on moral grandstanding (the fruits of some reading and discussion)

In “Moral Grandstanding,” Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke defend the following account of moral grandstanding (MG):

(1) to MG is to participate in moral discourse out of the desire to be regarded by others as moral (with the desire for moral recognition or recognition desire (RD) being strong enough that, if one were not to be recognized as moral, one would be disappointed; and one acts from this desire via the proper conventionally-determined sort of “grandstanding expression”).  

They also argue that

(2) MG is morally bad because acting on a (strong enough) RD, at least in the ways characteristic of moral grandstanding, frustrates the ends of moral discourse (specifically the end of improving moral beliefs – and hence also the end of moral improvement).  

[Link to paper:  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/papa.12075/full ]

T&W defend [1] by arguing that their account, in conjunction with established research results in social and moral psychology, explains why types of behaviors that we regard as paradigmatic types of MG (piling on, trumping up, ramping up, claims of self-evidence, etc.) are indeed instances of MG.  They defend [2] primarily through claims about specific effects of the paradigm types of MG that frustrate the aims of moral discourse in various ways.

My interest is in [1] and [2] and the problems that I see with these claims and the questions that the topic of moral grandstanding raises.  I’m not so interested in T&M’s specific defenses of [1] and [2] because I think the problems I raise and questions I address are more important (and might render their defenses of [1] and [2] moot or ill-framed).

T&M’s paper was discussed on the PEA Soup blog a little while back.  In that discussion, and also in conversation with me, Derek Bowman (who co-hosted the discussion) raised the following two related problems (among others):  (a) RD criteria (including the particular would-be-disappointed criterion T&W favor) seem to count too many things as grandstanding and (b) acting on RD does not always seem to be a problematic motivation in moral discourse (because it can be part of moral pride and part of expressing or achieving solidarity in a group of people engaging in moral causes or activities).  Irfan Khawaja and I discussed this paper as well over several evenings (several months ago) and Irfan had similar criticisms (he argued, more strongly along the lines of [b], that RD is never, in itself, a problematic motivation).

[Link to PEA Soup discussion: http://peasoup.us/2017/08/philosophy-public-affairs-discussion-pea-soup-justin-tosi-brandon-warmkes-moral-grandstanding-critical-precis-c-j-tony-coady/ ]

Picking up on [b], I don’t think that T&W have picked the right motivation as the relevant problematic motivation.  They are concerned that moral grandstanding turns participation in moral discourse into a vanity project or a status-seeking project.  These worries are, I think, broadly on-target and definitely important.  We need to distinguish

seeking accurate/deserved recognition for being moral out of healthy moral pride or from the desire to be an inspiring or otherwise good team player in a moral cause (and perhaps out of or from other morally good or morally benign mindsets)


seeking that others believe one to be moral from vanity or out of social-status competition motivations (and perhaps from or out of some other morally bad or dubious motivations or mindsets).  

As T&W stress in defending their view, the landscape of motivation (and intention and belief) here is complicated!

Consider the following intrinsic (non-instrumental) desires:

(i) to be seen as moral by certain others (regardless of whether one actually is moral)

(ii) to preserve one’s judgment or sense of oneself as moral (through being recognized as moral, regardless of whether one actually is moral)

(iii) to be seen as particularly moral relative to one’s affiliates in one’s tribe or group or relative to those of a contrastive, viewed-as-inferior-by-one’s-affiliates tribe or group.

 All of these motivations are morally suspect and plausibly militate against the aims of moral discourse or practice (or at least ideal, and hence universalized or non-tribal, moral discourse or practice).  (This claim is plausible on many different plausible accounts of what counts as moral discourse and what its aims are.  It is plausible, at least to some degree, even if T&W are right that the sole or dominant aim of moral discourse is improving moral beliefs.)  

Obviously, there is a common theme to these intuitively-morally-problematic desires:  they are indefinite with respect to whether the beliefs that one is moral that one is seeking to cause in others are accurate or deserved.  (We might just as well characterize the relevant mental items in terms of motivational or more-varied sorts of mindsets, not individual desires.  For example, there is the motivational mindset of wanting be be judged moral but not caring if the judgment is undeserved.)

