Defining Contempt: Help Me Out Here

It’s important, supposedly, to respect people – to treat them in ways that express or ‘are consistent with’ respect for them. But what is respect?

Conversely, the opposite sort of treatment seems like something to avoid – treatment that degrades people, demeans them, debases them, or humilates them. But what is it to degrade someone? It seems to be related to certain attitudes – contempt, disdain, ‘looking down on’. But what are these?

It seems a natural thought that these action-terms are to be analysed in terms of the representational content they express: to ‘look down on someone’ is to ‘regard them as inferior’, to hold them in contempt is to ‘feel that they are inferior’, to ‘humiliate them’ is to ‘make them appear inferior’. (similarly ‘to fear something’ might be analysed as ‘to feel that something is dangerous’)

But what does ‘inferior’ mean here?

A lot of these phrases draw on a certain vertical metaphor – above and below, lower and higher, looking up and looking down. But these clearly don’t tell us what degradation is, because I can ‘look up to’ someone even when they are asleep, and ‘look down on’ someone when they are taller than me.

We can also talk about ‘status’, ‘value’, and ‘worth’, but these terms are just as obscure as the terms we began with, so that’s no help.

We know various articulable forms of ‘inferiority’ – less creative, less curvaceous, less experienced, less pure, less strong, less good at tying shoe-laces. But it seems that none of these can itself supply the meaning of, say, ‘contempt’, because they are all reasons for contempt that nevertheless might not motivate contempt. That is, it seems that for any of these traits, we can imagine people who regarded it with pride, or at least not with contempt.

One way to respond would be to say ‘that’s because they don’t consider those traits good and important. To look down on someone is to see them as lacking a trait which is good and important’. But this seems mistaken – I might regard artistic ability as good, and important, but not feel ashamed of or degraded by my lack of it.

Maybe that’s because I don’t hold myself to the standard of ‘being good at art’: contempt regards someone as failing to meet a certain standard. This makes sense of the way that very abstract terms like ‘broken’, ‘defective’, ‘wanting’, or ‘not good enough’ might seem to express a measure of disdain, just by identifying people relative to a standard they don’t meet.

But which standard? After all, I could apply any standard to any thing if I wanted, with no resultant contempt (this star falls short of the agility typical of gazelles!) – it seems contempt implies failure to meet an appropriate standard.

But what makes a standard appropriate? Usually when I ask what standards are appropriate, it’s because I want a standard to determine how I treat a given thing, and that practical goal determines what standards are appropriate (e.g. a height-standard is appropriate for roller-coaster riding, because it increases safety).

But what treatment is meant to be based on the standards that contempt applies? Sometimes it might include ‘not associating with’, or ‘harassing’, or ‘paying low wages to’, but this will all depend on how I’m situated relative to the target of my contempt, so none will be universal. And can’t I feel contempt for someone I’ll never meet (e.g. someone long dead)?

It seems the only answer that can be given in all cases is – this is the standard that determines whether to…hold someone in contempt! That is, contempt is defined by ‘appropriate standard’, which is then defined by contempt.

I’m pretty stuck. Perhaps the lesson is that my initial focus on representational content was mistaken – but then what would be better focus?

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