Praise and blame

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Praise and blame are closely connected with the concept of moral responsibility for an action, omission, or a trait of character. When someone is morally responsible for doing something wrong we say that his or her action is blameworthy. By contrast, when someone is morally responsible for doing something right, we may say that his or her action is praiseworthy.There are of course other senses of praise and blame that are not ethically relevant. One may praise someone’s good dress sense, and blame the weather for the crop failure. This article will be exclusively concerned with praise and blame in their moral senses.

Philosophical interest in praise and blame derives from questions surrounding the appropriateness praise and blame responses. What makes it appropriate to praise and blame someone? There are two main schools of thought on this question. Firstly, utilitarian thinkers argue that praise and blame are appropriate just in case they bring about useful results. The second school of thought may be called the desert theory. According to this theory, praise and blame are appropriate only when they are deserved. Immanuel Kant is an important proponent of the desert theory.


Various analyses have been offered as specifying necessary conditions for appropriate moral praise or blame. Aristotle says that praise and blame are only proper responses to voluntary actions and states of character. He defines a voluntary action as an action that is done with knowledge of what one is doing (i.e., not in factual ignorance) and which one brings about by one’s own ‘will’ or determination. This latter ‘control condition’ on voluntariness becomes particularly prominent in the free will / determinism debate. In this context, some philosophers have argued that moral responsibility for actions, particularly, blame for wrong actions, requires a certain strong sense of freedom which involves exemption from causal order of natural events. Finally, also in relation to the conditions of praise and blame, some have asked whether the conditions of praise and blame are structurally analogous. In this respect, Immanuel Kant famously argued that praiseworthiness requires more than voluntary action, but also includes a requirement that agent do the right thing for the right reason. In Kant’s terminology, this amounts to doing the right thing out of the desire to do one’s duty.

Praise, blame, and moral responsibility

Praise and blame are closely connected with the concept of moral responsibility for an action, omission, or a trait of character. There are of course other senses of praise and blame that are not ethically relevant. One may, for example, praise someone’s good dress sense, and blame the weather for the crop failure. This article will be exclusively concerned with praise and blame in their moral senses.

When someone is morally responsible for doing something wrong we say that his or her action is blameworthy. By contrast, when someone is morally responsible for doing something right, we may say that his or her action is praiseworthy. Being morally responsible is therefore a matter of being worthy of particular types of responses depending on whether one has done right or wrong. Praise-type responses are those that indicate a positive assessment of a person and/or action and include admiration, esteem, and when verbally expressed, praise and commendation. By contrast blame is connected to negative judgments of a person and/or action and include sentiments such as resentment and indignation. Praise and blame are therefore types of ethical responses involving attitudes directed at people who have acted in praise or blameworthy fashion.

One significant difference between praise and blame per se, is that praise is always expressed, whereas blame need not be. So while admiration may be understood as a praise-type response, for it is a response to moral achievement, only expressions of admiration would strictly count as praise. By contrast, the varieties of blame-type responses such as indignation and resentment do not need to be expressed in order to constitute blame.

The conditions of praise and blame

Although questions of moral responsibility, of praise and blame, occur early in Greek literature, in the works of Homer and the tragic poets, most scholars agree that Aristotle was the first to present a systematic theory. In his famous discussion of moral responsibility in Book III of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes: “… on voluntary actions praise and blame are bestowed, on those involuntary, pardon, and sometimes also pity” [1109b30]. This is therefore an attempt to specify the proper conditions of praise and blame. On Aristotle’s analysis, it is appropriate to respond to someone with praise or blame only if he or she acted voluntarily. Aristotle applies the same conditions to character traits such as courage or cowardice. In other words, he says that one is praiseworthy or blameworthy only for those character traits which one played some role in acquiring.

