Beyond the area of his expertise

by Chris Bertram on April 27, 2008

Simon Blackburn is clearly doing his best to give philosophers a bad name through his own “popular” writings, but his latest effort —part of “a series in which academics range beyond their area of expertise”—is spectacularly awful. Norman Geras, with whom I often disagree, takes issue with him in a series of posts here . My own hackles weren’t especially raised—I was just in “yeah, whatever” mode—until I got to his eighth “myth”, “the myth of equal respect” where Blackburn writes:

The belief that everyone deserves equal respect and that anything else is discriminatory and elitist. The truth is the exact opposite: discrimination is a virtuous activity and elites are to be admired. The very few human beings who are good at anything [emphasis added], whether football or playing the violin or writing or painting, form an elite and deserve respect for their excellence. Other people either deserve sympathy for trying and failing, or should be ignored if they have not even tried.

Aside from the obvious fact (which Geras points out) that the claim that everyone deserves respect in the rights and human dignity sense doesn’t entail the hostility to discriminations of achievement that Blackburn claims, his statement that “very few human beings … are good at anything” is simply crap.

Many many human beings are talented cooks or gardeners, accomplished dancers, considerate colleagues, good mothers or good fathers. Many many human beings are empathetic, or courageous, or patient. And no, I don’t think those who are (for example) rated good cooks by those they know and cook for “deserve our sympathy” for failing to be Escoffier, nor should they be ignored for not even trying to be Escoffier. Blackburn, on the other hand, probably ought to have our sympathy: not for trying and failing to make it to the level of, say, David Hume, but for falling victim to the delusion that the less that superb doesn’t amount to good. What a failure he must imagine himself to be!

{ 98 comments }

1

jimjay 04.27.08 at 6:29 pm

I’d add to this that we can make people good or bad at things depending on the respect and opportunity we give them. There were very few good women doctors before we let women become doctors – now there are quite a lot of them – all down to the fact that women won respect and it enabled those talents to reach their potential.

Those who glory in the elites essentially you advocate hold back those whose social position they despite.

2

Dave 04.27.08 at 6:31 pm

He has it quite backwards, of course – people deserve equal respect, until they prove they’re bad at something: like logical reasoning, or obeying the speed-limit, or understanding why their ethnicity/religion/sexuality/political preference doesn’t entitle them to feel superior to others…

Meanwhile, for a bracing counterblast in the name of ‘real expertise’ see http://www.uwgb.edu/dutchs/PSEUDOSC/SelfApptdExp.htm

3

abb1 04.27.08 at 6:55 pm

Personally, I despise them all, equally.

4

Antonio Manetti 04.27.08 at 6:57 pm

So, fundamentally, one’s entitlement to respect and dignity rests solely and exclusively on how much one is valued by the marketplace.

How much respect and dignity was Van Gogh entitled to or Socrates or Jesus, for that matter?

5

"Q" the Enchanter 04.27.08 at 6:57 pm

If he’d restricted the objection to the notion that respect for people entails respect for their opinions… (I “respect” Blackburn despite the disreputable opinion he expresses here.)

What a bizarre theory of human endeavor and accomplishment. It also doesn’t seem to occur to him that there might be a significant outcome bias (based on criteria of conspicuous “success”) in our judgments of excellence.

6

henery 04.27.08 at 6:59 pm

You have to understand, this is only his quasi-real opinion.

7

Dave Weeden 04.27.08 at 7:20 pm

I read that article on Friday when I got the link in an email (as part of a running joke about management; the sender thought he had management spot on). I don’t see anything wrong with any of his points, though he seems to run out of steam toward the end.

He says, pretty unequivocally, that everyone deserves equal toleration. That’s perfectly sensible. It’s self evident that equal respect cannot be: respect, by definition, is extended to only a few people by each of us. Even Geras says, “In so far as we speak of equal respect, we usually mean respect for individuals as persons, for their humanity and for their rights in virtue of their human status.” ‘Toleration’ is a much more fitting word for that. No one is entitled to respect. You have to earn it. Duh. So Van Gogh etc were ‘entitled’ to none at all. And if you think Socrates had earned respect, maybe you read a different Plato from me.

But for all that, I use ‘respect’ as a much stronger word than you. I ‘respect’ excellence, and nothing less; CB clearly uses ‘respect’ for middling ability, so it’s a question of semantics.

8

engels 04.27.08 at 7:26 pm

And no, I don’t think those who are (for example) rated good cooks by those they know and cook for “deserve our sympathy” for failing to be Escoffier, nor should they be ignored for not even trying to be Escoffier.

But with all due respect, surely we do ignore such people (from the culinary point of view, at least)? I personally couldn’t care much whether someone I have never met is rated as a good cook by those he knows. I certainly won’t respect someone for being X, just because his partner/doting parents/sycophantic junior colleagues rate him as X. That way madness lies, surely…

9

djw 04.27.08 at 7:36 pm

I can’t even begin to imagine how to formulate a response to “the myth of democracy.”

10

abb1 04.27.08 at 7:38 pm

@7: admiring those who managed to achieve notoriety is just as insane.

11

engels 04.27.08 at 7:50 pm

(I’m pretty sure I didn’t imply we should ‘admir[e] those who manage… to achieve notoriety’…)

12

abb1 04.27.08 at 7:51 pm

It’s a beautiful piece, I must say. Too bad Oscar Wilde already owns this niche.

13

Matt Weiner 04.27.08 at 7:58 pm

But with all due respect, surely we do ignore such people (from the culinary point of view, at least)?

No — at least I don’t ignore such people if I know them and there’s a possibility that I might find themselves at their table. If someone I know is a good cook, then I’ll respect them for it, even if their influence doesn’t extend beyond their immediate circle. I don’t usually get to eat cooking at Escoffier’s level anyway.

