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Hard FeelingsReview - Hard Feelings
The Moral Psychology of Contempt
by Macalester Bell
Oxford University Press, 2013
Review by Matthew Van Cleave
Nov 5th 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 45)

Perhaps I am just a contemptuous person and am looking for a convenient justification of my contemptuousness, but I found Macalester Bell's Hard Feelings to be both interesting and persuasive.  It wasn't simply the arguments and conclusions that I liked but, additionally, her general approach to moral psychology.  I would characterize that approach as a part of a tradition that takes its cue from P. F. Strawson's 1962 essay "Freedom and Resentment."  According to this tradition, we can analyze human morality without having to mire ourselves in metaphysical debates such as the relationship freedom and moral responsibility.  Instead, we can investigate ethical concepts by focusing on personal relationship and what kinds of attitudes it makes sense for beings like us to have towards others in those relationships.  Bell herself notes her alignment with this Strawsonian tradition (p. 18, n. 33).  However, as she also notes in the introduction, reactive attitudes like shame and contempt are importantly different from guilt and resentment in that the latter concern a person's actions whereas the former concern an evaluation of the person herself.

An ethics of contempt need not take a stand on [metaphysical issues surrounding moral responsibility and freedom]; contempt makes no claims about the target's freedom or whether the truth of determinism is incompatible with this freedom.  Contempt involves an evaluation of the person rather than the person's culpable actions.  Thus whether contempt is a fitting response does not turn on whether free will is compatible with the truth of determinism (p. 20).

As is suggested by the epigraphs from Robert Adams and Edmund Burke in the introduction, one's of Bell's central points of departure from many projects in traditional philosophical ethics is the idea that it is not only actions that are subject to moral evaluation but also feelings.  That there are certain attitudes, including negatively-valenced emotions like contempt, that are vital to an overall assessment of our moral lives is the general claim that Bell defends in her book.  The more specific focus of Hard Feelings, of course, is contempt.  Bell argues that contempt is a vital, yet admittedly dangerous, emotion for our moral lives.

Contempt, according to Bell, "is a way of negatively and comparatively regarding or attending to someone who is presented as falling below the contemnor's personal baseline.  This form of regard constitutes a withdrawal from the target and may motivate further withdrawal" (p. 46).  To be more precise, contempt:

1) involves an appraisal of status (i.e., failing to meet some standard),

2) is directed at persons rather than actions,

3) is essentially comparative, and

4) is characterized by withdrawal from the object of contempt. 

There is one further key ingredient but in order to best explain it, we'll need to consider a central objection to the very idea of contempt.  The objection is that contempt could never be a "fitting" emotion since it makes an appraisal of the whole person rather than simply of the person's actions and any appraisal of the whole person as "bad" can never be correct.  After all, people are complex and it is overly simplistic to treat them as all good or all bad.  A more specific version of this objection that Bell considers comes from John Doris's work which attempts to show, using accumulated finding from social psychology, that there is no such thing as "global" character traits.  A "globalist" character trait would be one that 1) reliably manifests the relevant behavior across a wide variety of circumstances and 2) is integrated with other similarly valenced traits.  So, for example, a person who is haughty (a negatively valenced trait) would be haughty in almost any different situation and would also have other negatively valenced character traits.  The problem with such a conception of character traits, according to Doris, is that all the empirical evidence speaks against it.  People are hugely influenced by their environments in morally significant respects and in such a manner that it would be difficult to predict which situational factors will affect one's behavior (for example, finding a quarter in a phone booth will make you significantly more likely to help another in need and the ambient noise of a lawnmower will significantly decrease helping behavior).  But if there is no such thing as character traits—traits that characterize the whole person—then any evaluation of the whole person must be misguided.  Bell's disagreement with Doris is over whether a globalist emotion like contempt requires that we present the target as possessing only other similarly valenced traits.  Doris seems to think any globalist assessment of the person does whereas Bell claims that globalist assessments make "evaluative prioritizations" such that certain traits in the target are seen as more important than others (p. 77).  If that is so, then the contemnor needn't see the contemned as possessing no other positively valenced traits.  Rather, the contemnor can see those other traits as simply not as important as the traits that the contemnor contemns.