Aristotle defines a voluntary action as an action that is done with knowledge of what one is doing (i.e., not in factual ignorance), and which has its ‘moving principle’ inside the agent. In other words, Aristotle specifies a (1) knowledge and (2) a control condition on voluntariness, and hence on praise and blame. In illustration of how the ‘knowledge condition’ (non-ignorance) undermines responsibility, Aristotle mentions Aeschylus’ defense against the charge of revealing the rites of the Mysteries; this was that he did not know that the “he was divulging a secret.” This is a clear case of the ignorance of a bit of information or ignorance of fact. Although Aeschylus voluntarily revealed the information, his act is not correctly described as ‘voluntarily revealing a secret'. This is the sense in which he was ignorant of what he was doing. This constitutes ignorance of the particulars, and according to Aristotle renders his act involuntary. In illustration of the ‘control condition’ Aristotle mentions a scenario in which a man is carried off by the wind. In this sort of case, Aristotle says, the moving principle is outside of the agent, he does not move himself at all; he does not really do anything. As a result, his action, if it can be called that, is involuntary and he is not praise or blameworthy for what he has done.

Aristotle makes one important qualification on this account that makes voluntariness a necessary condition for praise and blame. Aristotle points out that his claim requires some modification to accommodate cases in which ignorance is no excuse. His strategy is to accommodate this fact of culpable ignorance within an extended framework of intentional wrongdoing. He says: “Even ignorance is in itself no protection against punishment if a person is thought to be responsible for his ignorance” [1113b30]. The point is that although a person might have been incapacitated at the time of his action, he was the cause of becoming that way, and consequently bears responsibility for acting as he did. This diagnosis accounts rather nicely for instances of the ignorance which might result in drunken wrongdoing.

It seems that Aristotle would account for more difficult cases of culpable ignorance in roughly the same way: this is the tenor of his further discussion of carelessness. Here he suggests that even when someone’s ignorance is part of a larger pattern of careless behavior, the responsibility resides in a person’s having made himself careless. Aristotle’s analogy is of a person who becomes unhealthy by living a life of indulgence and disobeying doctor’s orders. To this extent, he never chooses his illness, but could have easily avoided it. Aristotle sums this up very elegantly: “… but once you have thrown a stone and let it go, you can no longer recall it, even though the power to throw it was yours, for the initiative was within you” [1114a15].

Although Aristotle quite vividly illustrates a number of cases in which involuntariness undermines the appropriateness of moral praise or blame, he never says what this inappropriateness actually amounts to. Consequently he fails to provide any explanation for normative force of involuntariness in his theory of responsibility. There seem to be two possibilities for what Aristotle might have meant by it being inappropriate to praise or blame involuntary actions. Either it is inappropriate to blame someone who acted in ignorance because (1) this response (blame) has no point, or (2) because blame is not in this case deserved. Scholars disagree on the question of which of these accounts Aristotle might have held. These two possibilities are discussed in more detail in the next section in terms of their historical development by utilitarians and their critics.

Main conceptions of praise and blame

It is important to distinguish the (1) question of what would make it appropriate to praise and blame, from (2) the question of when (under what conditions) it is appropriate to praise or blame. Aristotle’s analysis answers the second question, but not the first. There are two main schools of thought on the first question. Firstly, utilitarian thinkers argue that praise and blame are appropriate just in case they bring about useful results. In other words, a utilitarian theory justifies attributions of responsibility (praise and blame) exactly as it would justify any other action. An action (in this case, praising and blaming) is right if and only if it brings about good results. The second school of thought on the question of the appropriateness of praise and blame may be called the desert theory. According to philosophers of this orientation, praise and blame are appropriate only when they are deserved. This is helpfully understood as a denial of the utilitarian claim: according to the desert theorist the usefulness of praise and blame are not the primary determinants of their appropriateness.

Utilitarian theory

The basic question which Aristotle fails to properly address is this: why is it appropriate only to praise and blame voluntary actions? Why is it inappropriate to (e.g.) blame an action done in ignorance, and hence, inappropriate to blame an involuntary action? Traditional ‘utilitarian’ accounts of moral responsibility have an answer to this question. Utilitarian philosophers argue that blame has a primarily deterrent or therapeutic function, discouraging bad actions and traits of character; conversely, on this view, praise has the function of positively reinforcing useful tendencies and dispositions. For example, we blame children in order to change their behavior, and to get them to refrain from doing wrong in future. So the point of blaming is to modify undesirable tendencies in others. Similarly, the point of praising is to encourage desirable tendencies in others. In both cases the relation of ‘appropriateness’ is to be made out in terms of the utility (usefulness) of responding to someone with praise or blame.

