Remembering Respectful Contempt

The occassional debates about religion that pop up in the comment pages of 3QD always remind me of a section in Putnam's Reason, Truth and History on the character of his disagreement with Robert Nozick. For Putnam, fundamental disagreement does not preclude mutual respect, but it may be respect of a peculiar kind. It was something I wanted to note in the wake some of our recent discussions. (There's also been a new interesting comment by Patrick Lee Miller on the underlying post at Immanent Frame that started our own discussions, for those who may be interested.) Anal Philospher has posted an excerpt from Putnam:

Perhaps the analogy I have (occasionally) drawn between philosophical discussion and political discussion may be of help. One of my colleagues [the late Robert Nozick] is a well-known advocate of the view that all government spending on 'welfare' is morally impermissible. On his view, even the public school system is morally wrong. If the public school system were abolished, along with the compulsory education law (which, I believe, he also regards as an impermissible government interference with individual liberty), then the poorer families could not afford to send their children to school and would opt for letting the children grow up illiterate; but this, on his view, is a problem to be solved by private charity. If people would not be charitable enough to prevent mass illiteracy (or mass starvation of old people, etc.) that is very bad, but it does not legitimize government action.

In my view, his fundamental premisses—the absoluteness of the right to property, for example—are counterintuitive and not supported by sufficient argument. On his view I am in the grip of a 'paternalistic' philosophy which he regards as insensitive to individual rights. This is an extreme disagreement, and it is a disagreement in 'political philosophy' rather than merely a 'political disagreement'. But much political disagreement involves disagreements in political philosophy, although they are rarely as stark as this.

What happens in such disagreements? When they are intelligently conducted on both sides, sometimes all that can happen is that one sensitively diagnoses and delineates the source of the disagreement. Often, when the disagreement is less fundamental than the one I described, both sides may modify their view to a larger or smaller extent. If actual agreement does not result, perhaps possible compromises may be classed as more or less acceptable to one or another of the parties.

Such intelligent political discussion between people of different outlooks is, unfortunately, rare nowadays; but it is all the more enjoyable when it does happen. And one's attitude toward one's co-disputant in such a discussion is interestingly mixed. On the one hand, one recognizes and appreciates certain intellectual virtues of the highest importance: open-mindedness, willingness to consider reasons and arguments, the capacity to accept good criticisms, etc. But what of the fundamentals on which one cannot agree? It would be quite dishonest to pretend that one thinks there are no better and worse reasons and views here. I don't think it is just a matter of taste whether one thinks that the obligation of the community to treat its members with compassion takes precedence over property rights; nor does my co-disputant. Each of us regards the other as lacking, at this level, a certain kind of sensitivity and perception. To be perfectly honest, there is in each of us something akin to contempt, not for the other's mind—for we each have the highest regard for each other's minds—nor for the other as a person—, for I have more respect for my colleague's honesty, integrity, kindness, etc., than I do for that of many people who agree with my 'liberal' political views—but for a certain complex of emotions and judgments in the other.

But am I not being less than honest here? I say I respect Bob Nozick's mind, and I certainly do. I say I respect his character, and I certainly do. But, if I feel contempt (or something in that ballpark) for a certain complex of emotions and judgments in him, is that not contempt (or something like it) for him?

More here.