Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Good vs Praiseworthy - need more? Yeah, right.

There's a clear distinction between being good or bad, on the one hand, and being praiseworthy or blameworthy, on the other. This can be seen in any cases where the evidence is misleading. (Clayton discusses some examples here.) If some action was overwhelmingly likely to be harmful, but through a stroke of luck just happened to have beneficial consequences, then it's good (or "morally fortunate") that you so acted, but you're blameworthy nonetheless. It is appropriate to apply social censure because you need to be discouraged from acting similarly in the future, given that next time you probably won't be so lucky. Anyway, I hope this distinction is clear enough, so I'll move right along.

What I'm wondering about is whether there's really anything much more we can say by way of making ethical distinctions. In particular, can we identify a distinct concept of what is morally "right", or what a person "ought" to do? If not, and the good vs praiseworthy distinction is all we've got to play with, then does anything substantive rest on which category we choose to align the word "right" with? Or is it a merely terminological dispute? I mean, presumably everyone agrees that it's better when good things happen, but that people should be blamed when they perform blameworthy actions, so what is there left to say? What extra work is the word "right" doing for us?


  1. 'Praiseworthy' and 'blameworthy' are, properly, virtue terms aren't they? Whereas as you've presented them 'good' and 'bad' (being applied to actions in the way outlined - we could I suppose apply them in terms of character and get a much less clear distinction) aren't virtue terms but assessments of some particular action.

    So we could say that some action is good if it returns fortunate consequences, even though the person is blameworthy for doing it because it was the expression of a vice, and vice versa with bad and praiseworthy actions (here we could say something like 'well, it's the thought that counts', if we want to).

    So if praiseworthy and blameworthy are evaluative of virtues, and good or bad of actions (in the light of effects, at least), it seems to leave a clear place for notions of oughts or rights. What is right to do is what we have an obligation to do (before the fact), which is to say something we are required to do by virtue of (whatever ethical law). This strikes me as tolerably distinct, though there's a caveat that needs made here.

    The thing to note is that a consequentialist will define, I would assume, 'ought' and 'right' as above in terms of 'good' (you ought to do what has the best consequences, etc), and praiseworthy or blameworthy in terms of characteristics that tend to incline people to perform right (so defined) actions. A virtue theorist will tend to define 'good' in terms of the expression of a virtue (I would at assume), and 'ought' in terms of the normative force of virtues (you ought to act according to whichever virtue is relevant to this situation as determined by your practical reason, etc). And a deontologist will similarly define the above in terms of 'ought' or 'right'.

    The real difference here is which we take to be primary: they're all interdefineable once you've settled on one.

  2. I agree with Dr. Pretorius here. The distinction you're talking about could be described as being between what is ex ante right (a prospective assessment of what decision will maximize expected value based on the situation before the decision) and what is ex post right (a retrospective assessment of what decision would have led to the maximum actual value, based on the results that the available decisions actually would have had). The two can differ when chance is involved (most obviously, when when you're gambling on something like a coin flip, with the possible outcomes having moral value and not just economic value for you).

    There are variations on these concepts, based on how demanding you are of your agent. For instance, you could identify ex ante right with the decision that an ideal agent (like Hare's archangel) would have made in the position of the decision maker. This ideal agent would make the best possible estimations of outcomes and probabilities given the information available, while a real person would not be capable of this. Or, you could identify ex ante rightness based on the decision that seemed to maximize expected value, based on the decision maker's estimates of outcomes and probabilities (with the claim being that errors in these estimates are merely an epistemic failure, not a moral one). Or, you could take an intermediate position, maybe defining ex ante rightness in terms of the best estimates of outcomes and probabilities that the decision maker was capable of, given limited cognitive and observational abilities, limited time, etc. There are plenty of other variations. The standard could also be less demanding than maximizing.

    Blameworthiness and praiseworthiness, as the good doctor says, are assessments of the agent, not of the action. Especially for an indirect utilitarian like yourself, these should generally be different from either kind of rightness. A person who has the best possible character will sometimes act based on a disposition or a principle in a way that is contrary to whichever definition of rightness we pick (perhaps keeping a promise when it was foreseeable that things would turn out better if it were broken). I think that this is what Parfit called "blameless wrongdoing". In general, acting on a disposition that is good to have (even if you don't have the best possible character) is usually enough to make an action praiseworthy rather than blameworthy. Some actions might be both praiseworthy and blameworthy, if they are evidence of multiple dispositions, some of which are good (virtuous) and some of which are bad (vicious).

  3. Doesn't it frustrate you to debate possibilities that can only draw inconclusive answers?

  4. Yes, though luckily for us this isn't one of those cases.

  5. hello Richard

    something i have been thinking about (perhaps in consequence of all this reading in chivalric poetry) is that there are actions which are both blameworthy and praiseworthy simultaneously. a man (or woman) may behave in a stubborn manner with disastrous consequences to himself and others; which may display lack of wisdom or balance or forethought or even of compassion, but which may also simultaneously betray courage and determination (sometimes called "mettle"). eg. Roland de Roncesvalles. other examples abound.

    in this sense, of course, these actions are "blameworthy" or "praiseworthy" in the virtue ethics sort of way, and Moore and assorted utilitarians would probably have no truck with it. but in the virtue ethics sense, such actions would be praiseworthy because they would prove the existence of a praiseworthy characteristic (say, courage) or blameworthy because they betrayed a shameful character flaw (say, cowardice).

    it may or may not be relevant that orindary people still seem to talk in way, rather than the way you propose?

