Michael Zeleny (larvatus) wrote,
Michael Zeleny

hilary putnam on respectful contempt

Perhaps the analogy I have (occasionally) drawn between philosophical discussion and political discussion may be of help. One of my colleagues [the late Robert Nozick] is a well-known advocate of the view that all government spending on ‘welfare’ is morally impermissible. On his view, even the public school system is morally wrong. If the public school system were abolished, along with the compulsory education law (which, I believe, he also regards as an impermissible government interference with individual liberty), then the poorer families could not afford to send their children to school and would opt for letting the children grow up illiterate; but this, on his view, is a problem to be solved by private charity. If people would not be charitable enough to prevent mass illiteracy (or mass starvation of old people, etc.) that is very bad, but it does not legitimize government action.
    In my view, his fundamental premisses—the absoluteness of the right to property, for example — are counterintuitive and not supported by sufficient argument. On his view I am in the grip of a ‘paternalistic’ philosophy which he regards as insensitive to individual rights. This is an extreme disagreement, and it is a disagreement in ‘political philosophy’ rather than merely a ‘political disagreement’. But much political disagreement involves disagreements in political philosophy, although they are rarely as stark as this.
    What happens in such disagreements? When they are intelligently conducted on both sides, sometimes all that can happen is that one sensitively diagnoses and delineates the source of the disagreement. Often, when the disagreement is less fundamental than the one I described, both sides may modify their view to a larger or smaller extent. If actual agreement does not result, perhaps possible compromises may be classed as more or less acceptable to one or another of the parties.
    Such intelligent political discussion between people of different outlooks is, unfortunately, rare nowadays; but it is all the more enjoyable when it does happen. And one’s attitude toward one’s co-disputant in such a discussion is interestingly mixed. On the one hand, one recognizes and appreciates certain intellectual virtues of the highest importance: open-mindedness, willingness to consider reasons and arguments, the capacity to accept good criticisms, etc. But what of the fundamentals on which one cannot agree? It would be quite dishonest to pretend that one thinks there are no better and worse reasons and views here. I don’t think it is just a matter of taste whether one thinks that the obligation of the community to treat its members with compassion takes precedence over property rights; nor does my co-disputant. Each of us regards the other as lacking, at this level, a certain kind of sensitivity and perception. To be perfectly honest, there is in each of us something akin to contempt, not for the other’s mind—for we each have the highest regard for each other’s minds—nor for the other as a person—, for I have more respect for my colleague’s honesty, integrity, kindness, etc., than I do for that of many people who agree with my ‘liberal’ political views-but for a certain complex of emotions and judgments in the other.
    But am I not being less than honest here? I say I respect Bob Nozick’s mind, and I certainly do. I say I respect his character, and I certainly do. But, if I feel contempt (or something in that ballpark) for a certain complex of emotions and judgments in him, is that not contempt (or something like it) for him?
    This is a painful thing to explore, and politeness normally keeps us from examining with any justice what exactly our attitudes are towards those whom we love and disagree with. The fact is that none of us who is at all grown up likes and respects everything about anyone (least of all one’s own self). There is no contradiction between having a fundamental liking and respect for someone and still regarding something in him as an intellectual and moral weakness, just as there is no contradiction between having a fundamental liking and respect for oneself and regarding something in oneself as an intellectual and moral (or emotional, etc.) weakness.
    I want to urge that there is all the difference in the world between an opponent who has the fundamental intellectual virtues of open-mindedness, respect for reason, and self-criticism, and one who does not; between an opponent who has an impressive and pertinent store of factual knowledge, and one who does not; between an opponent who merely gives vent to his feelings and fantasies (which is all people commonly do in what passes for political discussion), and one who reasons carefully. And the ambivalent attitude of respectful contempt is an honest one: respect for the intellectual virtues in the other; contempt for the intellectual or emotional weaknesses (according to one’s own lights, of course, for one always starts with them). ‘Respectful contempt’ may sound almost nasty (especially if one confuses it with contemptuous respect, which is something quite different). And it would be nasty if the ‘contempt’ were for the other as a person, and not just for one complex of feelings and judgments in him. But it is a far more honest attitude than false relativism; that is, the pretense that there is no giving reasons, or such a thing as better or worse reasons on a subject, when one really does feel that one view is reasonable and the other is irrational.
—Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth and History, Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp. 164–166
Tags: harvard, persiflage, philosophy, politics
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