Should there be a place for disdain in our emotional lives?

"Hey, look at those assholes over there. Ordinary fuckin' people. I hate 'em." -Repo Man
“Hey, look at those assholes over there. Ordinary fuckin’ people. I hate ’em.” -Repo Man

In this post, I want to argue that disdain, contempt, and scorn have no moral place in our emotional lives. In short, my claim is that these emotions are immoral because they target persons and not actions, and they violate the principle of equality of persons. One can feel shame, anger, hatred, or envy in ways that are either correct or incorrect, but disdain is always wrong because it always makes and sustains false judgments.

One of the key features of negative emotions are the fact that, by and large, we do not like them. However, many theorists of the emotions have attempted to articulate defenses of some of these emotions, on the basis that they reflect our affective attachment to the gap between the world as it is and as it ought to be. To value something is to be disappointed when it is not present: for instance, anger or resentment serve as motivating responses to individuals or institutions that violate norms of care or justice by engaging in harm or inequity. However, a defense of one negative emotion is not a defense of all of them.

The late Robert Solomon argued that emotions are a source of a kind of wisdom, and that philosophers that ignore or suppress the emotions are missing something important not just about the mind, but about the sources of morality. Of course I agree: emotions seem closely tied to our capacity to value, and a full-fledged embrace of rationality certainly threatens to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I also side with Solomon in the claim that emotions appear to us as moral judgments, for which we can be responsible in a minimum way, and which we can subject to rationalizing in terms of what he refers to as ’emotional integrity’, the process of subjecting our unreflective moral judgments to second-order reflection and seeking to alter the habits that lead to emotions that do not fit with one’s overall self-image or character. But though I’ll grant that our emotions appear as full-fledged moral judgments, I suspect that they may only be prereflective precursors of values rather than values themselves, and that they require some regulating ideal beyond other emotions in order to qualify as moral judgments.

What the modern embrace of emotions often seems to ignore is what it is that so troubles philosophers about the human emotional palette. Certainly love, desire, respect, empathy, fear, anger, and even shame seem like valuable guides to value, components of the reflective equilibrium that will guide us in doing ethics and aesthetics.  Basically, I believe that emotions are fundamentally stupid, and that they require a theory of interpretation if they are every to serve as justification for action. The fact that our emotions can be wrong and need to be set right is the source of my criticism of disdain.

Consider a related emotion, disgust. I think the role of disgust in misleading some peoples’ moral intuitions about the rights of gays and lesbians is a very instructive example. I have long been perplexed by the perpetual naturalistic fallacy (not to mention the false description of non-human animal sexuality) contained within the claim that sodomy or homosexual marriage ought to be criminalized or restricted because it is “unnatural.” Many people feel deeply that this claim reflects a moral truth, that the experience of disgust they feel at considering sodomy, is a message akin to the one they might experience at considering murder. Ultimately, their brains appear to have re-purposed an emotion designed to protect them from rotten food and unhealthy water  in the enforcement of social norms, and they ought not to trust themselves. Sometimes, your gut lies to you. Of course, the key here is that disgust can sometimes be correct:  if my disgust keeps me from eating the food that’s been in the fridge too long, it’s a moral emotion insofar as it contributes to my self-preservation. That said, I think that disgust outside of actual experiences of food and cuisine is closely allied with disdain, and I’d like to focus on disdain here. Unlike disgust, disdain judgments can never be true.

Disdain seems to be an emotion that carries the judgment that its object is of low status. Disdain plays a much more important role in human social interactions, but one we acknowledge infrequently. Though I don’t think Kant would want me to put it this way, disdain is the opposite of respect. The admixture of respect and disdain seems to be always at issue when we’re apportioning deference and privilege, recognition and understanding. Disdain is the refusal to recognize another as an equal, just as respect is the consciousness of a status deficit on our own part, combined with a gratitude that the respected one does not disdain us as we believe we know she has a right to do. To those we respect, we offer a thoughtful ear, we make an effort to listen carefully, we evaluate situations from their perspective and give them ‘the benefit of the doubt.’ To those we disdain, we react more quickly and vengefully, withhold forgiveness, and perhaps in some situations we even experience ourselves as worthy of greater respect by virtue of our comparative value to the disdained one.

In an unreflective way, I think I experience disdain most often when confronted with bad students and bad arguments. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, this is the disgust element at work: our truth-testing seems to invoke the same part of the brain that evaluates flavors. We hear a bad argument or a student offers a flimsy excuse (a lie) and our brains roll it around and then try to spit it out, to reject it, like sour milk. Through long training, we suppress that disgust impulse and seek instead the source of the error and the best way to give a gentle voice to guidance that can lead the student to think correctly. We remember how often we have been wrong and try to disentangle evaluations of truth and falsehood from evaluations of status and purity.

