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“Moral cowardice requires choice and action.”

Commenter Chris G pointed out this quote from Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Moral cowardice requires choice and action. It demands that its adherents repeatedly look away, that they favor the fanciful over the plain, myth over history, the dream over the real.

Coates was writing about the defenders of the Confederate flag. Coates points to this quotation from one of the founders of the Confederate government:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth …

As Coates says, it takes some effort to look away from this history.

What is the default attitude when confronted with criticism?

Coates’s insight is interesting and unexpected in that one would typically think of cowardice or denial as the easy option, the default when confronted with evidence that your beliefs don’t make sense, or are contradicted by the evidence, or (in the case of racism and white supremacy) lead to reprehensible behavior.

Coates’s point is that, while cowardice or denial may well be the default option from a psychological perspective, it is not an easy position to hold from a logical perspective.

From an intellectual perspective, cowardice—or, more generally, intellectual dishonesty—requires choice and action. It takes effort, a continuing effort to defy logical gravity, as it were.

32 Comments

  1. D Kane says:

    Amy Cuddy == Stonewall Jackson? Susan Fiske == George Wallace?

    Not sure if this is the rhetorical (low? high?) road that you want to travel down . . .

    • Andrew says:

      D:

      Huh? There is nothing in the above post or the links that has anything to do with Amy Cuddy or Susan Fiske. I was not talking about them at all, not one bit. Whatever metaphorical road you’re traveling down, that’s your road, not mine.

      • D Kane says:

        Apologies if I misread you! But . . . I just assumed that words like “contradicted by the evidence” and “intellectual dishonesty” was a reference to the folks that you often (correctly!) complain about on the blog.

        But, surely, I was not the only one who was confused since the original comment came in a thread about David Brooks, someone you have (correctly!) criticized for intellectual dishonesty.

        So, let me rephrase:

        David Brooks == George Wallace? Is that really the rhetorical road you want to go down?

        • Andrew says:

          D:

          I don’t think George Wallace is a good analogy as he was pretty much openly racist. In any case, similarities of intellectual style do not imply moral or practical equivalence.

          • D Kane says:

            What would be a good analogy? I am really trying to understand your point. How about:

            David Brooks == Senator Jim Webb?

            Although Webb’s position is somewhat complicated and evolving, he is probably one of the higher profile current defenders of the Confederate Battle Flag. Would you accuse him of “cowardice” or “intellectual dishonesty?”

            Feel free to drop this thread if you want. Perhaps I am trying too hard to see a connection . . .

            • Andrew says:

              D:

              I don’t know if it helps to personalize things in this way. Just about all of us exhibit cowardice in some aspects of our lives and bravery in others. I was pretty baffled to see a commenter on this thread describe SS troops and terrorists as “very brave,” but I guess this term can be used in all sorts of ways that are unfamiliar to me.

              And I think we all aim for intellectual honesty. Even Brian Wansink must feel that whatever misrepresentations of the facts that he gives, are justified as part of a larger truth of scientific discovery.

              I think Coates’s point, about the intellectual effort required to maintain ignorance, makes sense, even if it’s a bit of going down a rabbit hole to apply this principle to any particular case. I guess what I’m saying is: I don’t see Coates’s article as representing some sort of rule or demarcation strategy for deciding who’s a coward or whatever; I see it as an often-relevant, counterintuitive point about the efforts that we make to keep ourselves from toppling over, intellectually speaking.

            • Noemi says:

              This line of thought you impose here of David Brooks == Senator Jim Webb (etc) does not make any sense, even if he was making an analogy linking different contexts where people disregard/ignoring/etc criticism e.g.. What you imply here is not how analogies work.

              Take basic toy analogy exercises like

              “grass : soil : : seaweed : _____?______”
              water
              salty
              river
              fish

              Never does this mean that grass == seaweed or soil == water.

              • D Kane says:

                > you imply here is not how analogies work.

                Well, I guess it depends on your perspective.