This raises the obvious question: What determines which traits are the more important ones?  That is, given that people are complex and possess both positive and negative traits, on what basis can we prioritize the negative traits, thus making a negative character judgment about the person?  Bell's answer is that which traits are given evaluative priority depends on the nature of the relationship between the contemnor and the contemned.  Relationships between individuals come in different flavors because the values that form the basis of the relationships differ.  Bell gives several examples.  For example, if Claude and Steven formed a relationship over their shared commitment to abstract expressionism and artistic excellence, then if Claude later finds that Steven is producing sentimental watercolors to sell to the masses, Claude might feel apt contempt towards Steven.  Although Claude might recognize that Steven has other positive traits, those traits just aren't as central to their relationship.  Since Steven has violated a standard that was partially constitutive of their relationship Claude's contempt is fitting, as would be Steven's shame.  In contrast, consider Andrew, who runs an animal shelter where Steven is a dedicated volunteer.  Andrew has nothing but admiration for Steven's dedication, dependability and love of animals.  Based on Andrew's relationship with Steven, this admiration is perfectly fitting.  Thus, as these examples illustrate, what determines whether a globalist emotion is fitting is both subject-relative, since the different relationships make for different prioritizations of what is important, and objective, since the norms constituting these relationships are real things.  As Bell notes, "we are sisters, mothers, and friends, and colleagues; and insofar as we are parties to relationships, we are bound by the norms that partially constitute our relationships.  While it's true that some relationships are more attitude-dependent than others, the norms that partially constitute these relationships are not themselves attitude dependent.  Whether we are bound by these norms is not simply a question of how we feel or how things subjectively appear to us" (pp. 86-87).  I think Bell is right to emphasize that the norms constituting such relationships are objective, in a sense, but I wonder what we should say if Steven were to feel no shame vis-à-vis his relationship with Claude?  Would that mean that Claude's contempt was still fitting?  Who would be "right" in this case?  I'm not sure but for me a situation such as this raises questions about the nature of these norms.  

So we can add as a further component of contempt, that

5) it is subject-relative, yet objective (in the way indicated above). 

This makes allows us to make sense of contempt as a globalist emotion but it does not yet explain the category of the contemptible.  Indeed, if contempt is subject-relative, it seems there could be no such category as the contemptible.  Nothing is contemptible tout court but only contemptible vis-à-vis particular relationships, in which the norms that govern those relationships help sort out which of the individual's characteristics are of centrally importance to those relationships.  Nevertheless, Bell thinks that there is such a thing as a contemptible person.  A contemptible person is someone towards whom one would (and should) feel apt contempt from the perspective of a minimally acceptable morality.  In chapters 3-4, Bell argues that contempt is the best response to certain kinds of "vices of superiority" which damage not only personal relationships between individuals but also the moral fabric of society.

Imagine a company executive who refuses to sit next to a laborer on a train, or a woman who uses her education level as justification to exact deference from a public employee whom she regards as her inferior, or someone who rails against homosexuality only to be later discovered soliciting a male prostitute (i.e., Ted Haggard), or an academic who constantly brags about her accomplishments to her lesser-accomplished colleague as a way of trying to build her own esteem.  These are all cases where someone believes him/herself to have a high status (which in some cases they actually do have) and use that status to gain esteem and deference at the expense of someone else.  This is what Bell calls "superbia" and, together with hypocrisy and arrogance (more specific sub-types of superbia), this is what she calls the "vices of superiority."  Bell claims that the vices of superiority damage personal relationships by damaging the self-esteem of those who bear the ill will of those who evince the vices of superiority.  Further, those who evince those vices are also themselves damaged, for example, because their ability to form friendships will be compromised (p. 122).  However, in addition to damage to personal relationships she also thinks that the vices of superiority contribute to a deeper, structural damage to the fabric of society.  Those who exhibit the vices of superiority are analogous to free-riders who take advantage of the system for person gain and, in doing so, wreck the system.  I'll give you Bell's own words:

The vices of superiority impair our moral relationships insofar as they undermine a social system in which praiseworthy traits are esteemed and objectionable traits are disesteemed.  Worlds where the vices of superiority are evinced but go undetected are worlds where the unworthy are likely to gain esteem and deference from members of the community.  …Worlds where the vices of superiority are detected but go unanswered are worlds where people become cynical and are less likely to esteem anyone.  …Ideally we would esteem and disesteem persons in accordance with their merit, and aiming for this ideal is the best way of managing persons' desire for esteem.  Those who evince the vices of superiority attempt to take advantage of and undermine a system in which persons are esteemed when they show themselves to be worthy of esteem; in so doing, those who manifest these vices damage their relationships with other persons (pp. 125-126).