Disdain is the private basis of racism, sexism, heteronormativity/homophobia, classism, ableism, etc. The great accounts of this dynamic come to us from de Beauvoir, Fanon, and Sartre in their early attempts to articulate the role the contemptuous gaze plays in asserting prerogatives and rendering subjects ashamed and accountable, though the later institutional critiques complicate the problem. Contempt is not the most powerful part of racism et al: a  white man who suppresses his disdain for, say, Latina judges like Justice Sotomayor can still be racist even if he has suppressed the affective component of a larger set of dynamics that preserve privilege. (Note: This sentence was edited after publication to remove a typo that reversed its intended meaning.) But disdain and contempt are the emotions whereby individuals and institutions preserve hierarchies and domination: institutions inculcate us with the appropriate objects of contempt, and individuals breath life into otherwise merely formal institutions by actually experiencing people and actions as contemptuous as deemed so by racist institutions. Meanwhile, this disdain is all-too-frequently internalized by its victims, such that they, too, come to hold themselves in contempt.

Of course, the instruments of oppression are frequently double-edged, and some feminists have argued that contempt for oppression, and for oppressors, is a properly moral emotion. Consider, for instance, Macalester Bell‘s paper, “A Woman’s Scorn: Towards a Feminist Defense of Contempt as a Moral Emotion.” Bell works through several feminist defenses of negative emotions from the perspective of the oppressed, and shows how these emotions may serve an egalitarian project. Citing Elizabeth Spelman, Bell notes that anger or rage might serve as a kind of valuable insubordination designed to upset traditional hierarchies. Quoting Marilyn Frye, Bell argues that it makes sense to be especially careful of targeting women for negative emotion within the context of patriarchy and the longstanding pathologization of female emotion, again noting that moments of women’s anger. From Lynne McFall, Bell takes a defense of women’s resentment or bitterness, which she argues ‘bears witness to injustice.’ Finally, from Audre Lorde, Bell extracts a defense of anger, this time as a motivation for social change. (But who makes the change: the subject of anger or its object?) It is notable that the negative emotions in each case are anger or some form of it. Contempt is a separate and largely undefended emotion. When Bell defends it, she begins with her own account of contempt:

To summarize, in its clearest forms, contempt for a person involves a way of
negatively and comparatively regarding or attending to someone who has not fully
lived up to an interpersonal standard that the person extending contempt thinks is
important. This form of regard constitutes a psychological withdrawal from the object
of contempt. Feelings of contempt may be fully morally justifi ed when the failure
to reach this ideal of personhood is real and the putative ideal is justifi ed.

To summarize, in its clearest forms, contempt for a person involves a way of negatively and comparatively regarding or attending to someone who has not fully lived up to an interpersonal standard that the person extending contempt thinks is important. This form of regard constitutes a psychological withdrawal from the object of contempt. Feelings of contempt may be fully morally justified when the failure to reach this ideal of personhood is real and the putative ideal is justified.

So contempt, on Bell’s view, (a) is the response to a ‘failure to meet an interpersonal standard’ (b) with an ‘unpleasant affective element’ (c) that makes a comparison between ‘this person and ourselves’ and thus contains ‘positive self-feeling’ (d) that produces a ‘psychological withdrawal’ or ‘psychic distancing.’  Since holding men or some men in contempt allows a feminist to note failings of men who engage in misogyny or uphold patriarchy, to bolster their own self-image against institutions that drag them down, and to motivate a distancing from difficult or dangerous relationships and situations, Bell argues that contempt is absolutely a justified and counter-hegemonic emotion.

One way to read Bell’s (and her progenitors’, especially Marylin Frye’s or Lynne McFall’s) defense of disdain is the claim that contempt is the flipside of shame: for instance, we must hold the rapist in contempt if he is to understand that rape is wrong or if the institutions that propogate rape are to be annihilated. We generally expect that wrongdoers will enact their agreements with our feelings of contempt for their actions in order that they may be eventually re-integrated into our moral community. Our contempt, we say, is for “the crime and not for the criminal.” But this would deny the person-oriented character of contempt that enables it to serve as reflexive emotion that rejiggers status amongst perpetrator and victim. It would be better to say that we hold the one who committed the act in  contempt, but that we will entertain the possibility that that person has changed, that he is no longer the same person. Because we are able to invite the rapist or the racist to rejoin us in the community of those who hold the criminal’s past self  in contempt, we might say that contempt serves an important educative role in preserving the bounds of a community. Because these attitudes only go astray when they are misapplied, Bell believes that contempt can be preserved as a useful sibling of anger and bitterness so long as they are policed by reflection, i.e. by an overarching theory of justice and morality.

