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Civility assists a frictionless society but works best without coercive force

By Nicole Billante and Peter Saunders - posted Monday, 2 June 2003

When Rudolf Giuliani was mayor of New York in the 1990s, he introduced "Quality of Life" initiatives designed to instil a sense of civility in the city. As Mayor Giuliani put it: "A decent society is a society of civility". The initiative targetted petty property crimes like vandalism (arrests went up ten-fold) and graffiti spraying (over 20 million square feet of graffiti were removed from public spaces), as well as things like noise, litter, jaywalking, service standards of taxi drivers and the zoning of anti-social businesses like sex shops (Times Square, for example, was purged of its seamy side).

The New York initiative was an explicit attempt to put into practice what is known as the "Broken Windows" theory of crime. The basic insight of this theory is that neglect of minor incivilities in a neighbourhood tends to encourage more serious forms of antisocial behaviour. To tackle the big problems like crime, it is necessary to pay attention to the little issues. To its supporters the theory appears to have worked in New York with a reduction of serious crime of over 60 per cent since 1993 (pdf file, 81Kb).

Whether or not the "Broken Windows" theory explains Giuliani's success in reducing crime in New York (which some criminologists dispute), we can all presumably agree with the Mayor that the quality of social life depends on the strength of a culture of civility.


But what is civility really all about? From our review of an extensive academic literature, and from talking with ordinary Australians in focus groups, we suggest that civility should be understood as being made up of three elements.

The first is that civility involves a demonstration of respect for others. At the age of 16, George Washington set down his "110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation". His first rule was: 'Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present'. This emphasis on respecting others is still central to the idea of civility today. Yale Professor of Law Stephen Carter, for example, defines civility as "An attitude of respect, even love, for our fellow citizens", and Calhoun argues that civility involves communicating an attitude of respect towards others.

The second element is that civility relates to public behaviour in that it governs relations between people who may not know each other. As philosophy professor Michael Meyer notes, "Civility is primarily a stance taken towards strangers". And, Carter says it "equips us for everyday life with strangers ... we need neither love them nor hate them in order to be civil towards them".

It is the fact that civility requires us to show respect for people we do not know that invests it with a strong moral quality. Consideration shown to friends and family may derive from empathy or affection, and it is likely to be reinforced by the knowledge that we shall have to interact with them again in the future. Civility towards strangers, however, requires that we behave in certain ways towards people who may mean nothing to us, and whom we are unlikely ever to encounter again. This Good Samaritan ethic means that civility does not rest upon a concern or sympathy towards specific others but is rather the product of a generalised empathy which we feel we owe to all who share society with us.

The third element of civility is what Carter calls "sacrifice", or what might less dramatically be referred to as self-regulation. Civility involves holding back in the pursuit of one's own immediate self-interest - we desist from doing what would be most pleasing to us for the sake of harmonious relations with strangers. Civility means doing the right thing. As George Washington noted in the last of his 110 rules of civility, "Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience".

These three elements of civility - respect, relations with strangers, and self-regulation - together lead us to a definition of what it is we are talking about. Civility is behaviour in public that demonstrates respect for others and which entails curtailing one's own immediate self-interest when appropriate.


Defined in this way, civility is clearly a demanding public virtue. To be prepared to sacrifice one's own self-interest out of respect for people one has never met is a big ask.

But why does civility really matter? Our concern with such things as manners and etiquette might be thought rather quaint or archaic in this post-modern age, so why does the issue of civility warrant our attention?

Edward Shils notes that civility is important because "there is not enough good nature or temperamental amiability in any society to permit it to dispense with good manners ... Good manners repress the expression of ill nature". In other words, we need people to be civil to each other if social life is to function efficiently and with a minimum of unnecessary conflict and disruption.

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Article edited by John Carrigan.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article is based on the Centre for Independent Studies' Occasional Paper "Six questions about Civility". Available from the Centre for Independent Studies bookshop.

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About the Authors

Nicole Billante is a research assistant at the Center for Independent Studies.

Peter Saunders is a distinguished fellow of the Centre for Independent Studies, now living in England. After nine years living and working in Australia, Peter Saunders returned to the UK in June 2008 to work as a freelance researcher and independent writer of fiction and non-fiction.He is author of Poverty in Australia: Beyond the Rhetoric and Australia's Welfare Habit, and how to kick it. Peter Saunder's website is here.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Nicole Billante
All articles by Peter Saunders
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