This passage, to me, is reminiscent of W. K. Clifford when, in the "Ethics of Belief," he argues that our failure to uphold high standards of belief formation would lead to disastrous consequences for the moral fabric of society.  What I always ask my students when reading Clifford is: How does Clifford know that this is what would happen?  I am inclined to wonder something similar about the claims here.  In any case, Bell's claim is that the vices of superiority do cause this kind of structural damage and since they do, some kind of response is called for.  Contempt to the rescue.

Bell argues that contempt is uniquely able to answer to the kinds of damage caused by the vices of superiority.   First of all, contempt is appropriate because the orientation of the response is precisely to withdraw from the person seeking illegitimate esteem at another's expense and to view them as having a comparatively low status.  Thus, contempt doesn't reward the behavior with the kind of attention seeking that is at the heart of the vices of superiority.  Second, contempt provides reasons for the contemned to change by giving the contemned a taste of his own medicine, so to speak.  In doing so, "this puts him in a position to better appreciate reasons to change his ways" (p. 130).  Thirdly, contempt helps protect those who would seek to be brought low by superbia, arrogance and hypocrisy.  "If you harbor contempt for someone, they cannot shame you" (p. 132).

A particularly interesting claim that Bell makes regards the non-instrumental value of contempt in our moral lives—a claim which connects to the overarching thesis that it matters morally not just how we act but also how we feel.  Given that contempt is the most appropriate response to the vices of superiority, to feel contempt in response to them is to express and embody our values in a way that allows us to maintain our moral integrity.  To not feel contempt would be to have our feelings out of sync with our values and thus to not be able to uphold our integrity (pp. 161-162).  In addition, our contempt holds the target responsible for "badbeing" (in contrast to wrongdoing) and demands a change of attitude (in contrast to behavior) (p. 163).

As with most monographs in philosophy, Bell responds to a barrage of objections, one of which I've discussed above, a couple more of which I'll discuss briefly now.  According to a Kantian objection, globalist attitudes like contempt fail to give the respect that is due to all persons, regardless of their merits.  Bell answers this objection by invoking a distinction between recognition respect (which relates to the respect due to any member of the moral community) and appraisal respect (positive appraisal of moral agents based their merit).  The simple point is that we can hold recognition respect for the contemned while failing to give them appraisal respect. There is no reason to think that the contemnor need fail to respect the legal or moral rights of the contemned.  Indeed, insofar as contempt offers the contemned reasons to change her attitudes, contempt provides for a Kantian respect for persons in not manipulating the contemned by bypassing her reasoning faculties. 

Another objection asks whether or not the characteristic withdrawal of contempt can function as a "moral address."  Bell thinks the answer "is a rather straightforward yes" (p. 185) and I would echo her sentiment here.  Upon reading this I was reminded of the silent protest of the UC-Davis students in the presence of Chancellor Katehi after she had defended the police who pepper-sprayed the occupy movement students.  I'm not sure this counts as contempt according to Bell's account (NPR describes it as disdain) but I am sure that this "silent treatment" spoke volumes in a way that words never could. 

Finally, since Bell argues that we have an obligation to contemn (pp. 190-191), she considers the objection that we can be morally obligated to have a particular feeling since having a particular feeling is not under our control and so seems to violate the "ought implies can" principle.  No worries, she says, we can still claim (in the spirit of Pascal) that we can cultivate the emotions, like contempt, that we have reason to cultivate.

