One major defense of status emotions like deference and disdain is that they count as judgments of a person’s character. We defer to experts because they have a history of being right; we disdain scoundrels because they have a history of cheating or misleading us. In this sense, status emotions are akin to other reactive attitudes like blame and praise, only generalized. Rather than blaming someone for the acts that have harmed me, I attribute that act to a set of character traits or habits that suggest that the person is likely to harm me in the future.
It seems that this view might contain the following assumptions:
- People have stable characters.
- Our judgments about that character have a good chance of predicting future actions.
- Our judgments about a person’s character will not be hindered or prejudiced by irrelevant information.
So stated, I do not believe that there is much justification for this view. For one thing, there is ample evidence that stable character traits are a fiction: under importantly varying circumstances, human beings are quite malleable. Context matters much more than history, and our belief to the contary is due to a “fundamental attribution error.” At best, we can make judgments about a person’s reactions only ceteris paribus, with the recognition that the ceteris will never be paribus when the correctness of my judgments matters most, i.e. when the situation is relevantly and importantly different and I am deprived of other kinds of verification.
Even if there is such a thing as stable character, there is ample evidence that we will tend to misjudge it. This is because we tend to assume that character traits will cluster together, and to confuse physical attractiveness with good character, and physical unattractiveness with bad character. This is definitely a component of own-race bias and the various species of gender biases, but it underlies much less commented-upon biases like the bias against obesity and the bias in favor of people with symmetrical facial features. If you catch yourself thinking that the people who you respect and to whom you defer are handsome or beautiful, then you ought to be worried.
This is why status emotions cannot be defended as character judgments based on generalized evaluations of a person’s historical actions.