Wednesday, September 28, 2022

The Value of Self-Contradiction in Zhuangzi

The ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi (4th c. BCE) often contradicted himself, or at least made statements whose superficial readings stood in tension with each other.  This self-contradiction, I contend, is not sloppy, nor does it necessarily reflect different authorship of different parts of the text or different stages in the development of Zhuangzi's thought.  Rather, his self-contradiction is purposive and crucial to the power of the text, serving two distinctively Zhuangzian functions.

For example, in multiple passages, Zhuangzi seems to state or assume that it's better to "live out your years" than to die young (1:14-15; 3:1-3, 3:5-6, 4:17; 6:3-4).  However, in multiple other passages, Zhuangzi seems to state or assume that dying young is no worse, or at least no more to be regretted if one is wise, than living a long life (2:38-40; 6: 9-11; 6:25-28; 6:40-47).  In one other passage, Zhuangzi seems to embrace still a third option: We don't know whether or not death is better than life (2:41-42).  (See my 2018 paper "Death, Self, and Oneness in the Incomprehensible Zhuangzi" for a detailed discussion of these passages.)

Similarly, Zhuangzi doesn't appear to have a consistent view concerning skepticism.  In multiple passages, Zhuangzi seems to embrace seemingly extremely radical forms of skepticism according to which we know nothing or at least very little, including dream skepticism (2:41-42; 2:48-49), skepticism about resolving disagreements (2:43-44), and skepticism about whether words and labels and ever be accurately and meaningfully used (ch 2 throughout, esp. 2:29-32).  He appears to admire a sagely character who declines to say he knows anything (2:38) and another who considers no one wrong and sometimes thinks he's a horse or an ox (7:1).  Most of this is in Book 2.  However, in the remainder of the Inner Chapters (generally regarded as the authentic core of the book), Zhuangzi appears to endorse and criticize philosophical views, with little seeming residue of the radical skepticisms of Book 2.  In some places, he appears to explicitly state that philosophical knowledge is attainable (5:9-11, 6:1-6).  (For more on Zhuangzi's contradictions concerning skepticism, see my 1996 paper "Zhuangzi's Attitude Toward Language and His Skepticism".)

In a text this short (52 pages in Ziporyn's English translation), this is a striking amount of contradiction.  It's not like I've been trolling through Kant's gigantic corpus to find scattered passages that don't quite fit together.  The self-contradiction is frequent, blatant, unmissable once you start looking for it -- seemingly intentional.

Of course, we could deny that Zhuangzi is really so self-contradictory.  We could attribute the passages to different authors, or to different periods in his thinking.  Or we could argue that the passages fit together in some subtle way, so that, properly interpreted, they don't really contradict each other.  "Charitable" readings of historical philosophers typically try to find a coherent, sensible view beneath what might seem on a casual read to be contradictions or implausibilities in the text.  Most interpreters of Zhuangzi are charitable in this way, looking to find a reasonable Zhuangzian view beneath the surface of the text -- Zhuangzi's single, coherent opinion about death, skepticism, the use of uselessness, the limits of language and logic, the value of morality, etc.

I reject this conventional interpretive approach.  The most charitable way to read Zhuangzi involves rejecting the principle of charity as it is conventionally applied.  Zhuangzi need not have a single, coherent worldview.  It is uncharitable -- in a broader sense of interpretive charity -- to think that Zhuangzi did have a single, coherent worldview that he could have stated in a plain, self-consistent manner but did not.  That renders him either inept (if he wanted to be clear and self-consistent but failed) or intentionally misleading (if he sought to disguise his real view under a mass of contradictions).

I propose, instead, that Zhuangzi's self-contradictions serve two broadly Zhuangzian purposes.

First, self-contradiction allows Zhuangzi to express alternative points of view that he might regard as each having some merit, without having to decide where the truth lies.  Although we tend to think of great philosophers as having settled opinions on all the topics they address, the normal human condition might more commonly be not to have settled philosophical opinions on many matters, but rather to feel the pull of alternative positions.  Zhuangzi might be a normal human in this respect.

Indeed, it would be Zhuangzian for him not to have a settled opinion on many philosophical issues (perhaps even including the issue of how much one should have settled philosophical opinions).  One theme that shines through the text is that deep philosophical understanding of the world might be beyond the comprehension of most ordinary people, and Zhuangzi might regard himself as an ordinary person in this respect.  Another theme, central to Chapter 2, is that words and doctrines often fail us, since they require us to draw sharp and stable lines across a reality that might not be so neatly divided, a reality that regularly defies human categories.  For good Zhuangzian philosophical reasons, Zhuangzi might be uneasy about going all-in on particular philosophical doctrines, preferring to present more than one side of an issue without definitely settling the question.

