Here now is Matt King:

Moral conviction is often lauded in ordinary discourse. To be a person of principle is considered a virtue (and it is certainly a pejorative to be thought of as ‘unprincipled’). Of course, too much conviction, given that we can be mistaken in our moral judgments, and we risk retaining principles we ought to reject. Nevertheless, there is a common thought that principled persons do something right in holding true to that which they believe deeply. While we should sometimes adjust our beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary, it is also true that there is virtue in sticking to one’s guns.

I’m interested in exploring this notion of conviction through the activity of “standing up” for what one believes. In particular, I identify three distinct (though related) ways in which an individual might fail to stand up for what she believes, and, thus, ‘lack conviction’. While there are no doubt epistemological norms associated with conviction, my interest is in its distinctively moral character.

A natural starting place for thinking about conviction lies with the idea of being convinced or certain. In this way, convictions are matters an agent takes to be settled. The question has been asked, the issue deliberated upon, a decision made. One aspect of convictions, therefore, is that of being inhibited to reconsideration or revision. But I’d like to suggest that unlike other claims of which we’re convinced, moral convictions involve a further practical commitment. If I’m convinced that eating meat is wrong, it seems I should be willing to stand up for that principle.

Inquiring as to the nature of the activity of standing up for (or similarly simply standing for) risks an overreliance on metaphor. To stand for something suggests a presence in front of which one stands. One does not retreat or cower, one does not rest or recline; rather, one adopts an upright position. Standing up for something suggests something to which one adopts an opposing stance. We might say that one stands up against the opposition. Familiarly, a child might stand up to bullies, just as one might stand up for workers’ rights by picketing a corporate headquarters.

We can gain some insight into the nature of moral conviction by examining the various ways in which one can fail to stand up for what one believes. First, one can fail by failing to stand for anything. Such a person might have some moral beliefs – indeed, it would be surprising to find someone who was not convinced of any moral claim whatsoever. Nonetheless, one might fail to stand for anything if one was insufficiently willing to be guided appropriately by their moral beliefs.

This might occur because morality plays no significant role in how they organize their projects or because they treat moral principles as not terribly important to their deliberations. They might be egregiously egoistic or curiously indifferent to others. We’re familiar with the example of the politician who aims to be overly diplomatic so as to appease all constituencies, but ends up raising our suspicions as there seems to be nothing he stands for.

It is unclear to me just what is problematic about lacking conviction. It strikes me as bad. If I found a friend of mine had no convictions, I would think something is missing, that they were in some sense misoriented to the world. But I’m less confident about the general explanation for why it’s a fault. Why would an unwillingness to ‘take a stand’ on any moral matter be so bad? Suppose one hedges most moral bets so as to refrain from over-commitment. Why would such caution count as a vice? (I am reminded here of Frankfurt’s discussion of the wanton – one who has no second-order desires – but I’m not sure what to make of the similarity.)

Lacking convictions altogether is rather unfamiliar. Most people have moral principles they’re willing to act according to and stand up for. But this doesn’t ensure they succeed at all times. One can fail to stand up for something in a particular instance. Typically, this would be when faced with a temptation or challenge that motivates one not to so stand. In this way, lacking moral conviction in particular circumstances looks more akin to ‘ordinary’ cowardice, where a difficulty is avoided because it is difficult.

There is an element here of “putting your money where your mouth is”. For instance, we might think about the importance of being vocal about the social justice efforts you endorse or calling out the bad behavior of others, like a co-worker’s sexist remark. (In this way, there are strands here related to being a “ally”.)

It is not entirely obvious to what extent the first two failures indicate a moral value to conviction. It might be tempting to treat each as reflecting only the epistemological nature of conviction. We might think that having moral principles at all generates certain practical commitments as a result, such that failure to have those commitments indicates an internal irrationality of some sort. (Like the practical commitment of intending the necessary means to one’s intended end.) Similarly, failing to stand up in defense of what one knows to be right because it will be difficult to do so might simply be a special case of more general akratic type behavior.

There is a third kind of failure, however, that is more suggestive to me. It involves refusing to “face the music”: that is, a failure to stand by one’s convictions in the face of scrutiny by and discourse with others. Admittedly, why standing up in this way is a virtue remains to me mysterious. Why is the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square so appropriately impressive? Is it just the costs he was willing to face in defense of his ideals? Taking a stand, even when practically foolish or unlikely to achieve any effects, still strikes me as noble (at least pro tanto), though I’m far less confident as to why this is so.

4 Replies to “Matt King on “Conviction and Cowardice”

  1. Interesting post, Matt. This is more puzzling than I would expect at first glance. Complicating matters worse might be the psychological research on moral conviction, which suggests that it’s often a source of excessive certainty, perhaps capable of being a vice. There was a recent excellent episode of Hidden Brain discussing these issues with the lead researcher on the topic, Linda Skitka (https://hiddenbrain.org/podcast/moral-combat/).

