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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).

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On contempt, admiration, and respect

This is a side issue, but I find the analysis of contempt by Aikin and Talisse very odd. They say:

The view has it that those who are contemptible are not worthy of respect.  This seems true as far as it goes. But notice that to hold a person in contempt is to ascribe to him a capacity for responsibility. Accordingly, we do not hold the mentally deranged in contempt for their delusional beliefs; rather, we see their beliefs as symptoms of their illness. To see religious believers as proper objects of contempt, then, is to see them as people who should know better than to believe as they do. It is hence to see them as wrong but, importantly, not stupid. Thus it is a confusion to regard religious believers as both contemptible and cognitively beyond-the-pale.
This actually seems confused to me. It may well be that contempt is an inappropriate response to someone who suffers an actual mental illness. Some kind of compassion seems more appropriate, and of course we would know better than to get into an argument with such a person. We might humour her, but we would not try to argue with her. Fine so far.

But you can be cognitively beyond-the-pale for all sorts of reasons that fall short of an actual mental illness. Generally speaking we express admiration (or esteem) for people who have qualities that are admirable (and note that judgments about what is "admirable" don't have to be objectively binding on all rational creatures, they are made relative to shared values, purposes, etc.). They are people who have certain excellences, which might, in context, include intelligence, intellectual honesty, courage, openness to new ideas, and so on. We feel contempt for people who lack such excellences or who actually have the opposite qualities. If we find ourselves arguing with someone who is stupid, intellectually dishonest, fearful, and close-minded, it is perfectly appropriate to feel the opposite of admiration - i.e. contempt or disdain - for her.

Someone with those qualities may well be cognitively beyond-the-pale in the sense of being impossible, for all practical purposes, to persuade by rational argument. She may be beyond the reach of reason. We would do well not to waste time arguing with someone who possesses that particular combination of qualities. But that does not entail that we are wrong to regard her with the opposite of admiration. She clearly has qualities that are the opposite of the relevant admirable ones, i.e. she has qualities that merit our contempt.

I conclude that there is nothing at all confused about regarding some people as both cognitively beyond-the-pale and contemptible. Indeed, the very same qualities may make somebody both of these things.

This is kind of tangential, but the Aikin/Talisse passage puzzled me the first time I read it ... and it still puzzles me. I'm not actually arguing that we should feel contempt for anyone in particular. I certainly don't think that we should feel contempt for all religious believers. But I don't accept the claim that "contemptible" and "cognitively beyond-the-pale" are mutually exclusive categories.

It's also possible that someone who merits our contempt - the opposite of our admiration - nonetheless also merits some minimal or residual kind of respect as a fellow human being or a person (in the Lockean sense) or a sentient creature, or some such thing. I.e., the person is due some kind of residual regard for her interests. That opens up a large set of issues about what it is to respect somebody. But this sort of minimal/residual respect can co-exist with the idea that, at least for current purposes, the person is the opposite of admirable and that it's worth expressing that evaluation.

Again, I conclude that someone can both (1) be cognitively beyond-the-pale and (2) have qualities that are the opposite of admirable  - and merit expressions of contempt. Even though this person is still owed some residual regard for her interests, that is a separate issue.

14 comments:

Brian said...

I found this helpful in thinking about the subject: http://lesswrong.com/lw/2as/diseased_thinking_dissolving_questions_about/

Thalamus said...

This is part of what I posted on my newly created blog:

As it concerns Aikin and Talisse, somebody who has a considerable form of intellectual impairment is automatically exonerated on that very basis. Contempt for the expressions of the mentally disabled is simply absurd. So far I concur. However, they go on to argue that:

To see religious believers as proper objects of contempt, then, is to see them as people who should know better than to believe as they do. It is hence to see them as wrong but, importantly, not stupid..

Notwithstanding a variety of nuanced -and I believe highly discrepant- notions of freewill, what exactly spurs and drives our beliefs and thus our behavior? -We may wonder. Two things: our genes and our environment. So, if this restricted twofold engine of human ability is the sole root that gives rise to beliefs (whether correct, equivocal or flat out delusional) then there really is no room for free will, is there? And so it follows that the mentally handicap and those who had the misfortune of growing up in intense and oppressive ambient religiosity or unreason, stand on the same moral ground. In other words, because neither of them chose what spurred their delusions, neither of the two deserve our contempt.

But then, Russel would perhaps retort that, taken to its logical conclusions, this elaborate semi-syllogistic argument would undermine, as a corollary, all feelings of admiration. And he would be right. In a way -and as a parenthetical note- this is why we need the illusion of free will.

Russell Blackford said...

