In an interesting piece in the NYT’s The Stone this morning, Karen Stohr (Georgetown) discussed the nature of contempt as it pertains to Trump and his recent protesters. She claims that contempt is different from anger, insofar as contempt is global, targeting the whole agent. “If I express anger toward you, I am engaging with you. If I express contempt toward you, I am dismissing you.”

She then draws from P.F. Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment” to suggest that, while anger represents what we are susceptible to as part of interpersonal relationships and the participant stance, contempt moves us to the objective stance. From the participant stance, we see one another as accountable, and we “regard them as fellow moral agents.” From the objective stance, we view others as objects to be “managed or handled,” in Strawson’s words. One of Stohr’s points, then, is that contempt “functions by shifting the targeted person from a participant relationship to an objective relationship. It aims to alter someone’s status by diminishing their agency.” She then argues that contempt in the public sphere is perilous, especially for those not in power or marginalized in various ways. Only those in power can benefit, as only they are able make good on their dismissiveness by pushing the vulnerable even more to the margins. We need to maintain mutual respect, she thinks, and so push public contempt back into the closet.

There are many aspects of the view one might engage with, but I’m most interested in the moral psychological claim about the nature of contempt, that it shifts the relationship one has with the target from participant to objective. But I don’t believe this is what Strawson had in mind (so it’s not quite right to draw from him to illustrate the idea), and, further, I don’t believe this is the most accurate characterization. To have contempt for someone is of course to look down on him, to view him as worse than you, in some respect having to do with his practical agency or, most often, his moral character. This response may or may not be merited. But some people are surely contemptible (do I really have to point to various Nazis, old and new, to illustrate?). Contempt for them is fitting. But why? It’s precisely because they are our moral fellows, that we are stuck with them in the moral community (as our moral equals), and their failures at living up to the task of being morally good or just minimally morally decent is, well, worthy of contempt. They have failed miserably at being the type of person we care about their being. They thus matter to us personally in a way that we often can’t help but respond to. Our response is an appraisal of their failures as fellow members of the moral community. It is maintained precisely because it doesn’t shift them anywhere.

Those we think of as objects, as “things,” the subject of treatment, to be “cured or trained,” do not matter to us in this way. We may be repulsed by them or fear them, but we cannot have (apt) contempt for them. Imagine contempt for a grizzly bear, or for a truly psychotic killer. Contempt fails to get any traction, given our inability to be morally engaged with them. Pity, or a kind of love, maybe; contempt, no.

Because it seems that one remains morally engaged with someone one has contempt for (even though one hates to admit it, the contemptible agent is still “one of us”), its expression may well be apt compatible with holding the contemptible person accountable and demanding better of him. The better worry, then, may be that the contemptible agent may not be responsive to certain expressions of contempt, as it may tend to undercut further meaningful dialogue or moral improvement, or it may cloud the message of appraisal of poor moral agency, seeming very often as if it is more like hatred or shouting down. But there is one way to express contempt that may be quite effective, especially with respect to the powerful: ridicule. And I’d hate to lose that in the public square.


3 Replies to “Contempt and the Objective Stance

  1. Hi Dave,

    Thanks for calling my attention to Stohr’s article. It’s an interesting read, with, as you say, many things to engage with.

    After reading your post, however, I’m wondering what it is, exactly, that you’re engaging with in your post. You focus on Sohr’s suggestions about the moral psychology of contempt. But I can’t quite tell if what you mean to take issue with are her claims about the attitude of contempt as such, or rather her claims about the examples she uses to illustrate the attitude of contempt. Stohr’s central examples of contempt are: mocking a disabled reporter’s appearance, calling Mexicans rapists, and treating women as objects of sexual gratification. Do you agree with her that these are instances of contempt?

    I’m not sure, myself, what to think. These examples do seem to me to involve treating others as objects to be managed or handled–that is, adopting the objective stance. But I also feel the pull of your suggestion that contempt doesn’t do this. So I’m left scratching my head. Perhaps some further thoughts about these examples and their relationship to contempt will help me out.


  2. First, David, thanks for such a thoughtful commentary. I want to start by pointing readers to some terrific existing work on contempt, from which I have learned much: Tom Hill’s “Must Respect be Earned?”, Michelle Mason’s “Contempt as a Moral Attitude,” and Macalester Bell’s Hard Feelings. (There are more!)

    I am really of two minds about contempt. On the whole, I think Kant is right that contempt, while often understandable and even fitting, is nevertheless a moral problem when it is expressed. It violates a duty of respect. It’s unclear to me whether Kant (who, as Krista Thomasson has pointed out, says a bunch of different things about contempt) thinks of this primarily as a duty to the individual or as a duty to humanity as such. I am inclined to think it’s the latter. So we owe it to all of us not to treat one of us with contempt, even if that one is truly despicable. I think this is largely right.