                We have 4 objects: David Brooks, “the defenders of the Confederate flag” — which I will replace with Jim Webb, “intellectual dishonesty” and “Moral cowardice”. I (mis)read Andrew as making some connection among these four things.

                Brooks:”intellectual dishonesty” :: Webb:”moral cowardice”

                That seems a fairly straightforward analogy!

                Now, you are right that this does not imply that Brooks==Webb on any dimension except that they are the first part of each pair. Apologies for inartful writing. But I am still suspicious of this as a rhetorical road (which I misread Andrew as heading down.)

  2. Eric Rasmusen says:

    I think you mean “evil” rather than “moral cowardice” . What’s cowardly about taking an extremely unpopular politican stand knowing that you’ll be condemned by unanimous elite opinion? It’s important to recognize that someone can be wrong, and even evil, but brave. The Nazi SS troops in WW II were very brave. So were the 9-11 terrorists.

    • Andrew says:

      Eric:

      I’d rather not follow this particular thread too far, but, no, I don’t think it’s “very brave,” or brave at all, when SS troops or terrorists kill or torture unarmed people.

      Regarding the example of the defenders of the confederate flag, the cowardice is in these defenders not wanting to face that the flag is a defense of slavery and white supremacy. I think Coates is talking about people who say that they like the flag because it’s about heritage, not racism, and Coates’s point is that it takes continuing effort to avoid confronting the fact that the flag is about racism.

      • I just don’t buy the quantity of effort that’s supposed to be going on to avoid confronting racism. I think for most people it’s pretty easy. The only people who perceive it as difficult are those who are abnormally logical, people like Coates or professional academics. But even academics have been happily going along with NHST for decades despite a steady stream since even before Meehl of people pointing out the flaws. Most people will find it much more effort to stand up for their beliefs and refuse to do what they know is meaningless bullshit. How many people write back to the Nature editors saying “you have agreed to publish my manuscript after I justify my statistics using p values due to your standing policy of refusing to publish unless each statistic has a precise p value, but p values are complete garbage and I refuse to do this”?

        Virtually None.

        It’s moral cowardice to go along to get a long, but it’s far far easier than making a stink.

        • The same is definitely true for racism. It would take a huge amount of guts to come out and say “all the people around me who I live with here in the South that support the confederate flag are supporting racism and their actions are evil”. Believe me that’s a huge amount more effort than saying “for me and my friends, it’s all about heritage and history, not racism”

      • Eric Rasmusen says:

        The waffen-SS, most of the SS, were soldiers, who were known both for their cruelty and their bravery. Vikings, Islamic terrorists, similarly. It’s extremely important to recognize that people are mixes of vices and virtues. That’s one of my points in my essay on the Ted Hill affair in math— good people can do bad things; bad people cn do good things.

        I understand Coates’s point now. I agree that it is cowardly to say you like the Confederate flag because of Robert E. Lee and being proud of being a redneck when the real reason is that you dislike blacks. It is an empirical question as to which of those motives is the usual one. It depends a lot on the context.

        • Peter Erwin says:

          Eric,
          I think the problem is that you seemed (at least) to be arguing from a comprehensive, all-or-nothing concept of “bravery”: someone is either brave all the time and in all circumstances, or cowardly all the time and in all circumstances.

          Whereas I would argue that it’s perfectly possible for someone to be, for example, physically brave during circumstances of direct physical danger and yet also be shy and retiring and conformist in social circumstances, or indeed “cowardly” in a moral/political sense as Coates suggests. An SS soldier could be very brave when fighting on the battlefield and not at all brave in other circumstances. (Refusing an order to massacre civilians or prisoners of war could require a great deal of courage, for example, but few if any SS soldiers demonstrated that.)

  3. > continuing effort to defy logical gravity
    Suppressing doubt and keeping it suppressed likely is a lot more work than resolving it and moving on.

  4. yyw says:

    Does it mean that we should call religious people (Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.) moral cowards? On a more serious note, I think for many people, looking at unpalatable truth takes more effort than looking away.

