Monday, August 13, 2018

RoME 2018 06: Praise

Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress Session 05: Nathan Stout
“I Have To Praise You Like I Should”

Commentator: T.M. Kwiatek (Cornell University)

Abstract: In recent years there has been an explosion of philosophical work on blame. Much of this work has focused on explicating the nature of blame or on examining the norms that govern it, and the primary motivation for theorizing about blame seems to derive from blame’s tight connection to responsibility. However, very little philosophical attention has been given to praise and its attendant practices. In this paper, I identify three possible explanations for this lack of attention. My goal is to show that each of these lines of thought is mistaken and to argue that praise is deserving of careful, independent analysis by philosophers interested in theorizing about responsibility.

The main focus of this paper is to argue for a study of praise as something distinct from the study of blame. Praise has not gotten much analysis at a time when many people are talking about blame. As such, Stout is going to present many interesting facts about praise. Over the course of the discussion he will be saying some interesting things about blame as well.

In advance, I want to note a bit of what desirism has to say about praise. Praise is an action. As such, the reasons for praising are the same types of reasons that provide reasons for other types of actions - to fulfill the desires of the agent who performs the praising.

I also wish to note that Nomy Arpaly and Timothy Schroeder in the book In Praise of Desire uses a different set of distinctions than Stout does, and I think those distinctions make sense. Specifically, Arpaly and Stout deny that praise is the opposite of blame. Blame, they argue, is an attitude, while praise is an act. I can blame a co-owner of my business for the decline in profitability last year without doing anything, but if I praise her I must perform an action. The true opposite of blame, according to the authors, is credit. That is to say, I can credit my co-owner for an increase in profitability last year without doing anything. And the true opposite of praise is condemnation, which is also an action.

This may have an impact on some of Stout's arguments.

Stout attempts to demonstrate that there are several ways in which praise is not the opposite of blame.

Stout argues that a person is blameworthy for doing the wrong thing for bad reasons, but it is not the case that a person is "praiseworthy" for doing the right thing for right actions. Many right actions are not praiseworthy. However, this may be a result of the failure to draw proper distinctions as mentioned above. Act-types are typically divided into three categories, not two. These are: obligatory, permissible, and prohibited. If Stout puts the sole category of "prohibited" and sets it up to match "blameworthy", then sets both categories of "obligatory" and "permissible" up against "praiseworthy", then this could account for the lack of parallel structure. We would need to ask whether the parallel structure could be preserved by matching "praiseworthy" with "obligatory" and "blameworthy" with "prohibited".

Strictly speaking, this does not seem to raise any objections. The parallel structure is broken in part because "the right and the good" contain a category of supererogatory actions (praiseworthy actions that are not obligatory), whereas there is no similar category on the blameworthy/prohibited side. That, itself, suggests a distinction.

Stout also mentioned that blame always has an affect (emotional component) but praise does not. That is to say, when we blame somebody, it seems to always be the case that there is some form of contempt lurking in the background. However, praise can be heartless.

There is polite praise but not polite blame. Everybody who asks a question in a presentation must begin by praising the speech. This called into my mind the custom of tipping. It seems obligatory to give a tip, even in some case regardless of service, where tipping in one sense seems to have been meant at as a way of expressing praise. I can gratuitously give people something good, but may not gratuitously harm them. I can freely give somebody $100, but not so freely take $100 away.

Stout further argues that blame suffers from a problem of hypocrisy that does not apply to praise. We disregard blame when it comes from somebody who does what he condemns, but bit praise when one does what the praise giver does not do.

Finally, a lack of capacity reduces blame, but seems to expand praise. A child may escape blame due to a lack of capacity, but the praise of children is not limited due to lower capacity. Indeed, children seem to get extra praise. Indeed, children are praised for actions expected from adults. However, we expect these actions from adults on the assumption that they received proper moral education as a child.

Note that desirism sets praise and condemnation on a foundation of molding desires. The use of praise and condemnation is to trigger the reward system. However, praise and condemnation are also actions that are themselves governed by reasons, and the reasons to praise and condemn is not limited to molding desires. Other interests also motivate (provide reasons to do or forbear) praise and condemnation. This is an example where it is tempting to argue (falsely) that there is only one morally relevant reason to praise or condemn. This is as false here as it was in Session 01.

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