Civility

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  • Leiter, Brian. The circumstances of civility. Public Law Working Paper No. 351. Chicago: University of Chicago; 2011 Apr 6.

Available from: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1804544.

Leiter examines the circumstances under which civility is warranted. He advocates strict adherence to civility by both instructors and students in academic instructional contexts, and in any other situations where reasoned discussion is the principal aim: “In circumstances where epistemic values and motives govern, civility is essential and should be considered obligatory.” But Leiter denies that unfailing civility is called for in political discourse, at least in a “Dystopia” where some of the most powerful factions aim to subvert reasoned discussion to their own advantage: “we only treat civilly those who have some reasonable claim on informing our moral and epistemic decisions. Those recognized as craven villains, moral miscreants or pathological liars have no claim on civil treatment.”


  • Calhoun, Cheshire. The virtue of civility. Philosophy and Public Affairs. 2000 Summer; 29(3):251–275.

Calhoun advocates the acceptance and promotion of civility as a specific kind of moral virtue. She sees the essence of civility in the communication by display, through one’s actions, of a stance of “tolerance, respect, and considerateness” toward others. Like other forms of communication, civility depends on social conventions. In an unjust social order, there can be cases where the accepted social conventions for displaying and communicating tolerance, respect, and considerateness can conflict with other moral principles, and even with the requirements for actual (as opposed to perceived) tolerance, respect, and considerateness. Nevertheless, Calhoun argues that civility should be seen as an important moral virtue even within an unjust social order, and cautions against overriding it in the name of a personal moral understanding that is not accepted as a social consensus. She emphasizes the social character of the whole enterprise of moral reasoning:

I find something odd, and oddly troubling, about the great confidence one must have in one’s own judgment (and lack of confidence in others’) to be willing to be uncivil to others in the name of a higher moral calling. When one is very very sure that one has gotten it right, and when avoiding a major wrong is at stake, civility does indeed seem a minor consideration. But to adopt a principle of eschewing civility in favor of one’s own best judgment seems a kind of hubris.


  • Kennedy, Randall. The case against “civility”. American Prospect. 1998 Nov 1;9(41). Internet version: 2001 Dec 19.

Available from: http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=the_case_against_civility. Accessed 2011 Dec 17. Archived by WebCite at http://www.webcitation.org/640XikSHZ.

Kennedy argues that the demand for “civility” in public discourse, while portrayed by its advocates as purely procedural and necessary to keep the lines of communication open, is in reality a form of disguised censorship that discourages or even prohibits clear statement and open discussion of relevant issues when it might give offense.


  • DeMott, Benjamin. Seduced by civility: political manners and the crisis of democratic values. Nation. 1996 Dec 9; 263(19):11–19.

DeMott exposes the demand for “civility” as an aspect of class warfare from above — a demand to concede up front that the more privileged interlocutors in a debate are deserving of respect, when that is precisely the substantive point that their behavior has called into question, and that would otherwise be principally at issue. “Civility” discourse inhibits serious ethical analysis by implicitly equating trivial matters of etiquette with the gravest violations of human rights. DeMott points out that the charge of “incivility” has in the past been used in attempts to delegitimize attacks on extreme social evils, including slavery. He quotes Randall Kennedy’s remark, in a symposium on civility, that “when you’re in an argument with a thug, there are things much more important than civility.”

At the end, DeMott states:

Democracy continues to oblige citizens to render serious, right-valued judgments on others as well as upon themselves.
Democracy can coexist with the belief that all humans are sinners but not with the belief that all sins are equal.
Democracy has within each of its camps, not excluding the civilitarian camp, thugs in number. And when you’re in an argument with a thug, there are things much more important than civility."