Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Stephen L. Carter Publishes Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy

Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy is a poignant offering to anyone interested in that dimension of democracy that deals with civic virtues. Indeed, the book serves largely as a normative treatise on the manner by which individuals should behave in a democracy.

Carter, a professor of law at Yale University in Connecticut, wrote Civility as the second in a trilogy on what he calls “pre-political” elements of good character, noting, in that regard, that, “we should all struggle to exemplify them, whatever our philosophical or partisan differences” (p. xi). (He began the trilogy with Integrity [1996], and has yet to publish the final installment.) In other words, it’s Carter’s belief that character comes before politics or ideology, that the manner by which an individual comports him- or herself is as important, (if not slightly more so), than the substantive pursuits in which he or she engages.

Without explicitly stating so, Carter grounds his argument for civil behaviour in the prisoner’s dilemma of game theory. He opens the book with a comment on train travel during the mid-nineteenth century, noting that travelers, “packed shoulder to shoulder like chess pieces in their box,” would often subordinate their self-interest to those of the collective in order to make the ride bearable. Such sacrifices bore the hallmark of civil conduct and enabled individuals to make the best of an interdependent, if uncomfortable situation. With progress, however, the automobile has become the principal mode of transport and with it, bemoans Carter, has arisen a sense, metaphorically, of travelling alone (fueled, forgive the pun, by the absence of strangers in the same car). Lacking any sense or appreciation of their interdependence, modern-day travelers consistently act in ways that put their individual preferences before that of the collective. While such behaviour seems perfectly rational at the individual level, it actually turns out to be irrational at the societal level because it ignores the realities of interdependence and in so doing erodes the social cohesion necessary for harmonious relations.

If it is true that the social cohesion upon which democracy, (as an organising construct), and democracies, (as free societies), rely is largely a function of an individual’s attitudes and behaviour, then it is understandable why Carter focuses on civility. But, why does he feel that an etiquette of democracy is necessary? His answer is found at the outset of the book:

Civility is next because, having developed integrity as a tool for creating our own moral selves, we must next develop tools for interacting with others. I do not consider civility synonymous with manners (although manners matter). I have in mind an attitude of respect, even love, for our fellow citizens, an attitude, as we shall see, that has important social and political implications. Moreover, civility is a moral issue, not just a matter of habit or convention: it is morally better to be civil than to be uncivil (p. xii).

For Carter, civility is a superordinate virtue, one that clearly encompasses virtues of a similar ilk—like tolerance, respect, reciprocity, and so on—identified by political scientists and philosophers that have written before him. Leveraging the link between character and behaviour, Carter emphasises the role of morality, which, in turn, becomes a leitmotif for the book and a component of the foundation for the code of civil conduct he espouses.

Carter defines civility as,

the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together.…Yielding to [the] very human instinct for self-seeking, I shall argue, is often immoral, and certainly should not be done without forethought. We should make sacrifices for others not simply because doing so makes social life easier (although it does), but as a signal of respect for our fellow citizens, marking them as full equals, both before the law and before God (p. 11).

That this may come across, like Rodney King’s lament “why can’t we all just get along?”, as a romanticized notion of regard toward our fellow humankind, it does not diminish the importance of its central message. Nor should it preclude one from reflecting sincerely on what it means for the manner by which we treat others with whom we interact.

In the ongoing and never-ending struggle, then, between self and collective interests, it is fair to conclude that Carter prefers a dynamic balance struck in favour of the collective good. Carter’s thesis, however, is not one in which the individual must completely sacrifice his or her self-interest in an act of capitulation or subordination to the masses. Rather, Carter advocates for mindfulness, for ‘thoughtful response’ to be substituted for ‘knee-jerk reaction’. In so doing, the individual becomes sensitised to the tension between self-and collective interests, and, then, to carefully considering curbing the unconscious behavior that attaches to and is thus revealed in the habitual assertion of self-interest without regard for the collective good. This point is reinforced by Arnett and Arneson who note that “in unreflective practice we act because we are accustomed to engaging in a particular action without weighing alternative possibilities” (1999, p. 290). By reflecting critically, argues Carter, the individual can counter the effects of habit and embrace a civil response.

