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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics


Judy Nadler and Miriam Schulman

These materials were prepared for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics program in Government Ethics by former Senior Fellow Judy Nadler and former Communications Director Miriam Schulman.

What is civility?
What does civility have to do with ethics?
What ethical dilemmas does incivility present?
Resources on civility

What is civility?

When George Washington was 14 years old, he copied out 110 "Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation" from an English translation of a French book of manners. As relevant to the conduct of government today as they were when they were first written, they include:

Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.

Sleep not when others speak, sit not when others stand, speak not when you should hold your peace, walk not on when others stop.

Shake not the head, feet, or legs; roll not the eyes; lift not one eyebrow higher than the other; wry not the mouth; and bedew no man's face with your spittle by approaching too near him when you speak.

Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy.

In short, civility is based on the golden rule that we should treat others as we wish to be treated. In government, it means conducting the public's business with respect for other elected officials, staff, and citizens. In civil discourse, opponents make their arguments on the merits of the case rather than engaging in ad hominem attacks.

What does civility have to do with ethics?

Civility is all about virtue ethics: that is, the cultivation of those traits-such as honesty, fairness, self-control, and prudence-that help us reach our full human potential. When public officials practice civility, they are helping their city, county, state, or country to fulfill its potential by putting the common good ahead of personal rivalries or irritations.
Civility is a good example of the difference between ethics and law. While acting civilly is the right thing to do, and government bodies should encourage it, civility cannot be legislated. One city council tried to ban "body language or other nonverbal methods of expressing disagreement or disgust." Ultimately they decided to repeal the ordinance when citizens expressed disgust at the council's need to control eye-rolling and grimacing through legislation.

What ethical dilemmas does incivility present?

The primary responsibility of elected officials is to represent their constituents' best interests. It is amazing how often that responsibility is impeded by incivility. Countless hours are wasted in e-mail wars and public debates that have nothing to do with the business at hand and everything to do with rudeness.

Incivility can be a real problem in what might be called "election hangover." A successful mayoral candidate may have trouble relating to a councilperson who did not support her, or a newly elected supervisor may not get along with an incumbent who endorsed his opponent. And incivility is not confined to the treatment of other elected officials. It is an equally serious problem when elected officials denigrate staff with whom they disagree.

Generally, civility is best fostered by a group commitment to parliamentary procedures such as Roberts Rules of Order. Councilmembers may decide, for example, to use formal titles when addressing each other at public meetings, to stick religiously to time limits for discussion, to respect the role of the presiding officer in moving the discussion, and to disallow displays such as applause or booing in chambers. While such measures may feel stilted, they reflect the high standards of conduct that should govern those who represent the public.

Resources on civility

August 2006

Oct 23, 2015
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For more information about government ethics programs and resources contact John Pelissero.

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