The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes

Civility and Moral Being

“When we live true to our moral sense of how to treat others, irrespective of the circumstances and disagreements, our civility comes from the heart—from realizing that in a community, we can engage compassionately, and without rancor.”

Terrance D. Olson | March 27, 2015
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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. represents both civility and high moral standing in his approach to civic virtue.

Being uncivil is not a cause of conflict—incivility and the contention associated with it are symptoms of something else. That something else is a way of being with others that assumes incivility is regrettable, but often necessary and justified. To justify bad or destructive behavior is to make ethically defensible that which is typically unethical. Civility is not merely being polite or controlling negative emotions. Nor is being polite necessarily being moral. When civility is a utilitarian adoption of behaviors whose purpose is to get one’s way or to avoid disagreements, the words and smiles designed to keep the interaction from getting out of hand are more hypocritical than polite. If being uncivil is merely a breakdown of our abilities to control nasty feelings or impulses, they invite hand-wringing about the human condition, and disconnect civil attitudes and behaviors from their moral root. It is not the human condition of being imperfect that fuels modern incivility—it is the assumption that civility is impossible to experience precisely because of the human condition.

Civility is not merely being polite or controlling negative emotions

Stephen Carter’s task in his book titled, Civility (1998) was to restore to society the recognition that a civil society cannot be maintained without its moral foundation. He documents how the very idea of being civil to one another has eroded from the 19th century definition that intertwined etiquette with moral content, to at least two aberrations in later centuries. One is to define politeness and manners as a means to an end. Carter notes, “Rules of behavior . . . moved from the realm of morality to the realm of pragmatics: they were encouraged not because they were independently good, but because they seemed to produce good results” (p. 12). If I am polite or kind to someone as a utilitarian technique, I am hardly interested in their well-being, because I am only committed to my own. The other person becomes a means to my ends, and if being friendly and kind does the trick, I have succeeded. But my behavior has not been civil, has not been an expression of moral concern for the other as well as myself. It only has been necessary for the nature of relationship transactions.

A second definition of civility undermines not only the moral grounds for treating each other well, but dismisses the value of civility altogether. Narrative designed to explain the “why” of incivility often invokes the idea that people simply “lose control” and what else can we expect, given that all of us are “only human”? Imperfect humans simply get to the point where they are forced to be uncivil towards one another. Most people seem to explain their uncivil behavior by some adult version of the childhood cry of, “He/She started it!” Such begins the justification for the bad behavior. Disagreement is assumed inevitably to generate incivility and subsequent contention, which is not only understandable, but necessary. Some even view being civil when clashing value systems are in play as a form of hypocrisy. If we disagree, we cannot help but be uncivil, and it is actually helpful so to be.

For example, “with all due respect” is an overused phrase in TV melodramas and in actual interaction among people who disagree—and disagree contentiously. Curiously, it seems most often to be uttered prior to a disrespectful verbal onslaught. For example, “With all due respect, your honor, that ruling is the most ridiculous of these proceedings thus far.” Or, “With all due respect, Senator, your argument reveals your 19th century morality and doesn’t apply to the realities of modern life.” If one were to stay on task in these situations, the phrase “with all due respect”—perhaps is designed to justify the disrespect that follows. If one were truly to be respectful in the situation, the phrase could be dropped altogether. The attorney’s comment would attend to describing the legal grounds to be adhered to lest the proceedings become ridiculous, not because the judge is a moron, but because to go a certain direction would mean the proceedings would not be in alignment with the law. Similarly, it would be more respectful to identify what it is about the realities of modern life that disqualify the moral grounds for a given position that one’s opponent has taken.

Carter counters the drift towards incivility as necessary when value systems are at stake with the a fundamental aspect of the human condition that may often be ignored or forgotten: “Alone of God’s creation, we humans are able to apply the test of morality to our actions, and civility calls us to do so. For democracy without civility is like dieting without discipline” (1998, p. 24).

Consider the possibility that one can pursue dialogue in a democratic and civil society in one of two ways: civilly, or uncivilly. Carter draws on contrasting philosophies in the Civil Rights movement:

“The true genius of Martin Luther King, Jr., was not in his ability to articulate the pain of an oppressed people . . .—but in his ability to inspire those very people to be loving and civil in their dissent. This was the antithesis of hypocrisy: It was an act of high principle. . . . For those who believe in [civil] dialogue, then, hypocrisy lies in the pretense that we can discuss our differences seriously without the aid of civility (p. 24).”

When we become uncivil, we have little to offer to those who are being uncivil towards us

Consider then, that civility is not only possible because of the human condition, but necessary if a culture of democracy and freedom is to be maintained. When we live true to our moral sense of how to treat others, irrespective of the circumstances and disagreements, our civility comes from the heart—from realizing that in a community, we can engage compassionately, and without rancor. When we become uncivil, it may be that until we look at how we help author divisiveness, we have little to offer to those who are being uncivil towards us.


Carter, Stephen L. (1998). Civility: Manners, morals and the etiquette of democracy. New York: Basic Books.