Grace A Measure of Our Moral Fibre

“That was very gracious,” a friend of mine whispered at the conclusion of a speech I gave recently. We were at a function that my organization-which had done a lot of heavy lifting to achieve a shared goal-had arranged to thank other individuals and groups who contributed to a successful outcome.

Earlier that week, I had made a similarly approving comment about a politician I had watched closely during a law reform debate. In his role as speaker, he oversaw the debate about a measure to which he was opposed. However, when it became clear that his side had lost, and the bill would become law, he made an extraordinarily gesture. He appointed the two main supporters of the bill to count the final vote so they could make history by signing the paper that verified the tally.

Graciousness is a funny old ideal. Like an elevator jammed between floors, it seems caught somewhere between etiquette and etiquette. The dictionary says the gracious are marked by kindness, courtesy, tact, delicacy, charm and good taste. Emily Post’s Etiquette defines graciousness as the ability to handle situations with aplomb, flexibility and thoughtfulness towards others. Ethics has little to say about graciousness. None of the references on my shelf mention it at all.

I think they should. The guard of honour that players and officials from both St Kilda and Hawthorn formed to mark the retirement of St Kilda footballer Robert Harvey seems more than an act of good manners. To say of John Howard’s concession speech on election night 2007 then it was “courteous,” gives inadequate recognition to the moral fortitude required-in the face of what almost certainly was a whirlwind of negative emotions-to have delivered it.

Graciousness can express generosity of spirit, and it this that gives the quality its moral character. Philosopher Joseph Kupfer reminds us that there are more ways to give then can be measured by money. Graciousness is a reflection of emotional generosity, a giving to others of more than the rules specify they are owed. The speaker of the house was obligated to ensure that the debate and vote were conducted fairly: no more or less. That he offered more to his political opponents is a lot of what graciousness is about.

But it is not the whole story. Think of how we use the word: gracious in defeat; grace under pressure. What makes an act gracious is not only its above-and-beyond quality, but its delivery at a time of high emotion. At a time when behaving badly could be forgiven, and doing only what is required seems plenty to ask.

Finally, graciousness is a mark of respect: an acknowledgment of the fair way one’s adversaries played the game, and for the rules and institutions that governed the conflict. Think back to the concession speech Al Gore made when the US Supreme Court ruled-incorrectly as it turned out-that he had lost the 2000 election for president. “Let there be no doubt,” he said, that “while I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it…and for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.” Gore’s graciousness was designed to calm the emotions of his supporters and to encourage them to respect the result, even if they disagreed with it.

In this way does the gracious act impel us to remember matters much larger than ourselves and the partisan preferences and emotions that may rule our heart at any one time.

Publication history

Grace A Measure of Our Moral Fibre  Sunday Sun-Herald