Praise and Blame: Moral Realism and Its Application

Praise and Blame: Moral Realism and Its Application

Praise and Blame: Moral Realism and Its Application

Praise and Blame: Moral Realism and Its Application


How should a prize be awarded after a horse race? Should it go to the best rider, the best person, or the one who finishes first? To what extent are bystanders blameworthy when they do nothing to prevent harm? Are there any objective standards of moral responsibility with which to address such perennial questions? In this fluidly written and lively book, Daniel Robinson takes on the prodigious task of setting forth the contours of praise and blame. He does so by mounting an important and provocative new defense of a radical theory of moral realism and offering a critical appraisal of prevailing alternatives such as determinism and behaviorism and of their conceptual shortcomings.

The version of moral realism that arises from Robinson's penetrating inquiry--an inquiry steeped in Aristotelian ethics but deeply informed by modern scientific knowledge of human cognition--is independent of cognition and emotion. At the same time, Robinson carefully explores how such human attributes succeed or fail in comprehending real moral properties. Through brilliant analyses of constitutional and moral luck, of biosocial and genetic versions of psychological determinism, and of relativistic-anthropological accounts of variations in moral precepts, he concludes that none of these conceptions accounts either for the nature of moral properties or the basis upon which they could be known. Ultimately, the theory that Robinson develops preserves moral properties even while acknowledging the conditions that undermine the powers of human will.


Praise and blame are central features of scripture, of ethics and moral philosophy, of ancient schools of rhetoric, of criminal and civil law, of the behavioral and social sciences. They are the tested tools of childrearing and interpersonal influence, staples in the busy world of advertising and the murky world of propaganda. They are the means by which attention is drawn to the hero and the villain, the saint and the sinner, the victor and the vanquished.

If praise and blame are ubiquitous, they are also subject to misleading and sometimes gross misapplication. the burglar who can open nearly any safe excites feelings of awe, easily mistaken for admiration. the great athlete, of prodigious power and agility, arouses sentiments of admiration, easily mistaken for estimations of moral worth. the eager and loving parents, whose children can do no wrong, lavish on the most mundane performance praise otherwise due to prodigies, or engage in relentless blaming, fearful that otherwise the children will develop weak character. At the level of common understanding, it is clear that praise and blame, both as nouns and as verbs, are subject to misuse, misapprehension, disproportionality, error, and confusion. As these very nouns—these very verbs—are the lingua franca of all moral appraisal, they provide ready access to the wider and ever more cluttered domain of morality.

This book is offered as a critical inquiry into the sources and uses of praise and blame. It offers as well a defense of a form of moral “realism” by which to determine the validity and aptness of those moral appraisals expressed as praise and blame. the target of criticism is, of course, moral “relativism,” but these terms—realism and relativism—are laden with quirky and provincial connotations. Some defenders of moral realism are defending not the existence of actual moral entities or properties, but the prevalence of certain feelings or judgments that are in some sense “moral.” On this account, what is real is the psychological state, not its content. the patient in Ward-C truly believes he is a unicorn. the psychological state of belief is taken to be real; the content of the belief, nonexistent.

Moral relativism has appeared variously, but always has this signal feature by which it can be recognized. To argue that the ultimate grounding of moral judgments is relative to any of the following is not to argue as a moral relativist: human tendencies, cultural values, contextual factors, historical forces, hereditary predispositions, and/or sentiment. Rather, the moral relativist is one who contends that the ultimate validity of moral judgments is determined by such factors. It may well be the case that, for many, a correct moral appraisal arises as a result of what has been learned from the wider culture, or imposed by the present context, or closely tied to a personal feeling or . . .

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