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The Vice of Admiration

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 August 2017


Moral exemplars are often held up as objects to be admired. Such admiration is thought beneficial to the admirer, inducing him or her to emulate virtuous conduct, and deemed flattering to the admired. This paper offers a critical examination of admiration from a broadly Kantian perspective, arguing that admiration – even of genuine moral exemplars – violates the duty of self-respect. It also provides an explanation for the fact that moral exemplars themselves typically shun admiration. Lastly, it questions the assumption that admiration leads to emulation on the basis of scientific findings that indicate that admiration induces passivity in the admirer rather than an incentive to self-improvement.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2017 

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1 See e.g. a series of papers by Zagzebski, Linda: ‘The Admirable and the Desirable Life’ in: Chappell, T. (ed.) Values and Virtues: Aristotelianism in Contemporary Ethics. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 5366 Google Scholar; Exemplarist Virtue Theory’, Metaphilosophy 41 (2010), 4157 Google Scholar; Moral Exemplars in Theory and Practice’, Theory and Research in Education 11 (2013), 193206 Google Scholar; Admiration and the Admirable’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume LXXXIX (2015), 205221 Google Scholar; Exemplarism and Admiration’ in: Miller, C., Furr, R., Knobel, A. & Fleeson, W. (eds) Character: New Directions from Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 251268 Google Scholar.

2 Cf. David Hume Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779).

3 If it is the case that admiration is normal for teenagers or adolescents, another way of putting my point is that admiration would be a sign of moral immaturity.

4 Keltner, Dacher & Haidt, JonathanApproaching Awe, a Moral, Spiritual and Aesthetic Emotion’, Cognition and Emotion 17 (2003), 297314: 302CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 On appraisal respect, see Darwall, StephenTwo Kinds of Respect’ in: Dillon, Robin S. (ed.) Dignity, Character, and Self-Respect (Routledge, 1995), 181197 Google Scholar.

6 This third attitude seems to be the core meaning of admiration according to The New International Webster's Comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language, Deluxe Encyclopedic Edition (1996), though some other well-regarded dictionaries may place more emphasis on the second meaning of admiration outlined. As far as I can tell, there is little value in arguing about which of these different usages captures its ‘true’ or ‘real’ meaning best; depending on context, all these three usages can be perfectly acceptable in themselves (though perhaps the first is now outmoded). I do believe, however, that it is essential to distinguish especially the last two attitudes, admiration as equivalent to mere high approval or appraisal respect vs. admiration as approbation mixed with wonder. Whereas it is perfectly appropriate to have appraisal respect for a moral exemplar, the attitude of ‘approbation mixed with wonder’ has, I argue, morally objectionable features that are easily overlooked. This distinction is all the more noteworthy in light of the fact that it often remains unclear which of these meanings are meant when the term admiration appears in moral-philosophical texts. Indeed, it often seems the two are simply conflated.

7 E.g. Zagzebski, op. cit.

8 For this reason I will not engage in detail any existing accounts that are deeply embedded in a virtue-ethical framework.

9 For a collection of papers on self-respect and self-esteem from a variety of philosophical perspectives, see Dillon (ed.) op. cit.; for a single-essay overview that gives a good impression of the many facets of self-respect see Dillon, Robin S.How to Lose Your Self-Respect’, American Philosophical Quarterly 29 (1992), 125139 Google Scholar.

10 ‘Inherent Dignity, Contingent Dignity and Human Rights: Solving the Puzzle of the Protection of Dignity’, Erkenntnis (forthcoming); and The Importance of Assent: A Theory of Dignity and Coercion (Dordrecht: Springer, 2012)Google Scholar.

11 I should stress that my analysis is Kantian in the sense of using a framework that is influenced by the Kantian tradition; I do not directly engage with Kant's own texts. This is for various reasons. First, my concern is with the rightness or wrongness of a particular attitude; it is not a historical analysis. Second, to analyze what Kant himself would have held of admiration of moral exemplars would require a significant amount of interpretation – which will unavoidably be highly controversial. As mentioned, in Kant's day admiration was taken to be virtually synonymous with awe,* so it is not possible to directly transpose anything he says about admiration to the attitude under analysis here. Moreover, such an analysis would have to cover Kant's moral works as well as his works on aesthetics, religion and psychology. Such an analysis would therefore take us too far afield from the practical question this paper seeks to address – not to mention the fact that some of Kant's views on these matters (e.g. his psychology) are likely to be somewhat dated now.

* Kant's famous opening lines of the conclusion to the Critique of Practical Reason ‘Zwei Dinge erfüllen das Gemüt mit immer neuer und zunehmender Bewunderung und Ehrfurcht […]: der bestirnte Himmel über mir und das moralische Gesetz in mir.’ (5:161) are illustrative. There are various ways in which ‘Bewunderung und Ehrfurcht’ can (and have been) translated, including ‘wonder and awe’, ‘admiration and awe’, and ‘awe and reverence’. Moreover, under at least one traditionalist reading of Kant, the question of whether one would ever be allowed to admire other persons (including moral exemplars) is a non-starter, as only the moral law within them would be worthy of admiration/awe, not the person(s) in which it resides. Another Kant-interpretation could, however, put more emphasis on the individuality of the moral agent, stressing that for Kant moral lawgiving is always an act of self-legislation and subsequently point out that it is probably not a coincidence that Kant speaks of ‘the moral law within me’ (emphasis added), rather than ‘the moral law in us’, ‘in you’ or ‘in others’, or just the moral law simpliciter. Though the question what Kant's personal views exactly were, is undoubtedly interesting and worthy of scholarly attention, such a historical analysis falls well outside the purview of this paper.

