Friday, 24 November 2017

On Convivial Conduct

This is the fourth in a series of essays, in which I aim to outline my ethical and political philosophy. And it’s the most radical yet!

Recently, I explored the idea of rights, and the prohibitions or negative obligations which individuals must obey in order to respect the rights of others. Today I’m going to take a wider view, and ask: What might be general rules of conduct, which can – or should – enable human beings to live together in a peaceful, civilized manner? And in trying to answer this, I’ll look for positive rules as well as negative ones.


The word “convivial,” which you see in my title, plays an important part in this essay. It’s a word I’ve taken on from the Belgian philosopher, Frank van Dun. It comes from Latin, and literally means “living together.” In English, however, the word has also a secondary meaning, of feasting in good company. Thus I use “convivial” to mean living together well. And, in contrast to Aristotle’s idea of Man as “the political animal,” I think of human beings as convivial animals.

It’s important to understand that conviviality isn’t about obeying rules or laws imposed by a particular culture or society. Indeed, conduct is convivial – or not – outside the context of any society. Moreover, convivial people form a community; that is, a group of people with something in common. They (we) are what I call “convivials.” But we don’t form a society. We have no president or chairman, no officials and no goals as a group.

Convivial conduct is the behaviour habitually indulged in by those who are, generally speaking, good people to have around you. Peacefulness and honesty are examples of convivial conduct. And aggressions, threats, theft, lies and deceptions are examples of conduct that is unconvivial.

A person, who always acts in a convivial manner, is a convivial person. (Or would be, if such a perfect individual existed). However, an unconvivial act doesn’t necessarily make the person unconvivial. For we often do things that, strictly speaking, are unconvivial. We may occasionally be unpleasant to others. And we may even cause actual harm in some small way. For example, heating our homes with wood or coal fires causes pollution; or riding a motor cycle causes noise.

But we do these things, not out of any desire to harm others, but because the costs to us of not doing them are far greater than the costs to those adversely affected by us doing them. If we are to do such things without becoming unconvivial, then we must be willing to allow others similar latitude in return. I call this convivial tolerance. Here, then, is the first positive rule in our convivial canon. Which can be put as: Live and let live.

However, harmful acts that are gross, persistently repeated, malicious, or irresponsible beyond the bounds of reason, are worse than merely unconvivial. The word I’ll use for these acts is disconvivial. And those that perform disconvivial acts I call disconvivials. In the realm of conviviality, “disconvivial” means much the same as does “criminal” within a particular society.

The Golden Rule

In my earlier essay, I derived rights from the negative form of Confucius’ Golden Rule. But the rule has a positive form, too. It has many different versions, but the one most commonly touted is attributed to Jesus: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.”

I find this formulation of the Golden Rule rather naïve. For it lays on us an obligation to treat others well, even when they treat us badly. This is impractical. If people always acted that way, criminals would always get away with their crimes! And yet, the rule does have substance. We should, for example, always try to be polite and friendly to those who are polite and friendly to us. We must treat peacefully those who treat us peacefully. As to those we haven’t dealt with before, we should treat them well as long as they treat us well in return.

To resolve this problem, I decided to make my own wording of this rule. The words I settled on were: Treat others at least as well as they treat you. This, I think, gives a similar effect to Jesus’ version of the Golden Rule, when we are dealing with convivial people. But it leaves us free to treat those, that behave towards us in an unconvivial manner, as the situation demands.

From all this, it follows that if we unjustly cause harm to others beyond what is acceptable within the limits of convivial tolerance, we are obliged to compensate the victim or victims. This ideal of restitution for wrongs is, indeed, an important element in most legal codes. Furthermore, if you want to indulge in an activity which brings a significant risk of damage to others, you must ensure that if things go wrong, you have sufficient resources to cover this responsibility. Having third party insurance if you drive a car is an example.

Now, this rule is closely related to my definition of common sense justice in my earlier essay on that subject. That is: the condition in which each individual is treated, over the long run and in the round, as he or she treats others. There is, however, one big difference. The rule tells us to treat others, not as the ideal of justice would, but as well or better. Thus we always have the option, if we wish, of showing clemency towards those that have wronged us. That is, of choosing not to pursue some or all of what they owe us for the damage they caused to us.


Another element in the convivial canon is independence. That is, not putting too much reliance on someone or something else for what we think or how we act. For human beings are individuals, not herd animals.

But here, we run into a difficulty. Sometimes, circumstances outside an individual’s control – such as age, illness, injury or disability – may prevent him being as independent as he, or others, would wish. To address this, I prefer to couch my proposed rules in terms of striving for independence. We must make every effort within our capabilities, and taking account of the circumstances, to be as independent as we can.

There are two kinds of independence, for which we must strive. The negative: Don’t willingly let yourself become a drain on others. And the positive: Strive to create your own path in life, economically and in all other ways.

