Externalities, customs, and manners

While lecturing on externalities on Tuesday, it struck me that a significant role for customary manners is that they let us known which negative externalities it is OK for us to complain about, and which we must just let go. So, at a restaurant, if someone orders a dish that smells bad to us, we should just let it go: one is not allowed to complain about others choice of foods, since there is nothing "impolite" about choosing any menu item the restaurant serves. But if our neighbor buries his head in his bowl of pasta and begins eating like a dog, we may complain: the behavior is impolite, and we are permitted to ask that it cease.

People who get worked up about manners being arbitrary have missed the point: it is far more important we coordinate on certain standards of behavior than is what the particular standards are. Neither slurping nor not slurping soup is intrinsically good or bad: in the US one should not slurp it, and in Japan one should. Differing eating habits easily create annoyance and feelings of disgust, so the point is to have a standard so as to minimize such frictions.


  1. Externalities: the great rug under which all of the important details are swept.

    It's a good observation, Gene, and one which is not at all confined restaurant manners. A large part of academic/policy discussion of economics seems to involve an implicit lobbying as to which externalities we are allowed to factor into our analysis.

    But I don't think anti-social economists and social revolutionaries doubt that it is good to coordinate on certain standards of behavior. They just think these in particular are silly/wrong/evil and want to fight for their own consciously constructed norms.

  2. Karen Stohr has done recent work on the moral status of manners. I have not read her book (On Manners), but you can listen to a discussion at New Books in Philosophy:



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