For PEA Soup: “You’re So Smug, I’ll Bet You Don’t Care This Post is About You”

There is something distinctively infuriating about a kind of conceit that we often call “smugness.” Consider the “tech bro” of Silicon Valley, a type made infamous by Justin Keller, who describes himselfas “entrepreneur, music lover, beer connoisseur, sports enthusiast, traveling the world.” In February 2016, Keller penned an open letter to then-San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Police Chief Greg Suhr, in which he complained about various relatively harmless encounters he had with (putatively) homeless individuals in San Francisco. He summarized his argument as follows:

“The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it. I shouldn’t have to worry about being accosted. I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day. I want my parents when they come visit to have a great experience, and enjoy this special place.”

While there are many obvious criticisms to make here (Keller’s letter caused some uproar), I want to focus on the smug entitlement that Keller expresses. (I say “expresses” to emphasize that I am drawing inferences only on the basis of what Keller writes in his letter, and not on any other evidence about his character. I certainly do not know the bro.)How should we characterize this smugness? Why and how is it maddening in ways that other vices, including other forms of conceit, are not?

One plausible proposal is due to Macalester Bell: Keller manifests superbia, the vice of believing that one has high status relative to others, desiring that this status be recognized, and, in so believing and desiring, manifesting ill will. (Hard Feelings(OUP, 2013), 109) That may be a part of what is going on, but it misses the distinctively infuriating aspect of Keller’s viciousness. As Bell points out, superbia can be curbed by interpersonal condemnation, specifically, the reaction of contempt, which presents “its target as having a comparatively low status … in virtue of their superbia.” (ibid., 128) The problem with someone like Keller is that interpersonal condemnation – contemptuous or otherwise – won’t work. Even if you were a fellow “wealthy working person” and tried to confront him about his objectionable attitude, he would likely brush you off with a characteristic “whatever, bro.” (“Do you even program?”) His smugness seems to insulate him from such complaints.

Aaron James picks up this point in his account of being an asshole. For James, an asshole is someone who “systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.” (Assholes: A Theory(Anchor Books, 2012), 12) This seems to capture more of what’s enraging about Keller’s frame of mind. But it still falls short, I think. It’s not just that the smug fail to register the complaints of others, although this is important. What matters is why they fail to do so. They fail to do so, not (only) out of an attitude of ill will toward others by which they devalue others’ thoughts and feelings, but from a more general lack of concern about the correctness of their inflated expectations of regard, status, and treatment (which is what James calls a “sense of entitlement” and Bell analyzes as a belief in high status).

That is, when we zero in on what is distinctively maddening about the frame of mind evinced by Keller, we are confronted with someone who would brush off any relevant considerations he might encounter that would call into question his inflated regard-expectations, not just the complaints that others raise. Notice that, when we imagine our complaints being ignored by someone like Keller, we do not feel (merely) personally insulted. The kind of anger we experience is more like frustration and less like resentment. This is because we realize that the smug person’s intransigence isn’t really about us. Their disregard of our complaints is not ultimately because they think badly of us or disrespect our status as fellow persons (although, at least by implication, they do). Rather, their disregard is more impersonal, a general carelessness toward their own inflated expectations. They just don’t care about getting it right when it comes to their inflated regard-expectations. This is the reason why they don’t take others’ complaints seriously, which is signified with the flippant “whatever, bro.”

(A first quick aside: There are important questions about how Keller’s social privilege relates to his smugness. Could someone without certain key forms of social privilege be smug? I am not sure, but it does seem to me that privilege enables smugness; if my proposal here is correct, privilege might make it possible to not care about the correctness of one’s inflated expectations of regard.)