12 Although the question of what attitude(s) are appropriate to adopt towards moral exemplars can be approached from any theoretical perspective within moral philosophy, such as consequentialism, deontology/Kantianism, or virtue ethics, it should be kept in mind that their different viewpoints will not only lead them to different views on the relevant benefits and drawbacks of admiration for the admirer and the admired, but that they will also hold different views about who counts as an exemplar.

13 See e.g. Baron, Marcia, ‘Kantian Ethics and Supererogation’, Journal of Philosophy 84 (1987), 237262 Google Scholar; Guevara, Daniel, ‘The Impossibility of Supererogation in Kant's Moral Theory’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 59 (1999), 593624 Google Scholar; Heyd, D., ‘Beyond the Call of Duty in Kant's Ethics’, Kant-Studien 71 (1980), 308324 Google Scholar; Hill, Thomas E. Jr., ‘Kant on Imperfect Duty and Supererogation’, Kant-Studien 62 (1971), 5576 Google Scholar; McCarty, Richard, ‘The Limits of Kantian Duty, and Beyond’, American Philosophical Quarterly 26 (1989), 4352 Google Scholar.

14 On servility, see Thomas E. Hill Jr. ‘Servility and Self-Respect’, and ‘Self-Respect Reconsidered’ in Dillon (ed.) op. cit., 76–92, 117–124.

15 The standard example of moral heroism, that of the soldier throwing himself on a live grenade to save his fellows, is telling in this regard. Likely there have been members of the Waffen-SS who performed such acts of heroism in World War II, but that hardly makes them moral-exemplars in a Kantian sense.

16 Sherry, Patrick, ‘The Varieties of Wonder’, Philosophical Investigations 36 (2013), 340354: 340CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Sherry's focus of analysis is on wonder, not admiration, but the connection between wonder and admiration is mentioned at various points in his analysis.

18 T. H. Irwin defends a different reading of the lack of admiration by the virtuous in his Nil Admirari? Uses and Abuses of Admiration’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume LXXXIX (2015), 223248 Google Scholar. He believes that this only means that the virtuous are not prone to admiration because they are not prone to false admiration (i.e. a misunderstanding of what is worthy of high praise). When confronted with the admirable, he contends, the virtuous will admire other virtuous persons. As that will only occur rarely, however, the virtuous will not admire very often. I believe a stronger reading of nil admirari is defendable and should, as a motto, be taken literally (though I make no claim to the correct reading of historical authors’ views on admiration): it is not just that the vulgar will be more prone to admiration (cf. ibid. 239–40), it is that admiration is itself vulgar (at least when the object of admiration is another person). If my argument in this paper is correct, then admiration may still have a proper function, but its proper function will lie outside of ethics (for instance in aesthetics).

19 A religious analogy may illustrate this even more clearly: God (if He exists) does not admire the saints for He does not look up to them and fully grasps how they managed to do what they accomplished – though He does, of course, have a full appreciation of their very high merits.

20 Cf. Sherry, op. cit., 348.

21 One could, I suppose, marvel at one's own accomplishments if one is genuinely surprised at what one has done – ‘How did I manage to produce that!?’ – but that seems a rather atypical case, and I doubt it would warrant what one could call self-admiration.

22 Frankfurt, Harry, ‘Freedom of the will and the concept of a person’ in: The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 1125 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 It is perhaps worth mentioning that the problem with admiration, as I see it, is therefore not one of excess, as is for instance the case for the uncontroversially objectionable attitudes of adulation and worship. Admirers are not (necessarily) afflicted by the kind of blindness that worshipers or adulators typically suffer from or mis-assess the virtues of the object of their admiration. Rather, as I argue in this paper, the problem with admiration is that it is a wrong kind of response to a (possibly) accurate assessment of moral excellence.

24 I will return to this point in Section 5 when it comes to Van de Ven et al.’s distinction between admiration and what they call benign envy.

25 One could also characterise this as the admirer engaging in a somewhat perverse (and probably subconscious) application of the ought-implies-can principle.

26 Another reason why moral exemplars might feel uncomfortable about being admired is that they feel this may create expectations that they feel unsure they will be able to live up to in the future. Again, however, it is not clear why a moral exemplar (who has a stable and virtuous character) would feel so insecure. Moreover, though such expectations may create some unease they would not affect the intrinsic value of the praise received.

27 An exception would be when we seek praise or admiration for purely instrumental reasons (the stereotypical Machiavellian prince may be an example) but here we are concerned with valuing praise intrinsically.