Each of [i]-[iii] is a better candidate for problematic motivation in participating in moral discourse (and for being morally suspect on its own terms).  This is so even if we think of moral talk or discourse as being like a seminar room, with the cognitive aims always paramount.  But their candidacy for being problematic (and the sort of problematic motivation that makes MG bad) is even better if we allow, as we should, that moral discourse has distinctive action motivating and coordinating (and perhaps other) aims.

The show-stopping problem with T&W’s paper is simply that RD is neither in itself morally problematic nor something that, when acted on via grandstanding (or otherwise), reliably frustrates the cognitive or belief-improvement – or other – aims of moral discourse.  So treatment of the other aspects of T&W’s paper is moot.  A better version of [1] (a better account of what MG is) would replace RD with some disjunction of intrinsic desires (maybe something like [i] or [ii] or [iii]), promoted or satisfied by the grandstander being judged to be moral by others, that are either morally problematic relative due to the content of morality (maybe MG does not show proper respect for others or for oneself) or problematic because successfully acting on them typically frustrates the aims of moral discourse (whether cognitive or broadly action-coordinating).  A better version of [2] (a better account of why MG is bad) would explain why acting from one or more of these desires, in ways that are conventionally appropriate to the grandstanding task, is morally bad or destructive of the aims of moral discourse.  Starting here, one might construct a better, more accurate account of what MG is and why it is bad.  

(One motivation for such a project starts from the belief that we engage in MG (and other, related but similarly problematic activities in the course of moral practice and discourse) quite a lot more than we think – and often enough when we take ourselves to be acting out of justified moral outrage and the like (as Haidt argues in THE RIGHTEOUS MIND).  And from the Haidt-critical standpoint, we should also want clear accounts of moral outrage and justified moral outrage.  Such conceptual and normative work would help us think clearly and in essential terms in assessing Haidt’s empirical claims – and especially in assessing his (implicit) normative claims.  It might also help us navigate current cultural-difference-driven political conflicts in the U.S. and elsewhere in a better way.)

18 thoughts on “on moral grandstanding (the fruits of some reading and discussion)

  1. Thanks for writing this. In one sense, I have nothing to add to what you say here: the point you make strikes me as both obvious and fatal to their project. And having worked through this paper ad nauseam when we did, we ended up hammering out a consensus view between us, so that my thoughts are now probably entangled in yours and vice versa. (I still haven’t gotten a chance to read the PEA Soup discussion, but will get to it when I can.) Naturally, yours are more charitable them than mine are, but I still think we’re operating in the same ballpark.

    In another sense, however, there’s a lot left to say, because you’ve deliberately taken on the overall project, but left the details of their exposition untouched. That’s a legitimate enough strategy, but the details left me shaking my head. I’ve read the paper several times over, and have taught it a couple of times in a 200-level ethics class I teach, and find myself dumbstruck at the following combination: 1) the weakness of the argumentation, 2) the fact that the paper was published where it was, and 3) the adulation that the paper widely received, at least in some quarters.

    Adulation, Exhibit 1:

    Adulation, Exhibit 2:

    Adulation, Exhibit 3 (referring to the place of publication):

    I wanted to avoid saying that, because saying it sounds so bitchy and snarky (I admit it), but I honestly do not get the hype over this paper, unless one views it as an installment in a basically partisan project targeting left-wing “social justice warriors” (a project now in vogue in certain quarters).

    So what I wanted to do was to supplement your post down here in the comments by talking a bit about the details. As you point out, the two basic problems are that (a) they give an “account” of grandstanding that is much too broad, and (b) their account of the motivations involved is so coarse-grained that it conflates lots of legitimate things with “vanity,” then attacks all grandstanding as “vanity” (a concept left unanalyzed in the paper). And you yourself suggest, I think you understate the problems here. In other words, the problems with the paper are worse than you suggest.

    One correction, though: my claim wasn’t that RD (recognition desire) is never in itself a problematic motivation, but that it often isn’t, and that (given that) they haven’t given an account that distinguishes the cases in which it is from those in which it isn’t. More fundamentally, apart from conflating RD with “vanity,” they haven’t explained why RD is problematic when it is. But more on that in a bit.

    It may take me awhile to write these up, because I’m multi-tasking at the moment, and wasn’t scheduled to read or think about this paper until late April (when I’m teaching it again). But it’s a good exercise to articulate some of the criticisms we came up with in our conversations from last fall (or whenever it was).

