Taste, Manners, Morals

Picture a line divided into three equal segments.  The segment on the left is labeled “taste.”  The segment on the right is labeled “morals.”  The segment in the middle, the connecting segment, is labeled “manners.”

I suggest that these three have reciprocal influences on one another, a direct influence on the immediately adjacent segment, an indirect influence on the segment two steps away.  And thus the quality of taste in a society directly influences, and is influenced by, the quality of that society’s manners.  And the quality of manners in society directly influences, and is influenced by, the quality of that society’s morality.  The quality of taste and the quality of morality mutually, but indirectly, influence one another.

Every society wants a high level of morality to prevail in its ranks, though perhaps not an awfully high level.  Society wants people to behave well on average, but is quite willing to tolerate a significant amount of naughtiness, even some downright wickedness.

What counts as good morality, however, may differ from time to time.  In the United States in the 1950s, for example, a certain amount of racism was tolerated.  Nowadays, by contrast, any amount of racism is counted as a great sin.  Again, in the 1950s premarital sex was counted as a great sin; nowadays, by contrast, hardly anybody (except for a few hardcore Christians here and there) considers it to be wrong – provided of course that the sex partners take reasonable precautions against disease and unwanted pregnancy.

Unlike myself, many people think that morality has little or nothing to do with taste or manners.  If, for instance, we want men to abstain from sexual assault against women, it is enough, these people believe, to lay down the categorical imperative, “Never have sex with a woman without her full consent” – and lay down this imperative in a very, very emphatic way.  (“Listen you guys, we really mean this.”)

I disagree.  If we really wish to minimize the amount of rape and other kinds of sexual assault that take place in our society, I suggest that society should insist that men, young men especially, must exhibit good manners when it comes to women.  Don’t treat a woman as if she’s just “one of the guys.”


What’s more, if we are to have good manners with regard to women, we must have good manners generally.  We must not be boorish with regard to men or women.  If we insist on the light imperative, “Be a gentleman,” we’ll have more success with the heavy imperative, “Don’t commit rape.”

The 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes recognized this connection between morals and manners when he labeled manners “small morals.”

And if we wish to maintain good manners in society, it helps to maintain good taste.  I cannot help but believe that the appalling vulgarity of much popular music has had a negative effect on American manners.

The power of example is very great.  We educate younger people, or people lower than ourselves on the socio-economic ladder, by giving them good examples.  People who occupy positions of influence benefit others by setting good examples in matters of taste, manners, and morals.

George Washington was of course America’s greatest instance of this setting of example.  Among the many benefits God has conferred on the United States, perhaps the greatest is that he allowed a man like Washington – an ideal man – to be the “father” of the country.

Among the greatest benefits God has conferred on me is that he allowed me to have parents (of blue-collar status) who neither smoked nor swore nor drank to excess.  If I have survived to rather an advanced age it is probably due to my having abstained from smoking and excessive drinking.  Being a man of my times, however, I have occasionally used bad words – but almost never in public.

President John Kennedy was a good example in taste and manners.  While he left much to be desired in the field of sexual morals, at least he kept his sins covered up.  He invited Robert Frost to his Inaugural, and he invited Pablo Casals to perform at the White House – Casals, not just a great cellist but a famous anti-Franco-ist.  Of course, it was Jackie who actually invited Casals.  But Jack gets credit, for he had the good taste to marry Jackie – even though he didn’t have the good morals to remain faithful to her.  (BTW, Jackie once said that Jack’s favorite music was “Hail to the Chief.”)

I suppose I should mention at this point a political leader or two who tended to corrupt his people with his example of bad taste, bad manners, and bad morals.  Maybe I could mention Mussolini.  Or maybe Huey Long.  Or maybe Sardanapalus.  Or maybe I should point to somebody closer to home.  But I won’t.  Instead I choose King Henry VIII.

Now I’ve read books about Henry, the worst tyrant in our Anglo-American history.  But the image of Henry in my mind has not been formed by those learned book so much as by  the Charles Laughton portrayal of the king in the wonderful 1930s movie, “The Private Lives of Henry VIII.”

Two things stand out in my mind.  (1) Henry’s piggish way of dining: ripping the chicken (or was it duck?) apart, gorging himself on it, then tossing the bones away over his shoulder.  (2) His getting rid of multiple wives, especially his casual decapitation of two of them.  Very amusing to watch today. (I saw it again only a week or so ago.)  But it wasn’t an edifying example to his people.

My guess is that if Henry had had better taste, better manners, and better morals, England might still be a Catholic country today.


*Image: King Henry VIII by John Player & Sons, after an Unknown artist, 1935 [National Portrait Gallery, London]. Between the 187os and the 1940s, some cigarette manufacturers included color-relief halftone cards in packages. The stiff cards helped protect the cigarettes and became sought-after collectibles.

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, and most recently Atheistic Humanism, the Democratic Party, and the Catholic Church.