Against warranted deference [tpm]

[Originally posted at Talking Philosophy Magazine blog]

There are two popular ways of responding to criticism you dislike. One is to smile serenely and say, “You’re entitled to your opinion.” This utterance often produces the sense that all parties are faultless in their disagreement, and that no-one is rationally obligated to defer to anyone else. Another is deny that your critic is has any entitlement to their opinion since they are in the wrong social position to make a justifiable assertion about some matters of fact (either because they occupy a position of relative privilege or a position of relative deprivation). Strong versions of this approach teach us that it is rational to defer to people just by looking at their social position.

A third, more plausible view is that if we want to make for productive debate, then we should talk about what it generally takes to get along. e.g., perhaps we should obey norms of respect and kindness towards each other, even when we disagree (else run the risk of descending into babel). But even this can’t be right, since mere disagreement with someone when it comes to their vital projects (that is, the things they identify with) shall always count as disrespect. If someone has adopted a belief in young earth creationism as a vital life project, and I offer a decisive challenge to that view, and they do not regard this as disrespectful, then they have not understood what has been said. (I cannot say “I disrespect your belief, but respect you,” when I full well understand that the belief is something that the person has adopted as a volitional necessity.) Hence, while it is good to be kind and respectful, and I may even have a peculiar kind of duty to be kind and respectful to the extent that it is within my powers and purposes. But people who have adopted vital life projects of that kind have no right to demand respect from me insofar as I offer a challenge to their beliefs, and hence to them as practical agents. Hence the norm of respectfulness can’t guide us, since it is unreasonable to defer in such cases. At least on a surface level, it looks like we have to have a theory of warranted deference in order to explain how that is.

For what it’s worth, I have experience with combative politics, both in the form of the politics of a radically democratic academic union and as a participant/observer of the online skeptic community. These experiences have given me ample — and sometimes, intimate — reasons to believe that these norms have the effect of trivializing debate. I think that productive debate on serious issues is an important thing, and when done right it is both the friend and ally of morality and equity (albeit almost always the enemy of expedient decision making, as reflected amusingly in the title of Francesca Polletta’s linked monograph).


A few months ago, one of TPM’s bloggers developed a theory which he referred to as a theory of warranted deference. The aim of the theory was to state the general conditions when we are justified in believing that we are rationally obligated to defer to others. The central point of the original article was to argue that our rational norms ought to be governed by the principle of dignity. By the principle of dignity, the author meant the following Kant-inspired maxim: “Always treat your interlocutor as being worthy of consideration, and expect to be treated in the same way.” One might add that treating someone as worthy of consideration also entails treating them as worthy of compassion.

Without belaboring the details, the upshot of the theory is that you are rational in believing that you have a [general] obligation to defer to the opinions of a group as a whole only when you’re trying to understand the terms of their vocabulary. And one important term that the group gets to define for themselves is the membership of the group itself. According to the theory, you have to defer to the group as a whole when you’re trying to figure out who counts as an insider.

Here’s an example. Suppose Bob is a non-physicist. Bob understands the word ‘physicist’ to mean someone who has a positive relationship to the study of physics. Now Bob is introduced to Joe, who is a brilliant amateur who does physics, and who self-identifies as a physicist. The question is: what is Joe, and how can Bob tell? Well, the approach from dignity tells us that Bob is not well-placed to say that Joe is a physicist. Instead, the theory tells us that Bob should defer to the community of physicists to decide what Joe is and what to call him.


I wrote that essay. In subsequent months, a colleague suggested to me that the theory is subject to a mature and crippling challenge. It now seems to me that the reach of the theory has exceeded its grasp.

If you assume, as I did, that any theory of warranted deference must also provide guidance on when you ought to defer on moral grounds, then the theory forces you to consider the dignity of immoral persons. e.g., if a restaurant refuses to serve potential customers who are of a certain ethnicity, then the theory says that the potential customer is rationally obligated to defer to the will of the restaurant.

But actually, it seems more plausible to say that nobody is rationally obligated to defer to the restaurant, for the following reason. If there is some sense in which you are compelled to defer in that situation, it is only because you’re compelled to do so on non-moral grounds. In that situation, it is obvious that there are no moral obligations to defer to the restaurant owners on the relevant issue; if anything, there are moral obligations to defy them on that issue, and one cannot defer to someone on something when they are in a state of defiance on that issue. Finally, if you think that moral duties provide overriding reasons for action in this case, then any deference to the restaurant is unwarranted.

Unfortunately, the principle of dignity tells you the opposite. Hence, the principle of dignity can be irrational. And hence, it is not a good candidate as a general theory of rational deference.

So perhaps, as some commenters (e.g., Ron Murphy) have suggested, the whole project is misguided.

It now occurs to me that instead of trying to lay out the conditions where people are warranted to defer, I ought to have been thinking about the conditions under which it is unwarranted to do so. It seems that the cases I find most interesting all deal with unwarranted deference: we are not warranted in deferring to Joe about who counts as a physicist, and the Young Earth Creationist is not warranted in demanding that I defer to them about Creationism.

“Subjectivities” as the coordination of affect in collective intentionality

Whenever somebody uses the word “subjectivities”, I get the willies. Let me try to say why.

