A clarification

I wanted to highlight a comment that Kate Norlock makes in a previous post:

I think the main reason this is all depressing to me is that at times like these, complexities in individuals are ignored for the sake of other ends. The ends are endorsed by admirable people. I hope they achieve good things. But I don’t want to forget that the conduct being argued against does not constitute the whole person.

I think Kate is absolutely right about this. So let me be completely clear: what I have been trying to do in these posts is draw attention to problematic patterns of behavior, and the negative effects those patterns can have. I make absolutely no claims about intentions, and – more importantly – about character. I’m not saying Brian Leiter is a bad person. People are really complicated, and no one deserves to have their character judged based on the small glimpse of it we see in an online persona.

32 thoughts on “A clarification

  1. If character means something like, “your potential to be a good person at all and to contribute good things to your moral community in the future” or “your moral intentions,” then yes, these instance of behavior online do not speak to character.

    But if character means (as I would use the word,) “whether, based on your previous behavior, you are trustworthy in terms of contributing good things to some significant portion of your moral community and not causing people harm–intentionally or negligently,” then these incidents absolutely speak to character.

    I’ve never gotten the sense from any of magicalersatz’s posts that they were condemning Leiter as a whole person or writing him off as someone who could never be of any value to our profession ever again. I haven’t really seen anyone claim that, and there’s no merit to that sort of claim.

    And it’s a judgement call as to whether someone has seen *enough* of someone’s behavior to make or break your trust in them in a more general way. To that end, I think Kate is cautioning us as to how far we are generalizing from this.

    But I think I’ve seen enough instances of bullying and unreflective aggressive behavior from Leiter that I do not trust his judgment in many matters. I think some of us have more than just “small glimpses” at this point. And I don’t think online personas are necessarily or even often merely small parts of our “real” selves. I judge people very harshly by what they do when they think they can get away with it–which is often what our online personas can grant us.
    The person who I think may be the biggest moral saint I’ve ever met was the person who I played an MMO video game with for *years*, and in that time, he treated every single person he met with politeness and respect. He never once used anonymity or his position of power in a group to belittle or demean someone else, when that is what just about every single other person in that game (including me) had done at some point–and usually could get away with. That certainly speaks to his character.

    I wholeheartedly believe we are never the worse things we have done, but if we do unadmirable things *repeatedly,* that does say something of importance about us. (Again, not the only important thing about us.) It’s not the final word, but I’d say it is a word about our character–about the current tangle of motivations and influences that push and prod us–and about which motivations we’re more okay with taking the reins, and which we tend to fight against.

  2. I completely agree with Kate and, citing her comment, I tried in a comment to give some reasons for NOT making simple inferences about character from items of behavior. I think many of us have an unfortunate tendency to think we can read another’s mind. We too often assume we know how to fill in the blanks formed by our ignorance of the details of others’ lives.

    In addition, a lot of the cyber discussion that is going on neglects to notice that there is an appreciable amount of behavior in our profession that is really very vicious. I think there is a wide-spread culpability for nasty, demeaning treatment of women. If I felt this were the place, I’d give a good list of examples that I think are stunning. Everyone has seen comparable examples, I would guess, but having A series of them add up in one professional life is a real burden.

    My second para is not covertly referring to BL.

  3. I wrote my comment before Stacey’s appeared. I most certainly do not want to discuss any particular person’s character, but I do want to disagree with her assumption about seeing enough. For a general reason. I think we are coming to understand that what can look like clear sighted viciousness may actually be better understood as the product of a kind of failure to see. I think that should make us wary of how we judge others. A lot of relevant researched is refernced here: http://research.vtc.vt.edu/employees/read-montague/

    The sort of point I am making is probably familiar enough in the case of autism. We don’t pile on people with autism for failing to be empathetic as that is usually understood. In fact a friend (?) of mine is a passionate social actvist, extremely moralizing and probably borderline autistic. To be the subject of his relentless, unforgiving moral assaults is pretty horrible. (The last time he reduced me to tears he called me up again to make sure I got it.). I don’t think he is a bad person. Having come to see that somewhat similar deficits may be more common that we’ve realized, I think we should trust our assessments of others less.