And Blackburn by his choice of examples makes it clear that he’s talking about respecting those around you. He says “I am lucky if my neighbours tolerate my singing when in the garden, but they would have to be tone deaf to respect it, and if they did then of course they in turn would forfeit my respect as music critics.” Which may be true because he (like me) is no good at all at singing. But if (like one of my colleagues) he were a good singer without rising to the level of Chaliapin or Louis Armstrong, then I would enjoy his singing when I had the chance to listen to it, and I would respect him for being a good singer.

14

engels 04.27.08 at 8:12 pm

If someone I know is a good cook, then I’ll respect them for it, even if their influence doesn’t extend beyond their immediate circle.

So will I. What I meant was that in general I won’t respect someone for his cooking because he is rated as a good cook by those he knows and cooks for.*

(* The fact that they rate him as such might be evidence for him being a good cook, and therefore worthy of culinary respect, of course…)

15

eric 04.27.08 at 8:20 pm

He probably feels remarkably like me: gifted with intellect, blessed with supporive well-read parents, and what have I done? Nothing. A combination of emotional instability and the fact that I am convinced I never will contribute to society virtually guarantee that I will suffer economically, starve academically, and hate myself until I die.

16

engels 04.27.08 at 8:29 pm

If you are a good cook, and I know you are, then I should hope I’d respect you for it.

If you are rated as a good cook by those you know and cook for, then I don’t think that that obliges me to respect you for being a good cook.

That’s right, isn’t it? I am happy to be corrected…

17

matt 04.27.08 at 8:30 pm

has anyone here read darwall’s “two kinds of respect”?

blackburn’s right on here. i hardly think that he is advocating some sort of free-floating hatred or denigration of those who do not depart from the norm. and yes, there is such thing as a norm.

also, why does being nice to your friends, developing hobbies, and other stuff like that have to make one an expert? i’m a good cook, and i like to cook for friends. i enjoy basking in their praise. but in the end, i am probably barely better at cooking than the norm. so i’m no expert and i deserve no special respect for my cooking.

but what i think is really going on here is that you all are so afraid of not being the SO FREAKING AWESOME that any time someone comes along and speaks with authority gained from talent and/or hard work, you get scared that your FREAKING AWESOMENESS is being threatened and then you froth and moan.

18

John Quiggin 04.27.08 at 8:34 pm

A further point is that certain activities, like sport, are designed (or have the characteristics) to pick out marginal differences in ability and magnify them to produce a winner. Someone who can place a tennis ball in a particular spot 60 per cent of the time will reliably beat someone who can do it 55 per cent of the time.

In most real-world activities, we rely on having lots of good people, not a handful of superstars.

19

engels 04.27.08 at 9:15 pm

‘to respect you for being a good cook’ s/b ‘to respect you for your cooking’…

20

harry b 04.27.08 at 9:18 pm

A couple of friendly amendments to jq (#18):

In most real-world activities, we rely on having lots of people who are good in different, and sometimes incommensurable ways, not a handful of superstars (who, typically, have achieved what they have thanks to the support, teaching, and examples of people who are merely good).

21

Matt 04.27.08 at 9:20 pm

(Not much matters on this but the “matt” in 17 above isn’t the “matt” who usually posts under that name here. That’s me. I tend to disagree with this “matt”. More importantly I capitalized more regularly and think the word “awesome” sounds stupid when used by anything other than a little kid, unless one is actually talking about something that inspires awe.

22

Sortition 04.27.08 at 10:17 pm

As disgusting, self-congratulatory, self-contradictory and childish Blackburn’s position is, he is only taking to extremes a position that is prevalent in our society.

23

Yan 04.27.08 at 10:42 pm

Re: 21 (what is the meaning of the @21 stuff?)

This is a reasonable position to take provided one applies it with consistency. Otherwise, it’s terr-ible, fright-fully silly, and fantas-tic. Less than marvel-ous, really.

24

Matt 04.27.08 at 10:46 pm

Yan, it’s not that people are miss-using “awesome” that bothers me. I don’t think they are even miss-using it- the meaning has grown wider, obviously. It’s just that it sounds stupid. Since I don’t want to distract people from pointing out more that Blackburn’s contention was silly in the extreme, either a willful misunderstanding or pathetically dumb, I’ll not post more on how I think using “awesome” makes one sound like a chump.

25

Helen 04.27.08 at 11:01 pm

And Blackburn by his choice of examples makes it clear that he’s talking about respecting those around you. He says “I am lucky if my neighbours tolerate my singing when in the garden, but they would have to be tone deaf to respect it, and if they did then of course they in turn would forfeit my respect as music critics.”

This is “respect” as defined by a successful white male academic who has a leafy garden in an affluent university town. If this point is to be valid he needs to acknowledge that most people are much more at the pointy end of respect. People of Middle Eastern Appearance, for instance. People who look poor. Overweight women.

I don’t get the definition of “respect” that seems to have overtaken this thread, either. I thought it was a principle pretty much based on not making assumptions of your own superiority, recognising the humanity of others who are different, and treating humans as an end rather than a means. I didn’t think they had to work up some kind of party trick to “earn” it.

And despite the commenter in #15, if you start life in an affluent society with supportive well read parents, you are likely to accumulate more and flashier party tricks as you go with less effort on your part.

26

bigTom 04.27.08 at 11:29 pm

Perhaps Blackburn was responding to our overdemocraticing of policymaking? Or, perhaps I was just believing he was, because I am very concerned about the very same issue? In any case as a society we seem to have reached a point where some hack who came to his point of view due to an idelogical viewpoint is given equal “debate” status to the expert who has spent his entire life studying the issue in contention. We have certainly seen this effect in the global warming debate, and in many other current issues of societal importance. So perhaps he was just reacting (overreacting) to this sad fact of modern life.

27

Matt Weiner 04.27.08 at 11:33 pm

Engels, of course it’s impossible to respect someone you’ve never heard of — so I’m not going to respect the ordinary good cooks and loving parents of East Devonshire or some other random place I’ve never been, just because I don’t know them. It looks like in #16 you’re saying that ordinary good cooks are worthy of respect, which I agree with (and as per #14 that the testimony of others can provide evidence for this but isn’t infallible).