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  2. The introduction
    In criticizing this paper, a critic has to make a choice: do you want to focus on the overarching conceptual problems, or do you want to get down into the weeds involving every last inference, no matter how trivial? Ordinarily, it makes more sense to prefer the former to the latter, but one problem I see with this paper is that if you do happen to focus microscopically on particular inferences, the ratio of exposition to misinference is so bad–there are so many misinferences per proposition asserted–that the cumulative effect is about the same as what you’d get if you’d focused on the overarching problems. Maybe I’m just too far outside of the circle of intended readers for the paper, but just about every paragraph of this paper left me with a “WTF” reaction–including the one-paragraph introduction at the very beginning.

    Here it is:

    Kurt Baier wrote that “moral talk is often rather repugnant. Leveling moral accusations, expressing moral indignation, passing moral judgment, allotting the blame, administering moral reproof, justifying oneself, and, above all, moralizing—who can enjoy such talk?”1 When public moral discourse is at its best, we think that these features (if they are present at all) are unobjectionable. But we also think that, to some degree, Baier is right: public moral discourse—that is, talk intended to bring some matter of moral significance to the public consciousness—sometimes fails to live up to its ideal. Public moral discourse can go wrong in many ways. One such way is a phenomenon we believe to be pervasive: moral grandstanding (hereafter, “grandstanding”).2 We begin by developing an account of grandstanding. We then show that our account, with support from some standard theses of social psychology, explains the characteristic ways that grandstanding is manifested in public moral discourse. We conclude by arguing that there are good reasons to think that moral grandstanding is typically morally bad and should be avoided.

    What strikes me about this is that they manage to misread and misrepresent Baier’s claim within maybe two or three sentences of quoting it. Baier’s claim is that morally judgmental discourse is in itself repugnant. Their supposed interpretation of Baier is that moral discourse “fails to live up to its ideal.” But that misses the point of the Baier quotation. Baier is not saying that there is some attractive “ideal” of moral discourse that we often fail to reach, so that our failures are cases of repugnance. He’s saying that much moral discourse is, qua moral discourse, repugnant.

    More narrowly, I think his intended point is that negative moral discourse, qua negative, is repugnant. But though it mostly captures his intentions, the latter narrow interpretation is strictly speaking a bit misleading: From the fact that negative discourse is repugnant, it doesn’t necessarily follow that positive moral discourse is non-repugnant, even for Baier (where “positive discourse” refers to things like praising, expressing gratitude, alloting rewards). He mentions “justifying oneself” and “moralizing,” but “justifying oneself” and “moralizing” don’t always lead to negative verdicts; they can lead to positive ones. Though his main target is negative moral verdicts, his actual claim ranges over both negative ans positive moral judgments: the very fact of their being tinged by morality, whether negatively or even positively, is what makes them repugnant.

    That is a very Kurt Baieresque view, but it’s very far from being a self-evident verdict on the nature of moral discourse. I, personally, wouldn’t accept it. That point aside, it’s even farther from the banal truism that Tosi and Warmke put in Baier’s mouth: that moral discourse “sometimes fails to live up to its ideal.” In other words, they’ve quoted Baier, treating his claims as truisms, ignored what’s controversial about what he’s saying, then misinterpreted him as offering up a truism–while potentially taking on board the controversial part.

    This may all sound like nitpicking, but it raises two problems for the paper. The minor problem is just the misreading of Baier. They quote Baier as a sort of toss-off to make a supposedly obvious point, but in doing so, they miss the real point he’s making about the nature of moral discourse as such.

    That leads to the bigger problem. There’s no real discussion in the paper of what “the ideal” of moral discourse is supposed to be. Near the end of the paper (in section 3), they suggest that the correct discursive idea is non-egoistic. I’ll get to that when I get to it, but for now I’ll just say that I think those arguments beg the question by presupposing (without argument) a tendentiously narrow conception of an agent’s discursive “interests.”

