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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Hard Feelings: The Moral Psychology of Contempt - Book Review

Macalester Bell, Hard Feelings: The Moral Psychology of Contempt, Oxford University Press, 2013 ISBN 9780199794140.

Reviewed by Robert C. Roberts, Baylor University

Macalester Bell defends contempt as a moral emotion and recommends cultivating a disposition to feel apt contempt. She endorses a general account of emotions on which they are "cognitive" without implying belief or judgment of their content; rather, they are perception-like, "presenting" objects in one evaluative dimension or another. Contempt in particular has four salient properties. 1) It takes whole persons (rather than persons' actions or character traits) as its object; thus it is a "globalist" or "totalizing" evaluative perception of its target (usually some person or group, though institutions can also be contemned). 2) It is a "dismissive and insulting attitude that manifests disregard for its target" (8, italics original), presenting him or her as low in status by some standard of value that the subject cares about. 3) It is comparative or reflexive; "the contemnor makes a comparison between herself and the object of her contempt, and sees the contemned as inferior to her along some axis of comparison" (41). 4) Characteristically the subject shuns or withdraws from involvement with the object of contempt.

Bell clarifies the concept of contempt by comparing it with other hard feelings. Whereas contempt focuses on a person, attributes "badbeing," and motivates withdrawal, resentment focuses on an act, attributes wrongdoing, and motivates engagement with the target. Disgust is like contempt in presenting its object as "threatening" and motivating withdrawal, but it differs in often involving a somatic reaction, in not being hierarchical, comparative, and reflexive, and in construing its object as contaminated rather than low in status. Moral hatred differs from moral contempt in not being necessarily comparative and in motivating active engagement with the object rather than withdrawal. Bell also distinguishes active from passive contempt: whereas active contempt presents the target as "threatening," passive contempt hardly presents the target at all, regarding and treating the target as almost beneath notice. Most of the book is about active contempt, though it contains nice discussions of passive contempt as commended by Aristotle and Nietzsche. Bell also discusses Kant's discussion of contempt, and shows it to be surprisingly sympathetic to this emotion.

The entire review is here.
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