I guess this goes back to Chris’s original talk about people who are “rated as” good cooks — what’s important there, I think, is not the rating, it’s whether they actually are good cooks even if they don’t rise to the level of Blackburn’s few elite. And it seems pretty clear to me that Blackburn means to denigrate everyone but the tippy top few; since he leaves no middle ground between respect and tolerance, and says that those who do not strive to be super-elite deserve to be ignored.

And of course Helen is right that everyone deserves respect just by virtue of being human. But even on Blackburn’s own terms his view is absurd.

28

Matt Weiner 04.27.08 at 11:35 pm

Anyway, the piece is headnoted as “the first in a series in which academics range beyond their area of expertise.” In it Blackburn says of scientists, “These may be very bright people, but the moment one of them steps a millimetre or two outside their special area of expertise, they are no better than the rest of us.” No comment necessary.

29

engels 04.28.08 at 12:12 am

I think the piece Chris linked to is intended to be a humorously opinionated rant, not an attack on modern civilisation.

If you look at this piece, where Blackburn deals with ‘respect’ at greater length, I think he says that everyone is entitled to respect in some sense, but that there is a ‘thicker’ sense in which they are not.

I don’t agree with all of his views about this, or sympathise with all of the piques he airs in this piece, but I am pretty sure he isn’t the far-right-wing ogre that people here are assuming he is. (And I think he might possibly have been aware of the contradiction you point out in #28…)

30

vivian 04.28.08 at 12:17 am

Helen is completely correct. When we talk ab out “Equal respect” we mean “we all have the basic capacity for moral reasoning and acting according to our beliefs.” We are capable of being moral agents, and judged accordingly. We are ends, not means to someone else’s end.

Blackburn is trading on equivocating between this basic and clear point, and the other sense of respect as in “Wow, you’re so good I take your opinion / enjoy your performance as seriously, or more seriously, as my own.” And hoping to intimidate the audience into not noticing the trick.

31

roger 04.28.08 at 12:22 am

I think Blackburn could have found a better example than his singing. For instance, he could have instanced his views on global warming. Whilst amateurish and crankish in themselves, they would only be harmful if someone respected his views on science. Fortunately, we have plenty of reasons for either ignoring them or holding them in some contempt.

32

vivian 04.28.08 at 12:29 am

I wonder if the next time he goes into a non-Michellin rated restaurant, he will treat the staff with respect, and enjoy the food, perhaps even bring someone he does respect along for the meal. Or if he just acts that way. Is the real attitude “despise” or “pity”? Chris and Eric’s diagnoses of self-loathing while not actually noticing other people’s performances is the most plausible. Is Blackburn actually a nice person in person?

33

Crystal 04.28.08 at 12:39 am

Did Blackburn really mean to sound as much of an insufferable prig and jackhole as he did with this statement? I don’t have much respect for him, or it.

34

noen 04.28.08 at 12:41 am

I’m confused. How is “philosopher Simon Blackburn” stepping outside of his area of expertise by writing about philosophy?

35

Dan 04.28.08 at 12:58 am

How much respect and dignity was Van Gogh entitled to or Socrates or Jesus, for that matter?

None whatsoever, the bunch of losers.

36

blah 04.28.08 at 1:02 am

I don’t know. The species seems to have done pretty well for itself, even if most humans are not good at anything. Maybe being good at something is not that important.

37

blah 04.28.08 at 1:07 am

It’s amazing I can even make it to work everyday when almost everybody on the road is a bad driver. It’s amazing that the are so many well-adjusted people around me when most of them must have had bad parents.

In fact, it’s surprising that there are many more malpractice lawsuits with so many bad doctors treating people. Must be all the bad laywers.

38

Sortition 04.28.08 at 1:08 am

[A]s a society we seem to have reached a point where some hack who came to his point of view due to an idelogical viewpoint is given equal “debate” status to the expert who has spent his entire life studying the issue in contention.

You have this completely backwards.

We are, as a society, in a situation (and have always been in that situation) where some hack who is backed by powerful people, or the powerful people themselves, get their ideas amplified louder than those of anyone else.

As people become more suspicious of the ideas pushed onto them by the powerful, the powerful rely more and more on the excuse of “expertise” to justify their privileged position.

39

novakant 04.28.08 at 1:11 am

Jesus, he’s just an old crank, any London cabby comes up with stuff like this on a daily basis – why are we supposed to take this seriously?

40

joseph duemer 04.28.08 at 1:29 am

Civilization is built on common competence & the respect for workmanship. Geniuses are nothing but trouble.

41

will u. 04.28.08 at 2:42 am

To imposter matt and others who denigrate “awesome,” I must refer you to my personal role model, T-rex. He is an authority on language.

42

brooksfoe 04.28.08 at 3:02 am

This is a particularly woefully wrong thing to say when we live in an increasingly “winner-takes-all” society. There are probably 50,000 actors in the US who are better at acting than Tom Cruise. 10,000 of them are better-looking than him. But most of them cannot even make a living wage as actors. This has entirely to do with the arbitrariness inherent in the structure of the entertainment industry, and arguably it could not be otherwise. But to argue that people deserve respect for winning the lottery while others who fail to win the lottery should be pitied or ignored is a laughably awful thing to say.

43

Sortition 04.28.08 at 3:20 am

arguably it could not be otherwise

How would you argue that? It seems to me that things could be arranged to be very different.

44

joji 04.28.08 at 5:42 am

Yes, respect must emanate from a moralist perspective; every human being, whether s/he is a lousy cook or a multi-awarded actress, deserves respect.

Nowadays, exercising respect is exercising one’s right to construct his own criteria which largely depends on power and politics. Imagine what it takes to earn or gain respect.

I wish Blackburn constructed respect, elitism, discrimination in a more “respectful” manner.
Respect is such a touchy subject it makes one’s hackles rise or be in place.

