Law in Contemporary Society

Why Do Table Manners Exist?

Luke Reilly said in LukeReillyIntro, "I want to learn the reasons that legal structures and rules and decisions exist. I want to understand why this or that result happened. Hopefully, this will allow me to work to solidify the laws I find just, and change the others."

Eben said:

In what way do you imagine yourself "solidifying" law?

I can help you learn why "legal structures and rules and decisions exist." Let's start with a simpler and equally useful question: Why do table manners exist?

Laws are solidified by continued application, support, and justification. If, as we've discussed, laws need to make sense in present contexts and for present reasons, then it follows that current laws that we find desirable may require new justification. It may be that a law does not serve the purposes it once did, yet should still be law. It then requires something new to support it.

Table manners exist for a few reasons, depending on the manner in question.

  • First, some exist to prevent actions that often disgust others. Example: Don't chew with one's mouth open. Keep your napkin in your lap.
  • Second, some exist as signs of respect towards others. Examples: Don't use your cell phone at the table. Wait until the host/hostess has eaten before you begin.
  • Third, some exist to ensure that everybody does the same thing for logistical purposes. Example: Keep your bread plate on your left and your drink on your right.
  • Finally, some seem to have no reason at all that I can discern. Example: In the US, you switch your fork after cutting and before eating (a piece of chicken for example).

This last one serves as an excellent example of my point. I hate that rule. I was taught it all through my childhood, and it never made the slightest bit of sense to me. In fact, it seems more efficient to keep your fork in your off hand and your knife in your dominant hand, as it avoids all the switching nonsense. [Sidenote: if anybody has a good reason for that rule, I'd love to hear it.]

I consider understanding the purpose behind rules a necessary prerequisite to potentially changing them. The rule against chewing with one's mouth open exists to ensure that your actions won't upset others. I understand why this rule exists and it makes sense. I have no desire to change it. The switch-your-fork rule is senseless (to me). I want to change/ignore it.

Similarly, when there are legal rules that are senseless to me, or which have effects that I consider unjust in various ways, I find myself wanting to change them. To do this, I feel I need to understand why the rule came into being in the first place.

-- LukeReilly - 05 Feb 2015

Thanks for the interesting thread.

The rule you are concerned with, switching your fork before cutting and before eating, seems harmless to me, even if annoying. Why are you so motivated to change it? It seems trivial in comparison to rules that are flagrantly harmful, such as rules that further discrimination or oppression. In any case, a social explanation for its existence can potentially be found: it operates as a signaling mechanism, allowing other members in society to know whether a given member is of a certain standing or not. Presumably, it is only "civilized" or "proper" members of society who abide by this rule.

On another point, I think the "why" question you are primarily interested in actually subsumes two different questions: (1) What are the historical/social factors that explain why a given rule is currently in existence? (2) What are the normative/moral considerations that justify why a given rule ought to remain in existence (or be abolished)?

-- AbdallahSalam - 13 Feb 2015

But even if the rule in question truly serves primarily as a signaling mechanism among the cultural elite, why does it necessarily follow that it is harmless? I assume we are all at least minimally concerned with reducing barriers to upward mobility. So if it is true that a failure to "fork-switch" keeps the poor person out of country clubs or white collar jobs, should it not warrant critical discussion?

Perhaps Luke's point is representative of a much larger problem in Western society - the unnecessary convolution of subliminal modes of human interaction (eg. grammar, table manners, gestures, etc.) for the purpose of enforcing class stratification. You would be correct that this is not as flagrant a problem as compared to, say, laws that outlaw homosexuality. Still, it may be unlikely that Luke will be visiting the Ugandan president any time soon. He could, however, change how he uses his fork in social settings.

Which brings me to your final point. If Luke is committed to the belief that fork-switching is silly rule, the operative question has less to do with the rule's origin or justification and more with how (and whether or not) to effectuate an alternative regime. Perhaps Luke can consciously alter his fork-switching behavior in the interest of change, but would doing so jeopardize his other career and personal goals?

-- ShayBanerjee - 13 Feb 2015

AbdallahSalam, I agree that this particular rule is pretty harmless. It annoys me because it seems much more reasonable to keep your knife in your right hand and just spear/eat with the fork in your left. I did not consider the signalling mechanism idea; I quite like it. If true, then I like the rule even less.

I chose that rule because I couldn't think of a table manner that I considered genuinely harmful in the same way as certain laws. Table manners may be arbitrary or annoying, but they can't really be unjust.

Table manners are also an odd example because there's no formal mechanism for changing them (this ties into ShayBanerjee's point). If I was at a state dinner (an unlikely scenario) and chewed my food with my mouth open (an even unlikelier scenario), nobody would want to hear my reasoned argument about why I believed it should be acceptable (I don't believe that by the way). Miss Manners is not holding court on issues of gift-giving; indeed she would probably say that she doesn't decide anything at all. Thus, my attempts to change a table manner on my own are probably doomed. In law though, we believe that change is possible. Indeed, that belief is at the centerpiece of EbenMoglen's definition of a lawyer.

I agree that those two questions are basically the ones I'm asking, but I don't think they're quite so separable. The circumstances informing a rule's creation will be a part of the normative justifications for the rule. I'm not sure you can evaluate a rule without understanding why and how it came about.

-- LukeReilly - 15 Feb 2015

Thanks a lot for your follow up. I agree that although the table manner rule is relatively harmless, it is not harmless tout court.