John Protevi quotes Mark Fisher on the Olympics:

Cynicism is just about the only rational response to the doublethink of the McDonalds and Coca Cola sponsorship…. As Paolo Virno argues, cynicism is now an attitude that is simply a requirement for late capitalist subjectivity, a way of navigating a world governed by rules that are groundless and arbitrary. But as Virno also argues, “It is no accident … that the most brazen cynicism is accompanied by unrestrained sentimentalism.” Once the Games started, cynicism could be replaced by a managed sentimentality…. Affective exploitation is crucial to late capitalism.

I’d like to consider the statement:

(1) Cynicism is now an attitude that is simply a requirement for late capitalist subjectivity.

Here are a few reasons why I have trouble in figuring out the descriptive or critical point of statements that take this form. Since this is 1000 words, and if you’re in a “too long didn’t read” kind of mood, I’ve bolded the main conclusions.

Although I suppose there is something we might call a “late capitalist subjectivity” which applies to somebody somewhere, it can only come out as an obvious truism that this subjectivity is “cynical” so long as we are only referring to media matters, and/or urbane cultures. (Proof: any reasonably attentive person will agree that hipsters are ironic dopes and newsmedia is a bought industry.) Be that as it may, it is equally true that cynicism only works because it is successful in exploiting the optimism of the crowd.

Now let’s consider this statement:

(2) Optimism is now an attitude that is simply a requirement for late capitalist subjectivity.

Incidentally, this statement looks as though it is true, given that British police engage in — for lack of a better phrase — smile profiling.

What do we say about (2)? The first thing I’d like to say is that optimism is not a form of cynicism, or vice-versa — they’re entirely different affective orientations. (I do not know how to make sense of political affect except as playing a part in certain orientations towards politics. And it defeats the descriptive point of talking about ‘orientations’ if we think orientations are somehow overlapping in the mind of a single person.) Since optimism is a form of non-cynicism, you seemingly have a contradiction:

(3) Cynicism and non-cynicism are both attitudes that are requirements for late capitalist subjectivity.

But actually, the contradictoriness is merely apparent, not real. By analogy, one may say “There is an indeterminately long list of natural numbers written on my card, whose values are integers that number 1-5; and one of those numbers is 1”, while also saying that “One of those numbers is 2”.

(Digression: so — barring dialetheia — what would it take to refute (1)? Well, working backwards from our analogy, what one cannot say is: ‘”The only number on my card is 1″ and “The only number of my card is 2″‘, since 2 is an instance of not-1. For the very same reason, one cannot say ‘”The only number on my card is 1″ and “The only number on my card is either 2, or 3, or 4, or 5,” since that is effectively the fullest expression of the negation of the claim that the number is only 1. Now, suppose that there is a finite list of politically affective orientations, which is as follows: {Optimism, Pessimism, Cynicism, Realism}. Then, one cannot say that ‘”Cynicism is an attitude that is uniquely required for late capitalist subjectivity” and “One of these: (Optimism or Pessimism or Realism or None) is  an attitude that is uniquely required for late capitalist subjectivity”.’)

So the second thing I’d like to say is that it is not a refutation of (1) for us to assent to (2); if anything, (2) is a friendly amendment to (1).

Hence, a more nuanced statement would be:

(4) “Cynicism is an attitude that is necessary for the managers of late capitalism, just as optimism is required for those who are exploited by it.”

However, the added qualification almost completely changes the subject of what is literally said in (1). We’re no longer talking about mere subjectivities (to use that awkward phrase), we’re talking about a kind of coordination of affect. This involves speaking at a level of description that is potentially more sophisticated than this elliptical talk of ‘subjectivities’.

Interestingly, it is on these grounds that I agree with John, that the Hunger Games analogy falls apart entirely in this case. The districts of Panem are not optimists, but pessimists; the Olympic spectators are treated as optimists. Presumably, the people in the capital were optimists, but we never really met any of them in the film — most were cynics. So it looks like a different dynamic — a dynamic that is as different as that between, say, Brave New World and 1984. That’s why it’s pretty misleading to talk about subjectivities. It’s just not a truthful idiom, it obscures more than it reveals.


I suppose it could be countered that the point of the talk of “subjectivities” is that it tells us something about what we ought to do, or what we ought to feel. So, perhaps general statements that take the form of (1) are phrased in a general way so that they might  imply something general about the culture, even while only really strictly speaking about the affect of the media elites. But, first of all, this would be absurd: see the digression above. If you think absurd beliefs are generally not helpful to the cause of promoting freedom, then this will not like the kind of thing you can say.

And, second, it isn’t immediately obvious to me what the critical or emancipatory point is involved in making sweeping claims of that sort. I want to know what I’m supposed to do with this information, that “cynicism is now an attitude that is simply a requirement for late capitalist subjectivity”. In order for us to be motivated to make these sweeping statements, there should be some tangible rhetorical payoff. And I just don’t know what that payoff is supposed to be. e.g., is the implication that capitalism be substantially better if our overlords were more realistic? Or should the lesson be: if the powerful in society were more realistic, they wouldn’t be overlords at all? Tantalizing possibilities, both, and I don’t know if either are true. But blanket talk about ‘subjectivities’ doesn’t exactly get my sociological imagination fired up.