Since quite recently, ethnicity, geographical provenance, religious traditions, moral values social norms and customs came altogether in a sort of continuous system of rules of behavior that people embodied since early childhood through formal and informal education thanks to the simple exposure to their own culture.
When I was a child in Italy, my grandmother used to tell me that it was good to care for the poor and ill people and that it was bad to show off one’s own wealth. We were a secular family, but my grandma’s recommendations sound now as deeply Catholic: maybe the Italian social norms had integrated a certain Catholic stance towards pietas that other cultures had not. I don’t know. It is sure that, when I moved abroad, I realized how these “universally moral principles” for me were instead deeply related to my Italian upbringing.
I am sure that many emigrants had the same experience: that of discovering that a universal value for them was just a local social norm, or, worse, just a habit or a principle of etiquette in their world and didn’t mean anything abroad. Or that something that was just a matter of taste in your community, like a dress code, could become a moral or even political issue abroad.
The shift from the reassuring “local universality” of your own moral/social/cultural world to the relativistic open world in which each community has its own norms - and all are at the same level in terms of legitimacy - is a big choc for those who emigrate abroad or who have to deal at home with new communities of people that become co-citizens because of immigration. I remember when, once settled in Paris, I hanged my clothes at the window of my apartment to dry them, as I used to do in Italy. My neighbors called the police, because there is a law (written by André Malraux) in France that protects the aesthetics of Parisean buildings and forbids the hanging of clothes!
And indeed, this kind of experience is the more and more common. Thus, when facing new cultural situations, we all try to disentangle the moral aspects of our lives from the cultural values, traditional superstitions etc. I still have to restrain myself to avoid the bundle of prejudices, instant judgments and biases that belong to my Italian education and that I can’t help applying even in complete different cultural settings.
Philosophers and social scientists spend a lot of energy in trying to disentangle what belongs to morality from what is a simple matter of tradition or of local social norms. In dealing with the immense problem of developing a globalized conception of what should be permitted and what should not, they have to face many surprising cases, that challenge their intuitions about what people may or may not tolerate from other cultures. The many cases of intolerant responses to artistic representations of religion (comics, theatre pieces, movies) show how difficult it is to understand where these frontiers should be placed.
In order to ground their categorization of what is moral compared to what is social, emotional or cultural in some sort of universal certitude, philosophers and psychologists study these days the neurological bases of moral intuitions and emotional/visceral responses (such as disgust) to social situations. The problem is that an emotional reaction of disgust to a certain social situation can be so difficult to control that, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with what is properly “moral”, it may end up in justifying, for the beholder, some moral attitudes towards behaviors that are different from those that one considers “appropriate”, or “legitimate” or, simply, “decent”.
I am a skeptical about the boundaries of morality. I am convinced that they vary with age, experience, self-consciousness and social awareness of what may be tolerated by others. I think that what we consider as our “core moral principles” is just a bunch of principles that are more central to our commonsense (viewed as a cultural system) and that we would give up at a “higher price” than other more marginal principles. To make a parallel, this is what W.V.O. Quine used to think about “core logical truths”: they are just more central to our system of beliefs, thus more difficult to challenge, but no more necessary than all other beliefs.
Hence, I do not think we will end up finding some moral principles upon which everybody is willing to agree. Yet, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make a normative effort to find some common ground to our living together, even when we come from very different traditions.
Here is my minimalistic proposal. I think that a simple rule of bon ton could be more useful than many universal moral principles. Bon ton is a French expression that refers to good manners or etiquette. It means having a “good tone”, that is, a particular taste for attuning your manners in the appropriate way to the social world around you.
My basic rule of bon ton, is this: Restrain yourself – or – Don’t show too much about your moral/cultural/traditional preferences. This should be a social diktat for everyone: be aware of the fact that what you are (an Italian, an atheist, a independent woman) can harm someone else’s feelings somewhere in the world (or just down the street…).
We have been used these days to be proud of our identities and, in an effort of being proudly recognized by the other communities as Xs or Ys, we have learned of the importance of courageously displaying our identities, preferences, traditions without fearing of being judged as inappropriate, morally indecent or inferior. Yet, we do not realize that, in many cases, we upset others just because we display too much about ourselves. Here is an example. I am an Italian woman, and, as many Italian women, I like to wear sexy dresses. But I know very well that, when I am in United States or in Saudi Arabia, I have to restrain my preferences. I don’t think that my freedom is harmed by the fact that I have to restrain myself, and I even have developed a system of hyper-sophisticated signals that can be caught by the connoisseur only, to display in a very discrete way, my preferences for a feminine way of dressing. I don’t give up my preferences, even if I recognize that is a matter of bon ton not to display them too much in many social contexts.
What I like and I find socially sophisticated of big cities is not the fact that the expression of extreme attitudes is tolerated (which is indeed the case for many big cities), but the fact that the average inhabitant of a big city has “urban manners”, that is, is able to dose the expression of him/herself in a way that is not too difficult to swallow for others.
Restraining from a too “loud” display of one’s own preferences is not being ashamed of them: it shouldn’t be confused with the Italian motto: “Non facciamoci riconoscere” (“Let’s not make ourselves recognized”), that shows an ashamed attitude of Italians of being tagged as Italians. I am not ashamed of being Italian, or of being a woman, or of being an atheist, au contraire: I’m very proud of it. But I can have the bon ton of being aware that what I am can be a matter of disgust or moral reprobation for someone else.
My rule of restraint works only if it is reciprocate. In a civilized world, if I have the considerateness of not showing too much of myself to you in order not to harm you, you should do the same to me. If you don’t, and you aggressively display your own identity claiming that it is better or superior or more morally correct (as we all think about our own preferences) then I am justified in inflicting you my own preferences without concern for your sensitivity to them.
There are many possible objections to this line of thought: for example, what about the “unwitting moves” and all the attitudes we display without being conscious of them? How can I hide my Italian accent when speaking a foreign language? I have discovered many traits of my cultural identity along the years just because I was exposed to the gaze of other cultures, traits that I wouldn’t be aware of if I hadn’t moved from Italy. In general, I think that unintentional expressions of one’s own preferences, ethnicity or cultural traditions, or expressions of them that cannot be erased (like accent of physical traits) should be tolerated without exception and this should be a matter of law, as it is in most advanced democracies (anti-discrimination laws). But the intentional and self-aware expression of one’s own preferences, even if it is of course allowed, should be mitigated by my bon ton rule.
Well, enough for today. Global bon ton is not a subject for a serious philosophical paper! But it would be a fascinating collective project to gather some basic bon ton rules for a global society, a sort of contemporary equivalent of the Baldassare Castiglione’s famous Book of the Courtier. My rule of restraint is just a first attempt. Does anyone have suggestions for further rules?