The Circumstances of Civility

Author: 
Brian Leiter

This is a revised version of a paper presented at the NEH conference on “Civility and American Democracy” at Washington State University in early March, 2011. The paper tries to identify the circumstances in which civility in discourse is both necessary and obligatory. I assume that, pre-theoretically, everyone can agree that “civility” is paramount for discourse in the classroom setting. Teachers should be civil to students, and students to their teachers. By elucidating why civility seems obligatory in this context, I try to specify the circumstances of civility, which, in brief, obtain when epistemic values and motives dominate in discourse. I then describe a political context, “Dystopia,” in which the circumstances of civility do not obtain, and so civility is not obligatory, but might still be advisable.