The Ethics of Praise

Thanks to the LATAM Free Will Project I just had he chance to attend a very interesting workshop on The Ethics of Praise. It started with a talk by Andrea Vial on the amazing work she has been doing on the relation between praise and stereotypes. In particular, she gave empirical evidence that, for example, if you praise more a girl for doing well at a ‘masculine’ task, you are communicating to her that you did NOT expect her to do as well at it as she did. Thus, you reinforce the stereotype that women usually do not do as good as men in this sort of tasks (since the hypothesis that she was expected to not do as well was because she was a girl is quite socially salient). This means that even if you actually are good at something that does not match social expectations, when you are praised for it, this does not motivate you to further pursue the activity, but on the contrary, makes you withdraw from it in order to avoid calling attention to how you fail to conform to social expectations (again, even if it is in a positive way!). So maybe handing out special prizes for minorities in fields like STEM or philosophy is not such a good idea, given our goal of attracting more diversity in those fields. It reinforces the stereotype that they are masculine fields and that these minorities are behaving in a way that is not expected of them as members of those minority groups. Both things are harmful.

During the Q&A session of her talk, many interesting issues were raised as well. For example, David Shoemaker made some interesting points about how difficult it is to draw the boundaries of the concept of praise – an issue that will dominate part of Emily Venita Bingeman talk’s Q&A session as well. For example, just as there are back handed compliments, a criticism can also be a back handed compliment. The central question here is what is the moral and politically relevant category. For Bingeman, as I understood her, there is not much point in making a distinction between what Manuel Vargas suggested calling “explicit” and “functional” praise. what I call “complimenting”, i.e. explicitly and verbally expressing a positive assessment is one way of praising, but the difference between them is not relevant to the ethical issue. The main point of Bingeman’s talk, as far as I understood it is that, even though one may think that it is always good to praise, because of its close relation to expectations and because expectations can be harmful, praise can sometimes be indirectly, but still significantly harmful, so we should care about getting praise right. The task is to determine what is required to get praise right in the political and moral senses. For this goal, making a difference between explicit and functional praise is not important, i.e., it is not a central factor to understand the moral repercussion of the act of praise and the agent’s moral and political responsibility.

For the last talk of the workshop, Nathan Stout defended the claim that some kinds of undeserved praise can be directly harmful as well. Here is the simple example: someone compliments me for the stylishness of my shirt, but it was not me but, say, my mother who got it for me as a Christmas present and I am using it now reluctantly, perhaps I had no other clean shirt to wear or something like that. I would more likely feel embarrassed even though it was the other person who assumed something false, i.e., that I had chosen to get and wear my stylish shirt. And in order to ameliorate my embarrassment I would most likely correct the record. 

When do we have a moral duty to correct (what you take to be) other person’s error? According to Nate Stout when the error is to credit you in public with something you did not do, you must correct the record. The question is why? According to Stout, it is because you empathize with the person who actually deserved the credit. But it might as well be that if you do NOT correct the error, yet it comes out, this will make you look as selfishly deceitful, as a fraud. And as Emily Bingeman correctly pointed out, this generates an empirical hypothesis: that one would be less willing to correct undeserved praise if there were not others listening to the praise or if there was no significant risk that the falsity would be detected. But for me, it seems to be a corollary from the more general principle that if someone says something patently false (i.e. that it is relatively easy to realize that it is false) that is advantageous to you, you have a duty to correct it in order to avoid the appearance that you wanted people to believe such convenient (to you) falsity. Perhaps the general phenomenon is that you do not want to be obliged to lie 

I was very surprised that the issue of how praise (specially undeserved praise) relates to modesty did not come up until Santiago Amaya brought it up in the very last minutes of the workshop. Praise may hurt one’s modesty.

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