    Meanwhile, it seems to me, the underlying question to bear in mind is: is moral discourse systematically tainted when discursive agents speak for reasons that they take to be self-beneficial? Generally speaking, if S asserts that p, and is motivated to assert that p because he sees the prospect of benefiting by asserting that p, how immediately or easily can we infer that there is something wrong or problematic with S‘s doing so–where “wrong” refers either to moral wrongness and/or epistemic irresponsibility, and “problematic” to some departure from the truth-tracking-relation? In other words, how immediate is the inference from “acting from self-interest” to acting wrongly, irresponsibly, or problematically? That’s the issue implicitly raised by T&W’s paper. I don’t think that the inference from “S asserts that p when motivated by self-benefit” to “S‘s assertion is wrong or problematic” is all that immediate or easy. Clearly, they do. But the burden of proof is on them to show why. The basic question is whether or not they meet it. As far as I’m concerned, they don’t.

    More comments later this week….

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    • I agree with most of that. I don’t think that the focus on self-interested motives (or even some particular species of self-interested motives) as the inappropriate motives is on-target. Partly because the content of ‘self-interest’ is reasonably contested. But also because the important thing is motives (in some cases even moral motives) that are not appropriate given the context in moral discourse (or practice) and because it is plausible that this category of problematic motivation is wide and varied.

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  3. I think when you, Irfan, and I all agree on something, that’s good prima facie evidence that it’s true. Though I haven’t studied the paper carefully like the two of you, I agree with much of what you say in the original post, but in particular I agree with you and Irfan — though I see now from the comments that perhaps some qualifications may be in order — that recognition desire is never as such objectionable. More fully, a recognition desire, understood as Tosi and Warmke define it, can never be objectionable just because it is a recognition desire. When it’s objectionable, there will have to be more to it than the mere fact that it’s a recognition desire.

    I’m puzzled by why, exactly, so many people seem happy to embrace the claim that there’s something inherently unsavory about recognition desire, whether or not it’s taken to be a non-instrumental desire. I find it especially puzzling because recognition desire seems to be a pervasive feature of ordinary people’s psychology, one without which many everyday behaviors would make little to no sense. T&W focus on one specific sort of recognition desire — desire to be thought moral — but more generally the desire for other people to think positively of us seems to be at least part of what motivates a whole lot of what people do. Anyone who castigates recognition desire as such strikes me as flirting with hypocrisy, or at least a serious lack of self-knowledge. Yet I’ve found that, especially in conversations with philosophers, the idea that we might have a basic desire for other people to think well of us, and that this desire is at least not inherently bad and perhaps even very often a good thing, is often met with skepticism or rejection. Most often, though, I’ve had this conversation in the context of discussions of honor in Aristotle and ancient Greek thought, where recognition desire is tied up with other values (especially in Homer and tragedy) that many people today more understandably hesitate to affirm. So I’ve usually chalked the resistance up to the context. The enthusiastic reception of T&W’s paper suggests that there’s more to it.

    I wonder, though, whether the explanation is really straightforward. The focus of the paper isn’t recognition desire, it’s moral grandstanding. Moral grandstanding definitely seems to be a real phenomenon, and recognition desire seems to play a role in it; people often say things primarily out of a desire to be thought moral, where that desire leads them to act contrary to epistemic and other virtues, and the prioritization of moral recognition over these other goods (or the sheer silencing of the other considerations in the face of the recognition desire) plausibly explains a lot of the grandstanding behavior (piling on, ramping up, &c). In one way, this is not news; I certainly did not first read about T&W’s concept of ‘moral grandstanding’ with a sense of revelation, and I do not think that I am unusually perceptive in moral matters. But for many people, the concept articulated in the paper may have helped them to put their fingers on a phenomenon they’d often encountered but felt unable to describe adequately. So perhaps the general idea of moral grandstanding as the product of recognition desire trumping truth just seemed especially useful to a bunch of people, and they didn’t worry too much about the details? Something similar seems to have occurred with the notion of ‘virtue signaling’; that such a thing exists is hardly a new discovery, but many people apparently found that way of describing the phenomenon distinctively useful. That’s not a defense of anything, of course, but I do wonder whether something that simple — perhaps in conjunction with a general reluctance among people to recognize and acknowledge their own pervasive recognition desires? — can explain the adulation.