How can we make sense of this? One natural place to start is Harry Frankfurt’s famous distinction betweenlying and bullshitting. The liar says what is false out of a concern, in part, with what is true. The bullshitter has no such concern. (On Bullshit(Princeton University Press, 2005), 54-61) Along similar lines, smugness is distinct from other kinds of conceit because the smug person does not care about the correctness of his inflated regard-expectations, while other kinds of conceited people do. Another helpful conceptual parallel can be drawn with Quassim Cassam’s notion of “epistemic insouciance.” (“Epistemic Insouciance,” Journal of Philosophical Research(2018))Epistemic insouciance is a vice that consists in a “casual disregard” and oftentimes outright “contempt” for the evidence or facts that are pertinent to one’s beliefs. (Ibid., 2-6) Similarly, those who are smug seem to have a casual disregard for the considerations that bear on the correctness of their inflated regard-expectations.

(A second quick aside: There are different ways and degrees of not caring about the correctness of one’s regard-expectations, as well as important differences in the kinds of high regard we might expect from others, including Stephen Darwall’s famous distinction between appraisal and recognition respect, which unfortunately I cannot explore here.)

However, if I’m right that smugness is akin to both bullshitting and epistemic insouciance in virtue of its normative carelessness, a puzzle arises. It doesn’t seem right to say that the smug person doesn’t care about being superior along whatever measure they have inflated regard-expectations. They care very much; that’s a part of why they are so annoying.How can this coincide with their normative carelessness? Here is one initial thought I’d like to explore. Having inflated regard-expectations derives most fundamentally from the acceptance of certain norms, specifically, regard-norms of the form that such-and-such attitude of high regard (respect, admiration, deference, etc.) shall be directed (and perhaps expressed) toward individuals with such-and-such properties. Smug people accept the wrong regard-norms, or misapply the correct regard-norms to themselves, and their inflated regard-expectations derive from (or consist in) this mistaken norm-acceptance. If we can separate the genuine acceptance of regard-norms from caring about the correctness of our associated normative expectations, which seems plausible on many models of norm-acceptance, then we would have at least a partial explanation of the distinctively infuriating character of the smug.

(A final quick aside: My characterization of smugness suggests that it persistently distorts cognition and behavior in ways that are at least partially symptomatic of narcissistic personality disorder, as characterized in the DSM-5. I don’t think this should stop us from viewing smugness as a serious vice, but it might shape how we respond to those who are smug; see, e.g., Hanna Pickard, “Responsibility without Blame: Philosophical Reflections on Clinical Practice,” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychiatry, ed. Fulford et al. (OUP, 2013).)

11 Replies to ““You’re So Smug, I’ll Bet You Don’t Care This Post is About You,” Guest Post by Grant Rozeboom for Normative Ethics July

  1. Thanks, bro!
    My first thought was the one captured in your last aside: smugness as you’ve analyzed it sounds like narcissistic personality disorder. The relationship between character defects and mental illness is grossly under-theorized, so your aside opens the door once again to efforts to think about that.
    My second thought was to wonder whether you might see any connection between smugness and other modes of psychological defect, such a sociopathy. Empathy makes no appearance in your brief summary, but Keller’s attitude toward the homeless echoes sociopaths’ distinctive lack of empathy.
    Also: I program.

  2. Michael – re: programming, prove it, bro!

    But really, I appreciate both questions. The relationship between vices and mental disorders is especially worth theorizing for what the DSM categorizes as “Cluster B” personality disorders, which includes narcissistic (NPD) and anti-social (ASPD) personality disorder. (ASPD is closely related to psychopathy, which doesn’t have its own DSM category). All of the Cluster B disorders have pretty morally laden diagnostic criteria, including “reckless disregard” and “consistent irresponsibility” (ASPD), “impulsivity” and “inappropriate, intense anger” (borderline personality disorder), and “a sense of entitlement” and being “interpersonally exploitative” (NPD). There has been some discussion about whether diagnosing these disorders entails attributing moral vice. (Some references below.) My tentative view, informed in part by Pickard’s work, is that there need not be any inconsistency in thinking of these mental conditions as both vicious and appropriately subject to therapeutic treatment.