    But….I am also really pulled by arguments in favor of contempt, like those offered by Mason and Bell. I am not sure that I agree with Mason on what counts as contempt, but her paper has a great deal of subtlety to it and I can’t do justice to it here. I believe she would say that contempt is a reactive attitude; I think it is not. My account of contempt is more like what she describes as treating someone as beneath contempt. Mason’s view accords well with the way we use the term, but I am aiming to develop an account of contempt that explains its particular power to dehumanize its target. That’s what motivated my use of Strawson and the objective stance. I don’t know whether Strawson himself would have considered contempt a reactive attitude. Maybe not. I see the force of considering it to be one, but I think that is not all there is to contempt. If it’s a reactive attitude, it’s not like other ones. There’s a dismissiveness to contempt that is at odds with treating the target as a participant in the moral community. But I’m still trying to work out just what this is.

    Kant’s objection to mockery is that it treats a rational being as an object for the amusement of oneself and others. I think that this is right (although with caveats–not all mockery does this, and it doesn’t all do this in the same way. I am a fan of SNL.) I think that contempt objectifies its target in a similar way. I see your point about grizzly bears, but I also think that the contempt shown by Trump to, say, Serge Kovaleski is doing what amounts to the same thing. It’s an attempt to diminish his agency by turning him to an object of mockery. (I had another paragraph about mockery in the NYT article that the editors needed to cut.)

    Bell’s position, I think, is that contempt in response to, say, racist contempt can actually be an assertion of one’s own moral standing in the face of challenges to it. I think there is something to this; however, this is where the part about social power becomes important. I see expressions of contempt as one of a set of tools with which we accomplish things (good and bad) in social space. Contempt in the hands of a powerful person is a highly effective tool. Contempt in the hands of a less powerful person simply cannot do the same work. This is why I don’t think it’s an effective way of asserting one’s standing in the face of challenges to it. To put it differently, Michelle Obama is right. Going high in response to another’s going low is the best way to block the attempted marginalization. At least in public!

  3. Ben: Thanks for your response. My aim was to make you scratch your head, so mission accomplished.

    Thanks very much also to you, Karen, for joining in as well, on top of presenting the thoughtful NYT piece to begin wtih (which I’m always happy to see).

    I can address both of you in a certain respect. Ben, I was having trouble with the examples Karen was giving as well, and Karen’s response makes it clear why: What she may be really after is what it is to treat someone as *beneath* contempt. That makes more sense to me, especially as being what’s compatible with the Strawsonian sense of “objective attitudes.” When one is beneath contempt, one is not even worthy of the kinds of stirred-up emotional engagement that is distinctive of the participant attitudes. To say that you are beneath contempt is to say that you aren’t even worth my time. This is surely how the Noble used to view the Peasants. They might view them with disgust or pity, but contempt? Nah.

    So my main target was the thought that contempt, *as we tend to think of it,* moves one from the participant to the objective attitudes. I wanted to resist that thought on Strawsonian and on general conceptual grounds. But as to the examples given, and Karen’s main point (now translated) that treating someone as beneath contempt is a matter of treating him from the objective stance — well, I can get on board with that. And to the extent that treating someone in this way is to fail to treat him as a moral fellow (which doesn’t mean treating him as an equal, necessarily), it will be objectionable. My problem now, though, is that it’s no longer clear to me how one might move from being morally engaged with someone to treating them as beneath contempt (rather than just viewing them as beneath one’s contempt to begin with and then treating them as such).

    Now as for what I think is the more familiar attitude of contempt, there is an *attempt* at dismissiveness involved, for sure. What nags about it, what keeps it alive, though, is that one typically *can’t* achieve actual dismissal; it continually sticks in one’s craw. And this, to me, indicates that one views the contemned still as one of us, for all his flaws.

    This brings me to my final point. *Treating* someone as beneath contempt is, I think, importantly different than expressing an emotional response to their character. The former is solely a matter of morality; the latter is a matter of both emotional fit *and* morality. What I’m pointing to is the fact that, while the former is likely always wrong (given the Kantian and others reasons you point to, Karen), the latter is a function of distinctive types of reasons. Whether it’s thus fitting to feel contempt (which may have an action tendency motivating one to express it in some forum or other) is one thing; whether one ought to express that feeling, and in a particular way, is another. Contempt for the contemptible is, I’m thinking, always fitting, and this may go to its expression as well;, but various of its expressions might be more morally permissible than others.

Comments are closed.