Dissertation Abstract

Political Etiquette: 


Is it appropriate to kneel in protest during the national anthem? Is it wrong to use the term “concentration camp” for detention centers along the southern US border? Should white people refrain from dressing up as geishas or samurai? Each of these questions concerns a social norm that purports to protect a vulnerable group. My dissertation develops an interpretation of these norms, which reveals their commonalities and explains their role in the culture wars.

I propose that we think of these norms as comprising a distinctive form of etiquette, which I call political etiquette. Whereas compliance with ordinary etiquette conventionally conveys respect for the particular individuals involved in an encounter, compliance with political etiquette conventionally conveys respect for a social group. My account unites a variety of familiar norms under the rubric of political etiquette and explains many of our puzzling moral intuitions about these norms.

My account of political etiquette contrasts with a prevalent folk theory of these norms, which I call the summary conception. According to the summary conception, political etiquette norms sum up the balance of antecedent moral considerations that bear on an action. For example, a norm prohibiting the use of “concentration camp” to describe the border facilities is justified if and only if such uses of “concentration camp” are antecedently morally bad. On this view, a corpus of political etiquette norms is like a moral Cliff’s Notes compendium, which may be praised for its accuracy or disparaged for its mistakes in summarizing our antecedent moral obligations.

In contrast, according to my account, our moral reasons to conform with a political etiquette norm are partly grounded in a convention established by the norm itself. Once a political etiquette norm is up and running, conduct in conformity comes to express respect for a particular social group. Symbolic expressions of respect are called for when the social group in question is vulnerable—that is, when its members have good reason to doubt that they will be treated in accordance with their rightful status claims. Thus, in a cultural milieu where black people are vulnerable and blackface makeup symbolically conveys disrespect toward black people, these facts give rise to a pro tanto moral reason to refrain from wearing blackface. On my view, the norm can generate moral force even if the behavior it governs is otherwise morally neutral.

This is not to deny that political etiquette may call for action that is antecedently morally valuable. Political etiquette norms run the gamut from iconic to arbitrary. The more iconic norms inscribe symbolic respect for a group on actions that are valuable to that group independent of the norm, like donating money to their cause. The more arbitrary norms inscribe symbolic respect on actions that are not independently beneficial to the target group, like wearing a certain color to express solidarity. Political etiquette norms can even undermine a group’s independent moral interests. For instance, a norm requiring outsiders to keep their distance from a minority’s religious ceremonies might discourage valuable social contact. The iconicity of a norm may contribute to its overall social value. In addition to the synchronic reason that we have to comport with political etiquette norms for the sake of assuring vulnerable groups, we also have diachronic reason to support good political etiquette norms and reform bad ones.

How do we know whether a political etiquette norm is good or bad? My dissertation presents a range of considerations that contribute to an evaluation of political etiquette norms. For example, I argue that political etiquette rules generate moral reasons only when they encode assurance for groups whose claims to social status are both rightful and vulnerable. Political etiquette may emerge on behalf of groups whose rightful claims to social status are not vulnerable, as in the case of Jim Crow etiquette, which bolstered whites’ wrongful claims to supremacy. In such cases, political etiquette generates no synchronic moral reasons to comply, and it produces powerful diachronic moral reasons for reform.


"We Believe" sign designed by Kristin Joiner. Sign reads "In this house we believe / black lives matter / women's rights are human rights / no human is illegal / science is real / love is love / kindness is everything."In this house, we believe / health care is a choice / all lives matter / fetal rights are human rights / immigration is a privilege / real science is never settled / God is love.