That looks interesting, Thalamus, and I do wonder whether some incoherent idea of free will is lurking behind what they say - as if someone who is merely "ordinary stupid" can be blamed for it (they somehow chose to be like that), whereas someone whose intelligence is at a level we regard as constituting intellectual disability had no choice in the matter. That model doesn't make much sense, but perhaps it's lurking somewhere in their thinking, and maybe in some popular thinking.

Brian said...

"Contempt for the expressions of the mentally disabled is simply absurd."

Contempt for the expressions of the mentally disabled is simply unlikely to improve their behavior.

"To see religious believers as proper objects of contempt, then, is to see them as people who should know better than to believe as they do."

To see religious believers as proper objects of contempt, then, is to see them as people whose behavior is likely to be improved by contempt.

"nuanced -and I believe highly discrepant- notions of freewill..."

...each either internally incoherent or confusingly and probably inappropriately aggrandizing by taking on that name.

"what exactly spurs and drives our beliefs and thus our behavior?"

I hope "thus" is meant only in a pleiotropic sense.

"In other words, because neither of them chose what spurred their delusions, neither of the two deserve our contempt."

The one whose behavior will be changed for the better deserves it, unless the cost of contempt is greater than the benefit.

Anonymous said...

I sometimes entertain myself with the thought experiment of trying to guess which of my current beliefs future generations will consider immoral. My leading contender right now is the idea that it is appropriate for a person to be paid according to his or her intelligence. Why should a person's physical characteristics (whether height, muscle strength, skin color, "brain power", or any number of others) determine their standing in society? Why is it ethical to allow one physical characteristic to be determinative but not another?

Bryan

verbosestoic said...

Russell,

Their main point is that you can't reasonably feel contempt for a quality someone has unless one can say in some interesting sense (to dodge the "free will" discussions) that they're responsible for that property. If it's just how they are, it's unreasonable to feel contempt for them.

So take "stupidity". We need some way to determine what it means to be stupid, so let's use a fairly standard measure of intelligence and say that if your IQ is, say, more than one SD below average, you count as "stupid". But IQ is driven a lot by genetics and brain structure; someone at that level may simply be unable to raise it higher no matter how they try. They aren't responsible for being stupid, and there's nothing they can do to change it. It is, then, unreasonable to feel contempt for them.

Now, imagine that a certain argument requires a certain level of reasoning ability -- ie IQ -- to understand. They are too "stupid" to understand it. Again, contempt is not reasonable.

Ignorance would be a stronger claim, but unintentional ignorance wouldn't support it while intentional might. So, for example, that I don't know the details of Cantorian set theory is not something that someone can reasonably feel "contempt" about, because I'm not intentionally ignoring it in a real sense, but just have focused on other things that interest me more, just like it would be unreasonable for me to feel contempt to someone who hasn't read Seneca's philosophy and doesn't get it. Now, when it becomes relevant if I still don't learn about it, then contempt might be valid.

In terms of religion, they're saying that unless you can say that theists really do or should know that they're wrong. To me, that would require two things:

1) You know that God doesn't exist.
2) You've given me all the evidence to demonstrate that knowledge.

I, and a lot of other thinking theists, disagree with 1), for reasonable reasons. Their suggestion, then, is that you treat us as merely being wrong, not as being stupid. This, of course, is what I said in an earlier comment on this is how I'd like to be treated.

Russell Blackford said...

Verbosestoic, I understand the argument. I understand that you think that. But I think you're wrong. We admire people for having admirable qualities and we disdain them (or whatever) if they lack them or, worse, have the opposite qualities.

All qualities are ultimately determined by genetics, uterine environment, upbringing, etc. Even if I've cultivated my intelligence by reading books, or whatever, I must have had the quality of wanting to do that, and if we trace where that came from, it can be tracked back to genetics, environment, etc.

None of us are responsible all the way down for any of our qualities. But that's irrelevant. It's asking one question to many. People either have the admirable (or the non-admirable) qualities or they don't. They're either good people to have around, engage in cooperative enterprises with, form alliances and friendships with, or they're not.

Brian said...

"Their main point is that you can't reasonably feel contempt for a quality someone has unless one can say in some interesting sense (to dodge the "free will" discussions) that they're responsible for that property."

Watch me reasonably do so.

"...there's nothing they can do to change it. It is, then, unreasonable to feel contempt for them."

Probably, unless contempt is useful for other reasons.

Coaches and players argue with referees, not in hope of getting past calls reversed, but in hope of getting different future calls.

"To me, that would require two things:

1) You know that God doesn't exist.
2) You've given me all the evidence to demonstrate that knowledge."


I disagree in the strongest possible terms. If you reasonably believe that based on the evidence person A has that A should not believe X, and you reasonably believe that A believes X, and it is reasonable for you to believe that having contempt for A leads to better outcomes than not having contempt for A, you should have contempt for A.

