It’s a common experience. The customer who cuts in front of you at the checkout line, demanding immediate attention. The so-called expert who responds to your questions with contempt.
Robin Dillon, professor of philosophy, examines the idea of arrogance in her current book project, Arrogance: The Deadliest Sin. Dillon, whose body of work in ethics focuses on self-respect, began this project when she realized that arrogance is regarded both very negatively and as trait that makes one a better competitor or leader. So she asks if this a characteristic that is both profoundly vicious and yet admirable and worth cultivating; or if not both, which is it?
One key to understanding arrogance is to see it as the antithesis of respect for others and self-respect. “Arrogance is not a merely irritating bad habit. It is a corrosive and debasing vice that thwarts human flourishing and blights human community,” she says. An arrogant person’s actions or attitudes can be hurtful and harmful, but they are also profoundly disrespectful. Arrogance also damages the arrogant individual in a way and to a degree that other vices do not, because it is a failure to respect oneself.
Dillon analyzes arrogance using three distinctions. The first describes the types of arrogance, which she calls status arrogance and unwarrantable claims arrogance. Each of these involves different beliefs, attitudes, objects, and desires. Status arrogance is the presumptuous sense of superiority that involves regarding other people disdainfully, condescendingly, or dismissively. Unwarrantable claims arrogance concerns unjustifiable claims including status, authority, rights, and ability.
“Arrogance is not a merely irritating bad habit. It is a corrosive and debasing vice that thwarts human flourishing and blights human community.”
The second distinction is among kinds of self-respect and respect. The two kinds of arrogance relate in various ways to different kinds of self-respect and respect, Dillon says. One important connection is between status arrogance and what she calls interpersonal recognition respect for others, the kind of respect that all persons morally deserve—and deserve equally—simply in virtue of being persons. Status arrogance itself arises from a failure of interpersonal recognition self-respect, the recognition and proper valuing of oneself as an equal among equals. A second connection is between unwarrantable claims arrogance and what Dillon titles agentic recognition self-respect. This is a form of self-respect involves properly valuing oneself as a moral agent and taking one’s responsibilities seriously. Unwarrantable claims arrogance involves the absence of agentic recognition self-respect. In both cases, arrogance involves sacrificing self-respect to boost self-esteem, the state of thinking well of and feeling good about oneself. This trade off, Dillon argues, is the root of all vice.
But there is another dimension to arrogance, which becomes visible when Dillon takes up a feminist perspective. She argues that arrogance is a gendered concept, one that is applied more often to masculine behavior than feminine. This is because arrogance is centrally about power. Calling women arrogant is often a way of undercutting their legitimate claims to power or status. Thinking about gender and power prompts Dillon to argue that while most arrogance is a deadly vice, “a certain form of unwarrantable claims arrogance would, for subordinated people, be self-respecting and morally appropriate, and it could be of great value in resisting oppression.”
Dillon argues that careful attention to arrogance is essential to answering the questions that lie at the very heart of the moral life: How should we live our lives? What kinds of persons is it good for us to be? What should we value and how should we value it?