Friday, August 20, 2010

Phil Plait: The Question Not Asked

A couple of posts ago, I suggested that Phil Plait, in his "Don't Be a Dick" speech, asked the wrong question for understanding the role of insult and condemnation.

(See: Phil Plait's "Don't Be a Dick" Speech)

The question that Phil Plait asked was, ""How many of you lost your faith because somebody called you an idiot?" He then went on to discuss the relevance of insult and condemnation when the object of criticism is a belief. In this, what he wrote was true and accurate.

I thought I should present the alternative question that he did not ask.

The other question I had in mind can be put in a form particularly relevant to this discussion. "Have you ever stopped being a dick because somebody told you to stop being a dick?"

From the responses I have seen to Phil Plait's speech, a lot of people would have to answer "Yes." They are reporting, in blogs and comments, that Phil Plait's speech had an effect on their behavior.

Over the course of my history, I can name any number of instances where praise and condemnation has affected my character. From ending a disposition to be a very poor sport when it comes to losing, to ending a habit of being late and thinking nothing of forcing others to spend portions of their life waiting for me, I can name specific instances where condemnation made a change in me. It did not affect my beliefs. Instead, it affected my attitude towards what I believed.

I actually remember one particular case of false praise I received when I was a young child. My father praised me for something in public that he knew I had not done. Yet, the result is that I acquired a love of that which I was once falsely praised for doing.

There is no mystery as to what happened here. My childhood self learned I could get genuine praise from my father for doing that which I was being falsely praised for doing - so I took up that form of behavior. That habit became a part of my character to the point that I now continue that behavior even though my father is dead.

To borrow a phrase from the 19th century philosopher John S. Mills, what began as a means to an end became an end in itself.

These tools of praise and condemnation allow us to influence the moral character of others, using praise and condemnation to promote affections for those things that are useful and pleasing to the self and others and promote aversions to that which is harmful and displeasing to self and others - to borrow a phrase from the 18th century philosopher David Hume.

In other words, there is a place in our social discourse praise and condemnation.

This does not mean that every act of condemnation is justified.

This is true in the same sense that the fact that a criminal penal system can be justified, it does not follow that all convictions and punishments are deserved.

This argument would not refute a claim that the amount of unjust criticism being put out by members of a particular group is growing. It would only refute the extreme claim that there is no place for condemnation at all - that all condemnation is unjustified and it should never occur.

So, in more general terms, the question that Phil Plait did not ask is, "Has your character ever been affected by an act of praise or condemnation?" The answer to that question would be a universal "Yes." And this would show that, even though it is true that a great many skeptics have gotten into the practice of illegitimate condemnation, there is a legitimate role for praise and condemnation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Editorial Comment: In your last paragraph, I believe you used "never" instead of what you intended to be "ever" in this sentence: "Has your character never been affected by an act of praise or condemnation?" (Or else, the answer would be "No" instead of "Yes", but then it would be negating a negative question, which is confusing.)