifies respect are not norms, because norms tell us what to do, and these do not.

  1. “Merci” signifies thanks

is grammatically not a norm but a statement of fact. We might try to make it sound more like a norm by saying:

  1. Signify thanks with “merci”!

But that is bad advice when taken literally. For thanks are not to be signified always, but only when thanks are appropriate. A more correct norm would be:

  1. When a service has been done for you, signify thanks with “merci”!

But this is just a consequence of the general norm of etiquette:

  1. When a service has been done for you, signify thanks!

together with the fact (5).

So, we see that the mere variation in rituals should not be taken to imply that there is cultural relativity of norms of etiquette.

If there is to be a cultural relativity of norms of etiquette, it will have to be at a higher level. If in some cultures, etiquette requires one to show respect for all fellow diners and at others to show disrespect for some—say, those from an underprivileged group—then that would indeed be a genuine relativity of norms of etiquette.

But it’s not clear that me that in a culture where one is expected to show disrespect to fellow diners in some underprivileged group that expectation is actually a norm of etiquette. Not all social expectations, after all, are actually norms of etiquette, or even norms at all. A norm (of behavior) gives norm-based reasons. But an expectation that one show disrespect to members of an underprivileged group has no reason-giving force at all.

We can imagine a culture where there is no way to symbolize respect for members of an underprivileged group when dining. On the view I wish to defend, such a lack would not exempt one from the duty to show respect to all one’s fellow diners—it would just make it more difficult to do so, because it would require one to create new ways of showing respect (say, by adapting the forms of showing respect to members of privileged groups, much as in some European languages the polite forms of address are derived from forms in which one used to address nobility in less democratic times).

I am not sure if there is cultural variation in norms of etiquette. But if there is, that variation will not be proved by shallow differences between rituals, and may not even follow from deeper variation, such as a culture where it is not appropriate to thank one’s subordinates for work well done. For in the case of deeper variation, it could simply be that some in some cultures violation of certain norms of etiquette is nearly universal, and there are no accepted ways to show the relevant kind of respect.

In fact, it could even be the case that there is only one norm of etiquette, and it is culturally universal:

  1. Signify respect to other persons you interact with in ways fitted to the situation.

If this is right, then social rules designed to show disrespect, no matter how widespread, are not norms of etiquette.


Brandon said...

It reminds me somewhat of Robin Lakoff's maxims of politeness; I think Lakoff suggested the three general maxims of formality (don't impose), deference (give options), camaraderie (show sympathy). These are taken to work very much like Grice's maxims for implicature; indeed, in Lakoff's theory they in a sense are concerned with implicature in just a slightly broader sense. Just as you wouldn't expect 'Be relevant' to shift from culture to culture even if custom changes the borders between relevant and irrelevant, you wouldn't expect 'Give people options' to shift, even though the kinds of options might be affected by culture.

RunDec said...

Maybe I misunderstood the post, but it seems to me that by "etiquette" one means the acts that are performed abstracted from moral norms. "Express respect for your fellow diners" could be construed as a moral idea (a supererogatory one, say) and this one could argue might be objective, but just as no one argues that "Merci" is in itself better than "Thank you", no one would argue that eating fish with two forks is objectively better to do than eating fish with a fork and knife.

So what people understand as "etiquette" are just the arbitrary rules that people came up with to express relations of civility and respect. While it seems you are arguing that the relations of civility and respect might be objective - sure, but that's not what people normally understand by "etiquette".

Alexander R Pruss said...

But in that case, there may be no norms of etiquette at all. For any normative force the rule to say "Merci" has comes from the norm to express gratitude. It is just an application of the more abstract norm. If the more abstract norm is moral, so is the application.