28 E.g. Zagzebski, ‘Moral Exemplars in Theory and Practice’, ‘Admiration and the Admirable’, and ‘Exemplarism and Admiration’.

29 E.g. Haidt, Jonathan, ‘Elevation and the Positive Psychology of Morality’ in: Keyes, C. (ed.) Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived (Washington: American Psychological Association, 2003), 275289 Google Scholar; Keltner & Haidt op. cit.; Algoe, Sara & Haidt, JonathanWitnessing Excellence in Action: the “Other-Praising” Emotions of Elevation, Gratitude, and Admiration’, The Journal of Positive Psychology 4 (2009), 105127 Google Scholar; Vianello, Michelangelo, Galliani, Elisa Maria & Haidt, JonathanElevation at Work: The Effects of Leaders’, Moral Excellence’, The Journal of Positive Psychology 5 (2010), 390411 Google Scholar.

30 Op. cit., 107.

31 On elevation, see also Haidt op. cit., Keltner & Haidt op. cit., Vianello et al. op. cit.

32 van de Ven, Niels, Zeelenberg, Marcel & Pieters, RikWhy Envy Outperforms Admiration’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 37 (2011), 784795 CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

33 Op. cit. 784, emphasis added.

34 Some caution is advised, though, because Van de Ven et al. make no distinction between moral and non-moral admiration for the bulk of their paper, and the descriptions of the experiments on which their paper is based do not show a concern with specifically moral exemplars. Moreover, in the discussion of the results they mention that further research might show moral admiration to be different in certain respects from non-moral admiration (op. cit., 790).

35 Envy is the emotion that arises when one notices a gap between oneself and others due to their possession of something that one lacks (or only has to a lesser degree) and which one deems important. Closing the gap can be done in two ways: moving oneself up or bringing down the other. The latter Van de Ven et al. call malign envy, the former benign envy. As admiration, malign and benign envy are not mutually exclusive and may even be correlated, this could also explain why studies which do not control for (benign) envy may have a tendency to show false positives (cf. op. cit., 788).

36 Op. cit., 789.

37 Op. cit., 790.

38 Van de Ven et al. stress that this is not the only way admiration may arise and that it remains possible that admiration has other beneficial effects generally associated with positive emotions than incentivizing emulation. Thus, they speculate that admiration may arise spontaneously in areas that are not important to the person (and thus do not constitute a psychological threat to the person's self-image). They also conjecture that moral admiration might be different, as they believe that envy is unlikely to arise when witnessing virtue. They offer no further evidence to support these claims though, suggesting they should be tested in future research (op. cit. 790). However, though perhaps plausible for malicious envy, I see no reason to expect this to be the case for benign envy. Unless one is a total moral wretch, one typically cares about one's moral character or track-record and being confronted with others who remind one of one's shortcomings on that score is anything but psychologically pleasant. Moreover, Van de Ven et al. emphasize that benign envy is typically triggered by differences that are perceived as merited, which would be the case with moral exemplars. Moral exemplars therefore seem to be ideal candidates to elicit benign envy. (Experimental design may be tricky for moral admiration, though, as it seems likely that people will be inclined to give what they perceive as the socially desirable response to questions that query their attitude to moral exemplars – who would want to admit, even to him- or herself, that (s)he feels envious towards a moral exemplar?)

39 My analysis only concerns moral admiration and has no bearing on how admiration features in other fields, such as aesthetics. Nonetheless, a question that is likely to be raised is in what way moral admiration is different from non-moral admiration. Surely, there can be little amiss with admiring a piece of art and expressing both delight in and wonder at what one is experiencing. To this I can only offer some tentative thoughts. The main reason that admiration is unproblematic when it comes to objects is that it does not create a relation of inequality between the admired object and the admiring subject in the way that admiration of moral exemplars does. Hence, there is no perversion of the bases of moral interaction between persons in that case. All it gives is a wondrous experience, and there need be little wrong with that. When it comes to admiring the skills or aesthetic properties of other persons – e.g. when one admires the artist rather than the work of art – it becomes more suspicious. It is all too easy for persons who admire others for their special skills to slip into moral admiration too. Nonetheless, it may be that such non-moral admiration of persons is in itself indeed less problematic. One reason why this may be so is that though non-moral admiration, too, creates a form of inequality, it does not directly affect the basic equality between human persons. Admiring an artist for her artistic skills does imply downgrading one's own artistic skills and abilities, but there is no unconditional requirement to develop those skills and abilities. Since we cannot develop all our skills, we may freely choose which of them to develop. Thus, developing one's artistic skills is optional and there is no categorical duty to live up to artistic standards. The hobby painter may well apply one set of standards to judge his own work and use another when it comes to the works of professional artists. Morality, however, does not allow for such double standards for amateurs and professionals. It categorically binds us all alike.

40 Earlier versions of this paper were presented to audiences at the University of Bayreuth and at the IV. Tagung für Praktische Philosophie in Salzburg, Austria. I benefited greatly from comments received at these venues. Special thanks must go to Matthew Braham and Nathan Wood for intensive and repeated discussion.

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