Following up on my claim in the last post that “honor produces error,” in my view, the problem is epistemic privilege, i.e. deference.
By deference, I mean the epistemic privileges that some people receive or earn through demonstrating their erudition or looking like they know what they’re talking about. When you think of deference, you should think of the feminist critique of uptake conventions among men and women. Consider: as a male I often notice that whether or not I know what I’m talking about, people tend to pay attention when I speak. With some of my equally smart (or smarter) colleagues, I see this reversed: they get talked over, get fewer turns to speak, and their expertise is challenged more often. Usually, the factors that go into these differences in uptake aren’t epistemically salient: things like gender, bearing, dress, physical fitness, or facial symmetry aren’t particularly accurate signals of knowledge. It’s not just unfair to my colleagues, but a bad way to get the right answer!
Miranda Fricker has argued in her work on epistemic injustice that it is possible to wrong another in their capacity as a knower. I agree! But Fricker goes on to argue that inappropriate lack of deference entails appropriate deference: if deference can be withheld unfairly, then that implies that there will be times when justice obligates us to defer to others. Yet here, I believe Fricker conflates testimonial deference (“You were there, I wasn’t, what did you see?”) with deference to expertise. (“You have studied this matter, and I haven’t, what do you know?”)
If deference can be appropriate, then epistemic privileges can be justified. This means that some forms of uptake and inattention are moral: sometimes, for Fricker, the right thing to do is to ignore one person and pay attention to another. Every act of deference requires an act of dismissal. When we deal with experts, this can even mean dismissing ourselves! The moment we grant epistemic privileges, we risk suspending our own critical faculties and ignoring other potential knowers in favor of the expert knower. When we grant doctors, lawyers, and academics deference in their respective fields, we do so without making independent inquiry into the matter. At best, we only hold ourselves responsible for evaluating the prestige or reputation of a particular putative expert. Whether in the case of disease, a lawsuit, or the interpretation of experimental data, when we bow to the professionals’ authority, we do so at the expense of epistemic equality. Is this justified?
Those who champion epistemic dependence generally do so in the name of epistemic interdependence. No one, we are told, can be a jack-of-all-trades and still function well within a complex society like our own. Breadth comes at the expense of depth. This produces a vision of egalitarian deference: so long as we defer to each other equally, as each of use takes up her areas of expertise in turn, our mutual deference need never produce a larger domination or inferiority.
To make sense of this, we must distinguish between a single expert and the consensus of experts in a field. As a group, experts are trustworthy. Alone, they are no better than a coin flip. The point here is that individual experts don’t deserve the epistemic privileges we grant them, even though expertise itself is useful and does deserve our attention. Deference is only due to a community of inquirers, not to persons: as an attitude towards individual persons, deference is both immoral (for producing epistemic injustice) and likely to lead to error. Even those who grant epistemic authority in principle will act on this suspicion of experts in practice. Instead of trusting a harried doctor to interpret our symptoms and the medical literature, we’ll frequently seek a second opinion or research her diagnosis online. When they feel unjustly convicted by the supposedly-arcane court system, some inmates spend their incarceration researching the legal precedents in an effort to file their own appeals, and in so doing, learn a good deal of law. When our lives or freedom are on the line, we’re able to see the problem with this epistemic dependence.
Using Authority to Deflate Privilege
Because our interactions are shot through with status games and signalling, perhaps epistemic and moral authority are inevitable. We might think that in the best we can hope for is to channel these forms of authority in egalitarian ways. For instance, a version of the deference dynamic sometimes also plays out in my classroom: although I try to set and maintain conventions of mutual respect, I must sometimes enforce them authoritatively. In doing so, I believe I put my epistemic privilege to an anti-privilege use, but thereby I also preserve it: the students respect each other because I remind them to do it, and they respect my reminders because they respect me. This is probably the way sentiments of mutual respect are generated, but I’m not sure it’s particularly moral.
Nor is my goal in demanding mutual respect in the classroom that each student’s opinion be treated as equally correct. Just the opposite: the hope is that after all opinions are weighed and most found wanting, some opinions will be preferred. That is to say, the goal of mutual respect in the classroom is that we will all defer to the best arguments rather than the loudest voices or most confident speakers. This is true even when the loud voice is my own. If the students simply took what I said as gospel, that would be as stultifying as if they believed their most charismatic comrades. So the norm of equality and non-deference is designed to produce a community of mutual inquiry, where the best argument wins.
Here, it’s the argument that gains authority, not the person. A teacher or leader with some kind special insight into the best arguments ought to lose her authority simply by failing to act or speak consistently with the principles and arguments she espouses. Yet we cannot revoke our deference unless we count ourselves as equal in the evaluation of the argument and the teacher’s mastery of it. Isn’t this the core of Enlightenment in which we “emerge from our self-imposed tutelage“? The only legitimate epistemic authority is the world’s own authority to report its facts.
A regularly updated version of this guide can be found here.
I teach at the third-most expensive school in the country, where I regularly persuade students that they should major or minor in philosophy. For many students, this is a value question, and as I like to put it, there’s a difference here between the value of a philosophy education and its price. Specifically, it’s not clear to me that it ought to cost $200,000 to get a bachelor’s degree in philosophy… but I do think it’s worth it.
