More on Contempt

A friend suggests that my recent arguments against the moral status of contempt ignored an important role it plays in policing our moral community. The concern is that if we cannot feel (and expect others to feel) contempt for someone like Bernie Madoff, then we will lose the morally instructive value of punishment. If we wish to live in a culture that does not encourage people to take advantage of each other, we must collectively judge cheaters and frauds as morally ‘less worthy’ than non-cheaters and non-frauds. My friend claims that we are all better than Bernie Madoff, and a failure to feel contempt for him would itself be a mistake or error in judgment.

I think this is the heart of the dispute over the value of contempt: proponents of contempt can certainly agree that contempt is often misused, that it short-circuits dialog and even often disguises itself as legitimate when it is not. However, they want to say, contempt can be appropriate. We may disagree on when exactly it is warranted, but we can come to an agreement with enough dialog, and perhaps we ought to do so.

This reminds me of Arendt’s account of Adolf Eichmann in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt presented Eichmann in such a compassionate and understanding light that many people thought she was trying to exonerate him. Yet at the conclusion she makes it clear that we cannot share the world with men who have acted as Eichmann acted. At times she calls him a buffoon, but only as a corrective to those who would call him a monster. And she always maintains that he deserved a fairer trial than he received and a better defense, not because he was innocent, but because he was of equal moral status with any other person. Without contempt, she still managed to condemn him. In this, I think we see the difference between what Jonathan Haidt calls moral intuitions of ‘hierarchy’ and moral intuitions of ‘fairness’. Arendt’s attempts to understand Eichmann and to overcome the emotive response to him never undermined her capacity to condemn. We condemn an action for the injustice or lack of care that it demonstrates, and as a result we condemn a person to a punishment. Yet when we feel contempt, that emotion purports to bear on the person’s moral status, not her just deserts.

Another interesting question is what this tells us about deference and respect. If contempt is immoral, should we say the same thing of deference? This objection seems to confirm that contempt is superfluous to moral judgments, that it masquerades as valuable by disguising itself as necessary for them. In this disguise, we see that status emotions seem parasitic on emotions related to justice and care: the non-moral emotions feed on our moral emotions in the name of our desire for status and deference. When we feel contempt for Madoff, we imagine ourselves as having at least one more person in the world who would have to respect us, if ever we met. Madoff or Eichmann serve as imagined objects of our domination: they bolster our self-image through imagined recognition. Rich as he was, old Bernie Madoff owes me deference because he is a crook and I am not. Yet notice that I am not really any better a person than I was before Madoff was caught and convicted. So in this way, again, contempt lies to us. It tells us we are better only because others are worse… yet I do not become a better runner because others are crippled.

4 thoughts on “More on Contempt”

  1. Nice series of posts, AnPan. I do wonder whether the line between the judgment of a person's action and the judgment of a person's status is not extremely fuzzy. I can certainly imagine situations in which it would not be fuzzy at all: "This person committed murder" v. "Of course he's a murderer–filthy [pick your favorite racial slur]."

    But your Eichmann example makes me wonder. In judging his action, you say that Arendt comes to the conclusion that 'we' cannot share the world with him. This seems like a de facto status judgment, even if it is made with equanimity. One of the distinctions you make between the judgment that limits itself to an action and the judgment of contempt is that the judgment of the action (particularly in Arendt's case) is a fair one. So this would mean, I think, that contempt is by its nature unfair. My question here, though, is: what makes the judgment fair? Is it Arendt's attitude of compassion? It would seem not, if the emotions are stupid because if they are stupid, we have to rely on something more concrete like law. I can suspend my emotions enough to allow the accused to be subject to the law instead of arbitrary rage and still retain that feeling of contempt. So what is the difference in moral terms if I have exercised self-control to the point of admitting the person's equality before the law, but retained a "pathos of distance"? Either way, we tell the offender that he is not fit to live in our community, but in one case our stupid emotion feels connection and in the other it feels aversion. In Kantian terms, we have treated him with respect either way (I think–I'd be happy enough to be corrected on this point).

    Of course, I'm with you–I do see a difference, but I think we have to speak of the difference in un-Kantian terms now and move to more of a virtue ethics framework. Contempt in this case has not caused me to harm another in any way. The harm is somehow to me and my own soul. I think contempt is different from resentment, so I don't think the danger to the soul is gnawing, brooding hatred that defines itself by rejecting what is stronger than it. Contempt is really just more of a brute pathos of distance that doesn't want to recognize any similarity between itself and the object of contempt (hence Nietzsche's favorable use of it at the end of the 2nd essay of GM). The danger, it seems, is something like a lack of humility concerning the precarious nature of our own goodness. I don't know about Madoff or the rapist, but Eichmann makes me shudder to the bone because I think about the Milgram experiment and the whopping 60% that shocked the hell out of the poor confederate. Contempt read in this way wouldn't necessarily be immoral, but it might indicate a kind of moral stupidity, where we are so concerned with our dissimilarity that we don't take the opportunity to attend to our similarity and be warned by it.

  2. It's very clear to me that I only understand some of the terms in your formulation, and less of the history, and I'm sensitive to being the kind of person who simply does not get it (but mistakes that ignorance for an actual point of view). However, I have a couple of questions about the way that you've constructed your argument.

    My largest question concerns your equation of equality with moral status, or, to put it another way, your conflation of a feeling about a person’s rectitude with a judgment of his or her moral “worth,” where you seem to refer to something I would call human worth. I’m not convinced that because I feel contempt for someone’s actions, I must therefore be arguing that they are less deserving of rank human equality. Can’t I feel contempt for a person’s actions, contempt for them as a moral actor, without condemning them as less deserving of human equality? Why, in your formulation, is contempt so all encompassing that to feel it for another is to condemn that person wholesale? This may be where my lack of familiarity with the terms of the debate affects my understanding, but (in conversation) you’ve explicitly held that anger (also a moral emotion) might have use. As I understand your argument, in the case of contempt when we say “I have contempt for Madoff,” we are really saying, “I need not treat Madoff as I would other human beings.” And yet, when we say, “I’m angry at Madoff,” we’re really saying, “There are specific actions by Madoff to which I should respond.” I don’t understand, in [my representation of] your argument, why contempt always expands past the specific, while anger is allowed the luxury of being targeted.

    I’m not sure that contempt is *necessary* for moral judgments, but it does seem to me to be morally instructive. It provides a form of punishment, outside the law, for immoral actions. Further, it provides a marker of where it is appropriate to look for moral instruction. Part of my argument about Madoff and contempt is that our contempt makes it clear that Madoff has lost the right to be considered a (good) moral example. (Again, I may simply not understand why that designation is actually a designation about his human (as opposed to moral) worth.) But, this is why I also take issue with the final paragraph of your post, in which you talk about self-worth. Why would it be wrong for me to feel more morally worthy than Bernie Madoff? I would argue that it’s possible to feel morally superior without also feeling that Madoff needs to offer me deference in anything other than moral matters. (Although, as a counter-argument, it strikes me that the great danger of contempt for Madoff’s actions might be that we excuse our own behavior that is also immoral because it is less so than his, which may be what’s behind your better runner example.)

Second Opinions