    I don’t mean that we should look at people behaving badly and say “poor things, maybe they are ill.” I do mean that that assessing a person’s character accurately may well be beyond us.

  4. Anonymous, thank you. I was trying to reflect the sort of qualification you have importantly informed us about. But I actually couldn,t remember exactly what it was. So thanks again.

  5. Let’s be careful here. The impulse to be fair to Leiter is commendable. But it could easily come at the expense of his victims.

  6. Hi P,

    I definitely don’t want to do anything at the expense of those who have been harmed. Part of what I’m urging here is that we focus on his behavior, not his character. That is, I’m urging that we focus on the harm that has been done, and how we might best prevent future harms. There are lots of complicated reasons for why people do what they do, and people are in general really complicated. There’s no need to speculate on anyone’s intentions or motives or character. We can just focus on what went wrong, and how we as a profession can try to keep similar stuff from going wrong in the future.

    In comments here, and much moreso on social media, I’ve seen people saying nasty or mocking things about Leiter. I think there’s just no need for that – and that it’s counterproductive at best.

  7. P, I’m not sure whether you intend just the post to be the object of your comments or not. I think Magicalersatz has clarified her intentions. Let me say that I am concerned about how we form beliefs about other people, as much as I am about being fair to Brian Leiter. Or maybe even more so. I think that, among other things, a lot of the discourse around this upheaval is actually missing something important that shouldn’t be left out.

    There’s a kind of sustained activism about a lot of what Brian does. I don’t think one gets that just through acting on self-interest. I do actually think there’s a kind of creativity that is also there as a motivating force. We all know that, I trust, that creative people can be bad in other ways, so saying someone is creative is not exonerating. But it is, I think, far worse for people who can’t understand that creativity to get together and describe it as self-interest. I think even more it is damaging to a community for this to happen.

  8. Hi Anne, my bad. The impetus of my post was your prior post in the thread, and not the OP. In hindsight, I think ‘fair’ was not the right choice of words on my part. A better choice might be ‘charitable.” My primary thought was that efforts towards charitably understanding might only be called for subsequent to, and not prior to, an acknowledgement of transgression, and a willingness to make amends.

  9. P, I do respect your point of view, but it might apply less when one’s concern is the community and its discourse.

  10. Yes. It might. My remark was intended as a cautionary remark. Nothing more. My only concern was that the community first and foremost concern itself with those harmed. My concern in this regard could well have been misplaced.

  11. How nice to come home from work and see this. But disagree, I think I do, with P, at least insofar as I am very interested in maintaining that the charitable disposition to remember that behaviors aren’t characters (“I don’t want to forget that the conduct being argued against does not constitute the whole person”) can and should be cultivated prior to bad conduct. Hence the word ‘remember’ — that is, remember in advance, carry that memory into bad times. It’s possible to focus on harms without forgetting background conditions of personhood.

    I don’t always find it easy to live up to it. But it’s my endeavor.

  12. One reason to focus on the behaviour is that it is not only exhibited by Brian Leiter, and it is worth being clear that behaviour like this is a problem whoever exhibits it.

  13. Hi Kate (if I may?) – I agree that behaviors aren’t necessarily indicative of characters. My only concern was that sometimes behaviors *are* indicative of character, and that, in such cases, attempts to be charitable can be premature, and come at the expense of those being targeted by the conduct of a destructive character.

    Ps: I also agree with phrynefischer about there being important reasons to focus on behavior.

  14. I am honestly really confused about what character is supposed to be if it’s not something like the aggregate of all of our behaviors, and/or the patterns they exhibit.

