:: Article

Microethical Issues

By Richard Marshall.


The Virtue Of Our Vices: A Modest Defence of Gossip, Rudeness & Other Bad Habits, Emrys Westacott, Princeton University Press 2011

When the late, great and peerless Steve Wells announced his Attack! Books project to Andrew Gallix here at 3:AM a decade ago he did so in the rudest possible terms. The richness of his offense and the promise of much, much more to come was ably fulfilled by the intrepid band of authors he invited to deliver his guarantees. Tits Out Teenage Totty was the quintessence of fuck-offery; from the very title to its plotline which instantiated Swells’ insistence that there be three acts of erotomania and mindless violence on every page, we are in the presence of a pungent stream of surreal bad taste designed to make revolt dreamable again. Tommy Udo‘s Vatican Bloodbath stormed to offend the upper classes, Tories, snobs, the Queen, the Pope and anyone and anything else he really didn’t like. It was all smart, edgy, daft, full of spunky bad language, Gonzo extreme plot lines and went out to do to literature what punk had done to music. Stanley Manley‘s offering was ditto.

Get Your Cock Out by the peerless Mark Manning did what every Manning book does; makes you laugh despite being appalled. Manning’s comic genius (plus his often overlooked stylistic felicities and Romantic sensibility) makes everything he writes compellingly ribald whilst at the same time disconcertingly and outrageously impolite and his Attack! Book was an apotheosis. Stewart Home took a wedge of Victorian pornography and converted it into a sly exercise in distaste and fetish management whilst the uber-cool Tony White‘s offering was the only book that wasn’t quite as provocatively uncouth as these others, preferring to blast out a pulpy gothic joke rather than anything like a literary gob butt.

But all in all, Attack! Books are an example of rude sick joke literature. And clearly Swells thought that their embedded and rigorous offensiveness was justified. Not everyone agrees. There are those who believe that rudeness is always a bad thing and sick jokes inexcusable. There are those who would not only find the extreme offensiveness of Attack!-style books unjustifiable, but any rudeness, any sick joke, in any situation, they would find similarly unjustifiable.

The philosopher Emrys Westacott finds this a dispute of enormous interest and one that shines a light on a whole bunch of issues that moral philosophy tends to overlook. His subject matter in this serious and insightful book are five areas of social discourse that require subtle ethical thinking and which are often overlooked in discussions about right and wrong because they have been considered too trivial to demand consideration. Westacott thinks that consideration of these issues helps reveal a whole range of distinctions that are vital to most contemporary lives and sheds light on the kind of social reality that most of us inhabit. It’s an intriguing, courageous and timely book with a refreshing confidence to tell us what we ought to do. Most of the time I agree with him.

So alongside ‘rudeness’, Estacott considers the morality of ‘gossip’, ‘snobbery’, ‘humour’ and ‘respect’ and with forensic skill works to show how each of them can serve both positive and negative functions in our lives. He argues that any blanket condemnation of each is unjustified and actually is inconsistent with the range of other beliefs and attitudes that are considered appropriate in a modern setting. He argues that our social reality is no longer conducive to many blanket moral judgments. What he thinks we need to do is think in subtle and nuanced ways, ponder the different ways in which each of these five subjects can be used and carefully decide in each case when it can be a good thing and when morally bad.

The choice of these five things is interesting. Westacott contrasts them with the usual topics of moral debate such as abortion, war, euthanasia, murder, rape and so forth. Those topics are heavily freighted with obvious political and ethical gravitas and that can make them seem too heavy, too serious, to allow for genuine discussion, thought and open-minded juice. They are also distanced from the everyday and the immediate, moment-by-moment decisions that we are called on to make every day, everywhere all the time. So his five topics are chosen because they are genuinely important to most people most of the time and yet are often ignored, considered unworthy of serious public debate but not so heavily guarded by taboo and convention that some headway cannot be made in changing attitudes about them.

He calls them ‘microethical’ issues, and he claims that these in fact are the issues that “…take up the bulk of whatever time most of us spend in moral reflection and decision making.” He considers them important in saliently similar ways: they figure importantly in our day to day lives, they work as indicating what our true moral values and character are, and they also help flush out the character and values of our society, “the trends we are part of, the assumptions we take for granted, the ideals we cherish, and the contradictory commitments we may harbour.”

