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The Ethical Importance of Courtesy.

As you are aware if you have read my profile I am a reasonable age. I have therefore been around to watch the ongoing de construction of civil behaviour in our society.

Over the last few days I have again been confronted with the reality of just how poorly behaved we have become as a community. Being a health professional I am at the front line of a lot of abusive behaviour from the general public. Most of us give some leeway to people who are suffering or worried about those they love who are suffering, but it is still unconscionable to be abusive and threatening to those who are trying to care for you. Most of you would be surprised to hear that along with Emergency Departments, it is in the areas of Maternity Services and Paediatrics that the worst of this abuse takes place.

But what about in ordinary life where you or your loved ones are not frightened by a health crisis?

Why is it that we think it is OK to abuse, intimidate and threaten retail assistants and those whose job it is to provide us with a service? When did it become acceptable to go to a Beautician, have a facial and then inform that person that you can’t afford to pay for it? Because this week I was told by a young woman that this sort of behaviour had undermined her attempt to run her business. This goes beyond being rude. It is fraud which is a criminal act.

Then today I read in the Sydney Morning Herald that Retail workers are campaigning against abuse by their customers. Anna Patty in her report on the ‘No One Deserves a Serve’ campaign detailed the statistics uncovered in a recent survey, that shows that eighty five percent [85%] of retail workers have been abused in the course of their working day. Fourteen percent have been physically attacked!

As the young Beautician I spoke to quite rightly pointed out, this is an issue of morals. She had no doubt in her mind that the people who had abused the social contract between the provider of services, and the purchaser of those services, were immoral. But this is a word you don’t hear many people using these days. We have lost our understanding of the ethics of behaviour. Ethics being morality in action.

In his detailed account of violence in human society, The Better Angels of Our Nature, [2011], Steven Pinker outlines how we gradually matured from childish, boorish behaviour that was literally dangerous, to the mostly safe and free society we have here in Australia and Europe today. Even America is safer than it used to be when it was normal for people to lash out violently whenever they were upset or angry.

What changed was that we came to accept a set of rules of behaviour that are the basis of Courtesy towards others. We started to act civilly towards others and this ‘Civilising Process’ enabled us to create the safe, democratic and affluent society we live in today. Treating each other with courtesy is how we enact our acknowledgment of the worth of each individual and their right to be safe amongst us. It facilitates the communication and cooperation that is necessary for all of us to be free to make choices about how we live our lives.

Over the last five centuries the level of violence amongst us has decreased radically because we accepted the usefulness of the ‘Civilising Process’ in improving our lives. Then, at the end of the twentieth century, just as manners went out of fashion there is a upturn in the graph that plots this decline. What that graph plots is homicides. If we value the safety, freedom and opportunity for a good life that arises from a CIVIL society we, as a community need to start to treat each other with respect, and that includes those who provide us with a service.