And it makes sense, where you can without harming your own interests, to do what you can to help your fellow convivial people, when they are in trouble through no fault of their own. After all, next time you might be the one in trouble: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” But this is not a hard rule or obligation; the decision must be yours. No-one has any right to force you to help anyone if the costs to you are or seem too great. Moreover, you have no obligation to do anything to help disconvivials. For disconvivials are enemies of convivials, not our friends.


Contract is the basis of trade between human beings. Two or more parties, who may be individuals or groups, make a mutual agreement. Each agrees voluntarily to carry out their side of the bargain. The agreement may be formal or not, depending on the circumstances. But a contract is only valid if it is made in good faith by all the parties. Therefore another convivial rule must be: Always deal in good faith.

If you agree to do something, voluntarily and in full knowledge of what you have taken on, then you must always try to fulfil your side of the agreement. Unless, of course, prevented from doing so by the default of another party. If the task becomes impossible, or not worth doing, for reasons outside your control, there may be scope for re-negotiation. But the basic rule is; always strive to keep your contracts.

As to difficulties which may arise during the performance of a contract, it is advisable to think through in advance what might go wrong, and agree what to do about it if it does. The best time to decide how to solve issues is before making a commitment, not when the issues happen.

There are many different types of contract. Business contracts are pre-eminent among them. You can contract to buy something, or to rent something, or to sell goods or services, and there are many permutations of these. One common type of contract today is a contract of employment, either for a fixed period or an open ended one.

There are also contracts of a more social nature. When you join a club and pay a subscription, you and the club enter into a contract. When you buy a flat or condominium, you sign a contract with the other owners. Some people may want to contract to live in a commune; for example, to join with others who share particular religious views, or preferred lifestyles, or political ideology. Examples of these have been monasteries, “free love” communes of the 1970s, and socialist experiments like the town of New Harmony, Indiana.

Then there is the so called “social contract.” In which a group of people, by agreeing to form a political society, consent to submit to the authority of a government. They give up some of their freedoms, and they take on obligations to other members of the society, like military service and paying taxes. In exchange, they – in theory – receive protection of their remaining rights.

Today, of course, there are many difficulties with this idea. Like: Who, exactly, are the parties to the social contract? What, precisely, have I promised, and what have I been promised? What if things go wrong? And: I never agreed to any such damn thing! It is, indeed, one of my aims in these essays to try to point towards some possible solutions to these problems.

Last, I’ll mention relationship contracts. They can include, for example, a sexual partnership of two or more people of any mix of genders, with or without co-habitation. They might be one-off. Or for a fixed term, either long or short. Or for an initial term, renewable by agreement. They might be rooted in mutual service, or pay-per-ride.

Further up the scale, there is what I call a family contract, which in almost all cases is between two individuals of opposite sexes, and whose purpose is the founding or maintenance of a family. Co-habitation is usually included, and property arrangements on termination are extremely important. Further up the scale again is the traditional marriage contract, with a strong religious flavour, and strict conditions including “till death us do part.”


This is the place, I think, to bring up the vexed subject of discrimination. People are individuals; each is different. And each has his or her own combination of characteristics like race, culture, religion, political ideology and sexual orientation. Historically, most people have preferred (and many still prefer) to deal with those, who are like them in some or all of these ways. Is it, then, unconvivial conduct to discriminate for or against those who have particular traits?

In my view, all individuals and societies have the right to discriminate as they see fit. For example, a club may admit only members of certain races or religions. A company may refuse to hire Irish people, or former communists. A Christian baker may refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding. A tall woman may refuse to offer her love to a shorter man. Convivial people, indeed, may prefer to associate with other convivial people rather than with disconvivials! These are not, in themselves, unconvivial conduct. However, it is unconvivial to discriminate in bad faith.

Thus if an individual, or a club or company, does not wish to deal with certain types of people, they must make that fact clear before any contract is negotiated. It is best, I think, if they make any such discriminatory policies public up front. Then, if they later try to withdraw from a contract into which other parties entered in good faith, they themselves are acting in bad faith.


Finally, there are convivial obligations which apply only to those who choose to have children.

First, parents are responsible, until the children are adult, for the consequences of their children’s actions towards third parties. So, they do have a right to control their children. But they should do this only in ways compatible with justice, and without using force except in extreme need. And second, parents have the responsibility to bring up and educate their children to become convivial human beings.

To sum up

Convivial conduct is the behaviour habitually indulged in by those who are, generally speaking, good people to have around you. Conviviality is unrelated to the rules or laws of any particular culture or society.

In addition to the negative obligation not to violate the rights of others, there exist positive obligations of convivial conduct. Among these are:

  1. Be tolerant towards other convivial people; live and let live.
  2. Treat others at least as well as they treat you.
  3. If you unjustly cause harm to others, compensate them if they require it.
  4. If you do things that cause risk to others, ensure you can compensate them if you have to.
  5. Don’t willingly let yourself become a drain on others.
  6. Be independent; strive to create your own path in life.
  7. Always deal in good faith.
  8. Always strive to keep to contracts you have voluntarily entered into.
  9. If you have any discriminatory policy, make it public before negotiating any contract.
  10. If you have children, bring them up and educate them to be convivial human beings.

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