45

John Quiggin 04.28.08 at 6:12 am

Looking at the game as a whole, I’m going to score it Blackburn 2 – Myths 7. Blackburn’s critique of management went over the crossbar, but Myth was sent off for using ring-ins. The myth that there exists a general skill called management which works in any and all domains has been repeatedly refuted.

46

Questioner 04.28.08 at 6:25 am

I think much of this kerfuffle would go away if someone answered matt’s remark in #17 about whether anyone has read Darwall’s “Two Kinds of Respect”.

I’ve read it a couple of times. It’s in a 1977 issue of Ethics and is a justly well-known piece. In it he distinguishes between recognition respect and appraisal respect. Roughly (I’m working from memory here) recognition respect is the respect you ought to have for someone in virtue of some capacity that more or less everyone has. E.g., rational agency, the ability to guide oneself by moral precepts, free will, something like that. We recognize-respect someone when there are certain ways we treat him in virtue of his capacity/faculty/whatever. Generally, recognition-respecting someone requires us not to in any way harm or go against that capacity in virtue of which he is entitled to recognition respect.

Appraisal respect seems to be what Blackburn has in mind. Appraisal respect is the kind of respect we give to someone in virtue of some excellence, or something like that. So, I appraisal-respect LeBron James in virtue of his basketball-playing abilities, but it would be ridiculous to appraisal-respect Blackburn for his singing abilities. Appraisal-respecting, by the way, amounts to some attitude and/or behavior like esteeming, honoring, praising, etc.

47

dr ngo 04.28.08 at 6:25 am

What a failure he must imagine himself to be!

Doesn’t take all that much imagination.

48

The Uncredible Hallq 04.28.08 at 6:50 am

Blackburn’s remark about only a minority doing anything worthwhile seems obviously overblown, but what’s with the general animosity over his popular writings?

49

bad Jim 04.28.08 at 7:36 am

R-E-S-P-E-C-T
Find out what it means to me
R-E-S-P-E-C-T
Take care, TCB

- Aretha

50

Chris Bertram 04.28.08 at 7:49 am

#46 Not really, questioner. Although my post implicitly refers to a distinction like that, most of what I had to say concerns appraisal respect, and , specifically, Blackburn’s claim that very few human beings are good at anything. That isn’t merely false, but absurd. There are many many things that many human beings are good at, and there are more than a “few” human beings who contrive to be good at something. Also see comments from Quiggin and Brighouse above.

51

Dave 04.28.08 at 7:51 am

Geez, it’s not like it’s hard or anything to work this out. If we don’t ‘little-r respect’ people, then we’re not even condescending to treat them as ethical subjects, as ends in themselves. But having offered that basic respect, we are entitled to withhold a more grounded ‘big-r respect’ for them as individuals based on their actions and attitudes.

Moreover, one might note that it is possible to acknowledge someone’s talents, in, say, the sporting or culinary areas, while also observing that they are a graceless, obnoxious scrote in other areas of their lives. Choose your own examples…

52

a 04.28.08 at 7:57 am

Is it just early in the morning?

I read “The truth is the exact opposite: discrimination is a virtuous activity and elites are to be admired.” But I hear SB saying, “I am elite! Admire me!”

I read “The very few human beings who are good at anything,” but I hear SB saying, “I am one of those few.”

I read “form an elite and deserve respect for their excellence,” but I head SB saying, “I am excellent and I deserve respect.”

It’s the Google theory of virtue. There is no value in being good unless others think you are good; and one is good because others think it of you.

53

dsquared 04.28.08 at 8:37 am

The myth that there exists a general skill called management which works in any and all domains has been repeatedly refuted.

I don’t agree with this and should probably write a post on the subject. (The kernel of my argument is that there definitely exists a deficit or negative skill called “disorganisation” which works in any and all domains).

54

Jimmy Doyle 04.28.08 at 8:57 am

I read a different Plato from Dave Weeden.

55

ejh 04.28.08 at 9:26 am

It might be worth making the point that a very swift way to be disrespected is to make your skill a means for despising people who do not possess it. Education in the service of elitism is very often no education at all: it’s the promotion of ignorance about the lives and capacities of other people. If your learning leads you to loathe people who don’t possess your level of learning, how, in fact, does it benefit you, let alone anybody else?

Moreover it’s a completely unnecessary approach to take because many or most people will, I think, have great respect for great ability. Those who do not are ignroant and they can be ignored: ignorance is an attitude, not a quantity of knowledge.

I’m a decent standard chessplayer – in the top 300 English players, very good by the standard of the average players, almost magically good by the standards of the man in the street. But compared to Blackburn’s elite, I can barely pick up th pieces – the standard I’ve achieved is merely sufficient to give me an inkling as to how gooid the elite really are. My respect for them, therefore, isn’t just enormous: it’s made greater still my own small accomplishment. But if a leading chessplayer was to employ that difference to express contempt for me, for my abilities or for my worth as a person the respect would instantly disappear. And this isn’t at all unusual in the world of elite chess, or, indeed, among elites in general: once you’re in that position it can be very hard to consider other people as essentially your equals. It’s not about jealousy or about excessive egalitarianism, it’s about arrogance.

56

magistra 04.28.08 at 9:30 am

One of the best lessons I had in respect was when my child was in a (good) daycare nursery. That was when I realised that poorly-paid and often under-appreciated women, with limited formal education, could nevertheless do something that I could not imagine myself doing: day in day out looking after half a dozen or more three-year olds at a time, without losing their temper or their will to live.

Blackburn’s narrow horizons as to what abilities matter are clear from his examples. If you start remembering these equally important but more illusive abilities, then you realise how many more people deserve respect for their talents as well as their humanity.

57

djw 04.28.08 at 9:59 am

To follow up on Chris’s point, the suggestion that Darwall’s distinction offers a coherent line of defense for Blackburn’s position is quite flawed. As I understand it, the suggestion is that we should deny appraisal respect to those in our own communities who are better at things because we now live in a world where we have access to the knowledge that there are other people out there in the larger world who are even better. “I used to respect you as an excellent cook, but then I got The Food Network.” That seems like a transparently silly position for a number of fairly obvious reasons.