Second, self-contradiction is anti-authoritarian and anti-dogmatic in a way that fits nicely with the general spirit of Zhuangzi.  Zhuangzi employs many tools to undercut his own philosophical authority, including making claims and then calling those claims into doubt, putting much of the text in quotation from various dubious sources (seeming sages with funny names, ex-criminals, people who are devalued and at the margins of society, a mock "Confucius" who sometimes admits he has messed things up), and telling absurd parables that the reader will not take literally.  Self-contradiction is another tool in this arsenal -- a means of jostling sympathetic readers out of whatever default tendency they might have to treat Zhuangzi's words as authoritative.  Readers inclined to agree with one of Zhuangzi's positions are likely to find another conflicting passage later, knocking them out of their confidence that they understand Zhuangzi's view and agree with it.

Also through self-contradiction, Zhuangzi parodies the confidence and self-seriousness of other philosophers.  He engages in logical puzzle-making or moral pontificating that superficially reads like what a more self-serious philosopher might say; but then his humor, absurdity, and self-contradiction helps make it clear that this confident self-seriousness is a humorous pose.  After a sympathetic reading of Zhuangzi, it's harder to go back to reading the Mohist logicians, or the Daodejing, or the Confucian moralists, with quite the same reverence.

Zhuangzi is in this way an exceptional philosopher -- one untroubled by, and maybe even seeking, self-contradiction, as an acknowledgement of the complexity of the world and the incompleteness of his own understanding, and in rebellion against the idea of philosophy as the construction of coherent systems of philosophical truth.  Other historical philosophers who embrace self-contradiction for similar reasons might include Montaigne, Nietzsche, and/or the later Wittgenstein -- though none as baldly and pervasively as China's original self-undermining sage.

[image modified from a Dall-E output for "ancient Chinese sage Zhuangzi speaking"]



"The Humor of Zhuangzi, the Self-Seriousness of Laozi" (Apr 8, 2013).

"Against Charity in the History of Philosophy" (Jan 8, 2017).

"Zhuangzi Might Prefer the Passive Knife to the Skillful Cook" (Jan 11, 2019)

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Does the Heart Revolt at Evil? The Case of Racial Atrocities

Below is a short piece I just published at The Journal of Confucian Philosophy and Culture, on the ancient debate between Mengzi and Xunzi about whether human nature is good and the light that 20th century racial atrocities might cast on the question.  It's short and simple enough that blog readers might think of it as a long blog post.


One of the most ancient disputes in Confucian philosophy concerns the relationship between morality and human nature (xìng 性). Mengzi held that human nature is good (shàn 善). Xunzi held that human nature is bad (è 惡). What exactly Mengzi and Xunzi meant by the mottos xìng shàn and xìng è, respectively, is a matter of scholarly dispute. However, I think this is near the core: If human nature is good then some part of us is bound to be revolted by acts of great evil, if we reflect on those acts carefully. This natural revulsion is a universal part of the human condition. It requires no special cultural learning, nor can it ordinarily be eliminated through cultural learning. If human nature is good, as Mengzi holds, people have an innate moral compass. Everyone has the “sprouts” of morality – not full-grown moral goodness, but the beginnings of moral goodness, which moral education can nourish into mature moral excellence.

In contrast, if human nature is bad, as Xunzi holds, we have no such innate compass, no natural aversion to evil. Morality is an artificial construction, a cultural invention. Morality was created by our ancestors to solve a certain set of social problems. We no more have an innate guide to solving those problems than we have an innate guide to the correct manner by which to fire pottery. What’s morally good does not correlate with what we naturally desire, and there are no culturally universal moral inclinations to be discovered, independent of what we learn from cultural experience and the teaching of our elders.

One crucial point of disagreement between these approaches – not particularly highlighted by Mengzi or Xunzi, but following from their disagreement as I have just characterized it – concerns the ability of people to rise above their cultural circumstances. Consider people raised in the racist U.S. South in the early 20th century. Consider people raised in anti-Semitic Germany in the mid-20th century. If Mengzi is right, then those ordinary people, despite the bigotry of their upbringing, ought nonetheless to have an innate inclination to be revolted by at least the most heartless and terrible acts committed against Blacks and Jews. As Mengzi famously suggests, anyone who suddenly saw a child about to fall into a well would feel alarm and compassion (Mengzi 2A6). Even the callous King Xuan, upon seeing the suffering of an ox, was moved to pity that ox (Mengzi 1A7). Mengzi urges King Xuan to “measure” (度) his heart and extend his compassion for the ox to the people suffering under his reign. If a Mengzian perspective is correct, then we might expect that post-Reconstruction racists in the U.S. South and ardent German Nazis under Hitler should likewise be able to measure their hearts and find a compassionate part of themselves revolted by the wrongness of gross racial injustice. On the other hand, if Xunzi is right, we might expect that people surrounded by moral authorities who support extreme forms of cruel bigotry would have no separate, internal, culture-independent urging of their heart that might guide them to a better moral vision.