Westacott takes most of our everyday ethical thinking to be confused, simplistic, unthinkingly narrow and conventional. He takes edicts such as ‘if you can’t say something nice about someone then don’t say anything at all’ as claims of universality, statements purporting to express an ethical axiom true of all times, people and places. He condemns them.

He condemns all such blanket condemnations, such as ‘never talk about someone behind their back’ because he argues that we should replace them with a practical moral wisdom able and willing to recognise complexities rather than “spraying over them with crude precepts.”

He argues that some generalities are defensible if there are good reasons defending their universal application. “I assume without argument that telling malicious lies about other people is wrong.” He thinks that this claim is justified because the view is “conducive to individual and social well being.” And he recognises that to get his main thesis across there needs to be some stability embedded into the general framework somewhere and somehow.

Reasons are a key to his approach. His aim is to discuss the reasons we have for doing moral things so that contradictions within our commonly held moral suppositions can be exposed. From this position he then hopes to convince us to relax the rigidity of our “moral corsets” so we might “breathe more freely.”

His approach shows how language can load up ethical rigidity in unintended ways. Shorthand attempts to summarise an ethically judged phenomenon can sometimes erase nuance and can be applied to things too easily and carelessly. By swiftly calling someone a snob we close down rather than open up moral thinking about the case. And because words like ‘snob’ and ‘sick’ and ‘gossip’ carry connotations of disproval, they rub out any positive features of whatever is being so labeled. It is this rigidity and unthinkingness that Westacott is attacking.

Westacott therefore believes it is valuable to analyse the way these words are actually used. He shows that once we investigate them in this way we find that we actually express more than a simple, blunt disapproval when we use them. Do we want to remove the label used once this work is done? We may decide that it would be preferable if the label itself was removed after analysis and replaced by “a more discriminating labeling system, one that, say, distinguishes between different kinds of disrespect, or between acceptable and unacceptable forms of rudeness.” But thinking about the use of our labeling may alternatively be something that deepens our understanding of the labels, providing what would necessarily be a provisional and incomplete definition but one that might still help us to draw the boundaries of a concept and in so doing “yield a whole world of unexpected insights into our language, values, history, culture, and ideals.”

So it’s through a subtle philosophical conceptual analysis that Westacott approaches his task. He’s out to clarify the concepts, articulate arguments, evaluate ethical standpoints and support specific conclusions. His definitions are normative – they’re meant to evaluate and appraise what people are doing when they use them. He wants them to be able to find space for reconceiving terms that have been crudely negative as instead allowing for acceptability and praiseworthiness in some circumstances.

He generously acknowledges work by anthropologists, historians, psychologists, social scientists and cultural critics in contributing to his approach. He sees himself as supplementing those other approaches by bringing close attention to the meaning of terms and the logic of arguments to the table. Just as an astronomer will take care to know about the lenses of his telescope so as to better know the stars, so too Westacott is interrogating the language of the concepts to better understand the things themselves.

And refreshingly, his book is an exercise of normative ethics, whereby he judges whether people are right, wrong, just, unjust, fair, unfair and so on. It is an approach that doesn’t deal in certainties but rather assesses the reasonableness of ethical claims in the cases examined. It isn’t science, it isn’t a priori, it isn’t discussing absolutes or necessities. Instead it discusses whether, all things considered, “conclusions are probable, plausible, useful or insightful.”

So how do you gauge whether our views about rudeness, for example, are justifiable? Coherence is a key value that helps Westacott answer that challenge. We all have our frameworks of beliefs, and moral beliefs are asked to be largely consistent with these. Moral beliefs about the justice of slavery, for example, were defeated by such considerations, in pretty much the same way as flat-earthers have been defeated in the domain of science.

This, then, is a Naturalist approach to morality, in the tradition of Spinoza, Voltaire and Nietzsche. Morals are human, invented by us but with roots in our biological heritage. Moral systems evolved. The first moral revolutionaries were religious. The Enlightenment secularised the process. This secular approach understands morality as a tool. “It is a set of values, beliefs, principles, practices, and ideals that we use to promote certain personal and social goals.” A key assumption of Westacott’s Naturalist point of view is that it isn’t possible to demonstrate the rightness of any particular ethical view. All that can be done is to show how reasonable it is to hold these ideals given the other beliefs and assumptions one holds. In this Westacott compares moral Naturalists with Darwinians. Darwinians can’t demonstrate that they are right and Creationists are wrong. All they can do is lay out all the assumptions held as reasonable alongside evolution and then show how Darwinianism is less of a stretch than Creationism, or any other idea so far on the table.