    One related issue that has received some philosophical attention is whether psychopaths are morally responsible for their psychopathic attitudes and behaviors, which has included discussion of whether and how psychopaths are importantly different from non-psychopathic individuals who are yet “incorrigible” in various ways. (Some further references below.) If we think that psychopaths have diminished moral responsibility for their attitudes and/or actions, it is not easy to explain why/how this is so without being committed to thinking that non-psychopathic-yet-incorrigible people also have diminished moral responsibility. Here, some of the well-established distinctions between different modes of responsibility (attributability, accountability, etc.) might be helpful, but my own thinking is not yet settled about how to extend this philosophical work to assess whether/how smug people are morally responsible for their smug attitudes and behaviors.

    All of this leads to your second question, about empathy. Yes, a lack of empathy is characteristic of both ASPD and NPD, and it also seems to be a part of what is expressed in Keller’s letter. But you’re right that it doesn’t directly figure into my discussion, and lacking empathy does not obviously follow from smugness as I characterize it (as not caring about the correctness of one’s inflated regard-expectations). I do think it is plausible that having high levels of empathy makes it difficult to be smug and not care about the correctness of one’s regard-expectations, insofar as being prone to empathize with others will involve giving some weight to their feelings and concerns about one’s regard-expectations. Lacking empathy, then, may make it easier to develop smugness, and lessening empathy may be a part of developing smugness. So there may be a tight but still indirect connection between lacking empathy and smugness, as I understand it.


    About Cluster B disorders and moral vice:
    • Reimer, M. (2010). Moral Aspects of Psychiatric Diagnosis: The Cluster B Personality Disorders. Neuroethics, 3, 173-184.
    • Zachar, P. and Potter, N. (2010). Personality Disorders: Moral or Medical Kinds – Or Both? Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 17(2), 101-117.

    About psychopathy and moral responsibility:
    • Levy, N. (2014). Psychopaths and Blame: The Argument from Content. Philosophical Psychology, 27(3), 351-367.
    • _______ (2010). Psychopathy, Responsibility, and the Moral/Conventional Distinction. In Responsibility and Psychopathy: Interfacing Law, Psychiatry, and Philosophy, ed. Malatesti and McMillan. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Maibom, H. (2008). The Mad, the Bad, and the Psychopath. Neuroethics, 1, 167-184.
    • Nelkin, D. (2015). Psychopaths, Incorrigible Racists, and the Faces of Responsibility. Ethics, 125(2), 357-390.
    • Shoemaker, D. (2011). Psychopathy, Responsibility, and the Moral/Conventional Distinction. The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 49(sup), 99-124.
    • Talbert, M. (2008). Blame and Responsiveness to Moral Reasons: Are Psychopaths Blameworthy? Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 89, 516-535.

  3. Hi Grant: Thanks for a really interesting post!

    I want to ask about the puzzle you raise toward the end. In particular, I want to invite you to say a bit more about how the smug person’s caring about being (regarded as) superior is compatible with a lack of concern about the correctness of the norms they accept.

    First, I want to make sure I am understanding you right (and please correct me if I’m at all mistaken). Some of what you say suggests that the smug person’s concern for superiority derives from (a) their acceptance of a set of norms that imply they are superior and (b) their concern that others duly reflect this in their attitudes and behavior. But if I understand you right, the concern relevant to (b) is not about correctness. And neither is the acceptance relevant to (a). So far, so good?

    Assuming that I’m not misunderstanding you, I wonder about the way out of the puzzle you suggest. Your proposal (again, assuming I follow) is that we distinguish between (i) genuine acceptance of regard-norms and (ii) caring about correctness. This distinction fits with some of the literature I’m familiar with regarding norm-acceptance in the absence of a commitment to correctness. However, and here’s my worry, I’m not seeing how one can lack a commitment to correctness and still care about others recognizing what follows from the norms one accepts. In other words, it seems to me that (b) the smug person’s concern that others duly reflect this in their attitudes and behavior displays ((rationally) requires?) a commitment to correctness. But then we seem forced to choose between your characterization of the smug person and your way out of the puzzle. If the smug person really does care about others recognizing (in thought, word, and/or deed) their superiority, and if their confidence in their own superiority flows from a set of norms they accept, then it seems as if the smug person really is committed to being correct about these norms. They display this commitment by insisting that others recognize their superiority, which they take to follow from these norms.