I am, perhaps, oversimplifying a bit. As is generally the case with great philosophers like Mengzi and Xunzi, there are nuances in their views and resources to accommodate diverse possibilities. Nonetheless, I would suggest that it sits more easily with the Mengzian view to suppose that everyone, regardless of cultural background, would find the cruelest bigoted behavior at least a little morally revolting; and it sits more easily with the Xunzian view to suppose that people raised in a sufficiently bigoted culture might find their consciences entirely untroubled by acts that the rest of the world would see as plainly evil. In this way, we can think of the dispute between Mengzi and Xunzi partly as an empirical dispute. How much variation is there in our moral psychology? Is it always the case that ordinary people are revolted by gross evil – at least a little bit, at least in some corner of their hearts, discoverable with the right kind of reflection or introspection? Or alternatively, when that evil is grounded in, for example, a deep, toxic bigotry in their culture, will ordinary people participate gladly, with no discoverable qualms and no innate sense of moral right and wrong that might lead them to a better vision?

Consider two specific historical acts that I hope everyone can agree are profoundly evil.

On July 16, 1935, a Black man appeared at the doorstep of Marion Jones, a thirty-year-old mother of three in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, asking for water. Accounts differ about what happened next. On some accounts, Jones screamed upon seeing the man’s face. On other accounts, the man cut Jones with a penknife and she fought him off (in one picture, Jones has a bandaged hand). Either way, the man soon fled. Rumors spread that the man had attempted to rape Jones. Fort Lauderdale citizens were in a “lynching mood” and a manhunt began.

Three days later and twenty-five miles away, a motorist informed the police that he had seen a Black man – Rubin Stacey, an agricultural laborer – ducking into some bushes. When deputies approached, Stacey attempted to flee. After apprehending him, instead of putting Stacey in a lineup according to standard eyewitness identification procedure, the deputies drove him to Jones’ house. Jones claimed Stacey had assaulted her and both she and the deputies were given a $25 identification reward ($475 in today’s U.S. dollars). Stacey denied involvement, and nothing was ever reported that connected him with the alleged crime apart from the dubious identification procedure. As Stacey was being driven to jail, a mob seized him and, using Jones’ clothesline, hung him from a tree near Jones’ home. A gun was passed around and spectators were invited to take shots at Stacey, who might or might not have already been dead from hanging. Many of the shots missed, but 17 shots hit. White newspaper coverage accepted the deputies’ claim that they had involuntarily released Stacey to the mob after being run off the road. However, doubts about the story were raised in 1988 when one participant in the lynching revealed that the mob had been led by the sheriff’s brother, who was himself a deputy and who later became notorious for killing Black detainees for minor acts of disrespect.

Stacey’s corpse hung for hours while thousands of White Floridians came to view it and celebrate. They brought their families, posed for photos with Stacey’s corpse, and cut off pieces of his clothing to keep as souvenirs. One famous photo shows four young White girls in casual summer dresses gazing at the corpse from only a few feet away, with men – presumably their fathers – standing behind them. One of the girls appears to be positively beaming with delight.[1] 

[See here for the full photo.]

Stacey’s lynching was typical of the era, which saw dozens or hundreds of lynchings every year. Only about one-third of victims were even accused of capital crimes, and some were accused of no crime at all, but instead were associates of the accused or were “troublemakers” who complained about racial oppression. Rarely was any serious attempt made to accurately identify the accused. In perhaps the majority of cases, the accused was already held by police, thus posing no immediate threat and likely to face a criminal justice system already biased against them. Spectators often arrived from miles around, sometimes renting excursion trains and bringing picnics. As mementos, they collected pieces of the victim’s clothes, or even pieces of the victim’s body. White men took turns shooting, torturing, or abusing the living victim or the corpse, often bringing women and children with them. Lynch mobs posed politely for photos, which were often printed on postcards that quickly sold for a dollar or so. In 2003, James Allen and colleagues published a collection of these postcards along with historical details, including the photo of Stacey’s corpse with the smiling girl.[2] In picture after picture, you can see the proud faces of the murderers, standing near shot, charred, tortured, whipped, skinned, and/or castrated corpses, apparently happy to have their deeds memorialized, printed, and shared via postcard around the country, with handwritten comments on the back like “this is the barbeque we had last night”.


