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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A little bit more on admirable and contemptible traits

I commented over at The Reason Behind X:

Thanks for taking the trouble to comment on this. As you'll have seen, I take a fairly robust view on this. I.e., I don't look for responsibility all the way down.

There may be extra strands to the story, but I think that the starting point is that we find such traits as intelligence, courage, honesty, etc., admirable, while we find such traits as stupidity, cowardice, dishonesty, etc., the opposite. Generally speaking that's rational, as someone with the former traits will usually be better to have around as a friend, fellow citizen, etc.

We don't generally care all that much how someone got these various traits, though we might admire someone more if we find out that she got the admirable ones partly through pre-existing good traits like self-discipline, industriousness, etc. But even those traits have a causal origin that's ultimately beyond her power.

Likewise, there might be some mitigation of our disdain if there's a special story about how someone came to have the contemptible traits - they can't be blamed on some pre-existent bad traits she had, such as some sort of laxity or laziness, so much as some unusual external influence that might have made her turn out that way even if she started with normal levels of self-discipline and so on.


Brian said...

We don't like food because it's healthful. We like food because it is similar to what it was useful to like to eat.

We are adaptation-executors, not fitness-maximizers.

We favor flavors of character; we admire character traits. We execute admiration algorithms that evolved to favor their propagation. Admiration approximately tracks consequences as taste does. Taste would be more useful if it actually tracked what nutrients were actually available and didn't assume fat and sugar rare; admiration would be more useful if it actually tracked whether the world would be a better place if we criticize or not and didn't assume apparently evitable things worthy of criticism and apparently fortuitous things unworthy of criticism.

Apparently evitable things are generally things it is useful to criticize for. Learning they are fortuitous mucks up the heuristic if you forget it is based off of what is apparent, not what is known.

Learning about something obviously fortuitous probably means the world would not be better if you target that thing for criticism, but this is the same type of rough heuristic as flavor, and may be wrong, just as our tastes are not calibrated to our food options.

A dictator's army might fight best if the dictator executes every officer who loses a battle, even if the officers are held responsible for things only possibly in their influence and clearly out of their control.

The best anti-smoking program might assume that everyone could quit with a will to do so, even if studies show this is only true for a certain percentage of people.

Thalamus said...

Well, thank you for taking the time to stop by my blog and straighten things up a little bit. Given your well deservednotoriety throughout the blogosphere, it's always elating to receive the largesse of your opinion.

You have merely pointed out when it is that emotions like 'contempt' and 'admiration' are evident in our psychology. I assumed from your original post that you were trying to take a more prescriptive approach and indicate when you thought we ought to feel contempt/admiration for a given individual; hence my insistence upon the elusive concept of free will.