Is “propriety” dead?

Adam Smith had a lot to say about this.

I re-read AS’s Theory of Moral Sentiments – his wonderful discourse – in recent weeks. He shows how all forms of “propriety” form the essence of good relations and respectful co-existence. Our own feelings become the touchstone for understanding others, our empathy becomes the means by which one can get to know an ‘other’ and will in large part be based upon the propriety of their comportment.

Which leads me to Andy Murray and the Wimbledon Men’s Finals. Have our ideas of what is proper, gracious, manly and sportsmanlike changed so much? Do we accept his response to being Runner-up on Centre Court as appropriate to the occasion? He is so choked with tears at losing that he barely acknowledges the silver trophy awarded to the Runner-up. His tears overwhelm and prevent the traditional tribute to the winner, Roger Federer.

His fan-base has been lack-lustre, and for once I accept that the public have understood something about the man that I have not. Tim Henman, for long Britain’s great hope, was always courteous and genuinely appreciative of all his opponents. Perhaps it was this quality that helped endear him to his fans.

Adam Smith emphasised that when we know the situation in which a man is placed – then this does indeed alter our instinctive response of approval or disapproval. We knew the tremendous hopes and expectations that the British public placed on Andy along with the inevitable pressure. But is this enough to excuse such a mean, public display? Is this sufficient cause for us to accept such uncontrolled emotions?

I am coming to believe that courtesy and grace are the core attributes in harmonious human relations – and particularly in most public domains.

It does seem that our 21st Century egotism, our over-weighting of individuality, mean that many virtues of earlier times have been rendered obsolete. We no longer acknowledge the good that was intrinsic to “convention”. By mocking superficial and hypocritical convention we are blinding ourselves to the truths and decencies that are embedded in our social interactions.

Sport has its own conventions, its own corruptions, and together these have the capacity to create celebrities whose games provide our current opium for the crowds. The “celebrity” cocoon is as pernicious for the individual as it is for the public.

Which takes me back to Adam Smith. My take of his Moral Sentiments is that he had an unresolved ambivalence toward the famous. He saw that inevitably they provided models. Yet I do not think he came to a satisfactory conclusion as to whether, on balance, they contributed to the good, or indeed the ill, of society.

Britain in its years of Empire provided a model in so many parts of the world. The good impact of much of the Empire’s works inevitably also contained many shaming features. History is sometimes kind and at times vicious. In the aftermath of Empire we have forgotten its particularities.

The London 2012 Olympics will put Britain on show to the world once again. There will be an immediate response and there will be its aftermath.

It is certain to provide many an interesting spectacle.



About veritytraveller

My professional personal website is This blog is a more personal set of reflections on life and art, art and life.
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