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Dialogue and Universalism

Volume 30, Issue 1, 2020

Philosophy in an Age of Crisis, Part IV

T. Brian Mooney, Damini Roy
Pages 37-56

Politeness and Pietas as Annexed to the Virtue of Justice

“Politeness” appears to be connected to a quite disparate set of related concepts, including but not limited to, “manners,” “etiquette,” “agreeableness,” “respect” and even “piety.” While in the East politeness considered as an important social virtue is present (and even central) in the theoretical and practical expressions of the Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist traditions, (indeed politeness has been viewed in these traditions as central to proper education) it has not featured prominently in philosophical discussion in the West. American presidents Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington all devoted discussion to politeness within the broader ambit of manners and etiquette, as too did Erasmus, Edmund Burke and Ralph Waldo Emerson but on the whole sustained philosophical engagement with the topic has been lacking in the West. The richest source for philosophical investigation is perhaps afforded by the centrality of the concept of respect in Immanuel Kant. However in this paper we will instead draw on the writings of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas to defend the centrality of “politeness” as an important and valuable moral virtue. Starting with an analysis of the broader Aristotelian arguments on the virtues associated with “agreeableness,” namely, friendliness, truthfulness and wit I will argue that “politeness” should be thought of as an important moral virtue attached to social intercourse (and by extension the vice of impoliteness). I then move to identify an even broader and more important account of politeness, drawing on the work of Aquinas, as intimately connected to the notion of pietas (piety) as a fundamental part of the virtue of justice.

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