In July 1942, the German men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were ordered to kill about 1500 Jews in the small village of Józefów, Poland. Jewish men capable of work were to be trucked off to slave camps, but all of the women, children, elderly, and disabled were to be killed – on the spot, if they could not walk, or after a brief march side by side with their killer into the forest, if they were capable of walking. This reserve police battalion might have seemed an unpromising group for such a murderous task: They were draftees into a reserve force, not volunteers. They had no special training or dedication to the cause. Only a minority belonged to the Nazi party. They had families and careers at home, from which the draft had plucked them. Nor were they impressionable youngsters: Their average age was over 36 years old. These men were essentially a sample of ordinary men from around Hamburg, excluding the most dedicated Nazis and military men, who would have volunteered rather than have been drafted.

These men were given little ideological training and little preparation for their task. They were simply driven to the village and told what to do. The commander of the battalion called the men together to announce their mission, saying that it was not especially to his liking and that men who wished not to be involved could choose other duties instead. Of the approximately 500 men, a dozen or so did in fact choose to refrain from the genocide, and they were in no way punished. The remaining men proceeded, apparently voluntarily, to shoot the elderly in their beds and to grab babies from the arms of their presumably screaming mothers, shooting those babies on the spot. Most of the victims walked side by side with their killers, one at a time, into the forest. The men then demanded that the victims lay down, or they forced them down, and shot them in the back of the head. When the victim was dead, they returned to the village to repeat the act. Ordinary men – electricians, merchants, desk-workers, and drivers from Hamburg – were politely asked to kill a village full of Jews, and 98% did so, with no serious protest.

Over the next several months, these men killed repeatedly, occasionally exterminating whole villages, more frequently hunting small groups of Jews in hiding, as well as doing regular policing of the occupied region. They made Jewish men dig their own graves, then lie down in those graves to be shot, then they had the next set of men lie atop the corpses of the previous set. They demanded that Jews squat for hours in the sun, not permitted to sit or to stand, shooting those who broke these arbitrary rules. They mocked the Jews’ beards and religious clothing as they marched them through the streets to their deaths. Sometimes, as with the lynchers, they took proud and happy photos of their exploits, which they then shared afterward and displayed in common rooms.

Of the 500 men, only one man consistently refused to kill. This man, a lieutenant named Buchmann, far from being punished for his refusal, was transferred back to Hamburg and promoted. The men had opportunities to transfer, if they found their genocidal task too unpleasant. For example, at one point there was a call for volunteers to transfer to a communications unit elsewhere in Poland – not difficult work, and not near the front lines. Only two of the five hundred men apparently applied. Some of the men found the genocidal activities gruesome, while others seemed to relish the killing, but overall the men seemed to enjoy their mostly easy duty in the beautiful countryside of Poland, where they bonded with their comrades.[3]


I love Mengzi. I want Mengzi to be right, and I believe that he is right. But cases like these trouble me.

Mengzi of course knew evil. He lived in a violent time, the Period of the Warring States, and he advised violent kings. In Mengzi 1B11, we learn that King Xuan – the king who pitied the ox – invaded the neighboring state of Yan. The people of Yan welcomed King Xuan’s troops with baskets of food, thinking that Xuan would be a better ruler than their previous king. King Xuan returned this kindness by killing the old, binding the young, and destroying the ancestral temples. After this episode, Mengzi left King Xuan’s court.

If Mengzi is right, or if my interpretation of him is right, then had King Xuan reflected on the natural inclinations of his heart as they manifested in his pity for the ox, he would have seen the wrong of killing the old people of Yan who welcomed his troops, and he would have felt a moral impulse not to have them killed – an impulse he could have listened to, and which it would have pleased his heart to follow. If King Xuan saw an old man of Yan about to be killed after having offered food to his troops, or if he learned news of such a case, and if he really stopped to reflect on the matter, “measuring his heart”, he would have been revolted. He would have known it was wrong to kill the man.

We cannot of course know much about King Xuan’s heart at this historical distance. But unfortunately the lynchers of Rubin Stacey and the men of Police Battalion 101 did not seem to be troubled by their atrocious deeds.

Is it simply that they did not reflect? That seems hard to imagine. The lynchers potentially had hours to reflect on their way to the lynching celebrations, and they knew that the Northern U.S. press condemned lynching on moral grounds. The men in Police Battalion 101 had months to reflect, including during furloughs back home. For many of these men, this was probably the first time in their lives that they killed a human being. For all but the most shallow and callous among them, it’s hard to imagine that wouldn’t be an occasion for moral reflection. A man rips a baby from a woman’s arms and kills it in front of her. That night, won’t he think about the deed? Won’t he worry that maybe it was a wrong and terrible thing to do? Did the perpetrators reflect, then, but always only badly, rationalizing their evil actions rather than properly weighing their hearts? Was the prompting of the heart there, but always drowned out by noise?

