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Is Civility in Society a Lost Art?

From time to time I post the same blog on both of my websites for maximum exposure and, hopefully, comments on my blogs. Today’s blog is one of those occasions.

Civility. We hear so much about it today. But what is it? Some would say it is showing good manners. Others might add it is being respectful of others. I like to go back to The Golden Rule for guidance on how to define civility. If each of us simply asked our inner voice whether we would like to be treated the way we were about to treat someone else, we could have a more civil society.

I find more and more that civility in the workplace is no longer a given. Some of the emails I get are downright offensive. Some of those who send me emails just want to vent about a particular issue.  I have no problem with that but the language used to express one’s opinion should conform to societal norms.

Maybe that is the problem. We no longer act in accordance with these norms. I find many people don’t even know what they are. I find more and more people seem to believe that ethics is whatever they want it to be, a method of reasoning known as ethical relativism. If that were true then each of us could define what it means to be honest, trustworthy, have integrity, be a responsible person, and how to treat others fairly.

In my classes I go back to George Washington in teaching civility. Washington, by age sixteen, had copied out by hand, 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior In Company and Conversation.  They are based on a set of rules composed by French Jesuits in 1595.  The first rule is: “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.” The underlying ethical value of respect is to treat others fairly.

I was watching the interviews with Republican candidates and the debate Monday night from South Carolina with an eye toward assessing the fairness of the statements made by the candidates. There were way too many to mention in this blog but one stands out in my mind. It was a comment made by Newt Gingrich when asked about the truthfulness of an advertisement made by the PAC (supposedly not associated with him). I heard the same comment verbatim made by the person who created the PAC.

The comment was in response to a question about the truthfulness of parts of the PAC advertisement that were highly critical of Governor Romney during his time at Bain Capital. Gingrich and the PAC-man (sorry) said the PAC was going to submit a series of questions to Governor Romney to assess whether the statements the PAC made about Romney’s experiences at Bain Capital are accurate. What? The PAC thinks it is proper to say something critical about another candidate’s record and then check their facts with that candidate after the veracity of the pro-Gingrich advertisement has been challenged? Think about it. This is reverse ethics at its worst.

I don’t know about you but I am tired of the debates, and another one is scheduled for tomorrow night. Yet, I seem to be drawn toward watching the debates. Perhaps it is because it is the ultimate in reality TV. Perhaps it is because I keep waiting for one of the candidates to talk about the decline in civility and ethics in our society. Perhaps tomorrow night will be the night. Then again, I said the same thing on Monday night.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 18, 2012