    It would be interesting to get some psychologists to weigh in on recognition desire, understood as a desire for recognition sufficiently strong to lead to disappointment if one is not so recognized. The little psychological literature that I’ve read touching on the role of social recognition in the formation and maintenance of self-image and self-esteem leads me to expect that psychologists would regard it as obvious that most of us have strong, pervasive recognition desires, and that while they can often be a source of trouble, they’re not at all the sort of thing that we could sensibly think of as inherently problematic or ideally dispensed with. But perhaps I’m projecting too much on to a small sample of pop psychology.

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    • If I have the time, either today or early next week, I intend to write up some comments on section 1 of T&W’s paper that responds in more detail to some of the things you (Riesbeck) say here. For now, I’ll just say that I basically agree, but have a few quick, telegraphic responses.

      I think when you, Irfan, and I all agree on something, that’s good prima facie evidence that it’s true.


      More fully, a recognition desire, understood as Tosi and Warmke define it, can never be objectionable just because it is a recognition desire. When it’s objectionable, there will have to be more to it than the mere fact that it’s a recognition desire.

      Put in that way, I agree, and it’s probably what I was saying when Michael and I discussed this last fall over video chat. Maybe I balked unnecessarily at Michael’s paraphrase of my view above. I just wanted to preserve the inference from certain kinds of recognition desires to problematic forms of grandstanding. But you’re right that recognition desire as such cannot be wrong without the addition of some other wrong-making factor. For T&W, the wrong-making factor is egoistic vanity. They hedge a lot on how closely connected vanity is to the desire for recognition. Sometimes, it sounds as though they’re basically identifying the two things. Sometimes not.

      I’m puzzled by why, exactly, so many people seem happy to embrace the claim that there’s something inherently unsavory about recognition desire, whether or not it’s taken to be a non-instrumental desire.

      Passing point: if I remember correctly (I’ll have to check), T&W say nothing about whether recognition desires are instrumental or non-instrumental.

      But if you’re puzzled about why T&W are so happy to embrace the thesis, I’d try some hermeneutic of suspicion on for size: one possibility is that the whole paper is a polemical exercise, masquerading as non-partisan, peer-reviewed academic philosophy, targeting what the authors regard as the unsavory polemics of left-wing “social justice warriors.” Read with this hypothesis in mind, many otherwise unclear features of the paper become abundantly clear, e.g., why they’re so cagey about precision exactly where precision is required; why examples are never forthcoming exactly where an example seems necessary to understand what they’re trying to say; and why the examples they give are so wooden and artificial.

      The point you make about honor in ancient Greek thought strikes me as very apt; I found myself thinking also about Nicomachean Ethics IX.9 on why the virtuous person needs friends, and Hegel on the master-slave dialectic. Nicomachean IX.9 is a notoriously difficult text, but surely the friend’s recognition of oneself as virtuous is part of what makes the friend “another self”; it doesn’t seem a stretch to treat recognition desires as central to Aristotle’s argument. Recognition desire is even more obviously central to the master-slave dialectic in Hegel; the slave demands the master’s recognition precisely because the master’s disrespect constitutes a failure to recognize (the full humanity of) the slave.

      I wonder, though, whether the explanation is really straightforward. The focus of the paper isn’t recognition desire, it’s moral grandstanding. Moral grandstanding definitely seems to be a real phenomenon, and recognition desire seems to play a role in it; people often say things primarily out of a desire to be thought moral, where that desire leads them to act contrary to epistemic and other virtues, and the prioritization of moral recognition over these other goods (or the sheer silencing of the other considerations in the face of the recognition desire) plausibly explains a lot of the grandstanding behavior (piling on, ramping up, &c).

      What you say about grandstanding is true enough, but it’s a much weaker (hence more plausible) version of what the T&W paper actually says. So I think we have to be clear: are we discussing the claims of the paper, or are we discussing the topic that the paper addresses? If we’re doing the former, here’s how I read it: the paper identifies grandstanding with (defines it in terms of) a desire for recognition of any action-motivating strength (no matter how weak), and assumes that recognition desires are “typically” or “paradigmatically” instances of vanity, construed as a vice. The cash value of this claim turns out to be the following vacuity: if we take vanity to be a vice (whatever “vanity” turns out to be), then being motivated to speak from vanity is a morally bad thing. Whoa! How to turn this truism into a thesis? That’s the problematic of the paper.