Xunzi has an easier time with these cases than Mengzi. On a Xunzian view, the lynchers and the men of Police Battalion 101 might be entirely untroubled. Maybe they would feel some visceral bodily disgust at the gore, like the disgust of a medical student first witnessing a surgery, but we ought not expect them to feel moral disgust. With no innate moral compass and only cultural learning of morality, people from such toxically bigoted cultures as the U.S. South in the 1930s and Germany in the 1940s should on a Xunzian view be expected to conform to the morality of their local culture, a morality that says that Blacks should be lynched if suspected of crimes and Jews are the poison virus destroying Germany. Ordinary non-sages have no reliable resource by which to learn otherwise, at least not unless they have the opportunity to seriously engage with liberal, humanitarian values or philosophical ethics from a radically different point of view.

I want to travel back in time. I want to sit down, not with the worst lyncher – not with the murderous, mob-leading deputy – but with just an ordinary member of the mob. I want to find a quiet space with one of the middling men of Police Battalion 101, and I want to think through the case with them. Does Rubin Stacey really deserve to die, right now, in this way, with no trial and no assurance of guilt, based on a rumor, for an act which is not even a capital offense? Do you really want to hang him from a tree with a clothesline and pass around a gun taking shots at him? This ten-year-old Jewish girl that you’re walking beside in the forest, who cannot have done anything wrong – do you really feel okay shooting her in the back of the head? Is there really no part of you that knows this is wrong and screams against it?

When I imagine sitting with the perpetrators like this, I find myself pulled toward the Mengzian view. I can’t help but feel that most ordinary people, if they paused in this way to think through the situation and measure their hearts, would see past the horrible bigotry of their culture, feel the pull of sympathy and humanity, and be morally revolted by such deeds. I imagine, and I hope, and I believe, that they could find their moral compass. But I confess that this opinion is more a matter of faith than a conclusion rationally compelled by the historical evidence.


[1] For accounts of Stacey’s lynching, see Fort Lauderdale Daily News and Evening Sentinel 1935; New York Times 1935; Reading Eagle 1935; Brooks 1988; Allen et al. 2003, plate 57 and page 185; Florida Lynchings Files 2014; Bryan 2020.

[2] For general overviews of the history of lynching, see Dray 2002; Allen et al. 2003; Wood 2009; and for the personal recollections of a survivor, Cameron 1982/1994.

[3] For in-depth portrayals of the activities of Police Battalion 101, see Browning 1992 and Goldhagen 1996.


Allen, James, Hilton Als, John Lewis, and Leon F. Litwack (2003). Without Sanctuary. Twin Palms Publishers. 

Brooks, Brian (1988). The day they lynched Reuben Stacey. Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale) (Jul. 17), p. 10.

Browning, Christopher (1992). Ordinary men. HarperCollins. 

Bryan, Susannah (2020). A lynch mob killed a Black man in Fort Lauderdale in 1935. His name was Rubin Stacy. South Florida Sun Sentinel (Sep. 11). [accessed Sep. 17, 2021].

Cameron, James (1982/1994). A time of terror. Baltimore: Black Classics Press. 

Dray, Philip (2002). At the hands of persons unknown. New York: Random House. 

Florida Lynchings Files (2014). The lynching of Reuban Stacey. [accessed Sep. 17, 2021]. 

Fort Lauderdale Daily News and Evening Sentinel (1935). Coroner’s inquest clears sheriff’s office of blame in lynching of negro here. Fort Lauderdale Daily News and Evening Sentinel (Jul. 20), p. 1.

Goldhagen, Daniel J. (1996). Hitler’s willing executioners. New York: Random House. 

New York Times (1935). Negro is lynched by mob in Florida. New York Times (Jul. 20), p. 28. 

Reading Eagle (1935). Negro hanged by mob in sight of home of woman he slashed with knife. Reading Eagle (Jul. 20), p. 2. 

Wood, Amy Louise (2009). Lynching and spectacle. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Monday, September 12, 2022

The Overlapping Dispositional Profiles of Different Types of Belief

Last spring at a workshop in Princeton, Neil Van Leeuwen presented some of his work on the differences between "beliefs" and "credences".  Beliefs, in Van Leeuwen's sense, are cognitive states that play the kinds of causal and epistemic roles that Anglophone philosophers normally associate with belief.  A belief like "there's beer in the fridge" arises in response to evidence (e.g., looking in the fridge and seeing beer) and is liable to disappear given counterevidence (e.g., your housemate tells you they finished the beer).  It governs practical action in a straightforward way (you'll go to the fridge if you want a beer, and you'll fail if your beer belief happens to be false).  And having or lacking the belief is not particularly distinctive of group membership (no one will kick you out of the beer-lovers club for realizing your fridge is beerless).

