Ethics and Civility are Cousins--Not Twins

Joan Elise Dubinsky, Fellow, Rutland Institute of Ethics
Clemson University, February 2020

At the U.S. Senate’s impeachment trial of our country’s 45th President, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and Presiding Judge John G. Roberts, Jr. chided those assembled by saying:

"I think it is appropriate at this point for me to admonish both the House managers and the president's counsel in equal terms to remember that they are addressing the world's greatest deliberative body. One reason it has earned that title is because its members avoid speaking in a manner and using language that is not conducive to civil discourse."

Mind you, this extraordinary intervention by our nation’s most influential jurist came at 1:00 in the early morning, from the U.S. Senate Chamber. What can we learn from Judge Roberts’ brief intervention?  Let’s first understand the setting before we figure out what this means.

We have just experienced only the third impeachment trial of a U.S. President. This means that the U.S. House of Representatives has accused the President of High Crimes and Misdemeanors, in the words of the U.S. Constitution. Ultimately, should the U.S. Senate vote in favor of impeachment, the outcome is the removal of the incumbent president from office. You can see how high these stakes are.

Today, civil discourse is at a premium – and that is what civility is really all about. We are challenged to talk about the most sensitive and politically divisive of topics in ways that encourage honest, real and raw conversations. Civil discourse is simple in definition and, as we see around us, difficult to put into practice. To paraphrase Diane Rehm, a National Public Radio journalist, civil discourse is the ability to converse about topics over which we disagree and to listen and hear what each other is saying.

The context for civil discourse matters. In the halls of Congress, each of us is expected to be on our best behavior. If there is such a thing as sacred space that is not also a religious sanctuary, that place would surely be the U.S. Congress, the White House, and the U.S. Supreme Court. These are our highest civil institutions. These three physical locations are the center of our particularly American form of democratic government.

Let’s make this simpler. Would you boo at the opposing team at the football stadium? Would you blow deafening klaxons and horns to distract the opposing players? It might feel like fun – after all, it’s just a sporting event. Yet, how does the football stadium compare to the halls of Congress or to a courtroom? These are fundamentally different kinds of spaces. Behavior and speech in one venue might well be inappropriate in the other.

What else can we learn from the Chief Justice’s comments? We learn that not only where we are matters, but what we say and how we say it.  Civility requires that we be mindful of the words we use and the tone and inflection that convey our messages. It’s not just what we say—but how we say it that reflects our meaning.

Remember the last time that you had a really fierce argument? Put aside what you were arguing about, and recall how you argued. What tone of voice did you use? Did you get loud or soft? Were you menacing? Threatening? Rude? Sarcastic?  What physical gestures did you use? Did you pound the table? Raise a fist? Wave your hands? Point with a finger? Were you standing, sitting, or pacing around the room? Now think about the words that you used. Did you speak in full sentences? Did you curse? Did you use four-letter words? You know—the kind that you would not use with your mother? In our family, we talk about using “car working words,” the kinds that are not printed in the car manual or the specifications sheet.

Here’s a quick experiment that reveals how deeply tone and punctuation change our meaning. Say the following three phrases out loud – just as written – placing emphasis on the underlined words:

“I was wrong. You were right. I should apologize.”

Now say the following three phrases out loud—just as written.

I was wrong? You were right? I should apologize?”

Did you hear the difference? Civility requires that we be mindful of place, time, and language. It requires that we concentrate on what we say and how we say it. Civility demands that we control our tone of voice, our non-verbal gestures, as well as the very words that we choose to use.

However, civility alone is not the key to being ethical. Civility and ethics are cousins, but not identical twins. I can be unfailingly polite, and at the same time gloss over or ignore fundamental disagreements we may have. I can engage in civil conversation about familiar and usually insignificant topics, like the weather, while failing to address significant moral and social questions. I might say, “Bless his heart” to convey that he just could not help himself from acting like a rube, an idiot, or a country bumpkin. “Bless his heart” may sound polite – but south of the Mason-Dixon line, its use is rarely civil.

When I want to grapple with a tough ethical question, it may be easier for me to start a conversation by remembering what civility requires. Civility is the necessary condition that precedes our tough discussions. But civility alone is not sufficient.

Why? A deep discussion about ethics, where we don’t necessarily agree about what the right course of action may be, requires a real and lasting commitment to trust, to be honest, and to show mutual respect. I must be prepared to recognize the moral and emotional worth of both your opinions and my opinions. Yet, if I find your ethical positions to be personally repugnant, I may still choose to engage in a civil conversation to understand your perspectives and concerns.

It’s not for lack of substantive problems or fundamental disagreements. Our coffee shops, airwaves and social media are filled with people talking about divisive topics. How we choose to talk about them – now that is a problem over which we can have substantial impact. If we start with civility, we have a good chance to move on to ethical dialogue. Most problems have a greater chance of resolution if we bring both civility and ethics to the conversation. And that, I believe, is a worthy goal.

If I want to have a voice – to truly be heard – I must be mindful of the words I use and how I use them. I must learn to speak to be understood and listen to find common ground.

If you are in the Clemson University area on Wednesday, March 25th, join us for a Lunch and Learn session on Civil Discourse. Contact Dr. William McCoy, Director of the Rutland Institute for Ethics, for more information at