His approach to morals is broadly Utilitarian. Minimising pain and suffering, maximising well being and thriving, that’s the basic aim of everything he believes we are doing morally. So it is from this general position that he offers his analysis of what are often considered moral failings. He shows that surprisingly sometimes behaviour disapproved of can bring utilitarian benefits. So, for example, “sick humour can be viewed as the sharp edge of an important instrument of social criticism.” He cites Adam Smith, “what is commonly viewed as a private vice may be a public virtue.” Steve Wells et al would have agreed wholeheartedly.

There’s a Nietzschean self-recognition in the appealingly modest approach; “perspectives I offer can hardly be considered a ‘revaluation of all values'” he jokes early on. But he is ballsy: he wants to shake us up, make us think again, think harder, and as a result be more forgiving, more self critical. For those of us who find that too often the rigidity of blanket moral condemnation kills dissent, conversation and humour, this is refreshing.

He chooses his targets of discussion strategically. He targets those moral dilemmas that lie between universally approved and universally disapproved beliefs. So between ‘courage is good’ and ‘murder is bad’ are many disputed beliefs. These are where he sets up tent, thinking that movement is more likely to begin in this zone than in the more entrenched areas. His view is that as society develops, this middle band is changing and needs to be further broaden to cope with the increasingly diverse and pluralist social organisations we now tend to live in. His aim is therefore to widen the zone of disputed values and to narrow the zone of universally agreed ones. His object is to destabilise moral certainty so that we may become more flexible, nuanced, nimble when we come to make moral judgments.

His view is that playing it safe and sticking to traditions and conventions is hopeless. The contemporary world is no longer a world that makes such an approach reasonable. There is too much happening, too many different kinds of people, purposes, aims, too much difference, to suppose that we can in our day to day ethical decision-making have universal knowledge of what we should do. Sticking blindly to a general principle like ‘killing is wrong’ seems to give us stability but even seemingly rock solid maxims have exceptions. Westacott is arguing for a subtle and nuanced approach to moral matters, an approach that understands fully how conflicted and confused many people feel most of the time about ethical decisions.


He recognises that most of us will get it wrong and not on just the odd occasion but lots of times and for all kinds of reasons. Any claim of moral certainty based on blanket condemnations or blanket approval is dubious because it is dubious that we have access to the relevant facts that could give reasons for such certainty. Contemporary living is largely to do with coordinating huge numbers of people and pieces of information at a pace that makes any deep contemplation a challenge. If Westacott has a general statement to make about what kind of attitude we should hold in this context, it is that we should be forgiving. Given the complicated situation, he reckons we’ll be making mistakes, and we’ll need an attitude that can recognise that often such mistakes are honest.

He judges that we should be happy that we live in the kind of world that makes this confusion possible! It’s where everything is really clear and fixed, where there is no need for moral agility, flexibility and sensitivity to different points of view, that real trouble lies.

If we take rudeness as an example of how he proceeds throughout the book we can see how his methodical and illuminating approach helps navigate the tricky world he celebrates. So he begins by drawing attention to the sort of universal, blanket condemnation that commonly characterises attitudes towards rudeness. He notes that the condemnation is often presented in terms of ‘the good ol’ days.’ Prototypically, people claim that there’s more rudeness now than in the old days. But then he notes, as a matter of historical fact, that back in the day people were saying the same thing there too. He concludes that the good ol’ days argument seems to be too promiscuous. We should find a more faithful viewpoint.

But the folk believe that rudeness is bad and more rudeness is worse. There are reasons for doubting these beliefs too. Some intentional rudeness might be good. More rudeness might therefore be better than less in certain contexts and for certain reasons. Westacott’s approach is to begin by refusing, quietly, seriously and carefully, the premises of common wisdom about these issues. And then he begins to tease out how the terms are actually used and thought about when not being characterised in such a way.