Credences work differently, on Van Leeuwen's view.  (Don't confuse "credence" in Van Leeuwen's sense with the more common use of "credence" in philosophy to mean something like degree of confidence.)  Typically, credences have religious or political or group-affiliative content.  They're the kind of thing that come readily to mind for most people when you ask them about their "beliefs": You believe that Jesus rose from the dead, that Black Lives Matter, and that Thousand Oaks High School is the best.  Unlike ordinary beliefs, your group identity isn't independent of whether you affirm these propositions: You're not a Christian if you don't hold that Jesus rose from the dead; you're not a good political liberal if you don't affirm that Black Lives Matter; you don't have proper school spirit if you don't agree that (in some hard to specify sense) your high school is "the best".

Also unlike ordinary beliefs, on Van Leeuwen's view, credences are not straightforwardly connected to evidence: You don't have these credences primarily because they are well supported by the evidence, nor are you likely to revise them in the face of counterevidence.  It's not always clear what counterevidence would even look like.  Nor is the connection to action as straightforward as for ordinary beliefs.  If you're wrong about Jesus, or Black Lives, or your high school, you can go about your ordinary life just fine.  No ordinary action plan depends on the truth of these propositions.

I think Van Leeuwen somewhat overdraws the distinction.  Credences can have some responsiveness to evidence, and their truth or falsity can matter to our actions.  And ordinary beliefs can also get tangled up in one's group identity (e.g., scientific beliefs about climate change or the age of the Earth).  Still, Van Leeuwen is onto something.  Different types of belief probably can have somewhat different functional roles.

In the question period after Van Leeuwen's presentation, Thomas Kelly posed an interesting challenge: If credence and belief really are different types of attitude, why does it seem like there's rational tension between them?  Normally, when attitude types differ, there's no pressure to align them: It's perfectly rational to believe that P and desire or imagine that not-P.  You can believe that it's raining and desire or imagine that it is not raining.  But with belief and credence as defined by Van Leeuwen, that doesn't seem to be so.  There's something at least odd, and arguably just straightforwardly irrational, in saying "I have religious credence that Jesus rose from the dead, but I don't believe that Jesus rose from the dead."  What explains this fact, if credence and belief really are distinct attitudes?

I confess I don't recall Van Leeuwen's reply.  But the discussion did trigger some thoughts of my own, grounded in my dispositionalist metaphysics of belief.

According to dispositionalism about belief, to believe some proposition, such that there is beer in the fridge, is nothing more or less than to have a certain dispositional profile.  It is to be disposed, ceteris paribus (all else equal or normal or right) to say, if asked, "yes, there's beer in the fridge" and to go to the fridge if one wants a beer.  It is be disposed, also, to think to oneself in silent inner speech, if the occasion arises, "there's beer in the fridge", and to feel surprise should one go to the fridge and find no beer.  It is to be disposed to draw related conclusions, such as that there is beer in the house and that there is something in the fridge.  And so on.  It is, in general, to have the behavioral, experiential, and cognitive dispositional profile that is characteristic of someone who believes the proposition in question.

To believe some proposition P, according to dispositionalism, is not to have some interior object, the belief or representation that P, stored discretely in some location in one's mind.  Dispositionalism is not strictly inconsistent with the existence of discrete interior representations, since in principle the dispositional architecture could be underwritten by such discrete interior representations.  But there no need to posit such representations, and not positing them helps you escape various thorny puzzles.

Two interesting features of dispositional profiles are:

(1.) They can overlap.

(2.) There can be more central and less central dispositions.

Intuitively, it is easiest to see this with personality traits.  Ordinary people -- or rather I should say ordinary people of the rather extraordinary sort who will read this far into an article or blog post on the metaphysics of belief -- don't appear to find dispositionalism intuitive for beliefs.  But they do for personality traits.  So it's generally a useful exercise in thinking about the structure of dispositionalism to start with personality cases and then analogize.

