Are Status Emotions Defensible as Character Judgments?

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:

  1. People have stable characters.
  2. Our judgments about that character have a good chance of predicting future actions.
  3. 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.

Jonathan Haidt’s Conflation of the Personal and the Partisan

There’s been a conflict running through Jonathan Haidt’s work that it’s time for him to address.

On the one hand, he asserts that there are characteristic moral intuitions that distinguish partisan liberals from partisan conservatives. He recently argued that these moral intuitions are demonstrated by the fact that the vast majority of social psychologists identify themselves as liberal.

If this is true, then there’s an important spectrum of the human condition that liberal social psychologists will fail to address. According to Haidt, liberal partisan identification hamper scholarship because liberals are unable to understand or be motivated by in-group affinities, deference to authority, or purity and disgust. Haidt’s earliest claim was that conservatives have moral intuitions that liberals can’t recognize.

But when he polled social psychologists looking for liberals, their answers signified that they are Democrats or have even more radically “leftist” policy preferences. Is this the same as being liberal in the way that his research suggests, which is to say that they allow their moral lives to be ruled by the intuitions associated with fairness and care? Haidt has said that it is:

The current American culture war, we have found, can be seen as arising from the fact that liberals try to create a morality relying almost exclusively on the Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity foundations; conservatives, especially religious conservatives, use all five foundations, including Ingroup/Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity.

One the other hand, Haidt has been going out of his way to show that liberal partisans demonstrate the supposedly conservative “moral intuitions.” We are now told that partisan liberals evince purity intuitions, in-group solidarity, and deference to authority, too. If they’re excluding Republicans from the academy because of tribalism, they can certainly understand the motivation to allow loyalty to dominate fairness! So liberals can recognize conservative moral intuitions, if only they’d reflect on the ways that they do similar things.

He can’t have it both ways: either liberals have a purity, hierarchy, and in-group intuitions, which keeps partisan conservatives out of the academy, or they *fail* to have those intuitions in ways that importantly hamper their work. So which is it? Are liberals just like conservatives, making conservative perspectives superfluous, or are they unable to feel or understand the full spectrum of moral intuitions, and thus no threat to conservative participation in the academy?

The Great Stagnation and the Possibilities of Redistribution

Tyler Cowen’s new e-pamphlet (The Great Stagnation) takes on the slowing gains to be had from social and technological progress and offers an interesting explanation of some of the trends that many people see as troubling: the flat arc of median incomes since 1973 and the apparently universal surprise that the last decade offered no real growth for the United States even as the developing world boomed. Cowen claims that we have misrecognized increased spending in the areas of medicine, education, government, and financial services as growth. While those areas have seen the most increases in spending in this period, this spending has not garnered as many benefits as the metric of GDP suggests. Thus, we are “not as rich as we thought we were,” and we’ll need to adjust to this stagnation for a long time to come. We’ll still grow, but more slowly: call it the Great Decrease in Acceleration.

One important element in Cowen’s argument is that many of our current woes are due to the misdiagnosis of our problems. Republicans thought they could solve the stagnation by lowering taxes and raising military and Medicare spending. When this didn’t work, they were surprised. Democrats have thought that the internet and sustainable energy initiatives would spur new growth, but this has largely been growth in private consumption of status updates and Youtube videos, not jobs or public goods measurable in GDP. Electric cars are still toys, not engines of growth: this could change, but it hasn’t yet, and importantly, it didn’t over the last decade, when we were nonetheless living as if it had!

So conservative tax cuts won’t work, and progressive technological hope won’t work. In addition, Cowen also suggests that a redistributive agenda will fail. Yet here he is uncharacteristically short on argument or evidence, so I wonder if this is true. Generally, we say the problem with redistribution is that it slows growth, and it’s better to have a larger pie tomorrow than to have a equally-divided pie today. But if there is little growth forthcoming, then redistribution seems like it’s a much better deal, doesn’t it? Continue reading The Great Stagnation and the Possibilities of Redistribution

Inequality of What? Socioeconomic Status and Amartya Sen’s Entitlements Approach

Responding to the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Socioeconomic Status, Peter Levine discusses some of the difficulties in measuring socioeconomic status:

To take another example: you need wealth and family connections to be admitted to certain snobby clubs. But having wealth and family connections might hurt your chances of hanging out with the cool kids behind the gym or going ice-fishing with the guys. In short, SES (as we typically measure it) confers advantages on those who want to get into high-SES social circles and makes them more likely to want such entree. But that doesn’t mean that SES increases the odds of any person, A, to get whatever A wants. Continue reading Inequality of What? Socioeconomic Status and Amartya Sen’s Entitlements Approach

Blame, Offense, and (again) Contempt

1. Two studies suggest that women apologize more than men. The reason? They are more easily offended, and find more actions more offensive:

In Study 1, participants reported in daily diaries all offenses they committed or experienced and whether an apology had been offered. Women reported offering more apologies than men, but they also reported committing more offenses. There was no gender difference in the proportion of offenses that prompted apologies. This finding suggests that men apologize less frequently than women because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior. In Study 2, we tested this threshold hypothesis by asking participants to evaluate both imaginary and recalled offenses. As predicted, men rated the offenses as less severe than women did. These different ratings of severity predicted both judgments of whether an apology was deserved and actual apology behavior.