58

Lake 04.28.08 at 10:07 am

If Blackburn is to blamed for misapportioning his store of appraisal respect, I suppose that raises the question of whether there actually are any useful norms for how that sort of respect ought to be distributed. Isn’t one’s admiration *commanded* by its object, depending on the sort of thing one is disposed to be impressed by? On this view, appraisal respect would be a relatively involuntary affair, something like unfeigned laughter.

59

bert 04.28.08 at 10:47 am

Continuing a theme from Eric’s post below, Simon Blackburn excels at bashing Heidegger. I’ve not seen anyone do it with a nicer style.

60

qb 04.28.08 at 11:05 am

i suppose if it were anyone besides Blackburn what would surprise me most is the implicit condescension in assuming that large numbers of political philosophers would be stupid enough to espouse anything like the view he’s denigrating.

basic charity should have prompted him to think, “gosh, it sure would be idiotic for all these people to think that everyone’s efforts in every pursuit are just as good as everyone else’s… i wonder if something else is going on? like, maybe they’re using respect in a different sense the one i am?” perhaps Blackburn’s areas of expertise do not include identifying strawmen?

you’d think he’d at least be familiar enough with Kant to come up with (at least one version of) the relevant distinction on his own. it concerns me that this man has written a dictionary of philosophy.

61

Matt Weiner 04.28.08 at 12:11 pm

29/46/50/57: Honestly, I don’t think it makes a difference whether Blackburn is making a point that makes sense about “appraisal respect” versus “recognition respect.” He’s writing a popular piece, in a series whose stated purpose is to bring academic rigor to the popular audience. In such a piece, it’s just not appropriate to presuppose that his audience is going to understand that he’s only talking about one kind of respect and not another.

62

Tom Hurka 04.28.08 at 12:35 pm

Re # 49:

The original of the song was Otis’s, and for him ‘respect’ meant getting laid when he got home from the road. Not, as I recall, a sense Darwall discusses in his article.

Aretha apparently denied, when asked by Dick Cavett on TV, that the song is about sex. (So what are all the “Sock it to me”s in her version about, then?) So much for the idea that you have to understand a lyric to sing it well.

And on the original Blackburn post: Chris and others can’t deny that if what’s at issue is appraisal-respect — which it clearly it is — then Blackburn’s main point that people don’t deserve equal respect is uncontroversially true. The claim of his that has generated the criticism — that most people don’t deserve any appraisal-respect at all — is an inessential add-on that he could give up without changing his main point at all.

And I do think there’s some tendency in the culture to blur recognition- and appraisal-respect, and to conclude that because people are owed equal respect in the one sense they’re owed equal respect in the other. Talk to any C students recently?

63

CK Dexter 04.28.08 at 1:08 pm

Will (41):
Actually, T-Rex’s creator is trained in something called “computational linguistics” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ryan_North), so you may be right.

There’s nothing patently ridiculous in calling into question the common sense view that there is a form of respect that is owed to all persons on the basis of ability not performance.

Why, for example, ought I respect someone for possessing a capacity “for moral reasoning…etc” rather than for making use of it? What, for example, has a total dimwit done to deserve greater respect than a zucchini or a fruitfly? (Or the fruitfly to deserve less?) (Of course, there are no _total_ dimwits, so in practice all humans merit some degree of respect for some degree of exercise of their rational capacity.)

Why should we assume it’s impossible for a person to justly lose all of my respect, indicating that a right to respect may not be essential to human nature? Indeed, if it is essential, what does it pick out, what work does it do? I.e., what does granting such respect involve, and what would failing to grant it look like?

If the answer is of the “treat as ends, not means” variety, I’d suggest this isn’t clearly an issue of respect, but treating things as what they are. A human should not be treated as a means because she IS an end, not because she “deserves” to be treated so.

In fact, the Kantian version to which many of these objections implicitly appeal is much more consistent. Kant demands we respect the humanity universally possessed by individuals, not the individual as such. On the contrary, the individual deserves respect only insofar as she acts from duty, thus exercising her autonomy–there’s no merit in merely having the capacity.

As for Blackburn’s claim that very few human beings are good at anything, I think he means this in the most unqualified sense (the same sense, e.g., that underlies Hobbes’ account of the state of nature), in which case it’s true. Measured in relation to abilities of the entire human population throughout human history (as opposed to, say, the best cook among my acquaintances), most “excellences” are minor to the point of triviality.

However, I’d add that such a big picture perspective exposes the silliness of the perfectionist obsession with “excellence” that Blackburn seems to share. Yes, very few humans are good at anything, but being good at anything in this exacting sense isn’t worth a whole hell of a lot–isn’t, so to speak, all that good.

64

qb 04.28.08 at 2:00 pm

ck dexter (63),

i see the distinction between respecting humanity as such and respecting the individuals who possess it, but it seems impossible to treat the humanity and the individual differently… which is why i’m not sure its fallacious to slide from “treating humanity as an end rather than a means” to “treating persons as ends rather than means.” in other words, while it may be true that persons don’t deserve respect, in the sense that they somehow earned it, but that they are nevertheless entitled to respect because of their status as ends, which they have, in turn, because of their humanity.

65

CK Dexter 04.28.08 at 2:40 pm

qb,

I don’t disagree with the basic point of view you’ve presented, but can’t help but quibble with the implication that “treating person as ends” is the same as “respecting” them or seeing them as “entitled to respect.” It’s simply treating them as what they are, or acting in accordance with recognition of their nature, whereas respect seems to suggest an attribution of distinctive value (e.g., that a human being is intrinsically worth more than other creatures, or that one form of human behavior is more valuable than another, etc.).

I’ll accept that we should treat all human beings as human beings and that all human beings are entitled to be treated as human beings. But I think describing this as “respect” is misleading, because of its connotations of value. Hurka’s post identifies very well one way it misleads: into a conflation or confusion of recognition respect and appraisal respect.