Aristotle said that praise and blame are bestowed only on voluntary actions and character traits. This generated the question of in what respect it would be inappropriate to praise and blame involuntary actions. The utilitarian theory of responsibility has a neat answer to this question. Only when an agent acts voluntarily do his actions reflect upon his character. In cases of coercion or constraint, the motive does not belong to the constrained or coerced person but the one doing the constraining. So when a person does not act voluntarily in this sense his ‘act’ indicates nothing about his moral character. When an agent acts from ignorance or as a result of threats or coercion, he will typically not have displayed any bad motivation to begin with; there is therefore no reason to try to improve his motivations and blame loses its point. Compare this passage from Morris Schlick (1962):

When a man is forced by threats to commit certain acts we do not blame him, but the one who held the pistol at his breast. The reason is clear: the act would have been prevented had we been able to restrain the person who threatened him; and this person is the one whom we must influence in order to prevent similar acts in the future. (Morris Schlick 1962, p. 54)

The utilitarian theory presents an account of why it is appropriate blame people for their voluntary actions. When an act is involuntary -for example, coerced or ignorant– it will not reflect any defect in the agent’s character; and since the point of moral blame is essentially to influence behavior, involuntariness eliminates the rationale for moral sanction. A related story may be told with respect to the propriety of praising people for involuntary actions.

The utilitarian theory of moral responsibility has a forward-looking orientation. This means that it emphasizes that the appropriateness of praise and blame is justified in terms of what consequences or results are achieved by praise and blame. The Utilitarian theory of responsibility has a long and venerable history, beginning with the Stoics, through Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), David Hume (1711-1776), and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Latter day defenders include Morris Schlick, and Daniel Dennett.

The utilitarian theory has been subject to much criticism over the years. Many philosophers opposed to the utilitarian theory argue that it is appropriate to blame someone only if he really deserves it. Blame is a response to someone’s having done wrong; it is a judgment based on what a person has done. The basic problem with Utilitarian theories of praise and blame is that they don’t support the deeply held moral principle that it is unfair to blame someone when he has not done wrong. This should be clear by considering that on a utilitarian theory blame is appropriate when it brings about good results for the majority. But, clearly, blaming or punishing an innocent person might have this effect if it will prevent a large number of other people from suffering. (See utilitarianism) Thus, there is on the utilitarian view no reason to restrict praise and blame to those who have done right or wrong, and hence it cannot be regarded as a satisfactory account of our actual practice of moral responsibility.

Desert theory

The second major theory of responsibility, of praise and blame, is a backward looking, merit-based account, which can be called the desert theory. (It is also sometimes called the retributive theory, particularly in the context of punishment rather than blame.) The desert theory says that moral responsibility is applicable to a person in virtue of what he or she has done. In this respect it says that responsibility (praise and blame) are justified not in terms of the results of praising and blaming but solely as a kind of response to right or wrong actions. If someone has done wrong then he or she deserves blame. If someone has done something very right, then he or she deserves praise. Praise and blame are not, on this view, attempts to influence and control the behavior of other people, but a sort of registering of the moral significance of their actions.

Although the retributive theory also has a long history, endorsed by such thinkers Epicurus, Saint Augustine, Thomas Reid (1710-1796), and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), it was not until recently that work has been done to elucidate the actual sense in which responsibility (praise and blame) is backward looking. One reason for this is probably that most attention was focused on the relation between free will and moral responsibility (see the next section). It seems reasonable to say that significant advancements were made on this topic only in the twentieth century particularly as a result of P.F. Strawson’s landmark paper, Freedom and Resentment.


