For PEA Soup: “You’re So Smug, I’ll Bet You Don’t Care This Post is About You”
There is something distinctively infuriating about a kind of conceit that we often call “smugness.” Consider the “tech bro” of Silicon Valley, a type made infamous by Justin Keller, who describes himselfas “entrepreneur, music lover, beer connoisseur, sports enthusiast, traveling the world.” In February 2016, Keller penned an open letter to then-San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Police Chief Greg Suhr, in which he complained about various relatively harmless encounters he had with (putatively) homeless individuals in San Francisco. He summarized his argument as follows:
“The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it. I shouldn’t have to worry about being accosted. I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day. I want my parents when they come visit to have a great experience, and enjoy this special place.”
While there are many obvious criticisms to make here (Keller’s letter caused some uproar), I want to focus on the smug entitlement that Keller expresses. (I say “expresses” to emphasize that I am drawing inferences only on the basis of what Keller writes in his letter, and not on any other evidence about his character. I certainly do not know the bro.)How should we characterize this smugness? Why and how is it maddening in ways that other vices, including other forms of conceit, are not?
One plausible proposal is due to Macalester Bell: Keller manifests superbia, the vice of believing that one has high status relative to others, desiring that this status be recognized, and, in so believing and desiring, manifesting ill will. (Hard Feelings(OUP, 2013), 109) That may be a part of what is going on, but it misses the distinctively infuriating aspect of Keller’s viciousness. As Bell points out, superbia can be curbed by interpersonal condemnation, specifically, the reaction of contempt, which presents “its target as having a comparatively low status … in virtue of their superbia.” (ibid., 128) The problem with someone like Keller is that interpersonal condemnation – contemptuous or otherwise – won’t work. Even if you were a fellow “wealthy working person” and tried to confront him about his objectionable attitude, he would likely brush you off with a characteristic “whatever, bro.” (“Do you even program?”) His smugness seems to insulate him from such complaints.
Aaron James picks up this point in his account of being an asshole. For James, an asshole is someone who “systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.” (Assholes: A Theory(Anchor Books, 2012), 12) This seems to capture more of what’s enraging about Keller’s frame of mind. But it still falls short, I think. It’s not just that the smug fail to register the complaints of others, although this is important. What matters is why they fail to do so. They fail to do so, not (only) out of an attitude of ill will toward others by which they devalue others’ thoughts and feelings, but from a more general lack of concern about the correctness of their inflated expectations of regard, status, and treatment (which is what James calls a “sense of entitlement” and Bell analyzes as a belief in high status).
That is, when we zero in on what is distinctively maddening about the frame of mind evinced by Keller, we are confronted with someone who would brush off any relevant considerations he might encounter that would call into question his inflated regard-expectations, not just the complaints that others raise. Notice that, when we imagine our complaints being ignored by someone like Keller, we do not feel (merely) personally insulted. The kind of anger we experience is more like frustration and less like resentment. This is because we realize that the smug person’s intransigence isn’t really about us. Their disregard of our complaints is not ultimately because they think badly of us or disrespect our status as fellow persons (although, at least by implication, they do). Rather, their disregard is more impersonal, a general carelessness toward their own inflated expectations. They just don’t care about getting it right when it comes to their inflated regard-expectations. This is the reason why they don’t take others’ complaints seriously, which is signified with the flippant “whatever, bro.”
(A first quick aside: There are important questions about how Keller’s social privilege relates to his smugness. Could someone without certain key forms of social privilege be smug? I am not sure, but it does seem to me that privilege enables smugness; if my proposal here is correct, privilege might make it possible to not care about the correctness of one’s inflated expectations of regard.)
How can we make sense of this? One natural place to start is Harry Frankfurt’s famous distinction betweenlying and bullshitting. The liar says what is false out of a concern, in part, with what is true. The bullshitter has no such concern. (On Bullshit(Princeton University Press, 2005), 54-61) Along similar lines, smugness is distinct from other kinds of conceit because the smug person does not care about the correctness of his inflated regard-expectations, while other kinds of conceited people do. Another helpful conceptual parallel can be drawn with Quassim Cassam’s notion of “epistemic insouciance.” (“Epistemic Insouciance,” Journal of Philosophical Research(2018))Epistemic insouciance is a vice that consists in a “casual disregard” and oftentimes outright “contempt” for the evidence or facts that are pertinent to one’s beliefs. (Ibid., 2-6) Similarly, those who are smug seem to have a casual disregard for the considerations that bear on the correctness of their inflated regard-expectations.
(A second quick aside: There are different ways and degrees of not caring about the correctness of one’s regard-expectations, as well as important differences in the kinds of high regard we might expect from others, including Stephen Darwall’s famous distinction between appraisal and recognition respect, which unfortunately I cannot explore here.)
However, if I’m right that smugness is akin to both bullshitting and epistemic insouciance in virtue of its normative carelessness, a puzzle arises. It doesn’t seem right to say that the smug person doesn’t care about being superior along whatever measure they have inflated regard-expectations. They care very much; that’s a part of why they are so annoying.How can this coincide with their normative carelessness? Here is one initial thought I’d like to explore. Having inflated regard-expectations derives most fundamentally from the acceptance of certain norms, specifically, regard-norms of the form that such-and-such attitude of high regard (respect, admiration, deference, etc.) shall be directed (and perhaps expressed) toward individuals with such-and-such properties. Smug people accept the wrong regard-norms, or misapply the correct regard-norms to themselves, and their inflated regard-expectations derive from (or consist in) this mistaken norm-acceptance. If we can separate the genuine acceptance of regard-norms from caring about the correctness of our associated normative expectations, which seems plausible on many models of norm-acceptance, then we would have at least a partial explanation of the distinctively infuriating character of the smug.
(A final quick aside: My characterization of smugness suggests that it persistently distorts cognition and behavior in ways that are at least partially symptomatic of narcissistic personality disorder, as characterized in the DSM-5. I don’t think this should stop us from viewing smugness as a serious vice, but it might shape how we respond to those who are smug; see, e.g., Hanna Pickard, “Responsibility without Blame: Philosophical Reflections on Clinical Practice,” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychiatry, ed. Fulford et al. (OUP, 2013).)