Where are our manners?

“Manners Makyth Man.” William of Wykeham said that back in a distant past when the letter “y” was at peak popularity. I thought of that quote today as I read about the shrill outrage over Karen Pence’s unremarkable job at a Christian school. There’s a great speech expounding on William of Wykeham’s quote, delivered about a century ago by Lord John Fletcher Moulton in London. He entitled his speech, “Law and Manners,” and its message could really use another go around.

Lord Moulton’s speech begins by dividing human action into three domains: the domain of positive law, the domain of absolute choice, and the domain of what he calls “manners.” This last domain is his essential topic, which he defines as “obedience to the unenforceable.”

Manners, by which he means something akin to duty or morality but encompassing more than both, are sandwiched between the worlds of positive law and absolute choice. This realm of manners is where we may act as we choose but we nonetheless face constraints that are outside the force of law. His basic premise is that the larger the middle domain, the healthier the society. He says, “The true test is the extent to which individuals composing the nation can be trusted to obey self-imposed law.” Encroachment from the realms of positive law and absolute choice pose a danger.

Lord Moulton does not suggest that the two outer domains are bad. They are vital. But if either expands too far into the middle, trouble awaits. If positive law expands too far, it stifles the freedom necessary for a flourishing society. On the other hand, if people feel completely unrestrained in their exercise of freedom, civil society begins to sag, and the danger that positive law will sweep in to pick up a perceived slack increases. As one religious leader put it, “We would not accept the yoke of Christ; so now we must tremble at the yoke of Caesar.”

Given these threats to the middle domain, Lord Moulton feared that “the worst tyranny will be found in democracies.” Minority interests will get chewed up by the voracious appetite of a positive law driven by a majority.  The representatives of the majority “think that the power and the will to legislate amount to a justification for that legislation. Such a principle would be death to liberty. No part of our life would be secure from interference from without. If I were asked to define tyranny, I would say it was yielding to the lust of governing.”

The maintenance of the middle domain depends on growth of a robust civil society sheltered from majority dominance. Religion, culture, tradition, diasporas—communities independent of the state must exist with some genuine autonomy for the middle domain to survive and thrive.

And this brings me back to Karen Pence working at a Christian school that (trigger outrage) requires students and teachers to abide by traditional Christian values. Whether or not those values are correct or not is not at all the point. Those eager to slap down a law at the first hint of a disagreement need to understand that tolerance for even genuinely illiberal viewpoints is essential to the success of liberal democracy. Organizations must have some power to define themselves apart from the prerogatives of the state to establish a framework for obedience to the unenforceable. As the Supreme Court put it, people must have space to organize communities separate from state interference that can serve as competing purveyors of norms. Such groups provide an essential “counterweight . . . to the State’s impulse to hegemony.” Thus, organizations that can establish their own norms apart form majority interference prevent the encroachment of positive law into the middle domain.

I worry that we are seeing simultaneous encroachment from both the realms of positive law and absolute choice. People outraged at Karen Pence’s new job feel convinced that the positive law should thrust its tentacles into group dynamics, thereby swallowing civil society into an all-pervading state orthodoxy. On the other hand, a sneering sense of moral relativity that frowns upon any attempt to speak up for solid norms encroaches from the other end—the perversion of tolerance that believes in no genuine moral structure outside what the law “makyth.” The letter “Y” may be a consonant and a vowel, but that doesn’t mean we can live without unenforced rules. Lord Moulton warned us about this. It’s time we mind our manners.

Please keep it civil

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