It’s wrong to look down on people simply for having physical or intellectual disabilities. But it doesn’t seem wrong to look down on, say, someone who has devoted her life to the pursuit of money above all else. Where is the line to be drawn? Whom is it permissible for people to look down on?
Before answering that question, I need to qualify it. I think that a plausible case can be made that it is not permissible for us to look down on anyone. The reason for that is that (a) we have all failed morally in many ways, (b) we would very likely have failed in many more had we been in certain other circumstances that we are lucky not to have been in, and (c) we are not epistemically in a position to judge that a specific other person’s failures are morally worse than our own would likely be in circumstances that it is only our luck (or divine providence) not to be in, especially when we take into account the fact that we know much less about other people’s responsibility than about our own. So I want to talk, instead, about when it is intrinsically permissible to look down on people—when it would be permissible if we were in a position to throw the first mental stone.
Let’s go back to the person who has devoted her life to the pursuit of money above all else. Suppose that it turns out that she suffered from a serious intellectual disability that rendered her incapable of grasping values. But her parents, with enormous but misguided rehabilitative effort, have managed to instill in her the grasp of one value: that of money. Given this backstory, it’s clear that looking down on her for pursuing money above all else is not relevantly different from looking down on her for having a disability. On the other hand, it still doesn’t seem wrong to look down on a person of normal intellectual capacities in normal circumstances who has devoted her life to the pursuit of money through making greedy choice after greedy choice.
This suggests a plausible principle:
- It is only permissible to look down on someone if one is looking down on her for morally wrong choices she is responsible for and conditions that are caused by these choices in a relevant way.
If so, then it is wrong to look down on people for reasoning badly, unless this bad reasoning is a function of morally wrong choices they are responsible for. This has some interesting implications. It sure seems typically intrinsically permissible to look down on someone who reasons badly because she is trying to avoid finding out that she’s wrong about something. If this is right, then typically trying to avoid finding out that one is wrong is itself morally wrong. This suggests that typically:
- We typically have a moral duty (an imperfect one, to be sure) to strive to avoid error.
Moreover, I think it is implausible to think that this moral duty holds simply in virtue of the practical consequences of error. Suppose that Sally has an esoteric astronomical theory that she isn’t going to share with anybody but you and you tell her that the latest issue of Nature has an article refuting the theory. Sally, however, refuses to look at the data. This seems like the kind of avoidance of finding out that one is wrong that it seems intrinsically permissible to look down on, even though it has no negative practical consequences for Sally or anybody else. Thus:
- We typically have a moral duty (an imperfect one) to strive for its own sake to avoid error.
But the intrinsic bad in being wrong is primarily to oneself (there might be some derivative bad to the community, but this does not seem strong enough to ground the duty in question). Hence:
- We have duties to self.
Thus, the principle (1), together with some plausible considerations, leads to a controversial conclusion about the morals of the intellectual life, namely (3), and to the controversial conclusion that we have duties to self.