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  • Understanding First: Exploring Its Scope and Testing Its Limits
  • Marga Reimer, PhD (bio)

I thoroughly enjoyed reading and reflecting on this provocative, engagingly written, and persuasively argued paper. My commentary focuses on the authors’ “understanding first” principle. I begin by exploring that principle’s scope by appeal to aesthetic analogues to the moral cases of Pete and Jacob; I then explore its limits by appeal to cases involving agents struggling with maladaptive traits that are more self-destructive than antisocial.

According to the authors, when attempting to eliminate or reduce a maladaptive trait, it is important that the agent begin with a non-moralizing understanding of that trait’s “root cause.” In this way, the agent avoids some of the epistemically distorting and otherwise counterproductive effects associated with an approach that begins with a moralizing assessment of the problematic trait. They can then proceed with a reason-based “dispensation” of that trait.

The cases of Pete and Jacob make these points vivid and lend them considerable credence. Moreover, the authors’ “understanding first principle” arguably exemplifies a more general, and no less plausible, principle concerning the remediation of virtually any problem. Who would deny that an objective, non-normative, understanding of a problem’s “root cause” might be useful in addressing that problem? Who would deny that normativizing a problem before understanding its origin might prevent a deeper understanding of that problem and therewith its maximally effective “treatment”?

One way to showcase the intuitiveness of the authors’ “understanding first” principle would be to explore the applicability of an analogous principle to problems beyond those involving “moral matters.” Problems involving aesthetics might prove particularly illuminating in this regard insofar as aesthetics, like morality, is inherently normative and yet it lies beyond the scope of morality proper. If an “understanding first” principle can be shown to be applicable to certain types of aesthetic problems, then the authors’ already strong case for the applicability of such a principle to certain types of moral problems would be further strengthened.

In the cases of Pete and Jacob, the problems are unambiguously moral: the patently antisocial behaviors of these two individuals are paradigmatically “bad” and their premature assessment as [End Page 205] such can be epistemically distorting and otherwise counterproductive. Consider now analogous cases involving aesthetic problems. Pete and Lucie are getting ready for the holidays and are expecting family from out of town. But there are a couple of problems. Pete notices an “ugly” stain on the living room carpet and Lucie notices a subtle but decidedly “nasty” odor permeating the entire house. Neither Pete nor Lucie know where the stain came from, nor where the odor is coming from. But both the stain and the odor are “pretty gross” and so they need to “get rid of” them before family arrive. There’s no time for investigative work into “root causes.”

Pete scrubs the stain until the portion of carpet beneath it is threadbare; Lucie buys three different deodorizers, all of which eliminate the odor but only temporarily. Had Pete and Lucie understood the root causes of the “ugly” stain and “nasty” smell, their treatments might have been different—and, importantly, more effective. The stain turned out to be caused by red wine, easily treatable without leaving a noticeable “bald spot.” The lingering odor was from an easily fixable plumbing problem, albeit one requiring more extensive (and costly) work.

Pete and Lucie’s aesthetic evaluations (“ugly,” “nasty”), coupled with a lack of understanding of “root causes,” have predictable results: their control over some “pretty gross” problems is significantly diminished. Similarly, with respect to moral evaluations of maladaptive traits (“bad,” “wrong”) coupled with a lack of understanding of “root causes.” As the authors show, such evaluations can be epistemically distorting and otherwise counterproductive with the result that the agent’s control over the problematic trait is significantly reduced.

Further aesthetic analogues are easy to develop and potentially even more revealing. Imagine that Pete and Lucie, who are expecting family later in the week, are experiencing symptoms, both respiratory and gastrointestinal, that are “kind of yucky.” As with the maladaptive traits of Pete and Jacob, the problematic traits in this case are literally “in” the agent (vs...