    This leads me to consider some possible alternatives to how you present things in you post. One would be to characterize the smug person, not as caring about others’ recognition that they are superior, but as pleased by or attracted to this–and as upset by, repelled from the opposite. They like when people praise them and show them respect. They are focused on considerations that support their (inflated) assessment of themselves and ignore/discount considerations that suggest the opposite. But this has nothing to do with getting it right; it’s all about how it makes them feel. This might be a way of avoiding the apparent commitment to correctness, while maintaining many of the characteristics you attribute to the smug person. They’re not concerned about people giving them their due, in the sense of correctly acknowledging their superiority; they’re concerned with maintaining high levels of self-esteem.

    Another option would be to embrace a commitment to correctness and explain the apparent lack of concern with the correctness of the accepted norms in some other way. I’m struck, in reading the quotation from Keller, by how what he says can be taken to reflect something like the thought that poor people don’t count. Their presence in the city is illegitimate because they haven’t earned it, and those who have earned a place in SF (and their guests!) shouldn’t have to face them. His words seem to me compatible with his caring about being correct; it is just that those he sees himself as answerable does not include the homeless (and their defenders?). In other words, he is committed to being correct, but his evidence base for whether or not he is correct doesn’t include considerations that originate in the comments, feelings, perspectives, etc. of certain people.

    I’d be very interested to learn what you think about all of this. (And I genuinely hope I haven’t been misunderstanding you all along.)

  4. Thanks for this challenging (but still charitable) set of comments, Ben!

    Let me start with your central question: how could I care about others giving me the high regard I take myself to deserve but not care about whether my expectation of such regard is correct? The assumption behind the question is that a concern with having the right regard-expectations is the primary or fundamental explanation of why we care about others giving us due regard. I think that assumption does not hold for many individuals, because I think many (most?) of us value receiving high regard for its own sake. This can distort our normative expectations of high regard in something like the way wishful thinking works. Just as individuals sometimes believe that P because they want P to be the case, so do individuals genuinely expect high regard (as the regard they deserve) because they want or enjoy receiving high regard. This might be irrational – wishful thinking often is – but it seems to be a plausible way of characterizing a common frame of mind.

    Your alternative proposals are intriguing. The first proposal weakens the kind of expectation of high regard that the smug person allegedly has to a mere liking or attraction. That characterizes a familiar sort of vice, but I’m not sure it characterizes the infuriating kind of conceit that I’m trying to capture. It reminds me of someone who’s liable to be a sycophant, a praise-hungry people-pleaser, but not someone who is going to be entitled and demanding in their expectations of high regard. They’ll be disappointed, not offended, when they don’t get the regard or deference they hope for, and so they wouldn’t be writing their mayor or police chief about it.

    The second proposal gets at something important, which is that smug people discount the interests and standing of others, sometimes a select class of persons (e.g., the non-wealthy/non-working people of SF) and sometimes more globally. This is what James focuses on most closely in his account of being an asshole. You’re right that this does not entail that smug people don’t care about the correctness of their regard-expectations. But I was trying to argue that the lack of concern for correctness is the best way to explain the distinctively impersonal way that smug people discount others. Smug people are not directly, personally insulting in how they write us off; they write us off because doing so follows from a more general, impersonal carelessness they exhibit. It seems to me that this impersonal carelessness can’t be about whether they deserve high regard, but it is plausibly about whether and how the pertinent considerations bear on their expectations of high regard. (Of course, this leads us back to your initial challenging question.)

    Those are some initial reactions to your proposals, if I’ve characterized them correctly, and I’ll be giving them more thought – thanks again.

  5. Interesting stuff!

    I’m puzzled by the idea that smug people *as such* don’t care about whether they’re truly high status. Isn’t Keller giving arguments? (“We worked hard,” etc.) They aren’t good arguments. But why think they’re insincere? Why think the smug person is indifferent to their status rather than just annoyingly wrong about it?

    You say: Keller would shrug off criticism. In my experience, people like him do the exact opposite. They get defensive. They are just dying to talk about how they worked so very hard and how homeless people didn’t.