      But for many people, the concept articulated in the paper may have helped them to put their fingers on a phenomenon they’d often encountered but felt unable to describe adequately. So perhaps the general idea of moral grandstanding as the product of recognition desire trumping truth just seemed especially useful to a bunch of people, and they didn’t worry too much about the details?

      That’s a very charitable interpretation, and not one that really explains why the paper ended up being published where it did. I think the paper was polemically useful in the just-post-Trump-election-era, when people thought that leftists were going over the top in their anti-Trump polemics, as in this comment by Jason Brennan:

      (For instance, my reaction to Trump was that this sucks but it’s not the end of the world, while they wrote apocalyptic Facebook posts complaining that World War III is just around the corner and that Roe v. Wade will be overturned any minute now.)

      As we all know, leftists thought that the Trump election was, precisely, “the end of the world.” Anyway, perhaps the truth is somewhere between your hermeneutic of charity and my hermeneutic of hate.

      I haven’t read much of the psychological literature on recognition, either, but given what I have read, I think your hypothesis is as good as any about what it says.

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      • (In reply to Irfan.) (a) I took the ‘vanity’ thing to be a gloss and the recognition desire the precisification of this gloss (and other glosses). I did not take there to be a separate inference, however implicit, to vanity (and thereby to vice). The idea is supposed to be that acting on the recognition desire (through conventionally-appropriate grandstanding expression) tends to undermine the aims of moral discourse (in particular, what I take them to take to be the ultimate aim qua discourse, generating true moral beliefs). I’m pretty sure also that they mark off the recognition desire being a morally bad desire to have (or the moral badness of grandstanding) – the vice issue – as separate. (b) I have no doubt that the “cheer-leading against the lefty social justice warriors element” is in the air with this, but the *newness* of the topic and its *relevance* to the present character of political and cultural conflict (apart from who is on which side and whose ox might be gored) might well have blinded folks to the mediocre quality of the paper as well.


        • On (a), point taken, but vanity turns out to be the (moral) wrong-making feature of grandstanding. So yes, there are two points there, one about subversion of the proper aims of discourse, and one about the moral wrongness of grandstanding, but expression of and capitulation to the desire for vanity is what explains the latter.

          On (b), again, point taken, but take a look at footnote 18:

          Indeed, grandstanders often deny that their views are in need of any defense (or that were they to give a defense, the implication is that their audience would not be enlightened enough to understand or appreciate it).

          This obviously isn’t a deductive inference from anything they say about the nature of grandstanding; it’s a further, quasi-sociological observation about grandstanders. There’s nothing about grandstanding as such that implies that grandstanders would do as they say.

          But sociological observations presuppose a sample. What is the sample here? The word “often” makes it seem as though they have some determinate population in mind, have surveyed a representative sample within it, and are now giving us some rigorous claim about modal instances of the sample. Another possibility: they’re just indulging in pure handwaving, bolstered only by the fact that the preceding few footnotes (10-17) make reference to studies in social psychology. The criticism they make of “grandstanders” is a standard criticism made of the left-leaning biases of the academy. The article just sounds to me as a continuation of the same critique by academic means.

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          • It belatedly occurs to me that the paper was written and published just before the Trump election, and publicized just after, so my claim that it “was polemically useful in the just-post-Trump-era” can’t explain the authors’ motivation for saying what they said. But the paper makes reference to the Trump campaign, and is in some sense a polemical response to the atmosphere surrounding it.

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  4. Thanks for your input, David! I think that, prior to the Tosi and Warmke paper, moral grandstanding was an interesting but unaddressed concept/phenomenon ripe for exploration. T&W deserve credit for seeing that and being first to the post (this is a good way to get published). But I don’t think the paper is that good. Their argument is weak and they would have done well to place their treatment in the context of the existing literature on moralism (though their comparison of grandstanding to Frankfurt’s account of bullshit is apt). You may be right that part of the interest here – and part of what explains why they were so quick to embrace the recognition desire as the thing that makes grandstanding-type behavior objectionable (or counterproductive to the aims of moral discourse) – stems from the continued currency of an overly-depersonalized concept of morality.