One might capture Bell's claims about contempt in the form of a warning: "Warning: contempt is a powerful and potentially destructive emotion; use only as directed."  Bell recognizes that contempt has had corrosive effects on our society, but the powerfulness of the emotion can also be used as a force for good.  The corrosive effects of contempt is most clearly seen in racist contempt.  Racist contempt, however, shouldn't call into question the role of contempt vis-à-vis the vices of superiority, according to Bell since the former is inapt contempt while the latter is apt contempt.  Bell claims that racist contempt is a kind of superbia and as such one of its characteristic harms is the degradation of the self-esteem of the contemned.  (As an example she brings up the "stereotype threat" which is the tendency of, e.g., blacks to experience a high level of anxiety when encountering a situation that would test a stereotype that is in the air, such as the stereotype that whites are smarter than blacks.  For example, when a test was described as measuring intellectual ability, blacks who took it would have higher anxiety and perform worse than if the very same test were labeled as one that measures verbal problem solving.)  Bell claims that a "defiant counter-contempt" is the best response to racist contempt.  This counter-contempt towards racists works because it allows the target of racist contempt to dismiss the contemnor as "low" and "one's self-esteem cannot be threatened by others' contempt if one sees the contemnors as low and unworthy of appraisal respect" (p. 206).  However, does not this escalating arms race of contempt and counter-contempt preclude any possibility of civil exchange and, if so, does this foreclose the possibility of achieving a progressive moral consensus?  That is, since the characteristic stance of contempt is withdrawal, in fighting contempt with contempt do we not foreclose any chance of agreement through civil debate?  That is an objection to which Bell's response is:

While civility has an important role to play in regulating our social interactions, when persons publically express superbia in such a way as to undermine others' self-esteem, then they are not owed a civil response.  To respond civilly to such persons is to risk condoning the superbia they express, thereby further damaging moral relations (p. 219).

Furthermore, Bell claims, it isn't true that civil debate is the only way to achieve a progressive moral consensus.  She gives examples from our own country's racist history of how it wasn't only civil debate that led to the progressive moral consensus (that slavery is immoral) that we appreciate today.  Sometimes the characteristic disruptive stance of contempt is exactly what is needed to help achieve a new progressive moral consensus (p. 222).

Bell closes with a chapter on forgiveness, in which she discusses the conditions under which we should be willing to overcome our feelings of contempt and forgive the badbeing of the contemned.  There are two main reasons to forgive those we contemn, according to Bell: 1) character transformation of the contemned and 2) shame of the contemned.  Shame, she thinks, is closely connected with character change and so functions as a kind of indication of it.  However, the idea that forgiveness can be offered in the case of character transformation encounters what she calls the "free gift objection."  According to the free gift objection, forgiveness is something which by its nature must be freely given.  However, if someone has totally transformed their former badbeing then it seems that we no longer have any reason for holding contempt for them.  But in that case it looks like we are obligated to forgive and forgiveness can't be something that is obligatory, it must be a free gift.  That is the objection.  Bell's response to the free gift objection is to note that is rests on the assumption that our character assessments track only the person's current dispositions.  Bell claims that we should reject that assumption because "while a person's present dispositions are partially constitutive of her character, they are meaningful only when illuminated by her history and knowledge of her past actions" (p. 248).  But that allows us to see the person's character as still containing elements of badbeing (since her past does) and that, she thinks, will not completely remove our grounds for apt contempt.  But if we still have grounds for apt contempt, then offering forgiveness would be a gift freely given.  I'm not sure I find this argument totally convincing.  At the very least it requires awkward sounding phrases like, "I forgive you for you are."  Although Bell seems to think this makes good sense, and that it is the opposite ("I forgive you for who you were") doesn't, my intuitions run in exactly the opposite direction.  I really can't imagine saying to someone that I forgive them for the kind of person they are but I can imagine forgiving them for the kind of person they were.  True, who we are currently is partly constituted by who we were but I'm not sure that that fact alone gets Bell to a satisfactory answer to the "free gift objection."  What one would like a further justification for is that claim that in forgiving past badbeing, we take that badbeing to continue to constitute the person's present character.  I don't think Bell has given us a reason to think that and it doesn't simply follow from the truism that who we are is partly constituted by who we were.

As Bell notes in her conclusion, Hard Feelings constitutes part of a more general "reclamation project" in ethics (p. 275).  Bell's "bottom up" approach to ethics is to start with an investigation of a range of different emotions and to consider the role those emotions have in our moral lives rather than starting with a theory that antecedently specifies a set of emotions that are considered "moral emotions."  Although I can't comment on the success of this larger project, I can say that Bell's investigation of contempt in Hard Feelings is to be praised for its thoroughness, carefulness, creativeness and incisiveness.  It is a very well argued monograph and if you are at all interested in ethics or moral psychology, you should read it.


© 2013 Matthew Van Cleave


Matthew Van Cleave, Lansing Community College, Lansing MI


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