    But even if I’m wrong about Keller’s actual psychology, surely it’s possible for smug people to be obsessively concerned with whether they actually meet their criteria for having status. They might just be snobs. They really care about whether they have refined tastes, “classy” outfits, or whatever. They just—annoyingly and wrongly—think that these things really make them elites.

    So I’ve got two questions. Do you think smug people like Keller don’t get defensive? Do you think *some* conceivable smug people (snobs) might be defensive and sincerely concerned about their actual status?

  6. Thanks, Daniel. I agree with much of what you say, and the quick answer to both of your questions is “Yes, sort of.”

    The family of vice-terms that are useful here – “arrogant,” “smug,” “entitled,” “conceited,” “snob,” “vain,” etc. – are somewhat slippery in their ordinary usage. Any philosophical usage is going to involve some artificial regimentation, which I think should be done with an eye to important moral distinctions we want to capture. Here’s one such distinction: the difference between someone with inflated regard-expectations who cares about the correctness of those expectations and so, as you rightly point out, is likely going to be defensive when challenged, and someone with similarly inflated regard-expectations who does not care about the correctness of their expectations and is more prone to simply brush off criticism. Both frames of mind are vicious, but I think they are importantly different and deserve different terms, and I think it’s natural to reserve “smug” for the latter.

    Why does this distinction morally matter? The person who is defensive – because they care about getting it right with respect to their regard-expectations – is someone who, in principle, is open to moral correction. Maybe not from us, but they’re open to adjusting their expectations in light of being shown, somehow, that their regard-expectations are wrong. There is a potential foothold for lodging considerations that call their inflated expectations into question. There is no such foothold in the mind of who I’m calling the smug person. One way of putting it is that smug person’s vice is more ineradicable.

    In part by way of autobiography, and in part by way of philosophical interest, my thinking here was instigated by a quote from Rousseau’s Emile, where he discusses a kind of vanity associated with inflamed amour-propre that might arise once life starts going well for the fictional pupil, Emile:

    “Emile, in considering his rank in the human species and seeing himself so happily placed there, will be tempted to honor his reason for the work of [the tutor] and to attribute his happiness to his own merit. He will say to himself, “I am wise, and men are mad.” In pitying them, he will despise them; in congratulating himself, he will esteem himself more, and in feeling himself to be happier than them, he will believe himself worthier to be so. This is the error most to be feared, because it is the most difficult to destroy.”

    The idea of being “most difficult to destroy” is closely related, I think, to the distinctively infuriating element of smugness that I’ve described as normative carelessness and that importantly contrasts with a more defensive mode of having inflated regard-expectations.

    So, that’s the long way of answering “yes, sort of” to your questions – I hope it’s helpful, and I’d be glad to hear more about whether and how you think the kinds of smugness/snobbery you have in mind relate to what I’m trying to capture.

  7. Thank you, Grant, for that very helpful and thoughtful reply!

    It’s nice to hear more about the background of your proposal (“the most difficult to destroy”—what a cool passage), and now I see why you’re singling out the particular kind of smugness you’re interested in! Cheers.

  8. Dear Grant,

    Thank you so much for this interesting meditation on a modern instantiation of a certain vice that you so interestingly tease out from other, similar ones. I think the project of giving a fine-grained philosophical analysis of the kinds of virtues and vices that we are constantly being confronted with in daily life is of great importance and I agree with a lot of what you say.
    I have to say from the start that I am not at all familiar with the character that you have chosen to illustrate your vice, nor with the “type” that he is meant to embody, mostly on account of my cultural background. Thus, my lack of familiarity might be the sole explanation for the fact that I am somewhat inclined to read something else into the letter that you quote.