    Am I just missing an obvious elision and the point is that no action counts as representing ALL of one’s character? That sounds like what people are saying, but doesn’t that also mean that a set of actions can reflect *part* of one’s character? If that’s also true, then how many times do we have to witness a certain kind of behavior before we can say it does indeed reflect part of a person’s (current) character? (And no one is saying that character is wholly independent of behavior, right?)

    If the point is, look, people are complex and we shouldn’t write someone off as being wholly irredeemable as a member of our professional/moral community for moderate ethical transgressions: agree.

    If the point is that we should focus on behaviors instead of the people attached to those behaviors, because our profession problematically endorses and supports some of these behaviors and sadly this person is not that much of an outlier: agree.

    But if the point is that we are not justified in using our knowledge of a person’s behavior to decide whether or not we publicly trust that person to have good moral judgement in the future, especially or at least on matters in which they showed poor moral judgment in the past, then I don’t follow. We don’t owe people infinite charity and trust and optimism when they’ve repeatedly messed up–right?

  15. P (of course you can call me Kate!), Stacey, I’m pretty sure we all agree on the main point, which was never that extraordinary and probably doesn’t deserve to be reposted above.

    Mine was just the obvious and general claim, that persons are not wholly constituted by their acts. Patterns of activity may indicate things about persons worth avoiding or condemning or changing, as Stacey said, revealing something about part of a character. But individuals are such fragmented things, not unified selves. My caution of the other day was in part just a reaction to the number of posts I’d seen over the day that a colleague is such a [insert epithet here]. The entirely predictable response of those who have had positive experiences with the same person was that one can also identify a pattern of very positive behaviors. But of course they can. Of course I can tell a good story about myself and a bad story about myself. (I’m kind. I’m selfish. I’m active. I’m lazy. These are all true sentences.)

    I do believe that since we’re all complex this way, since very few people are just one thing, then we’re constrained to exercise some epistemic humility regarding others’ persons. I don’t think the Principle of Charity is ever premature; I think it is exactly the right pre-disposition to carry into situations, and of course, this is compatible with assessing acts negatively, or as indicative of problems, and this is compatible with concluding one has grounds for distrust.

    I have a lot to say about what character might be (I really need next year’s sabbatical to go on about this at more length!). But whatever it may be, I would never argue that we can’t use what information we have to make decisions! Good heavens, how not-empirical that would be of me. Incomplete information is what we must go on all the time. (I have yet to commit to a position in the “is there even such a thing as a character” debate, which I find interesting but about which I’m still learning.)

  16. I am on a long car trip – not driving, but still finding typing hard. A few points then:

    A. Stacey, I was putting some weight on your saying, “I judge people very harshly by what they do when they think they can get away with it–which is often what our online personas can grant us.” i’m now not clear what that means, since you otherwise don’t talk that way.

    B. It does seem that not only are we complex, but we also differ in some morally relevant ways. It’s pretty clear that we differ greatly in our understanding of our interactions. For example, someone with little sense of their own power might puff up their statements of disapproval, and have little idea of how devastating their remarks really end up being. Perhaps people who were mercilessly bullied or abused are sometimes like this.

    One way I know about this last problem is that My background has left me with a distorted understanding sometimes of the effect of my getting very angry. I think I left someone pretty unhappy recently, as I figured out later. But I think my moral culpability is less than if I had set out to devastate them.

  17. Anne: I won’t speak for Stacey, but I think I share her view. Sure, intentionally causing harm is worse than unintentionally causing harm, but the latter is still *bad*. The former is simply more bad than the latter. That it could have been worse (through the addition of intention) doesn’t absolve culpability in the unintentional case. Think about it in terms of clearing the bar in high jump: someone who clears the bar by 2′ (intentional harm) clears the bar more than someone who clears it by 3″ (unintentional harm) but they both *clear the bar* (culpability/badness of action).

    So yes your moral culpability is lower than had you intended to devastate them. But you’re still *culpable* for the harm.