  5. Jonathan says:

    A serious post but I disagree: history and the events of this or any other day amply demonstrate that moral cowardice, if that’s the phrase you want to use, is in fact both the logical and rational choice for those people. You are confusing or conflating levels within a multi-level model in which you either perceive a different, perhaps better logic, or you wish to impose your view as logical. It helps to look at history because obviously the Confederacy did not last. Neither did the Third Reich but look around the world and tell me that deeply illogical prejudices and hatreds don’t govern the hearts and minds of entire populations. Look at the basic figures for the US and tell me why Jews are always the target of over half the hate crimes when there aren’t many Jews who can be targets.

    Or consider the effect of well-poisoners like those who spread lies about Jews. You must have heard that Linda Sarsour, the darling of the Left, says that Israel trains US police to target and kill US minorities. (There is video from just a few weeks ago.) When African-American demonstrators repeat that kind of evil lie, aren’t they avoiding easily available facts in order to believe something they can blame as the cause. It’s moral cowardice not to take the time to check your own beliefs when they obviously conflict with current reality if you just take a moment to check … or is that only true when you are looking back 150 years? If so, then you’re not getting at anything.

    • I agree, moral cowardice doesn’t take much effort at all for most people. People at this blog, and Coates, believe it must because they are abnormally logical, it viscerally bothers logical people to deal with these things. But for most people it’s a breeze.

      “Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
      “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
      –Alice in Wonderland.

      • Put another way, pretty much everything requires *some* effort, the question isn’t whether something requires effort, but rather whether it requires more or less effort compared to the various alternatives.

        Moral cowardice is mostly about choosing the path of least overall effort regardless of the fact that this path is in some sense wrong. If it were easy to simply do X (acknowledge confederate racism, refuse to do NHST to get your paper published, stand up and say unsuitable people nominated by your party shouldn’t be confirmed to important government positions… whatever) people would be doing it right and left.

      • Divya Schäfer says:

        Not to be too pedantic, but I do believe this quote is from Alice Through the Looking Glass, from chapter 5 “Wool und Water” and not from Alice in Wonderland.

    • Andrew says:

      Jonathan:

      This is just a minor part of your comment but it’s interesting. You write, “You must have heard that Linda Sarsour . . .” I’ve actually never heard of Linda Sarsour, ever.

      Just an example of something that I think happens to all of us, that there’s some topic that we’re familiar with, and we assume that other people have heard of, but they haven’t.

      This has no bearing one way or another on your general point; it’s just good to remember that what is foremost in our minds is not necessarily something that other people are thinking about at all.

      • Terry says:

        If you haven’t heard of Linda Sarsour, you might consider expanding your reading list. I have heard of her repeatedly, and I don’t even care about her and her controversies.

        I recommend Power Line and Legal Insurrection as websites with concise and thoughtful alternate takes on the news of the day. They are often a good reality check on the conventional wisdom as they often point out gaping holes in the dominant narrative.

        Here is Legal Insurrection on Sarsour: https://legalinsurrection.com/?s=sarsour&image.x=0&image.y=0. Powerline is here: https://www.powerlineblog.com/.

        Reading both the NYT and the Washington Post doesn’t give you a well-rounded take on the news because they are collinear. You need to add a more orthogonal source like Power Line or Legal Insurrection.

  6. Eric Rasmusen says:

    Very interesting comments. There seems to be a strong link between two vices: moral cowardice and moral laziness. Very often the cowardly thing to do is also the lazy thing to do, so we’ve got an identification problem. As Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” But doing nothing can be from either cowardice, laziness, or both. Or, it can even be from procrastination.

    • Cowardice to me implies taking the personally easier path although you know it is wrong or amoral. Your examples of the Waffen SS above fail this test. Either members agreed with the politics, in which case they were in some sense amoral, or they disagreed with the politics but went ahead with the soldiering out of fear that disagreement with commanders would lead to personally worse outcomes for themselves. The “I was just following orders” (and if I didn’t I’d have been shot/imprisoned) defense so to speak.