P.F. Strawson’s theory of moral responsibility presented in Freedom and Resentment is a significant advance over the utilitarian theory. Strawson argues that the concepts of moral responsibility, praise and blame, are to be understood in terms of a set of moral emotions, ‘reactive attitudes’, such as guilt, resentment and indignation. On Strawson’s analysis, an other-regarding reactive attitude such as resentment is a response directed toward another when he has failed to meet an expectation or demand for proper respect and consideration. (Resentment is other regarding because it concerns the wrongs of others; guilt is self-regarding because it concerns one’s own transgressions). On Strawson’s analysis, then, the reactive attitudes are bound up with the demands we hold people to, being responses to the degree this demand for good will has been met or flouted.

Strawson’s important insight is that reactive sentiments are constitutive of responsibility. To hold someone as worthy of responsibility, as the sort of creature to be praised and blamed, is nothing other to be ready respond to him or her with the reactive sentiments. Strawson contrasts this stance, the stance of being prepared to hold someone responsible, with what he calls the ‘objective attitude’. The objective attitude involves a suspension of our natural responsibility indicating attitudes. For example, when treating a person who is severely mentally ill, we will not respond to his actions as though they were those of a ‘normal person’. His attempts to bring about harm will not be met with resentment but will be interpreted as symptoms of his illness rather than his rational agency.

According to Strawson, then, one’s willingness to respond to another person as a responsible agent, as someone who is worthy of praise and blame, amounts to the disposition to respond to his or her actions with the reactive sentiments. Moreover, and crucially, the reactive sentiments are structured as responses to someone’s violating demands of good will and consideration, and hence it follows that the concepts of responsibility, of praise and blame are essentially backward looking concepts. If Strawson’s analysis is correct, praising and blaming, as they occur within a structure of interpersonal relationships, do not have as their aim the control and manipulation of others. Therefore, it seems, that the desert account of responsibility, praise and blame, is a more accurate reflection of the nature of these concepts than that provided by the utilitarian theory. Of course, the utilitarian might respond to this by saying that his account was never meant to be a theory of how things actually operate but of how they should operate if they are to be morally justifiable. The reader is left to consider the extent to which this is a reasonable line of response. (See the article on utilitarianism for more on this sort of revisionist response.)

Praise, Blame, and the Free Will debate

Given the close connection between praise and blame and moral responsibility and the intimate relation of the latter with questions of free will and determinism, it is worth pointing out that one’s theory of responsibility, of praise and blame, is likely to influence one’s standpoint on the question of whether moral responsibility is compatible with determinism. (Another variation of this problem includes the compatibility of moral responsibility with divine foreknowledge.)

The basic question in the free will debate is whether free will is compatible with determinism. Determinism is generally construed as the thesis that all events in the natural world proceed according to (roughly) deterministic laws specified by the laws of physics. Free will is (roughly) characterized as the capacity of rational agents to do other than they actually do, and so the question becomes whether it is possible for human beings, to do other than they do if they are part of the natural causal order. For example, how can we make sense of Judas Iscariot freely betraying Jesus if Judas’ actions are part of the natural causal order and governed by physical laws over which he has no control?

With respect to the problem of free will, there are only two basic positions one might take: (1) incompatibilism or (2) compatibilism. As the labels indicate, incompatibilists think that free will is incompatible with determinism, whereas compatibilists think that it is compatible. Incompatibilists may be in turn divided into two groups. Firstly, the hard determinists say that free will and determinism are incompatible, and that determinism is true, so that we don’t have free will. According to the hard determinist, free will is nothing but an illusion. The second group of incompatibilists are usually called ‘Libertarians’. Libertarians argue that free will and determinism are incompatible, but, contrary to the hard determinist, say that we do have free will, and consequently argue that determinism is false. Libertarians typically think that human agents have a power of acting contrary to the laws of nature, a power to produce their own actions, so that their actions cannot be explain in terms of the fundamental laws of physics. The second basic position one might take on the free will /determinism question is compatibilism. Compatibilists stand in opposition to incompatibilists, maintaining that both the hard determinists and the libertarians have misunderstood the problem. According to the compatibilist, free will and determinism are not in conflict. It is possible that we should have free will and that determinism be true.