But I don’t think that’s a mistake in judgment, but in the conception of “recognition respect.” I don’t see a close enough resemblance between these two kinds of behavior (treating a thing as the kind of thing it is vs. according it value, praiseworthiness and, possibly, moral responsibility) to call them both forms of “respect.”

This is relevant to Blackburn’s claims since he is surely, in part, complaining (rightly or wrongly) that we often give people more credit, or respect, than they deserve, and justify doing so out of an appeal to so-called recognition respect (“equal respect,” in his words). So, he is not objecting to treating ordinary persons who are not “good at anything” as ends rather than means, and consequently that cannot serve as the basis of an objection to his claims.

66

lemuel pitkin 04.28.08 at 3:17 pm

he is surely, in part, complaining (rightly or wrongly) that we often give people more credit, or respect, than they deserve

Well, but it matters what the answer to the parenthetical is, no? Many commenters here — 1, 18, 42, 56, etc. — have convincingly argued that we give too few people the appraisal-respect their talents and accomplishments deserve.

67

engels 04.28.08 at 3:50 pm

Shouldn’t some of the other claims in Blackburn’s piece be provoking more outrage? What about his assertions that:

#6) democracy is of no value anywhere outside of Europe [even in Canada?]
#8) celebrities have forfeit the right to ‘any respect at all’ [in contradiction to Article 8 of ECHR!]
#10) that ‘idea that sometimes people will do something because it is the right thing to do, not because it affords them any advantage’ is now a myth [unfairly denigrating all those who have ever helped old ladies across the road or returned lost wallets, among many others no doubt...]

On a strictly literal reading aren’t these are even more absurd, pathetically dumb, and dishonest than the one originally quoted?

68

engels 04.28.08 at 3:56 pm

(the one originally quoted

By which I mean the claim Chris italicises, not the overall point Blackburn is making, which seems perfectly defensible, as Tom Hurka says.)

69

Lake 04.28.08 at 4:08 pm

Yes, one might almost think Blackburn was writing with humourous intent.

70

qb 04.28.08 at 4:15 pm

ck,

i think i see your point, although i’m not sure that appraisal respect is any closer to the ordinary meaning of the term “respect” than is recognition respect (consider the concept as it is used in relation to authority figures, for example). and i agree with your endorsement of Hurka’s post, especially where he says,

“if what’s at issue is appraisal-respect—which it clearly it is—then Blackburn’s main point that people don’t deserve equal respect is uncontroversially true.”

what’s irritating about Blackburn’s statement, to me, is not that he’s claimed that not many people are good at things (although the threshold he’s setting for “good” here does seem a tad misanthropic). it’s that in setting himself up to be disabusing his readers of what is obviously false he makes his claim disingenuously controversial by equivocating on the very distinction at issue.

by pretending, or by simply failing to realize, that philosophers have good reason to think people should be treated “in accordance with” their moral status as human persons, and that we are all equally entitled to be treated in that way, Blackburn tempts his popular readership into making the same equivocation.

in other words, it isn’t a myth that “everyone should be praised the same regardless of their level of effort or success,” because nobody really believes that. but nor is it a myth that “everybody should be treated with the same dignity qua human beings,” because that’s actually true.

71

qb 04.28.08 at 4:17 pm

er… by pretending, or

72

abb1 04.28.08 at 4:40 pm

That’s right. Regardless of their (alleged) accomplishment all human beings equally deserve an equal measure of respect and contempt – present company of distinguished ladies and gentlemen, obviously, excluded – I’m talking about people I don’t know. Treat them with indifference and you won’t be disappointed.

73

CK Dexter 04.28.08 at 4:58 pm

Re: 69

Sure it’s a joke, but jokes are no laughing matter. (That’s meant as a joke.) Granted, it’s intended as a humorous piece, but that’s no reason we cannot critically evaluate the author’s implied views.

Re: 67

#8 seems non-controversial, while #6 is surely meant entirely in jest. I can’t imagine he would seriously except any democracy, much less England’s, from the charge.

I am having difficulty determining what views might be implied by #10. Perhaps it is something in the vein of J.S. Mill–we only pursue happiness for its own sake, but it is an achievement of social existence that virtue has been made into a part of our happiness, thus allowing us, in a roundabout way, to pursue virtue for its own sake. Blackburn’s plausible addition is to suggest that the political and economic ideology of egoism can undo this achievement.

74

engels 04.28.08 at 5:24 pm

it’s intended as a humorous piece, but that’s no reason we cannot critically evaluate the author’s implied views

It’s certainly not; it only means that textualism is likely to be a less reliable method of interpretation, I think.

75

engels 04.29.08 at 2:33 am

For the record I agree with the sentiments expressed in #18, #55 and #56 above, of course. I’m just not sure that Blackburn wouldn’t either. It might be worth noting that the only example he gave of people who he considers unworthy of respect was celebrities, which makes it seem rather unlikely that he is advocating the veneration of worldly success…

As I understand it, the suggestion is that we should deny appraisal respect to those in our own communities who are better at things because we now live in a world where we have access to the knowledge that there are other people out there in the larger world who are even better. “I used to respect you as an excellent cook, but then I got The Food Network.” That seems like a transparently silly position for a number of fairly obvious reasons.

Isn’t this the experience a lot of people have when they start Uni? I think I did, with regard to appraisal-respect that had been directed at myself and probably my school friends too…

76

seth edenbaum 04.29.08 at 2:51 am

Blackburn is a philosopher. I’d have thought this was his area of expertise.

Follow the bouncing ball:
Science is the study of facts and philosophy the study of values. Conflating the two in favor of facts, values become assumed. Values assumed, all questions are seen as those of expertise. Terms of measurement- also assumed. Curiosity is defined by the frame, values by the frame, moral worth by the frame.
Democracy, the multiplicity of values and goals, is undermined.
Blackburn’s is the linguistic and philosophical (formalist) corollary to Law and Economics. I’ll remind you of the fun I had with Colin McGinn

I had in mind experts of many different types, not all specialists in a particular field. Following Plato, I envisage people trained in all subjects relevant to politics–history, geography, philosophy, psychology, etc. These would be the “philosopher kings” (though not our narrow sense of “philosophy”). They could have advisors in a specific field, if necessary, but they would be broadly educated. These experts would work with some democraticlly elected leaders to make policy–but not merely in an advisory capacity.

