|Nancy Sherman on the Look and Feel of Virtue
WASHINGTON, D.C., 17 JAN. 2005 (ZENIT)
What we do, how we do it and
how we appear to others, often make an ethical difference, says a
scholar in the field of ethics.
Nancy Sherman, author of the forthcoming "Stoic Warriors: The Ancient
Philosophy Behind the Military Mind" (Oxford University Press), is a
philosophy professor at Georgetown University and the inaugural holder
of the visiting Distinguished Chair of Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy
She shared with ZENIT how an "aesthetic of character" affects us, and
how acting with good manners helps us grow in the life of virtue.
Q: What is the look and feel of virtue?
Sherman: By referring to "the look and feel of virtue," I am trying to
capture the idea of the "aesthetic of character." Basically, I mean how
we appear to others as conveyed through formal manners and decorum, as
well as through manner in the wider sense of personal bearing and
The latter can be a matter of looks and gesture, tone of voice and
posture, facial expression, or more generally, overall emotional and
physical comportment. The way we comport ourselves is often an important
ingredient in formal manners, as in expressing politeness by looking a
person in the eye when we greet them hello or showing gratitude through
I would say formal manners and more general comportment are part of how
we convey socially sensitive behavior. Thus, it is not just what we do
but how we do it and how we appear to others that often ethically
Q: Why do manners matter?
Sherman: I became interested in manners during my stint as chair in
ethics at the United States Naval Academy. The first time I entered the
Academy gates what caught my eye
indeed what catches the eye of any outsider
is the attention paid to manners and decorum.
"Honor, courage and commitment" may be written on Academy walls,
replacing Harvard's "Veritas." But written on the faces and bodies of
the midshipmen is not just a commitment to character, but a commitment
to an aesthetic of character. Indeed, the world of the military takes
seriously the inner stuff of character, but also its appearance.
At the mealtime formation, visitors line up to see a brigade of crisply
pressed uniforms and straight bodies. Officers and midshipmen greet
civilians with a "sir" or "ma'am," locked eye gaze and firm handshake.
Hair is in place and uniforms are impeccable; Marine shirts have creases
like no civilian dress shirt has ever seen.
But it is not just a trim and neat uniform that conveys good conduct in
the midshipman. It is the overall demeanor and bearing that the visitor
a sense of politeness and respect, an air of helpfulness and civility.
As I saw this in these young officers in training, I asked myself how
important some aspect of external bearing is in nonmilitary life. My
answer was that it had a role that philosophers, in particular, often
feel hesitant to defend.
And yet, as parents, we often insist on training our children to look
others in the eye when saying hello or thank you, or to look
"presentable" when going out with company, etc. We count on certain
facial and bodily gestures to be part of the full package of morally
good conduct. And we praise and blame accordingly.
In this sense, the outer stuff of virtue is, at times, continuous with
expectations for inner character
wanted to write about that continuum. I found a fascinating discussion
in Seneca's "On Doing Kindnesses"
and I explore that in my account.
Q: Do external conventions help cultivate authentic virtues or do they
simply mask hypocrisy?
Sherman: You raise an important objection against manners
namely that they condone, and even encourage, inauthenticity. Favors
done gruffly may offend, but a veneer of politeness that masks meanness
can be just as offensive in its deceit. Moreover, a false-self can
alienate others, but also oneself.
But I think the charge of hypocrisy is typically overdone; I argue
against the charge in several ways.
First, while the demand to fully bear one's soul may be on some
occasions appropriate, to know when it is not, is itself a sign of moral
sensitivity. To know when to hold back, to know when polite behavior
counts for something and full disclosure for less, seems altogether a
morally good thing.
Moreover, "posed" facial expressions
or we might say, "faking it"
may please others and express respect as well as function as
self-exhortations. They are a way of coaxing along a corresponding inner
change. We nurse a change from the outside in, as it were.
Current research on facial feedback mechanisms lends some support to the
idea. Experimenters have shown that those who read the "funnies" with
upturned lips find the cartoons funnier than those whose lips are not in
the smiling position. Other studies show that overt facial expression
can affect the intensity of emotional arousal.
Immanuel Kant, the great 18th-century German Enlightenment philosopher,
captures the point surprisingly well in one of his writings.
He says, "Men are, one and all, actors
the more so the more civilized they are. They put on a show of
affection, respect for others, modesty and disinterest without deceiving
anyone, since it is generally understood that they are not sincere about
"And it is a very good thing that this happens in the world. For if men
keep on playing these roles, the real virtues whose semblance they have
merely been affecting for a long time are gradually aroused and pass
into their attitude of will."
The point is significant coming from Kant's mouth, for he is often
thought of as a philosopher who is almost "moralistic" about not lying.
Yet here he suggests that a bit of role playing
bit of "faking it"
goes a long way both to lubricate the wheels of society and to nudge
along inner character change.
Q: So, how we speak, act and comport ourselves can help shape our deeper
moral selves and our character. But also it seems important in conveying
the right attitude to others. Is that right?
Sherman: As I have suggested, I think "faking it," or role playing, can
be terribly important in social interaction.
Erving Goffmann, a well-known sociologist who studied role playing at
the University of Pennsylvania, suggested that we depend upon it for
many of our social rituals, including deference behavior and attitudes
of respect. But the research suggests that it may be more continuous
with nurturing inner change than we typically think.
Seneca, a late Roman Stoic from the first century A.D., emphasizes the
continuum between inner and outer moral behavior. His point is that
kindness and gratitude are typically captured in the manner of conduct.
How to play "the role of the good person" becomes key.
And surprisingly for a Stoic
who by doctrine ought to be wary of emotional engagement
he demands that kindness and gratitude have much to do with the emotions
we express through body, facial language and voice. In shows of kindness
and gratitude, he emphasizes a kind of back-and-forth loop in the
language of emotional gesture.
A few quotes give the flavor of his thought. We create ingratitude when
we do favors with a plaintive attitude and when we are "oppressive" and
nagging in our demands: "We spoil the effect entirely, not just
afterwards, but while we are doing the favor."
Nor do we typically express the right comportment if favors are extorted
from us: Our reluctance is betrayed in inappropriate "furrowed brows"
and "grudging words."
Nor should we give a gift in a way that is humiliating. For we are so
constituted that insults "go deeper than any services" and are more
"tenaciously remembered" than kindnesses.
"No one can feel gratitude for a favor haughtily tossed down or angrily
thrust on him," or given with groaning or flaunting or with an "insolent
expression" or "language swollen with pride" or with "a silence that
gives an impression of grim severity" or in a way that is simply
"irritating." It is like giving bread with stones in it.
Showing arrogance in gift giving simply undermines the deed itself:
"There are many who make their kindnesses hateful by rough words and
superciliousness. Their language and annoyance are such as to leave you
regretting your request was ever granted."
Again, he exhorts, "Don't remonstrate when giving an act of kindness;
save that for another time. No element of unpleasantness should be mixed
with it." In short, gifts that are true kindnesses are bestowed "with a
look of human kindness," be it in the language of words and voice, or
facial and bodily expression.
Thus, the look and feel of virtue matter. They indicate attitude, even
if that attitude is, at times, feigned. The point is that an important
part of everyday moral interaction just is the attitude we "show" to