Think about the traits of being bold, courageous, and risk-tolerant.  These aren't exactly the same thing.  Someone who wagers big on a poker hand would be somewhat more aptly described as bold or risk-tolerant than courageous.  Someone who quietly risks their career to help out a junior colleague who is being mistreated would be somewhat more aptly described as courageous than bold or risk-tolerant.  But it's not exactly like the career-risker is not also risk-tolerant or even bold, and there's a kind of courage in the poker player.  To be bold, courageous, or risk-tolerant is to be disposed to act and react certain ways in certain situations, to have a certain general posture toward the world; and these postures have considerable overlap -- for example, none of the three will easily be daunted by the prospect of small losses.  More central to boldness is swift, decisive action -- but this is also somewhat characteristic of the courageous and risk-tolerant.  More central to courage is tolerating risk when morality demands risky action -- but this will also typically be true of the bold and risk-tolerant.  One can be risk tolerant without being especially bold or courageous, but flat out timidity and cowardice seem to be inconsistent with high risk tolerance.

The thought is not that there are three ontologically completely distinct personality traits that tend to correlate with each other.  Rather it's that the personality traits are not completely ontologically distinct.  Each comprises a similar, overlapping suite of dispositions such that in virtue of completely fulfilling one you also partly fulfill the others.  Compare also: being extraverted, sociable, and assertive, or being grumpy, irascible, and irritable.

Back to belief.  What Van Leeuwen calls beliefs and what he calls credences are both constituted, if we accept dispositionalism, by clusters of dispositions.  These clusters are somewhat different in emphasis -- like boldness and courage are different in emphasis -- but they overlap.  Central to ordinary belief is the cognitive disposition to structure mundane plans around the truth of the proposition (such as planning a trip to the fridge in a way that relies on the truth of the belief that there is beer in the fridge).  This is less central to credence in Van Leeuwen's sense.  Central to credence in Van Leeuwen's sense is affirmation in social contexts.  But affirmation in social contexts is also characteristic of ordinary belief, if not quite as central.

Imagine two overlapping networks of dispositions.  Anyone who possesses all of the dispositions in one network automatically possesses some of the dispositions in the other network.  Of course you needn't have all the dispositions to have the belief in question (compare: the extravert needn't be extraverted in every respect all the time to count as an extravert).  Typically, having enough of the dispositions in one set will also mean having enough of the dispositions in the other.

The figure below might serve as a representation.  The red dots are the dispositions constitutive of one attitude (belief, desire, personality trait, etc.), the blue dots are the dispositions constitutive of another attitude, and the size of the dots signifies their centrality to the dispositional structure constitutive of the attitude.  (The dots make dispositions look more discrete than they are, but let's not worry about that for this illustration.)

As the illustration suggests, you might be able to draw a figure around most of the largest dots for Attitude A while excluding many of the dots from Attitude B.  That would represent having most of the dispositions constitutive of Attitude B while lacking many of those constitutive of Attitude B.  The more overlap the attitudes have, the more careful the carving will have to be to generate that result.  

On this model it's not just that there's rational pressure not to have an ordinary belief that P alongside a credence that not-P.  It's actually ontologically impossible to be a full-on typical believer that P without also to a substantial extent having a matching credence and vice versa.  There might be some cases where "credence" captures things better than "belief" or the other way around (just like "courageous" might be a better fit than "bold"); but you won't find any cases where the person has 100% of the dispositions constitutive of the credence and also 100% of the dispositions constitutive of the opposite belief.  That would be like being a perfectly stereotypical example of a courageous person who is also a perfectly stereotypical example of a risk-avoidant person.

That's not to say that there's nothing to Van Leeuwen's distinction.  Ordinary belief and religious or political credence do differ.  But it's not that there are two discretely separate attitude representations stored in the mind that can freely agree or conflict with each other.  Rather, belief and credence are closely related, overlapping, but not identical patterns in our dispositional structure.

Similar remarks apply to other related attitudes, including:

  • knowing intellectually how to steer your car and having procedural knowledge of how to steer your car;
  • caring about justice, valuing justice, wanting justice, and thinking justice is good;
  • worrying there might be a war, fearing that there will be a war, and hoping that there won't be a war.



A Phenomenal, Dispositional Account of Belief (Nous, 36 [2002] 249-275).

Desiring, Valuing, and Believing Good: Almost the Same Thing (Aug 30, 2012).

Do You Have Infinitely Many Beliefs about the Number of Planets? (Oct 17, 2012).

A Dispositional Approach to Attitudes: Thinking Outside of the Belief Box (in N. Nottelmann, ed., New Essays on Belief; Palgrave, 2013).

It's Not Just One Thing, to Believe There's a Gas Station on the Corner (Feb 28, 2018).

Love Is Love, and Slogans Need a Context of Examples (Mar 13, 2021).