This is so even if you reasonably believe X to be true.

You don't need to know that someone won't win the lottery to know they shouldn't expect to win (absent fixing it, etc.). Even if they win, you were right and they were wrong.

If a sports team trades a second round draft pick for a third round draft pick straight up in the same draft, it has made a bad trade regardless of how the drafted players perform in the future (absent other factors like needing one's own draft picks to sign players to offer sheets, etc.). One does not need to wait and see to find out who won such a trade, one knows immediately who has made a good trade and who has made a bad one.

Likewise if we trade stock shares, mine with a market value of $1 for yours with a market value of $100,000. This is so even if the $1 stock is worth $1 million next week, provided you could have simply sold your stock and bought many shares of it without trading with me.

Russell Blackford said...

Hmm, my last comment came out sounding harsher than was intended - sorry about that. But still, people express admiration for others - and also the opposite - all the time based solely on what characteristics those others actually have. Now it's true that we might express greater admiration if we know that some trait - such as great knowledge of science or great skill in playing tennis, or whatever it might be - was gained partly through pre-existing traits such as discipline and industriousness. We admire discipline and industriousness. But even discipline and industriousness aren't traits that people can claim some kind of ultimate responsibility for.

Moreover, if Achilles turned up tomorrow, having gained his great beauty, strength, athletic prowess, etc., mainly from being the child of a god, we'd still admire him. At least the Greeks thought we would, and I don't see any reason to doubt their psychological insight in this case.

H.H. said...

verbosestoic said...

Now, imagine that a certain argument requires a certain level of reasoning ability -- ie IQ -- to understand. They are too "stupid" to understand it. Again, contempt is not reasonable.

It's reasonable if the stupid person wants to argue the point. I won't fault a person who's too stupid to understand something. There's many subjects which are over my own head. But when a stupid person displays contempt for the conclusions of those who are smarter than they are, then contempt is the proper response to such hubris.


In terms of religion, they're saying that unless you can say that theists really do or should know that they're wrong. To me, that would require two things:

1) You know that God doesn't exist.


No. The first point should read:

1) You know that belief in god is unreasonable and unjustified.

Which of course it is. The evidence is conclusive on that point.


2) You've given me all the evidence to demonstrate that knowledge.

No, the burden of proof falls to the one making the positive claim. If a person mistakenly thinks their belief in god to be justified, then they have to justify it. And not merely to their own satisfaction, but at the very least above the standard of reasonable doubt. If they cannot, then their continued belief is unethical and contempt is the appropriate response to such intellectually dishonesty.

Ophelia Benson said...

Maybe the idea is that we should be able to separate admiration from preference; that one can prefer to hang out with people who are interesting and clever without admiring such people, or at least without disadmiring people who aren't like that.

But in practice, that's pretty much impossible to do.

Or is that just me?

verbosestoic said...

I've been trying to post a reply to some of the things said here, and it keeps failing, so I'll try to keep it really short and see if that works:

1) When I say "responsible", I mean in the sense that a student is responsible for their mark. Maximum IQ is limited stronger than that by biology.

2) I don't think that you can work as you do with admiration and then translate that directly to contempt; as emotions, they don't seem opposite in that way. We might admire someone's beauty, but we are unlikely to feel contempt for their ugliness unless we feel that they're responsible for it. So contempt needs to be addressed directly, in my opinion.

verbosestoic said...

Brian,

I don't think there's any theory of emotion where you can be justified in any way to feel an emotion just for its instrumental value in guiding the behaviour of others. Contempt is clearly an emotion, so relying on that seems a bit suspicious.

Additionally, I can't imagine it to be a good thing to rely on this emotional expression as opposed to actual argumentation. Expressing contempt, if it works at all, will work whether or not you're correct, and there's no reason to think that they'll move to, say, a more critical or intellectual mindset as opposed to simply abandoning the belief that you want them to abandon because they don't like it when people show contempt for them. If your arguments are strong enough, then they should suffice, and if they aren't relying on contempt to buttress them seems dangerous.

verbosestoic said...

H.H.,

In that case, you'd be feeling contempt for their feeling of contempt, not their stupidity. That's a completely different case.

As for "burden of proof", if you are going to assert that my believing in God is unreasonable and unjustified, you need to a) have the evidence to justify THAT claim and b) have to ensure that I have access to that evidence. Thus, for that claim, the burden of proof is on you. I have no obligation to prove any proposition to YOUR satisfaction in order to prove that it is not unreasonable for ME to believe it. My rationality is not determined by your beliefs.

And to me the only time you can say that a belief is unreasonable or irrational is if you know it false (unless you want to get into the specifics of my own personal web of belief, but that isn't where you're starting here).