As a result of this tension, the current crisis in the humanities has very personal implications for me. In the UK, wholedepartments are being cut, while the US continues to squeeze the humanities even when they are massively popular and profitable. As I’ve been trying to argue, this was always entailed by the growing rent-seeking class of administrators who we have apparently hired so that we can be saved the labor needed to fire us. Frankly, I suspect we’ve had this coming for a couple of millennia now: didn’t Socrates make his name undermining the paid-teaching models of the Sophists?
The combination of artificially-induced market forces and government disdain for the humanities as economically non-productive will shrink arts subjects into a ghetto where they will become increasingly studied by those who can afford to pay, at institutions which can afford to charge
I call that conservative because the humanities will again be relegated to their role in signaling status, as only richer Britons or Americans will be able to afford the tuition fees at top schools where the humanities are still taught.
Caught in the middle of this, I think we have two options: we can criticize and decry this course of events in hopes of changing it, or we can begin preparing for a time when humanities instruction is less accessible than it has been over the past half-century. In fact, we should do both, but today I want to focus on preparation.
So, here’s what I have in mind: a free syllabus in philosophy for all those students who can’t afford to attend one of the elite schools that still teaches philosophy in a decade.
Here’s how it works: combine the free online offerings of MIT’s Open Courseware, Academic Earth, Itunes U, and Youtube with other free web resources that would suffice to supply what could once only be gained by taking out student loans.
Michael Sandel’s Justice course has drawn tens of thousands of Harvard students and focuses on themes and problems in the good life and the good society. Steven B. Smith offers a historical approach at Yale on Academic Earth. Explore special topics the BBC’s Ethics Bites or spend a semester with Berkley’s Michael Nagler considering the case for Nonviolence.
Epistemology and Metaphysics
I haven’t been able to find an introductory course just on metaphysics, but how about John Searle’s lectures on the Philosophy of Mind? Alternatively, take a look at this course on the ethics and metaphysics of Death by Yale’s Shelly Kagan.
Now, self-regard prevents me from really believing that the education available online is better than the one you can get in my classroom, but I’m not so arrogant to think that I’m a better lecturer than Michael Sandel. Notable is what’s lost when all you have are these kinds of courses: you lose feedback and the interrogative experience of a seminar room, you lose the cohort of fellow students who will stay up late hashing out a passage from Aristotle, you lose the synchronicity of associations between very different courses taken simultaneously, and you lose the assessment and professionalization that a professor’s comments and counseling supply. What makes my classroom work is the seminar-style I learned as an undergraduate at Bard College, and which I try to foster at George Washington. That’s the practice of philosophy as a liberal art, a technique for free citizens to inquire together into matters of fundamental concern. You can’t learn the habitus of philosophy from an online video.
So far, the courses available online might supply the first two years of a philosophy degree. A disciplined person pursing this syllabus would have a good sense of the overall discipline, but could not be said to have “majored” in philosophy, because the free university offerings become a bit sparser at the advanced level. Courses at this level become specialized, focusing on epochs, figures, problems, and themes. Plus, this is the stage when we start really pushing students to see which ones have potential to become professional scholars, if not in philosophy than in a proximate academic discipline or as lawyers. That means it’s a much more interactive and much more textual education, and it may be less easily-suppled online.
For a while Susan Stuart’s lectures on Kant’s epistemology offered a pretty thorough guide to The Critique of Pure Reason, but they’ve been removed. Perhaps they’ll be back. I wouldn’t ask DIY-ers to brave the first Critique without a guide, but this is the point when a good library or bookstore might supply the missing manual.
Interaction and Feedback
The quickest way to get feedback on an idea or argument is to start blogging about it. A really ambitious DIY student could recruit a cohort of fellow DIY-ers to work with her. Start a WordPress or Blogger blog and join a community like Big Big Question, Ephilosopher, Metafilter, or Less Wrong. Start writing, reading, responding, and linking, and the commentary will come. Some of it will be critical, some helpful, some mean, but you’ll learn and make connections, develop insights and obsessions, just like a traditional student.
The hardest part is finding someone to grade your work, but Virtual-TA has you covered there.
If all the instruction is happening online, and all the grading is is Bangalore, who would want to be a “professional” philosopher? With the UK cutting budgets and whole departments, and humanities instruction increasingly done by adjuncts and graduate students rather than tenure/tenure-track faculty, it appears that there may soon be fewer opportunities for philosophy instruction that there were previously.
So maybe we could forgo professionalization… except that it seems to me that an amateur philosophy student has only learned enough to be dangerous, not enough to be useful. So in that sense, my free syllabus is a failure: you can get a philosophical education for free, online, but it takes bit more than that to garner the benefits of studying philosophy. (But hopefully not $200,000 more….) If this page whets your whistle, though… well, remind me to tell you about Socrates’ art of matchmaking and midwifery when you sign up for my course. 🙂
If we love our discipline as much as the paycheck and status it promises, we have to work to combat the exclusivity of an examined life available only to those who can pay. If the internet is not yet able to take over our duties… I guess we’re going to have to fight.
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.