Thursday, September 01, 2022

The Collusion Toward Moral Mediocrity

Most vegetarians are familiar with "do-gooder derogation".  People often react to ethical vegetarianism with hostility.  But why?  Why don't people admire vegetarians instead of reacting negatively?  Vegetarianism is good for the planet and reduces incentives for corporations to raise animals in inhumane conditions.  It's at least morally good, if not morally required.  But admiration is far from the typical reaction vegetarians receive in our culture.

"Effective altruists" also sometimes complain of similar negative reactions when people hear of their donating toward mosquito nets in malaria-prone countries or their pledging to give away a certain percentage of their income annually.  (Admittedly, there might also be more specific reasons people react negatively to that phrase or to the movement.)

Negative reactions might partly arise from suspicions of an ulterior motive -- a sense that the person might be doing good simply to impress others and gain social credit.  But I doubt this is the main explanation.

First, we do lots of things to impress others and gain credit.  Dressing sharp, publishing excellent pieces of writing, winning sports competitions, hosting parties....  But these attempts don't provoke the same derogation.  Why would doing good for the world be a particularly bad way to impress others and gain credit?  Performing actions with good consequences seems a more praiseworthy path to earning social credit than dressing sharp.

Second, it's not very plausible that people choose vegetarianism and mosquito-net purchasing primarily to impress others.  The amount of effort required to sustain a vegetarian diet is far out of proportion to the amount of moral admiration one is likely to accrue for doing so.

[Dall-E rendition of "a cartoon of a man eating tofu with angry people yelling at him"]

What's going on instead, I suggest, resembles students' reactions to those who "break the curve" in class.  If the whole class does poorly, well, the teacher still has to give some As and might just think the test was difficult.  But if one or two people excel while the rest flail, the flailers look bad.  People dislike the smartypants who raises the teacher's expectations for everyone.

Now I don't think people consciously say to themselves, "Hey, don't be a vegetarian, don't donate 15% of your income to famine relief, don't donate a kidney, you're breaking the moral curve!"  It's not as conscious as that.  But still, when someone you regard as a peer sacrifices for an ethical cause, it creates an ethical threat.  If you're not making the same sacrifice, you'd better justify yourself or you'll look bad -- partly to others but also partly in your own moral self-conception.  You could react to the threat by changing your behavior. of course -- making the sacrifice yourself.  But derogation is far easier: Criticize the other's moral action, or their motives.  Convince yourself and others that it's not as good as it seems.  Then your moral self-image can survive intact without requiring further sacrifice.

As I've argued elsewhere, most people appear to aim for moral mediocrity.  They aim not to be good or bad by absolute standards, but rather to be approximately as morally good as their peers.  They aim to be neither among the best nor among the worst.  They don't want to make the sacrifices required to stand out morally above others, but they would also prefer not to be the worst jerk in the room.

Now if you're aiming for mediocrity rather than goodness by absolute standards, you don't want your peers to get morally better, if that moral improvement involves any sacrifice.  For then you'll have to engage in that same sacrifice to attain the same level of peer-relative mediocrity as before.  You'll have to pay the cost or fall behind.  It's like a mediocre student who doesn't care about the learning objectives and only wants that peer-relative B-minus on the class curve.  If her peers suddenly start working harder, that mediocre student will now also need to work harder just to keep that B-minus.  Hence the derogation of the bookworms.

When it comes to morality, we participate, so to speak, in a collusion of mediocrity.  We feel fine cranking up our A/C, driving our SUVs, eating our steaks, and flying across the country, even though we know it's contributing to possibly catastrophic climate change, because our friends and co-workers are all doing the same.  We feel fine eating the meat of animals suffering in factory farms, we feel fine neglecting the welfare of the impoverished both among us and far away, we feel fine cheating or slacking in various ways at work -- as long as we look around and see "everyone else" doing the same.  If some of our peers start imposing higher moral standards on themselves, that threatens the collusion.  We might now start to look and feel bad for flying across country, eating factory farmed meat, or slacking in that particular way.

If my collusion theory of do-gooder derogation is correct, two specific empirical predictions follow.

First, we should tend only to derogate peers -- not people in other cultures, not people socially very different from us, and not people we already regard as moral heroes.  It's the change in peer behavior that is particularly threatening.

Second, people should tend only to derogate actions where there's an obvious parallel action involving self-sacrifice that they might also be expected to do.  If you're terrified of airplanes anyway and it would cost you nothing to sacrifice flying, you won't tend to derogate a friend who decides to abandon her jet-set lifestyle for ethical reasons.  Nor, since the situation is unusual, would most of us tend to derogate people who sacrifice their career to care for a family member dying of cancer.  Only if we ourselves are in a parallel situation but acting otherwise would another person making that sacrifice constitute a threat to our moral self-conception.