Purchase instant access (PDF download and unlimited online access):


The French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville believes the fundamental difference between morality and etiquette is that morality ‘cares’ about intentions, etiquette does not. Given his thesis that etiquette is thoroughly indifferent to motives, Sponville thinks it impossible to feign politeness. If a person conforms to etiquette’s rules, all of which are behavioural, his present behaviour is polite, whatever his intentions - good, bad, or otherwise. I will argue that Sponville’s ‘indifference thesis,’ both in itself and taken as the quintessence of being polite, falls to a counterexample, the (psychologically rich) case of the sneering ‘thank you.’ To defend the judgment that a sneering ‘thank you’ is impolite - as it clearly is - being polite must be defined not merely in terms of following behavioural rules, but also in terms of following etiquette’s governing purposes, such as to ease and evade social tensions and to indicate social location.