    One other quick thought that might help demystify, if only slightly. I wonder if our praise of moral conviction is often the focus, not lack of it. Think of the Tank Man. We praise him, but the implication is not that the rest of the people who didn’t stand in front of thank are cowards or problematically lacking in conviction. He just displays an especially high level of it that’s praiseworthy. Compare how we praise someone for being especially smart or skilled, like a chess champion. (No doubt on my mind because I’ve recently watched the Queen’s Gambit!) Why the chess champion is especially praiseworthy might not be most illuminated by considering why we condemn people who aren’t as smart or skilled, partly because it’s not clear that we do. Rather, the source of our praise lies in the champion going above and beyond. Perhaps it’s similar with Tank Man and other people who are especially principled?

  2. Thanks, Josh. On the one hand, it seems we do think better of those with convictions. Consider the case of someone with whom we disagree, but we console ourselves that “at least they’re principled”, in contrast to, say, the person who seemingly chooses a different sort of justification depending on what it is they’re choosing. (There might be a connection here to our problem with hypocrisy.) So even when we think someone has gotten their principles wrong, we tend to think better of them if they stick to their guns. Of course, we might prefer that they change their minds for the right reasons, but short of that, it seems it wouldn’t do to change their minds simply to agree with us (or others). (In this way, there may be connections here to the literature on moral deference.)

    On the other hand, why should there be any value in sticking to one’s principles if one’s got the wrong principles? Discussions of Huck Finn spring to mind. On the interpretation of the case in which he intentionally does what he takes to be wrong, he’s seemingly acting contrary to his principles (to the extent that Huck is principled at all). So one wonders whether there is *any* critique to be made here. Lots of folks, it seems, valorize Huck acting for the right reasons despite having the wrong evaluation of those reasons, which might suggest that, at least in that case, there isn’t much value to acting on one’s convictions.

    You might be right that the praise here is comparative. It’s true that Tank Man took on some extreme burdens in service of standing up for what he believed in (per hypothesis), and so we might just be signaling our admiration of his willingness to stand up so strongly. You’re definitely right that it is too harsh to call those who don’t stand up in front of tanks cowards! So, I don’t mean to imply that. But if our admiration here is because of the lengths he was willing to go to in defense of his ideals, then it seems all the more important to have an account of the value of standing up for things that’s independent of the value of those things.

  3. Hi Matt. These may be naive questions, but in the spirit of the blog, I’ll ask them. To what extent does your conception of conviction require that convictions be stable? To what extent must a person be aware of their convictions, or be able to become aware of them very easily? (Merely responding to a question with a statement that one has a conviction shouldn’t be enough, since that kind of response might be guided by what the interlocutor wants to hear, or by thinking that I’m the kind of person who would have that conviction–whether that’s actually true.) Can a conviction be some kind of disposition of which the person is unaware.
    You wrote that you think not having convictions is rare. Maybe that depends on your conception conviction. It seems to me that most people are not very reflective about things like conviction, and many people don’t think very systematically about many topics. So if convictions must be stable, or be something one is able to reflect upon, perhaps many people have no convictions. Maybe people are pushed in this way or that by their own thoughts in different contexts, or by recent external influences. If their thinking about what’s right or wrong or worth standing up for is subject to such vagaries, do they have convictions, or maybe fleeting convictions? On the other hand, there may be some actions on the part of others, or possible actions on their own part, that they just won’t stand for, and would object to. They might not realize that until they are in a situation where that matters. That dispositional fact might be stable, even if it never gets exercised. In that sense, perhaps most people do have convictions, though perhaps most people don’t even have convictions in that sense.

  4. Great questions, Marshall. I’m not sure what I think convictions are, really. I guess that’s what I’m trying to figure out by thinking about the idea of standing up for something or, alternatively, taking a stand. That might be an inexact avenue for thinking about convictions, though, depending on our constraints on that concept. It seems to me we can stand up for lots of things – moral principles, people, ideals, values, etc. I see no reason all of those couldn’t count as convictions (or part of the content of convictions), but, ahem, I’m not trying to take a stand on that matter here.
    That said, because I’m open-minded about what we can stand up for, I wouldn’t think that people have to be particularly reflective or articulate about their convictions. And, regardless, they might not be particularly good at standing up for their convictions. I’m not quite sure how to tease out the distinction, but the second and third kinds of cases of failure I pointed to in the original post are meant to be cases of people with convictions that nonetheless fail to stand up for them. I am being guided by the idea that convictions are the sort of thing one *should* be willing to stand up for, though I could just be wrong about that.
    I’m not sure how stable convictions must be. There’s certainly something intuitive about the idea. To the extent that convictions involve taking something as settled, it strikes me as incongruent were one’s convictions constantly in flux. But there’s a lot of room between “constantly in flux” and “fixed”. I definitely think one’s convictions can change, even dramatically and radically, and in ways one might not fully understand at the time. I’d also want to understand a person’s convictions in terms of their actual commitments, not what they thought or said their commitments were.
    So, all that is to say that I am thinking of convictions as a kind of settled belief, though one with a particular kind of practical role to play. I would think, for instance, that convictions typically are the sort of thing that help shape one’s practical identity. But I wouldn’t want to be too restrictive or rigorous about their nature or how they play that role. Does that seem plausible?
    I’m really intrigued by the relation between standing up for things and things one just won’t stand for. I take it the latter is closer to a kind of toleration, contrasted in some sort of way with talk about “taking things lying down”. These metaphors are all instructive, though I’m not sure what to make of them precisely.

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