    • I don’t think that T&W were really dealing with an unaddressed phenomenon. As you yourself say, there is a huge literature on moralizing, much more sophisticated than anything in their article; there’s also stuff out there on recognition and vanity. There may or may not be a literature on “grandstanding” under that precise description, but in this respect, I think the comparison to Frankfurt-on-bullshit is apt for exactly the reverse of the reason you suggest.

      I’ve read and taught Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” many times. In fact, I teach “Moral Grandstanding” and “On Bullshit” in the same unit of the ethics course I teach, on the ethics of discourse. Having taught it for a couple of years, “On Bullshit” now strikes me as an enormously overhyped paper, and the problems with it are very similar to the problems with T&W’s paper.

      The problems are all right there in first three or four paragraphs of the paper. Frankfurt starts the paper with the unargued assumption that the slang word “bullshit” is susceptible of, and worthy of, an analysis. We need, he says, a “theory” of bullshit, as though bullshit were the kind of unified phenomenon about which a theory could be constructed. Within about a paragraph or so, he backs away from that claim, and admits that, well, maybe “bullshit” is just a loose term referring to an ad hoc group of unrelated things. So it’s not as though we can give a genuine analysis of the term, stated in a crisp biconditional. From there, he skates to the claim that what he’s going to give us is a “rough account” of what bullshit is, a sketchy account of “the structure of the concept.” Right (one wants to say), but you just finished admitting that there may not be a concept here susceptible of any sort of account, rough or otherwise. Well, yeah, says Frankfurt, but “[n]onetheless it should be possible to say something helpful.”

      If you take the paper to be doing no more than “saying something helpful about bullshit,” then I guess it succeeds, despite a lot of meandering (cf. the long, totally pointless discussion of Wittgenstein smack in the middle). But central to Frankfurt’s account is the claim that a bullshitter doesn’t care about the truth, and implicitly, doesn’t care about whether his claims are believed by his audience. Relatedly, Frankfurt insists on distinguishing bullshitting from lying and bluffing (where caring about truth and caring about whether you’re believed, operate).

      But it seems to me patently obvious that you can bullshit someone while caring deeply about the truth, and while caring deeply about being believed by the person you’re bullshitting. A huge amount of propaganda is (to my mind) bullshit in its clearest and most paradigmatic form, and propagandists often sincerely believe their propaganda, and desperately want you to believe it. (By this account, much of Ayn Rand’s non-fiction is bullshit. So is Marx.) Notice that this implication renders the concept of Frankfurtian “bullshit” relatively pointless: Frankfurtian bullshit is just one species of deceptive talk; bullshit ordinarily (and more broadly) construed includes Frankfurtian bullshit, but also includes various other sorts of lying, bluffing, exaggeration, appeals to emotion, appeals to authority, and so on. (One thing Ffankfurt entirely misses is the intimate connection between bullshitting and fallacy-mongering.)

      In order to give “bullshit” a point–and give “On Bullshit” a point–Frankfurt is forced to construe the phenomenon so narrowly that he can write an essay about it–i.e., write an essay on the narrowly-defined phenomenon that he identifies with “bullshit.” Except that you can’t really identify that narrow phenomenon with bullshit, a fact that Frankfurt is the first to recognize and admit. And yet he proceeds anyway.

      T&W credit Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” in their paper (n. 19). The citation is apt because they make exactly the same mistake as Frankfurt. They take a loose, colloquial term without a clear meaning. They then give it a narrow meaning that permits them to write a paper about it. They acknowledge that the analysandum is loose, and perhaps not really susceptible of a genuine analysis. Borrowing a page from Wittgenstein, they say, “So what?” They then make some arbitrary moves, and voila, “grandstanding” becomes the expression of recognition desires, and recognition desires are reduced to vanity, which trumps truth.

      One meta-methodological problem raised by both papers is what kind of term counts as the kind of concept susceptible of a conceptual analysis. Can you pluck just any old term out of discourse, treat it as a “concept,” and then offer a conceptual analysis of it? Or does a term have to meet certain structural constraints to count as a concept, hence count as a candidate for conceptual analysis? It seems to me that we’ve gone from one extreme to another on this. Once upon a time, to count as worthy of analysis, a concept had to be susceptible of an analysis in terms of strict necessary and sufficient conditions. The Gettier problem was one counter-example to that, and Wittgenstein’s conception of a “family resemblance” seemed like an alternative. But there’s a danger of going from the extreme of insisting on analysis-in-terms-of-extensional-equivalence to allowing for analysis of “family resemblances” that are so vague, imagistic, and stereotype-laden as to lead to pseudo-analyses of arbitrarily conjured-up phenomena. Colin McGinn has a book out on “mindfucking,” and lots of people now think that “slut” is a theoretical term. Pretty soon, people will be offering “analyses” of “woke” and “lit.” There’s also the possibility that slang is just protean and non-analyzable, and that we should be focusing our attentions elsewhere.