As a means for both framing and operationalising the sacrifice(s) required of civil conduct, Carter sets forth 15 “rules” as a code or constitution of personal civility. It is these rules that he collectively refers to as “the etiquette of democracy.” Notes Carter,

Our duty to be civil toward others does not depend on whether we like them or not.

Civility requires that we sacrifice for strangers, not just the people we know.

Civility has two parts: generosity, even when it is costly, and trust, even when there is risk.

Civility creates not merely a negative duty to do no harm, but an affirmative duty to do good.

Civility requires a commitment to live a common moral life, so we should try to follow the norms of the community if the norms are not actually immoral.

We must come into the presence of our fellow human beings with a sense of awe and gratitude.

Civility assumes that we will disagree; it requires us not to mask our differences but to resolve them respectfully.

Civility requires that we listen to others with knowledge of the possibility that they are right and we are wrong.

Civility requires that we express ourselves in ways that demonstrate our respect for others.

Civility requires resistance to the dominance of social life by the values of the marketplace. Thus, the basic principles of civility—generosity and trust—should apply as fully in the market and in politics as in every other human activity.


Civility allows for criticism of others, and sometimes even requires it, but the criticism should always be civil.

Civility discourages the use of legislation rather than conversation to settle disputes, except as a last, carefully considered resort.

Teaching civility, by word and deed, is an obligation of the family. The state must not interfere with the family’s effort to create a coherent moral universe for its children.

Civility values diversity, disagreement, and the possibility of resistance, and therefore the state must not use education to try to standardize our children.

Religions do their greatest service to civility when they preach not only love of neighbor but resistance to wrong (pp. 279-85).

Carter devotes considerable attention and detail to each dictum, offering a cogent argument for each that rely on sources drawn from politics and business, religion and theology, and common every day experience. Consider, for example, one of the most challenging of the rules, the sixth that states “we must come into the presence of our fellow human beings with a sense of awe and gratitude.” An extract of some length is offered to reflect some of Carter’s eloquence:

I suspect wit will be possible to treat each other with love only if we are able to conceive doing so as a moral obligation that is absolute, something we owe others because of their personhood, bearing no relation to whether we like them or not. My wife puts it this way: every encounter with another human being should inspire us in a powerful sense of awe. Why? Because that other human being, whatever his or her strengths, weaknesses, and simple complexities, is also a part of God’s creation. We should be struck with awe at the fact that we are face to face with a part of God’s work.

To enter the presence of another human being, then, is to enter into the presence of God in a new and different way. We are admonished in the psalm to come into His presence with thanksgiving (Psalm 95:2), not with suspicion, self-seeking, or disrespect. The great theologians Karl Barth and Martin Buber both arrived at this point along their different paths: our obligation is to see God in everyone, not merely as possibility, but as reality. So whenever we mistreat others, we are abusing our relationship with God. And awe alone does not capture what we owe. We should encounter others with a sense of gratitude, for here is a fresh and different corner of God’s creation—or, for the secular-minded, a new and different human being. We should be grateful to be traveling where we have not been before. (p. 101-2).

Despite Carter’s lucid explications, he can be criticised for being too intensely concentrated on the rationales offered in support of his dictums. Consider, for example, the thirteenth dictum, that “the state must not interfere with the family’s effort to create a coherent moral universe for its children.” The fact that the family is the first and arguably most significant context for teaching civility cannot, in and of itself, be invoked as the chief reason to exclude others from this task. In swinging the pendulum to an extreme, as evidenced by his use of the term “the state must not”, Carter appears to reject the idea that schools, as distinct state apparatuses, can serve (or continue to serve) a meaningful and appropriate role in teaching civility to children. While, yes, the state has in the past co-opted schools in the commission of various agendas, (hence, the fourteenth dictum), he misses an opportunity to re-embrace an ally in the struggle to prepare the next generations.

Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy is a clarion call and a valuable contribution to the ongoing dialogue (and debate!) about what it will take to deepen understandings of citizenship and sustain democracy.


Arnett, R. C. and Arneson, P. (1999). Dialogic Civility in a Cynical Age: Community, Hope, and Interpersonal Relationships. Albany, New York: State University of New York.

Carter, S. L. (1998). Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Prepared by James R. McKenzie (OISE/UT), 2004

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