In each case he develops a working definition. He recognises that it will be provisional, unfinished, a starting point for argument and refinements along the way, but once it is accepted that this can be a useful way to figure out many of the subtleties of nuance and refinement, he accomplishes insightful and careful analyses of each with careful precision. His opening definition of rudeness, then, is “an act violating a social convention and if deliberate would indicate a lack of care for another’s feelings.” Having argued why this is a good starting point he uses it to show how something as simple as this definition can help map out a complicated terrain.

He gives eight different species of rudeness developed from his definition as a kind of exhaustive taxonomy. Accordingly, you can be rude in situations where you don’t know the convention but you ought to have done; where you don’t know the convention and cannot be reasonably expected to know it; where you know the convention, are not aware of violating it, but ought to be; where you know the convention, are not aware of violating it, but your lack of awareness is excusable; where you know the convention, are aware of violating it but are not purposely being rude; where you know the convention, are aware of violating it, but are not purposively being rude and the violation is excusable; where you know the convention, are aware of violating it, and are purposively being rude; and finally where you know the convention, are aware of it and you are purposively but justifiably being rude.

For each of the above, he gives examples and discusses hard cases. By doing this he shows surprising results that at first seem counterintuitive but upon reflection are at the very least not as obviously mistaken as they seemed initially. So for example, using his approach, a heinously wrong act like rape becomes a matter of rudeness. This immediately strikes you as being just inept, until you consider that his approach is not saying that rape is just a matter of rudeness. Rape is much, much more serious than rudeness and involves transgressing much larger moral values, but nevertheless rape includes, alongside these other more serious ethical problems, rudeness. We should of course avoid pragmatic infelicities of condemning rape for its rudeness. But his analysis has the benefit of denying that there could ever be a polite rapist. The analysis brings up the complexities of our everyday moral thinking, and helps illuminate how layered and unobvious some of our moral intuitions are.

When rudeness is used as a statement of criticism he is particularly useful. Challenging convention can be a socially useful and even necessary function of rudeness. The Arab Spring wouldn’t be happening without rudeness. Nor would the Wall Street Occupation. He uses the story of when Goethe and Beethoven were strolling along and some toffs came walking towards them to illustrate this. Goethe follows the convention of the day and moves aside but Beethoven ploughs rudely on through the middle of them. “There are thousands of them, but only two of us” growled Beethoven in explanation.

Humour uses rudeness and it’s interesting to ask whether therefore it is real rudeness or mock rudeness. Westacott uses the interesting idea of ‘onside’ and ‘offside’ rudeness to capture the idea that mock rudeness can tip into real rudeness. But what’s important for him is what the humorous use of rudeness, however you classify it, reveals about the society you’re in. He links it to teasing whereby we establish, affirm and strengthen bond of friendship. The french fries test asks; ‘would you take a french fry from another person’s plate without asking them first?’ Calling someone an idiot is often a sign of good friendship just as taking someone’s fries without asking can be too. So here’s a case of rudeness that’s ok but of course, it is a use that is fraught with dangers. Miscalculate and you cause offense. And in a social setting that is constantly changing and where it isn’t always clear what social bonds are operating, mistakes will be made. Awareness of this should help us adopt a more forgiving attitude when the inevitable faux pas happens.

Alongside bonding, rudeness can enable people to engage with controversial issues within safe parameters. He says, “One does not need to be a dyed in the wool Nietzschean to recognise that bantering is commonly antagonistic.” And of course, the mock offense can again spill into genuine offense.

He gives other examples of good rudeness. In teaching, the sergeant major insults his raw recruits to toughen them up and builds up a bond of camaraderie. Interestingly, he argues that this kind of conventional rudeness was once common but now is frowned upon as a sign of increasing incivility! There is irony in this. How so?

As conventions change then confusion increases, like that regarding the role of rudeness in teaching. The complaint against once common practice often misunderstands the role of rudeness in the past and its carefully contextually-bound and justified uses. Westacott suggests that the idea that we are increasingly uncivil follows from the perceived decline in conventions but argues that this is to be misled by the perception. He argues that not only are rigid conventions difficult to retain in the sort of pluralistic and ever shifting, dynamic societies we now live in, but counting the erosion of such rigidity as a measure of moral decline mistakenly identifies what is actually occurring. For Westacott, offense is an unavoidable by-product of moral progress. It’s the price we pay for living in a dynamic culture. “The struggle to claim equal rights for ethnic minorities, women, and gays would never have got off the ground if people had eschewed any action likely to cause offense.”