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  5. (Reply to Irfan.) I’m interested in the meta-methodological problem, but I don’t know enough to offer anything like a solution. However, I take it that, unless a term is being used ambiguously, there is some unified account of its use/meaning. The interesting question, for me, is whether this unified account has very much explanatory value. For example, if the unified account of ‘reason’ is something like ‘something that might be used or referenced by a premise in an inference or argument’, it is not clear that the underlying unified phenomenon is that interesting (after all, on this sort of account, each of facts, beliefs and propositions can count as reasons – presumably in different contexts for different purposes – so we should not suppose that ‘this item counts as a reason of some sort of other’ would often explain very much; rather, we should expect that, in context, ‘this item is a reason of this particular, relevant type’ is the kind of thing that does explanatory work). Anyhow, this is how I think about these issues. Not sure how standard this take is. This is not enough for a meta-methodological account, but it seems to be enough to get me by and keep my out of trouble!


    • Right, but both Frankfurt and T&W concede that “bullshit” and “grandstanding” are used ambiguously.


      Any suggestion about what conditions are logically both necessary and sufficient for the constitution of bullshit is bound to be somewhat arbitrary. For one thing, the expression bullshit is often employed quite loosely….For another, the phenomenon itself is so vast and amorphous that no crisp and perspicuous analysis of its concept can avoid being procrustean.

      If he admits that the analysis is procrustean, does that imply that “it’s procrustean” is now inadmissible as an objection to the analysis?


      Our view is that grandstanding, even of the moral variety, is a diverse and diffuse social phenomenon, much like love, blame, forgiveness, complaint, and apology. And as is the case with these phenomena, we are skeptical that there is an illuminating and nontrivial set of necessary and sufficient conditions that capture the extension of the concept of grandstanding. Our diffuse grandstanding behaviors form a constellation, some of them closer to the center than others. The instances of grandstanding that make up the center of the constellation are the paradigmatic ones.

      Well, if you say so. But what Frankfurt says about “bullshit” applies to T&W: both “analyses” are procrustean. That doesn’t stop T&W from telling us about what is “paradigmatic” or “typical” of the phenomenon: recognition desire is “central” to the “paradigmatic” cases, and since recognition desires are anti-alethic, the phenomenon itself turns out to be–typically, or in its “paradigm” instances–subversive of public discourse. But the unity they give to the “diffuse” phenomenon involves lots of stipulations. They give lip service to the diffuse and complex nature of the phenomenon, but are not prevented by that to issue some bold generalizations about what it’s “typically” like.

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  6. Another relevant point that occurs to me is that some accounts, in particular accounts of kinds, are often “non-crisp” due to borderline cases. (Not sure this applies to the reasons case, but it might.) Plausibly, bullshitting and grandstanding are social/institutional kinds of a certain sort that have lots of borderline cases on different dimensions. If so, it makes sense to give an account of the core or paradigmatic cases only, not getting into the weeds of the borderline cases oneself (but also fending off putative counterexamples that do not clearly address the core or paradigm cases). I have no objection to this methodology, but I think it needs to be made precise and explicit. At the very least, we need to know why and how putative counterexamples are really special, borderline cases. I don’t think that characterizing one’s topic as fit for this sort of analysis amounts to admitting that either the phenomenon or the concept is objectionably disjunctive, ambiguous, etc. (However, I too tire of folks waiving their hands around saying “Wittgenstein!”, “family resemblance!”, “clusters of vaguely similar things!”, “everybody knows it is the exception rather than the rule that you can specify necessary and sufficient conditions in an account/analysis!”. How about trying to give a “crisp” account first, find the major putative counterexamples, then sorting these into “potentially actual counterexamples” and “probably just borderline cases” piles?)


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