Is the ‘Balmoral test’ compatible with the rules of hospitality?

According to the Netflix series The Crown, there is an informal ‘Balmoral test’ which guests of the Royal family, when invited at their Scottish country house, are expected to pass. This ‘test’ is a lot about wearing the right clothes, enjoying the right activities and doing the right things in different particular situations.

Apparently, the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher, by joining the hosts at 6 pm dressed up for dinner while everyone else was dressed informally for the drinks, has dramatically failed the ‘test’. While Mrs. Thatcher’s ‘failure’ is probable (after all she came from a different background: less privileged and more free-market oriented), it is quite unlikely that she failed it in that way.

British newspapers are currently filled with quiz-articles asking readers if they would pass the ‘Balmoral test’.

A ‘Balmoral test’ surely exists in one form or another, and not only in the Scottish residence of the Queen. Most importantly, it exists in the minds and even in the instincts of many individuals. And I venture to say that the more elevated individuals are in their own field (whether it is aristocratic background or bitcoin expertise; alpinism or sailing; etc.) the more they will tend to impose the ‘Balmoral test’ on their guests.

But is this test (or rather its more or less explicit disclosure to the guest) compatible with the rules of hospitality?

First of all, what kind of rules are these?

The rules of hospitality (which we can label ‘rules of gentle individual conduct’) are fundamentally different from the rules of just individual conduct (*). Unlike the latter, the former are not objectively, universally and always valid. They are not scientific (i.e. logically deduced). Therefore they can be different in different places, at different times, within different groups and even families.

When I read Homer’s Odyssey (long time ago) I remember that I was quite astonished to learn the rules of hospitality which were applying in ancient Greece. When a stranger visited someone’s house, for example, the latter was expected to offer the best food and a comfortable sleeping place before even knowing the visitor’s name and the reason of his visit (which would be asked only the day after). 

Of course, this time is long past. However, in the Mediterranean, where I live (I’m from Florence, Italy), there still is a certain idea of hospitality which, in my opinion, is somehow related to ancient Greece rules. At the core of this idea of hospitality there’s the unwritten, sacred rule which imposes to make the guest feel as much as ease as possible. In a sense, it is the host who’s submitted to a test, not the guest. The host passes the test if the guest felt at ease; he fails it if the guest felt uncomfortable. 

When he was a teenager, a friend of mine (coming from an aristocratic Sicilian family), once invited a friend from school to his grandmother’s Palazzo for lunch. At the end of the lunch, since a meal was served which was supposed to be eaten with fingers, the waiters placed in front of each guest a silver bowl with some water in it. The purpose of these bowls is to allow a person to wash his fingers before the dessert. My friend’s schoolmate, who was coming from a very simple family, did not know it, of course. So he started drinking from these bowls. The rest of the family were about to start laughing. However, my friend’s grandmother (the host) immediately drank herself from the bowls. The other guests stopped laughing before even starting it and they all followed the grandmother’s example: they all drank from the silver bowls. My friend’s schoolmate did not realize anything.

The scene of The Crown where Mrs. Thatcher enters the room at 6 pm dressed for dinner while everyone else is dressed informally for the drinks, reminded me of what happened to my friend’s schoolmate. While the less senior members of the clan started laughing, the Queen said immediately something which was aimed at killing the laughs and at making Mrs. Thatcher feel less discomfortable.

A “Balmoral test” (or rather its disclosure to the guest) would be incompatible with the sacred and unwritten rules of hospitality which apply at least in my family, as every test more or less explicitly disclosed to the guest would be. However, the Queen’s behaviour as shown in the movie seems, on the contrary, to follow those rules.

(*) The rules of just individual conduct are those whose violation justifies, from the point of view of those who enforce them, the recourse to physical coercion. The term ‘just’ refers to this claimed justification of the recourse to coercion from the point of view of the enforcer: not to the justice of the rule, which we still haven’t defined. A rule of just individual conduct can be, of course, very unjust: the rule which during Nazism forbid Jewish individuals to do certain jobs was, of course, an unjust rule of just individual conduct. How can we know if an individual rule of just individual conduct is just or unjust? We know it by applying the ‘equality before the law test’ (EBLT): if the rule is logically compatible with the principle of equality before the law, then that rule is objectively, universally and always just (whatever the consequences of its application or the social status of the person who violates/enforces it). And vice-versa. Racial laws, just like taxation for example, are objectively unjust rules of just individual conduct because they are incompatible withe the principle of equality before the law. The only rule of just individual conduct which is compatible with such principle (and therefore is objectively just) is the non-aggression principle.

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