  18. One additional point to consider: Even if a person is merely the sum total of their actions, it’s highly unlikely that any of us is in a position to evaluate more than a small slice of another person’s actions, particularly a person we only know through the Internet. And so we still have plenty of reason to focus on the action and not the person in cases like those mentioned here.

  19. So it’s not like one has to argue a person doing bad things on the Internet is hiding some massive part of their character that rises above and beyond their actions. Even a large part of their actions is not on display.

  20. Rachel, Matt

    Rachel, I am not sure about the very general “unintentionally causing harm is still *bad*.” Still, I was only claiming that in the case I mentioned I was less culpable -not that I was without culpability.

    In any case, as I mentioned above in an earlier comment, what I’m focusing on is the community and not on the miscreant. I think we can see pretty bad patterns of thought that suggest actually difficult questions are getting treated too simplistically. Matt, I think, has described one of them in the recurring inference: X has done ten bad things over the last so many years, and so he is a rotten person.

    It may be that we have some notion of character such that we think if you do a number of bad things, then you are all over bad. But that’s to act on some religious myth (I suppose) and it is really out of touch with how people do behave. In the current case, BL, I think we’ve ended up way too close to the psychological phenomenon of splitting, which borderline people apparently do and which crowds can certainly do. Splitting is when you see a person as either all good or all bad. It is not a great thing to be doing.

    Conversely, it would be wonderful if one could be sure that when push comes to show, a good person who is a good friend would back you up and not toss you to the wolves. We shouldn’t bet our lives on it.

  21. Here’s my prediction of what will happen. In spite of Leiter’s recent excuse of being a New Yorker for his uncouth ways, his rude attacks on other people through private e-mails, his blog and twitter, are actually quite calculated. It is a deliberate tactic of silencing people who are critical of him (such as Noelle McAfee, Zach Ernst) or people he thinks are critical of him (like Carrie). Now that he’s finally being called out for this, his best strategy is to keep a low profile – which he does. Inertia being what it is, the PGR will move forward (with Brogaard and perhaps some others joining in), and all will be as before. Until he does it again.

  22. I fear your prediction is plausible, Anonymous. Compromises can come at the expense of those being harmed. While I agree with Anne that the judgment that someone is bad is always a symptom of splitting, it does not follow from this that splitting is always the explanation for the judgment that someone is bad. There are people in the world who are genuinely, calculatingly destructive.

  23. I’m on another longish drive, so need to be brief. I think that probably what a number of people reasonably dislike about the PGR and BL’s behavior is a symptom, not a cause, of some very reactionary, sexist, and sometimes despicable features of the profession. At the same time, he has helped by, e.g., supporting the gendered conference campaign.

    I would like to see us attack these underlying problems, and of course we do do that. But I think that’s holding a lot in place.

    Now that said, I do think that there are some great ideas around for modifying pgr to make it less exclusionary and elitest.

  24. Also, I think/hope that most of us. are works in progress. The sort of summative judgments going around on fb and other blogs may be appropriate to a court, but they are probably not part of a great way to solve problems.

  25. Thanks for all the responses and clarifications. I agree with the emphasis that, “The sort of summative judgments going around on fb and other blogs […] are probably not part of a great way to solve problems,” when those problems are centered in a professional community, and are not just interpersonal problems.

    And by “I judge people very harshly by what they do when they think they can get away with it,” I meant that, when it comes to figuring out how much baseline trust I am going to extend to a person, I weigh heavily the frequency with which they seem to take advantage of situations where they can escape the negative consequences of actions that have harmed others.

  26. Hello,

    I think I commented on this thread. My comments were pretty similar to other comments I see here. But I can’t see them now. This makes me doubt my own memory and perception. I checked your comments policy, and I can’t see that I remotely violated it. This is very distressing to me. Can someone here please email me to explain what happened? I would really appreciate it.

  27. Ha! Yes! Thanks for finding that. I feel slightly dumb now- but that feeling is outweighed by gratitude that you took the time to find that.

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