77

engels 04.29.08 at 3:29 am

Also

(1) The very few human beings who are good at anything, whether football or playing the violin or writing or painting, form an elite and deserve respect for their excellence. (Blackburn)

arguably doesn’t imply that

(2) very few human beings … are good at anything (Chris’ post)

since (1) may mean that for any one thing–football, playing violin, …, …–very few people are good at it and they form an elite. But the total number of people in the union of all these sets–the number of people who are good at anything at all–must be much larger.

That would leave Blackburn able to allow (with the nice, respectful people here) that most people are good at something, while maintaining the strict reading of the paragraph Chris cites, provided that he could defend his claim that for any given thing, very few people are good at it (which I agree is still controversial…)

78

qb 04.29.08 at 5:47 am

@77, nice! that’s actually a really plausible interpretation. it’s supported by this:

There are people whose chosen lifestyle disqualifies them from any respect at all, such as celebrities…

which conversationally implies that most people deserve respect for something. on the other hand, it’s a little unclear how “lifestyle” undermines a notion of respect based on being “good at things,” since (i assume) being a celebrity and being good at anything are not mutually exclusive.

i’m still convinced he’s talking out of his ass. which now that i think about it is to be expected from column aimed at putting people outside their filed of expertise. of course, on his view, i can’t even respect him for trying.

79

CK Dexter 04.29.08 at 1:10 pm

57,
” ‘I used to respect you as an excellent cook, but then I got The Food Network.’ That seems like a transparently silly position for a number of fairly obvious reasons.”

I don’t know that this is so obviously silly, since determining excellence is fundamentally comparative–as experience of cases to compare to expands, early evaluations tend to lower. Isn’t this the case with most aesthetic evaluations, and rightly so? If “excellent cook” means “best among my friends,” then this would make sense. But why would “excellent” = “best of an arbitrarily narrow group”?

76,
“Science is the study of facts and philosophy the study of values.” This is a highly eccentric view of philosophy. One way of thinking of philosophy is as the critical examination of common prejudices, in which case the column, despite significant faults, is surely in his field of expertise.

77,

“That would leave Blackburn able to allow (with the nice, respectful people here) that most people are good at something.” It would, but I suspect he doesn’t want that allowance. Part of his purpose seems to be to deflate our sense of self importance (though not so clearly his own). I’ll applaud his willingness to acknowledge most of us aren’t good at anything in a substantial enough way for it to merit general acknowledgement (sure, my friends should acknowledge I’m a good cook, but columnists and philosophers don’t need to), but it’s annoying that he doesn’t clearly include himself in this group. But wouldn’t it be equally annoying, somewhat kindergarteny and condscending, if he started with: “Now I know each of you are special in your own way, but…”

78,

“since (i assume) being a celebrity and being good at anything are not mutually exclusive.”

I think Blackburn’s intended joke is that he’s defining “celebrity” as one who is famous for no good reason, or famous for being famous, as is often the case these days, in which case celebrity is a strong indicator of being good at nothing in particular–since otherwise one would be famous for that ability. So, the implied meaning is, I believe, correct.

80

qb 04.29.08 at 2:26 pm

79, celebrity is a strong indicator of being good at nothing in particular—since otherwise one would be famous for that ability

doubly false.

first, the reasons people achieve celebrity are independent of whether or not they are worthy of respect. for example, my genius in chemistry is often overlooked because of my renown as a supermodel–the people who like to look at my photos in popular magazines simply do not care about my genius-level intellect, and so I am not famous for that quality, etc, etc.

second, i take it the standard for being good at something cannot be so high that one ought to be worthy of fame in order to be worthy of respect. suppose my magazine viewers really would care if i were a genius at chemistry, but it turns out that i am merely very good at it. i would not be famous if it weren’t for my kickin’ hot bod, but i would still be worthy of respect for my chemistry skills.

whether celebrities often have hidden talents is an empirical question, but i see no reason to suspect that they are any less worthy of respect, on average, than anyone else.

81

lemuel pitkin 04.29.08 at 2:31 pm

Wow, 76 is a really classic Edenbaum provocation.

Follow the bouncing ball:

First, the “playful” suggestion that CT readers are unlikely to follow his argument.

Science is the study of facts and philosophy the study of values.

Then the undergrad-profoud generality that purports to be the fundamental premise that everybody else has overlooked.

Conflating the two in favor of facts, values become assumed.

Then the simple error that all of us trapped in a pre-Edenbaumian liberal academic mindset mindlessly repeat.

Values assumed, all questions are seen as those of expertise. Terms of measurement- also assumed. Curiosity is defined by the frame, values by the frame, moral worth by the frame.
Democracy, the multiplicity of values and goals, is undermined.

Spice it up with the anti-intellectual resentment with which Seth peppers his stews by the handful (oh, those so-called “experts”! sniff) and finish with the shocking but now unavoidable conclusion that merely by participating in this discussion, we are undrmining the very politics we claim to support.

Blackburn’s is the linguistic and philosophical (formalist) corollary to Law and Economics.

Now, the turn — a polymathic shift to something totally unrelated, the connection to which only an Edenbaum could have seen. Yes, it sounds like random phrase-dropping, but that’s only because we’re too slow to follow the leaps and twirls of his mind.

I’ll remind you of the fun I had with Colin McGinn

And finally the little smug pat on his own back and reminder to the rest of us of how much we’re missing by not keeping up with the Edenbaum opus.

