Acting Civilly

By Priest, Jim T. | THE JOURNAL RECORD, September 4, 1998 | Go to article overview

Acting Civilly


Priest, Jim T., THE JOURNAL RECORD


In his recent book Civility, Stephen Carter made some observations about the American railroad phenomena of the mid-1800s. It's hard to believe, but not so many years ago travel by railroad was the preferred mode of transportation. Horses were slow and automobiles had not yet been invented. America in the middle of the nineteenth century was in love with railroads.

Passengers, of course, were divided into classes and the cars were often crowded but, on the whole, people behaved respectably. In part this was due to books that were bought and read by passengers. Books like Politeness on Railroads by Issac Peebles which laid out rules and guidelines for proper behavior as a railroad passenger:

* "Whispering, loud talking and immoderate laughing and singing should not be indulged by any passenger."

* "Passengers should not gaze at one another in an embarrassing way."

* "No one should indulge in personal preferences at the expense of other passengers."

These principles were laid down to make traveling in groups more civilized. Those who violated the guidelines were dealt with strongly by the conductors. People knew the rules and knew they had to abide by them if they were all to make it to their destination, comfortably, in the company of one another.

Carter contrasts this cooperative "group friendly" behavior with that of a 1990s airline traveler in Houston's Hobby airport. The passenger was apparently late for a flight and simply ran through the metal detector without waiting for his bag to be X-rayed, setting off alarms. In a flash he was gone, lost into the crowd. He probably thought he was simply bending the rules a bit, but the airport security thought differently. As a result of this passenger's self- centered behavior the Continental Airline terminals had to be evacuated -- about 7,000 people -- and the result was 40 flights delayed by four-plus hours. All because of the self-centered behavior of one passenger.

Civil behavior

Carter declares this passenger was "uncivil" in his behavior. Not because his action was illegal (although it was) and not simply because people were inconvenienced (although they were). His actions were uncivil, says Carter, because they were done without thinking of the ramifications of his behavior on others. Thus, self-centered behavior is uncivil. And uncivil behavior is unethical. Therefore, ethical behavior must be civil and to be ethical we must take into account the impact our decisions have on others.

When examining the ethical aspects of an issue or dilemma we must ask, "What will be the impact on others? …

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