  6. upon reflection, the dispute ("merely terminological" as you call it) is probably not very important. it is *academic*. real life situations in which a clear utilitarian calculation can be made (i.e. doing x has a definite positive outcome, doing the opposite of x has a defintie negative outcome) are rare. invariably, in real life, we have to deal with problems which do not have clear cut solutions, but whose some solutions may, at best, on balance, produce somewhat better results than others. (eg. "should i dump my wife of 20 years in favor of my new (and pregnant) girlfriend?"). ergo, situations in which one has an opportunity to commit a good but blameworthy acts (or its opposite number, the bad but prasieworthy one) are probably negligibly few. there is no escape from individual moral responsibility which implies making the best of the muddle which is life.

  7. My father used to tell a true story about a situation like this.

    He intercepted a pass in the end zone and ran it back for a touchdown. He was then benched. He ran it up the middle. On a fourth down play from the 30 yard line.

    Knock it down. Ball comes back on the 30. Grab it and put a knee down, it comes back on the 20. But run it up the middle? I'd forgotten the story until my brother intercepted a pass in the endzone and put a knee down instead of running out with it.

    I went "huh?" and had the story repeated to me.

    There are lots of examples of foolish risks that work out (many entrepenuers engage in foolish leverage, some get wealthy, most go bust) and of people afraid to take the right risk because there is risk.

  8. hey stephen
    i dont follow the game terminology, but i gather you mean that risk is one of the things we have to contend with when trying to deal with the muddle of life. and you are right, of course: there is risk in everthing: Hal says to Flastaff: "Fie! 'tis dangerous to eat! to sleep!". i think one could say the same thing about blameworthiness and praiseworthiness. clear cut situations are precious few and far in between.

  9. Blar, I guess I was thinking that the only interesting moral categories here are praise/blameworthiness and good/bad (or what you call ex post rightness). What you call ex ante rightness is too unreliable. After all, if acting on our judgments of expected value was a reliable moral strategy, we wouldn't need indirect utilitarianism. We could all just try directly to maximize the good. But we know that doesn't work. So we shouldn't want people to act on such judgments. That is, we shouldn't want people to do what you call the 'ex ante right' action.

    What we should want people to do (and perhaps you instead intended 'ex ante right' to refer to this?) is to act on that practical-level moral strategy that will have the best long-run consequences. But that's just where praiseworthiness and blameworthiness come in. Maybe they're assessments of the agents, but I'd've thought these virtue terms could effectively apply to actions too, e.g. when you say an agent is blameworthy for doing act A.

    So if the only thing the word 'right' is doing is applying to actions which indicate a praiseworthy agent, well, that's not really contributing much new to our moral discourse, it seems to me.

    Dr. P. suggests: "What is right to do is what we have an obligation to do (before the fact)"
    But I'm not sure the notion of an 'obligation' is any clearer than the notion of 'right' action, so that doesn't really help me much. Even supposing there really are such things as 'obligations' (and it puzzles me what they might be), we might ask what we're obligated to do, and then we're back at the start. Perhaps we can stipulate that you're obligated to do whatever actions would be praiseworthy. Or a direct consequentialist might insist we're obligated to do whatever (the evidence suggests) will have the best consequences. But what are they disagreeing about, really?

    My point is that, for all practical purposes, it seems that praise/blameworthiness and good/bad consequences are all that matter. If you agree about those, then won't you agree about most things that arise in moral life? Well, I suppose I'm assuming that we'll want people to act in praiseworthy ways, but perhaps this is a substantive assumption I'm making about the nature of what's "right". Since praise and blame are assessments made after the fact, I suppose it's possible that we might (morally) want someone to do something blameworthy, or think they're obligated to, or whatever. Then 'rightness' could come apart from the virtue terms. I guess that makes sense. I'll need to think about this some more.

  10. But as I thought I noted above - this problem is mostly the result of deciding that some form of consequentialism is correct and pointing out that after that is granted the sense in which there is some meaning to 'right' or 'obligation' is a somewhat trivial one. Virtue terms only escape this fate by being in some sense tangential and (occasionally) usefully descriptive in a way that the others aren't, but I think you could probably have made the same point with regards to them, if less forcefully. My central point, though, was that this is just a feature of how a lot of our basic moral catagories function: once you accept one as primary, the rest can be neatly parceled out in terms of the one that is primary - making them look a little unnecessary.

    I agree that the notion of obligation is unclear. I'm not sure this isn't also true for the good or what count as good consequences - even for utilitarians (even 'pleasure' is a deeply ambiguous and iffy term to use, and preference utilitarianism doesn't necessarily help out as much as it could).

    As an afterthought, though, wouldn't a good defense for a concept of 'right' or 'obligation' at least on a minor level be that we do in fact feel obligated in some occasions, or that we should do something or other, even if it is something we don't really want to do? We could of course be mistaken about those feelings (they could just be unfortunate remnants of bad moral theory), but I find that uncompelling. They are very basic sorts of things. This doesn't get you much - it can still be accounted for in consequentialist terms and all, but that should be enough to block any elimination (in the same way that virtue terms seem more stable because even if they amount to 'leads to the most good' we can still point at them as things separate from the analysis).

  11. > to act on that practical-level moral strategy that will have the best long-run consequences.

    Can w predict these any better than we can predict the corect actions? maybe we can or maybe that is jsut an ilusion as a result of the difference perspectives. Then if we can be mistaken with our rules we reach a point where it is confusing whethr a person is blame worthy or praiseworthy because it depends on if we are using his rules your rules or my rules.

    I also thing using the same word makes it clearer as opposed to saying good vs praise worthy. you might use ex ante ex post and from the eye of god or whatever other perspective is required.


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