82

seth edenbaum 04.29.08 at 2:46 pm

” ‘Science is the study of facts and philosophy the study of values.’ This is a highly eccentric view of philosophy.One way of thinking of philosophy is as the critical examination of common prejudices…”

Critical examination of common prejudices without examining your own can seem logical only if you choose to see such things as external to yourself, as apart and other. The foundational analogy here, and analogy is all it is, is to science. The values behind the deployment that analogy are not the values claimed by those who deploy it. If they paid more attention to their own prejudices, looking at the historical parallels, that would be clear even to them. Maybe I should have said ‘Science is the study of facts and philosophy the argument over values.’
That would have been clearer.

The formal analysis of language is seen as equivalent to the formal analysis of numbers. The moral values, the moral argument behind mathematical formalism is the moral argument of Platonism. I won’t argue one way or the other about numbers, but the moral logic of Platonism in language is authoritarian.

83

seth edenbaum 04.29.08 at 2:49 pm

L Pitkin,
Was McGinn’s argument any less offense than Blackburn’s?

84

lemuel pitkin 04.29.08 at 2:58 pm

Was McGinn’s argument any less offensive than Blackburn’s?

No. It’s appallingly vicious and ignorant.

And if you had posted something like, “Blackburn’s opinions aren’t that unusual among academic philosophers. Colin McGinn, for instance, thinks that ‘recognized experts’ should be able to overrule elected officials, etc.”, then I would have agreed enthusiastically (and thanked you, as I suppose I still should, for introducing me to a good example of what’s wrong with political philosophy.)

The problem is that you have some interesting stuff to say but you can’t seem to say it without an almost parodic degree of preening and voguing and sneering at those less enlightened, i.e. all of us.

For what it’s worth (nothing) I don’t think Henry should have banned you, tho.

85

LC 04.29.08 at 2:58 pm

As some commenters above seem to realize, there is a genre that might be called the provocative squib (or something like that), to which this piece belongs. Wilde and Shaw were better at it, but that doesn’t mean Blackburn shouldn’t try his hand. Yes, one can subject his claims to telling criticisms (as some have), but basically I think it’s supposed to be funny and to show off the author’s ability to produce apposite quotations from Locke, Hume, etc. You read it quickly, laugh a couple of times (or not), and forget it. (Btw, I once happened to hear Blackburn give a serious talk to a small group of students. Completely different tone and persona than evident here.)

86

lemuel pitkin 04.29.08 at 3:07 pm

… reading more of McGinn’s blog, I have to admit *there* is somebody who really does deserve the full Edenbaum treatment. He’s written a dozen books but has he read any? He writes like a grumpy, bewildered old bigot from central casting, or a minor character on South park: “You know what’s wrong witht eh world today? You can’t calla nybody ‘stupid,’ not even stupid people. That’s what’s wrong!” That’s barely even a paraphrase.

76 was still really annoying, tho.

87

lemuel pitkin 04.29.08 at 3:10 pm

As some commenters above seem to realize, there is a genre that might be called the provocative squib

But as other commenters realize, saying “just joking!” does not grant blanket absolution for saying anything, however stupid or offensive.

88

engels 04.29.08 at 4:46 pm

No-one said “just joking!” (cf #74).

But wouldn’t it be equally annoying, somewhat kindergarteny and condscending, if he started with: “Now I know each of you are special in your own way, but…”

Yes, I think you’re right.

89

abb1 04.29.08 at 6:27 pm

Lighten up, everybody.

90

seth edenbaum 04.29.08 at 10:59 pm

“76 was still really annoying, tho.”
25 years ago when I began trying to argue these points, then in the context of contemporary art and politics, the response was either contemptuous dismissal or silence. That hasn’t changed.

When Steven Weinberg writes a book titled “Science and Its Cultural Adversaries” and includes as one of its chapters “Zionism and Its Adversaries” he’s using the literary form of analogy no different than that used by Alan Sokal in “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” Sokal’s piece was written as a Hoax. Is Weinberg’s?
I’m sick of Platonists who want to ban poetry and defend their arguments with literary devices. I’m sick of Catholics who say they’re atheists and of elitist academics who call themselves leftists intellectuals.
Blackburn is arrogant and disrespectful. So is McGinn. So is Tyler Cowen, the smiling economic [social] Darwinist. So are all the people I get in fights with. So am I. But I don’t hide behind numbers. Cowen says “Don’t hate me I’m just the messenger. Don’t hate reason”.
I admit it, I’m unreasonable. But I’m not here for friendship I’m here for revenge. Hate the messenger all you want, I win my cases.

91

lemuel pitkin 04.30.08 at 12:30 am

Blackburn is arrogant and disrespectful. So is McGinn. So is Tyler Cowen

Well, fine. But you’re talking to them here. You’re talking to *us*.

92

lemuel pitkin 04.30.08 at 12:31 am

er, NOT talking to them.

93

qb 04.30.08 at 12:44 am

abb1, this is serious business. analyzing Blackburn’s offhand foolishness is the Lord’s own work! i remain stubbornly committed to not having any fun.

94

seth edenbaum 04.30.08 at 4:11 am

A better description than “offhand foolishness” would be “par for the course” or maybe “symptomatic.” Blackburn is merely taking his older formal, academic arguments to their logical, real world conclusions.

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qb 04.30.08 at 10:27 am

seth also remains committed to not having any fun.

96

se 04.30.08 at 2:08 pm

I party all the time dude.

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seth edenbaum 04.30.08 at 7:47 pm

I take it back I take it back!
Now that I read the thing, thanks to DD, it’s funny. He contradicts himself,he “gives the game away” and his attitude can be boiled down to “I’m always right, and even when I’m wrong I’m right!”
He’s not hiding behind anything: his subjectivism, if not outright irrationalism, is front and center. There’s honesty in that, even or especially if as seems to be the case he “believes” everything he says. Just like Camille Paglia but better. There’s no technocratic false neutrality. I’ll happily defend him, just like I defend TS Eliot and Philip Larkin.

Maybe they’ll give him a job in Paris.

98

Hattie 04.30.08 at 9:36 pm

Oh for Pete sake. How conceited people are about their little accomplishments these days. Face it. We’ll all be worm bait in a few years anyhow. Especially me.

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