As I said, I disagree with Bell’s defense of contempt because it raises claims about status as potentially true and moral. Status tends to be ‘sticky’: once gained or lost, there is little that will undermine our status except a direct challenge from someone who, even in the challenge, announces that their status is lower and that yours is higher. Every judgment of contempt both lowers the status of its object and raises the status of the disdainer. Once it’s been achieved, most everything in our world conspires to preserve our sense of hierarchy, of our self-worth and of the other’s worth-less-ness. Status becomes something that, the more we earn of it, the less we are able to adequately judge its justification. Consider the account given by Nietzsche of ressentiment, or Hegel’s account of the dialectic of lordship and bondage: that resentment and revenge always preserve the conflict and the hierarchy that generates it, because these emotions produce and maintain an affective attachment on the part of the loser to the victor that weakens the loser. Thus its reflexive, relational character is part of what contributes to its immorality.

I suspect this is what Aurde Lorde meant when she wrote that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”: the conflict over dominance and deference cannot be resolved in a draw. It may be a useful or necessary tool of insubordination, as when jokes undermine the high status of those in power, but my concern with contempt is primarily that beyond its capacity to equalize inequities, it will not perform as advertised. Precisely because it is characterized by a reflexive judgment about our own status vis-a-vis the object of our contempt that is bolstered by positive self-feeling, contempt, disdain, and scorn supply the illusion of self-justifying or self-evident truth, which is deceptive both in the particular instance and more generally, regarding what counts as justice.

So long as we police the bounds of community-inclusion affectively through prereflective emotions, we will constantly confront the fundamental stupidity of emotion. When I say emotions are stupid, I mean specifically that they present us with judgments that purport to be moral and to be true, but that this purporting is itself unjustified. They foreclose the very reflection and theory-building that is necessary to justify them. The very immediacy of rage or shame presents these emotions as fact around which other facts must be arranged. Emotions make rationality difficult: they refuse to respond to reasons, they threaten to render us similarly unresponsive. In this sense, emotions afflict us. We are the unwilling victims, enpassioned by brain states we cannot control and would frequently, if possible, forgo.

Because of this preservation of the action/passion distinction, this also where I part ways with Solomon on emotions. He argued that emotions, properly understood, are not passions at all, that we do not suffer them as alien invaders that we cannot enact or control. His primary motivation in this is his claim that we can be ‘held responsible’ for our emotions. I agree with this, but I don’t think that it follows that our emotions are under our control. Our agency in emoting is primary a fiction: there is no one else to blame, and being held accountable for our reactive attitudes is an important element in developing emotional integrity. I hold others accountable for their emotions, and ask that I be held similarly accountable,  so that I can eventually hold myself accountable. But this is precisely because at my best I am, like most people, smarter than my emotions. My emotions don’t respond to arguments that I, in a quiet moment, would find persuasive. My emotions misinterpret facts that I, in a meditative reflection, would interpret correctly. They advance values, like status-consciousness, that justice demands that I forgo.

The argument against philosophical rationality has largely targeted a kind of fictional meditative dispassion, as if my quiet moments leave me no access, at all, to the shadows or memories of emotive judgments. The target here is something like the Cartesian cogito, a transparent and unencumbered self. Being totally transparent to itself, the purely rational mind can see everything clearly but can prefer nothing, and when it directs its view inward, it looks ‘right through’ itself. In contrast, I think of emotions as adding translucence. Emotions color the world, but if that coloring becomes too intense the world itself fades from view. A strong emotion renders us opaque: unresponsive and self-involved. Of all the negative emotions, disdain and contempt appear to have a particular opacity that the others lack. Even in a rage, there’s an opportunity for reflection and self-control: something calls us back from the precipice of violence. It’s not that my life is divided into unreasonably emotional fits and equanimous rational calculation, however: I am always emotional, but sometimes my emotions are less pressing. I think the best way to relate to this constant moodiness is to check in with my emotions as if from afar, rather than being embroiled in despair or rage or shame.

Disdain, however, seems to meet with nothing to correct it, because it is not actually ‘about’ something that meets minimum standards of moral verification. Ultimately, disdain and honor both make the same fundamental category mistake: they assume that status is a moral question. I maintain that status is a social fact, not a moral fact. Though human social interactions are themselves shot through with status evaluations, a person acting morally ought not to act in a status conscious way. The fact that our emotions constantly tempt us with status judgments does not render those judgments moral. Where anger and bitterness target actions, and hatred reflects a judgment about a person’s character or a refusal to forgive a harm, contempt targets a persons’ status and not an actions’ morality. From the perspective of morality, all persons deserve equal respect. Our evaluations of a person’s actions may truly reflect the justice or injustice of those actions, but the only truth-tracking moral judgment is one that reports that persons are of equal moral status. Therefore contempt is immoral.

6 thoughts on “Should there be a place for disdain in our emotional lives?”

  1. imo, one of your best written and easily understandable entries. Perhaps, because I can relate to being held in contempt and been contemptuous. Nice morality lesson.

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