He opposes the Confucian ideal of a rooted stability. This ideal is merely an idealised longing and even if it was ever historically true it is a hopeless dream today. People are no less moral than before, it’s just far more complicated to be morally correct now. There is no stable set of conventions we can use. What we do have is the ability to think of the reasons we have for taking the actions we do. We shouldn’t look for any nostalgic Confucian ideal but rather use the smarter situation we’re in “to self consciously establish social conventions that adequately express our values (for instance, a judicious egalitarianism), foster sound moral attitudes (for instance, respect for persons, tolerance for different lifestyles), and facilitate understanding. We should also, where possible, establish conventions that contribute to making our world more beautiful.”

This is his approach to all five areas of micro-moral quandary. It is incisive, thoughtful, analytical and very well written. He is nuanced and subtle and therefore there’s a sense that you, as a reader, are being taken on a very refined and smart tour of complex and interesting terrain. If there’s one chapter where I felt my intuitions going in different directions than his it was in the chapter on snobbery. I wasn’t sure his definition really got to the heart of the matter and because of that his subsequent discussion seemed compromised a little by being, well, a bit snobby itself. But that is a strength of the book. It provokes its readers to think about these matters and it’s unlikely that there could ever be exactly overlapping moral intuitions about these things from everyone. And given that Westacott has written an example of normative ethics where the whole point is to try and say what we should be doing then of course it’s going to provoke disagreement some way along the line.

The benefits of his rigorous approach can be seen if we return briefly to the iconoclastic Attack! Book project mentioned at the start and see what Westacott’s analysis illuminates. It is clear from this analysis that the rudeness of those writers was about them knowing the convention, being aware of it and purposively but justifiably being rude about it. Blanket condemnation of the project would not be justified. The moral purpose of the venture, something very much part of Steve Wells’s approach to everything he did, is vindicated.

And having read the chapter about the uses of sick humour, these writers were again spot on. Westacott’s discussion of humour is refined and deep, taking in the likes of Freud‘s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Max Eastman‘s Enjoyment of Laughter, Henri Bergson‘s Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, Ronald de Sousa‘s The Rationality of Emotion and Simon Critchley‘s On Humour. And he’s happy to tell us which jokes we should find funny and those which we shouldn’t. And it’s sick humour, the humour of childish transgression, that probably fits the Attack! Book genre best. He even tells a good sick joke: “‘Mummy mummy, what’s for dinner?’ ‘Shut up and get back in the oven.'”

There’s a Nietzschean analysis hovering around this where he argues that sometimes the source of the humour in a sick joke is connected to an awareness of the will to power. It is out of this that he argues pleasure can be aroused “… by infants, lapdogs, defeated opponents, executioners, someone else’s failed marriage, and every kind of schadenfreude.” For Nietzsche it is natural to relish health, and the sickness is “the bad conscience we suffer from when we find ourselves enjoying our sense of superiority.” Freudian transgression is another source of pleasure. And overall the historical purpose of the sick jokes of Attack! Books (and the subsequent Neo-Attack! Books of Jonny Pulp that Swells edited and supported) can be celebrated, in the words of Westacott, as “a symptom of cultural dynamism. For it perhaps indicates a historical trajectory away from a society constrained by traditional notions of the sacred and the taboo.”

Westacott’s book ends with a grand paragraph: “In the twenty-first century, the moral parameters of a modern outlook include a principle of equality and the idea of basic civil rights. That is why we would not now entertain for even a moment the suggestion that slavery be revived: the idea is beyond the pale of respectability, not worthy of our attention. And in the theoretical domain, too, there are limits to what we can take seriously as knowledge. One of these is a commitment to some form of naturalism; so claims that refer to supernatural phenomena, to entities not susceptible to any sort of empirical investigation, are off our epistemic radar, as are bizarre, unsupported assertions that contradict the mass of scientific evidence. People are free to believe what they want, of course, but not every belief deserves to be taken seriously as a candidate for truth. Withholding epistemic respect at times is one of the ways we express our current intellectual values and try to advance a little further toward a more rational society.”

I’m writing this as police clear the Occupy Wall Street protesters in Zuccotti Park. We’re needing Swells right now. Westacott gives us the good reasons.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 25th, 2011.