      You might argue the WTC terrorists were brave, in that they did something they believed was moral at personal cost to themselves. But it seems clear that it’s immoral to terrorize citizens by pretty much every concept of morality including normal Islamic teachings.

      Both the Quran and the hadith often speak in emphatic manners to instruct the Muslims to adopt a morally good character. Showing kindness to people, and charity to the poor and the helpless are the most highlighted and most insisted virtues in the Quran.[4] In particular, helping people especially in their needs, forgiving others’ offenses, respecting parents and elders, fulfilling promises, being kind to people and to animals, being patient in adversaries, maintaining justice, being honest in nature, controlling anger come as major virtues in Islamic concept of morality.

      — a simple summary of moral teachings in Islam from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morality_in_Islam which agrees more or less with other sources I’ve been exposed to.

      So the simplest explanation is that these terrorists were amoral, or morally confused, perhaps led astray by amoral people in their terrorist organization who give false teachings as if they were true teachings of a religious prophet etc. In fact the whole supposed “eternal rewards in heaven” concept is a way to manipulate people into believing that an otherwise personally injurious action will result in personal gain rather than loss. If the terrorists did something morally reprehensible out of belief that it would give them a personal gain (eternally in heaven) then that fits the definition of cowardice.

  7. RJB says:

    “Motivated reasoning” is one of the more strongly supported results in psychology. I have seen it replicated repeatedly: people find ways to believe what it is their interest to believe, and typically unconsciously. Sometimes people devote extra time and effort to debunking uncomfortable evidence, while other times they accept comfortable evidence without enough time and effort that would debunk it. Allocation of time and effort may be “choice and action”, but when motivations are strong, these choices and actions appear to happen without much reflection.

  8. CumberB says:

    Edginess of the post comes from the choice of example, not from originality of observation – the psychological/moral idea that sometimes it is good to be impulsive (and even compulsive) is rather trivial. Pursuit of truth requires courage, because truth is displeasing to everyone. I doubt Coates risks more than Charles Murray. It is very very safe to be an anti-racist in the US today. When was the last time that white supremacy physically assaulted Coates for speaking publicly about what is wrong with “white people”? Coates loves to generalize about “whites” based on anecdotes and biased selection of literature, so if anyone wanted to find fault with his so-called “reasoning” it would be very easy, it would be easy to declare him a “racist hack” and ban from public speaking. Yet, it is physically and financially safe to be Ta-Nhisi Coates under white supremacy, it is very dangerous to be Charles Murray.

    • Andrew says:

      Cumber:

      1. I don’t really know, but it’s my impression that both Coates and Murray are doing just fine and that neither one is in any particular danger.

      2. More generally, I don’t think we gain much by evaluating people based on how recently they’ve been physically assaulted. If Coates or Murray is physically assaulted for something they’ve written, I’d think this is horrible. I wouldn’t disparage either of these people, based on the fact that they haven’t been physically assaulted recently.

  9. Terry says:

    It is morally facile for Coates to call people cowards for not admitting he is right and they are wrong. It takes no moral courage whatsoever for him to say this. It requires only self-righteousness.

    On the other hand, it would take genuine moral courage for Coates to admit error on his part. He has maligned Officer Wilson (the police officer Michael Brown attacked), and to my knowledge he has never apologized.

    I will give Coates credit for moral courage when he apologizes to Officer Wilson.

  10. JIm says:

    OMG. I went to read what Andy thought about statistics et al and found myself in the Civil War. Let me clear this up for you all. When I was working with a good old boy from Mississippi and he said the war was about states rights I didn’t argue with him. 1) because he was really big and mean looking 2) because he had a really sweet Japanese wife who I might upset if Big Bob got into a fight with Big Jim 3) what’s the point. That said, the Civil War really was about slavery… as an Irishman yelled in a rather impolitic way (if you get my drift) at a southern sympathizer during an NYC common council meeting back in 1861.

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