I think Isaiah Berlin’s essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox”, must have been in the back of my mind when I wrote my comment. According to Berlin, thinkers are of two types. Hedgehogs, who are committed to one big idea, see the whole world in relation to this one guiding principle. By contrast, Foxes, who draw on many different experiences and sources of knowledge, do not seek to engage with the world through the prism of a single unified system.

In relation to the justification of rules, I wonder whether one need be a Hedgehog. In other words, I wonder whether it is necessary for us to arrive at a method for ascertaining whether and why each and every rule is to be purged, starting from table manners, before we can agree that certain ones clearly need to be. A Hedgehog would identify rules that clearly need to be purged and then move on to actually purging them, without too much worry about whether his list of rules is exhaustive and whether his approach to purging them is consistent with his method for identifying them.

I believe this consideration ties back into a conversation we have had in class about knowledge and power. It seems to me that there is a point at which the quest for knowledge, though seductive, comes at the price of action, which is what knowledge ultimately serves.

-- AbdallahSalam - 18 Feb 2015

This is an interesting discussion, which has nothing to do with the answer to the question I asked: Why do table manners exist? The result of asking the question has been a social process in which law students assumed that table manners consist of rules, like law is supposed to consist of rules, and that rules have justifications---which are apparently functionalist just-so stories that explain why the rule is good---and consequences, which enable us to explain why a rule is not good.

Apparently the condition of our thinking about the universe at all is that it can be thought about reductively, in the particular form that law students are taught to "think like lawyers." But perhaps the best way actually to think like a lawyer is not to be in that kind of law school. To escape, perhaps we could think about a simple question: why do table manners exist?

I moved this discussion from LukeReillyIntro, where it did not belong, to WhyTableMannersExist, which is where it will belong if anybody actually decides to take the question seriously.

-- EbenMoglen - 19 Feb 2015

Table manners exist because many individuals teach their children, family members, and those in their particular social group what they understand as table manners. These tend to be norms that are highly tailored to the realities of the group or family. It seems as if table manners exist for the same reason that humans prefer to have a set daily routine--the human preference for consistency and predictability.

-- ChrisMendez - 24 Feb 2015

In class, Eben discussed “the idea called Darwin” and the consilient consideration of the strata of the thing that is here that is a social process. As strata, Eben listed philosophical, historical, cultural, material, structural, ecological, functional, and organic. One such thing that is here that is a social process is, I think, table manners.

Of the ecological or functional strata (which, for me in this instance, are also quite personal strata) of table manners:

When I was young, if I chewed with my mouth open at the dinner table, my parents sent me to bed without dessert. Their proffered justification, far less important than my punishment, was, of course, that chewing with one’s mouth open is poor table manners. Also, they told me that it is disgusting.

My legal education enables me to critique my parents’ rationale as “begging the question.” Thurman Arnold enables me to observe their rationale’s “rhythm and beauty and its complete lack of descriptive meaning.”

I searched the phrase “chewing with mouth open.” Google’s top five results, three message board threads, an editorial, an advice column, and a parodical “How to” article, show, on a cultural stratum, a creed likely not chosen, seemingly not "highly tailored to the realities of the group," but nonetheless “regard[ed] as the ultimate in spiritual and moral perfection.”

  1. Why Open-Mouth Chewing Makes Us Crazy (
  2. Manner Matters: Help, My Friend Chews With Her Mouth Open (
  3. How do people not realize they are chewing with their mouth open? (
  4. How to Chew With Your Mouth Closed (
  5. what cultures chew food with their mouth open (

In short, why do table manners exist? On a certain stratum or level of analysis, they exist because people who were once children were once sent to be without dessert. This is, I think, part of Chris's point. On another level or stratum, they exist because without them, parents would have less to teach, editorialists and advice columnists would have less to write, and forum posters and "How to" writers would have less to scorn.

-- MattBurke - 26 Feb 2015

Haven't you read Pride and Prejudice? Table manners exist to reinforce class consciousness, but are ultimately around so we don't kill each other.

And, as far as I can remember, the "switching" rule originated in Boston before forks had become prevalent, and people used spoons to eat that which they had just cut up--which required more facility than doing the same with a fork. In America today it is acceptable to use the Continental rule (the one that Luke finds more logical).

-- LaurenPackard - 26 Feb 2015

I think table manners exist because mentally humans can't handle the concept that we are animals. When we are tearing through the dead meat of an animal's carcass are shoveling our mouths full of roots dug up out of the ground we need something to convince us that this act is somehow different then those of our lesser cousins, that our actions carry with them destinction, grace, civility, and most importantly reason. The ability of humans to reason has led us to accept that we are something special, that we are civlized rational beings with a greater purpose sent from on high. Unfortunately this assumption cannot be satisfied unless our most barbarous needs are covered up with a ritual of dignification and decorum. My guess is that it was this desire, the need to seperate human from animal, manifested in the desire to seperate citizen from barbarian, aristocrat from peasant, high society from working class, faithful follower from heretical dissident caused the development of table manners. They served to enforce the myth of OUR own civility.

-- RyRavenholt - 26 Feb 2015

I agree with Chris that table manners may exist to advance human being's desire for predictability and consistency. However, I also want to add that table manners may exist to develop memory cues as to who is "civilized" or "uncivilized". After all, there is no practical purpose to expect others not to put their elbows on the table or to eat with their mouths closed. But having this expectation makes it easier for others to see who is willing to conform to a social norm and who isn't. For example, X's refusal to adhere to table manners may inform other people's future perceptions of him. This makes it easier for them to cast judgment on X without doing much work.

-- IsaacLara - 26 Feb 2015



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r6 - 26 Feb 2015 - 18:37:28 - IsaacLara
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