Can women be wrong to be offended by an act judged non-offensive by men? Can men be wrong to fail to see the offence in a behavior judged offensive by women? How do we adjudicate different thresholds of offense? Can Coase guide us here? Are some equilibria preferable to others? Why or why not?

2. Gary Banham lists the Members of Parliament who voted in favor UK tuition increases, and ends on an un-Kantian note:

None of the MPs listed above has any right to respect and should be met with contempt.

Perhaps he simply means that the British ought to withdraw their deference for these MPs? It’s odd for a Kantian to invoke contempt when we have the useful language of blame.

Here’s Thomas Hill in “Must Respect Be Earned?”:
One can at least confront and respectfully negotiate with a single- minded, unpretending enemy; but contempt is a deep dismissal, a denial of the prospect of reconciliation, a signal that conversation is over. Furious argument and accusation, and even sharp-tongued deflation of hypocrisy and self-deception, leave some space to resume communication; but cold, silent contempt does not. The one demands to be heard, while the other walks away in disgust
Michelle Mason disagrees, but gives a good account of Hill’s position in the process:
In Hill’s lectures, the satisfaction of this criterion gives rise to both formal and substantive requirements of respect for persons. The formal, or procedural, requirement of respect involves regarding each person as “a potential co-legislator of the basic principles we all must live by.” So regarding a person will require that we “listen to one another, take seriously the arguments of those who reject one’s initial position, . . .be sincere in [our] proposals and nonmanipulative in [our] arguments, [aiming] not to gain power through debate but to convince others that [our] position is justifiable,” and so on. This formal principle, in turn, gives rise to more substantive requirements of respect, on Hill’s view, when we try to take up the Kantian moral perspective. We can suppose that anyone reflecting from this perspective, Hill argues, “would endorse at least the presumption that every human being is to be respected so far as possible in the substantive ways that we so highly value. Since not all human beings have special skills or unusual merit, compared to others, the respect we presume required cannot be respect for a person’s merit but rather respect for a person’s position, which in this case must be just the position of ‘being human.’” This presumption of respect for persons is incompatible with contempt insofar as the latter “is a deep dismissal, a denial of the prospect of reconciliation, a signal that conversation is over.” Whereas even “furious argument and accusation” leave room for the possible resumption of communication, “cold, silent contempt does not. The one demands to be heard, while the other walks away in disgust.” The presumption of respect for persons as such, as Hill defends it here, thus is not the minimal notion of recognition respect as I have suggested, that is, the negative requirement that places constraints on our interactions with our fellows. Rather, it is a more positive requirement of an active form of engagement with those fellows
Mason goes on to take issue with the “kingdom of ends” defense of equality of respect:
Is the prospect of such contempt too great for co-legislators of basic principles to risk? I’m not sure I know how to decide that question, and, again, I doubt that its answer addresses the threat of inhumanity to others any better than does my own nonanswer. In response to such a question, I find myself wanting to say that were the optimism about humanity that would encourage one to offer a positive answer to the question justified, then the answer would not in practice matter because what had been “risked” would never come to pass. That is, if the thought driving one’s choice of such principles were the thought that no actual human being deserves to be so treated—and so we cannot reasonably risk being so treated—then a positive answer is an easy one to give. The history of the human race thus far, however, provides a rich cast of characters of whom such optimism is, I’m afraid, naive. And if such characters are among my co-legislators, then I can only hope that the majority vote goes my way.
This is an odd way to end the argument. Mason begs the question:
  • Arguments against contempt assume the equality of persons.
  • If persons were equal, no one would deserve contempt.
  • Yet some people deserve contempt. (Just LOOK at what they’ve done!)

∴ Some people deserve contempt. (Don’t be NAIVE.)

What’s more, there’s no voting in the kingdom of ends: we’re not tallying up the votes on lying or genocide. Of course Mason knows this, which suggests she’s simply acknowledging that this is a disagreement on first principles.

After all, the case for equality of respect makes basically the same move by assuming the equality of persons, which is really the question being disputed:

  • Arguments in favor of contempt assume that we can earn dignity.
  • Earning respect subjects the human person to evaluations of value and worth.
  • Contempt is an appraisal of a person’s inferiority.
  • Having a value is a property of objects, not persons.
  • Persons deserve respect by virtue of being persons.
  • The equality of respect is incompatible with appraisals of personal inferiority.

∴No person deserves contempt.

Of course, Kant himself didn’t speak with one mind on these issues:

By a lie a human being throws away and, as it were, annihilates his dignity as a human being. A human being who does not himself believe what he tells another (even if the other is a merely ideal person) has even less worth than if he were a mere thing; for a thing because it is something real and given, has the property of being serviceable so that another can put it to some use.

So there’s that. Again, I think we can simply say that status emotions are immoral and leave it at that. Blame and praise are moral; contempt and deference are immoral. Hate the sin and not the sinner. (If we hate the sinner, we’re acting immorally and perhaps committing a category mistake as well. Compare: “The doer is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything.”)