    One point you make and with which I find myself especially prone to disagreeing is that your character does not care about the correctness of his inflated regard-expectations. Now Daniel has already covered this so I will only add that I think that I don’t fully agree with the distinction that you make in response to his comments. You write that there are people who are more prone to get defensive when their attitudes are being criticized and there are people who will just just brush this off and by doing this express that they don’t really care. In my opinion, the kind of people who just brush of criticism might be closer to those who get defensive than it seems, the relevant distinction being that those who get defensive think highly enough of the epistemic standing of those criticizing them (or low enough of their own) to take critique seriosly, while those who brush it off simply don’t believe that other people’s opinions (and least those of most people) are pertinent enough to be taken seriously. This in itself does not imply that they don’t care about being right, they just think that they are in a much better position to judge whether they are right than others. Whether there are people who really don’t care about being right about their “inflated regard-expectations” – I don’t know, it would be cool to have an example of some piece of behavior that seems like good evidence for this.

    Another, broader thing which I am wondering about is the following. One crucial point of your reading of the case seems to be that the guy somehow thinks he’S better than the poor people he does not want to encounter or that at least he deserves some special deference. Now I’m wondering whether it is possible to read what he is saying not as saying “I am better than them and so my preferences should count for more” but rather “The rules by which we play this game (in capitalist societies) say that whoever works hard and is successful gets the spoils: I have worked hard and attained succes, now I deserve to get the spoils.” On this reading, the trouble with you character is not how he values himself in comparison to others, since he does not attribute any intrinsic value to himself that is in any wy superior to that of the poor people. The problem lies with how he conceptualizes the “game we are playing” and the extent to which the rules of this game (free market society) JUST ARE the rules of the human community which we are all a part of.
    This might be somewhat far fetched but I’d love to hear what you think about this and whether this is in tension with your interpretation.


  9. Thanks for these probing questions, Razvan, and sorry to be slow to respond.

    You wonder whether we can conceive of all smug persons, not as being careless toward their own regard-expectations, but rather as devaluing the epistemic status of others’ opinions. The first thing to point out (which is compatible with what you say) is that not caring about the correctness of one’s regard-expectations will entail not valuing others’ pertinent judgments, insofar as one will be disposed to not give them appropriate weight. But even so, why not think that the devaluing of others’ judgments is all that is going on in the mind of the smug person? I’m not sure I have “an example of some piece of behavior” that would contradict this claim. That would be nice, I agree, and I need to think about it further. I will stress that my own experience of smug people is not that they’re thinking badly of me or my opinions of them (at least not directly), but rather that they’re simply not thinking of me or my opinions much at all. They just don’t seem to care, and that carelessness is, I think, a uniquely maddening feature of what I’m calling smugness. This doesn’t defuse your objection; it’s just to highlight the aspects of experiencing smug people that I think point in the direction of my analysis.

    You also wonder whether we can reinterpret Keller’s argument as being about, not his authoritative standing vis-a-vis poor people, but simply his status as the rightful beneficiary of the “spoils” of a competitive, free market game. Maybe, but this seems like an implausible interpretive stretch to me. Why think that the spoils of free market victory include not having to lay eyes upon the losers? Feeling entitled to not encounter poor, homeless individuals goes pretty far beyond the application of an (even caricatured) picture of winning according to the rules of the free market game, to my mind. Feeling like a winner in the free market game can’t be all that Keller is conveying, then. But I take your point that this is a central piece of his line of reasoning.

  10. That you for the illuminating answer, Grant!

    With regards to the first part of your answer, it seems like we’ve reached a further level of fine-grainedness here, which I think is great. So now we have interesting distinctions between people who don’t care about getting it right at all and people who just don’t care about what other’s think although it does bear on the correctness of their own opinions. And within this latter category we have people who don’t care about other’s opinions simpliciter and people who don’t care about them because they devalue other’s epistemic standing (as you put it). I do share the intuition that, within the second category, the first (simpliciter) case is a more plausible characterization of smug people. I’m not sure I agree with what seems to me to be your claim here, namely that smug people not only don’t care about other’s opinions simpliciter but they also don’t care about getting it right.

    Nevertheless, I will gladly defer to your knowledge of this type which seems to me to be more comprehensive than mine. I think it is true in general that in talking about the psychology of an individual or of a particular type it’s hard to make people who are not that familiar with that type see the point merely by discursive means.

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