The imperatives of etiquette are not incumbent on you because of some desire you happen to have. It is a piece of old-fashioned English table manners that one should not cut food with a fork. (Fact checkers: please refute if necessary.) This “should” is not conditional upon your desires; regardless of what you desire, English etiquette demands that you should not cut food with a fork. In this way, the should of etiquette is different from my advice that you should take the Gardiner Expressway. For if you have no desire to travel west from downtown Toronto, my “should” simply doesn’t apply to you. The force of the etiquette's should can be disputed. However that might be, its force is not conditional upon desire. Thus, it is formally a categorical imperative in the way Kant defined the term.
This was Philippa Foot’s incisive argument in a famous paper published in 1972.
Foot clearly had a very valuable insight concerning moral psychology. But what about manners? I assume that her treatment of etiquette is not meant to cover all that goes by the name, politeness, or manners. (I’ll treat these two terms as synonymous.) And whatever her position might have been on formal etiquette—her examples are as inconsequential as mine about forks—she would not have denied that manners can sometimes be a matter of morality, and hence that manners can be motivated by care for others. Consider, for example, hurtful speech. You don’t yell at people or tell them that they are idiots. You don’t do this because you care about others, and don’t want to hurt them. So aside from the kind of formal etiquette that governs the use of forks and knives, manners includes much that is implied by straightforward moral imperatives such as “Don’t cause pain.”
But this raises a question about manners: Is this all that there is to say? For if it is, then assuming that substantive politeness that goes beyond formal etiquette, the question arises: What is special about substantive politeness? What distinguishes it from formal etiquette? And what makes it a special case of morality? Can substantive politeness be governed by morality while still having its own separate character?
Here is what I think. Let’s stick to one moral imperative: Show others respect. (What I say applies mutatis mutandis to many others.) Politeness pertains not to obeying this imperative but to the appearance of so doing. Thus:
Politeness is appearing to respect another.
Of course, appearing to respect another is not moral if in actual fact your actions do not respect the other. In this case, you are a polite scoundrel. But sometimes it goes the other way. You have respect but you do not make it apparent. Not making it apparent is impolite and lacking in manners. And it is possible to be an impolite saint.
Note that yelling at somebody and telling him that he’s an idiot is both immoral and impolite. But merely refraining from such behaviour is not automatically polite. Merely not displaying disrespect can fall short of showing respect.
One more thing. In many cases, impoliteness is immoral. I may have a golden soul but hide it under bad manners. I may go around calling people idiots in a gruff but affectionate way. While such conduct is clearly not as bad as calling them idiots because I hold them in contempt, it is also not as good as making them feel respected by a display of that respect. Full morality requires not just that you treat others with respect, but also that you make it apparent that this is what you are doing.
That’s my take on manners. Some examples in a subsequent post. But one small point to close. It's clearly possible for the same utterance to be impolite when addressed to one person, but polite (or at least not impolite) when addressed to another. If I call my best friend an idiot in bemused affection, it may not be impolite. If I address a supermarket clerk the same way, it is outrageously so.