Until very recently, and the work of Harry Frankfurt, all parties to the free will debate agreed that free will is necessary condition for moral responsibility and hence for the appropriateness of moral praise and blame. The question of whether free will is compatible with determinism then converts into the question of whether moral praise and blame are compatible with determinism. But how it is possible that philosophers could maintain such conflicting opinions on the question of whether free will and determinism are compatible, and hence the question of whether determinism are moral responsibility (praising and blaming) are compatible? The answer has to do with the way in which they understand ‘free will’ and the function of holding people responsibility (praising and blaming). That is, compatibilists and incompatibilists give quite different accounts of the nature of free will and moral responsibility. Those who think that blame is justified only when it is deserved will usually be incompatibilists, and, by contrast, those who think that it is justified when it reforms or encourages desired behavior tend to be compatibilists.

It is instructive to consider Hume’s views on these matters. Hume is one of the main developers and defenders of a classical compatibilist position. In brief, Hume thinks that freedom is opposed to constraint, and not to causation. In general, being caused to act does not undermine one’s free will; rather only certain types of causes or impediments do so. Hume’s point is that everyone recognizes that a prisoner held in chains is not free. But this has nothing to do with a thesis of determinism but simply because he is chained up. Moreover, Hume says, the key difference between the prisoner in chains and someone who is not bound in this way, is that the latter is able to determine his conduct by his own desires. This generates a conception of free will which is compatible with determinism. In Section VIII of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume defines freedom as follows:

By liberty [freedom], then, we can only mean a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will; that is, if we choose to remain at rest, we may; if we choose to move, we also may. Now, this hypothetical liberty is universally allowed to belong to everyone who is not a prisoner and in chains.

Essentially Hume is saying that freedom means being able to govern our actions by means of our choices. That is, if we choose to do something, and we are not prevented from doing it, then we are free. More specifically, freedom amounts to our being able to act from our own motives rather than (say) as a result if being coerced. This account of freedom links up neatly with Hume’s conception of moral responsibility, which is basically that of the utilitarian theory. Consider this passage, again from Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Section VIII):

It will be equally easy to prove, and from the same arguments, that liberty, according to that definition above mentioned, in which all men agree, is also essential to morality, and that no human actions, where it is wanting, are susceptible of any moral qualities…for actions are objects of our moral sentiment, so far as they are indications of our internal character; it is impossible that they can give rise either to praise or blame, where they proceed not from these principles, but are derived altogether from external violence.

Hume’s point here is that agents’ are susceptible to praise and blame when their actions reflect upon their character. Moreover, there is some plausibility in thinking that only in cases where the agent had free will in Hume’s sense (defined above), will his actions reflect upon his character. Hume says that only actions which represent someone’s character give rise to praise and blame. But this means that even if determinism were true, blame and praise would still have a point in influencing and modify people’s characters. Hume’s position is then to combine a utilitarian theory of responsibility with a compatibilist analysis of free will in terms of being able to act from one’s own desires. According to his analysis of free will, a person is free only when he governs his action by his own desires (something which the prisoner in chains cannot do). Praise and blame then have a point only when this condition is fulfilled because only in this case is there a reason to actually try to reinforce or reform someone’s character.

In contrast with Hume’s compatibilism, those who think that praise and blame are not fundamentally attempts to alter the conduct of others, say that they are appropriate only when deserved. These incompatibilists will argue that if one’s desires are simply a result of determinism, and our desires necessitate our actions, then praise and blame are never deserved. These philosophers maintain that only a strong sense of free will, as the ability to act against one’s desires, will serve to justify the attribution of praise and blame for right and wrong actions.

Are the conditions for Praise and Blame structurally analogous?

Aristotle says that praise and blame are appropriately bestowed only on voluntary actions. Participants in the free will debate may be taken as agreeing with this, but presenting different views on the nature of the control condition of voluntary action. Recall that Aristotle says that a voluntary action is one which is done knowingly and with control over one’s action. This seems to suggest that the conditions for praise and blame are the same. We are worth of praise for our voluntary actions, and worth of blame for our voluntary actions. But we should consider what sort of intentions are necessary for praise and blame, and whether these function in exactly the same way.

The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that being praiseworthy for one’s actions requires more than acting voluntarily. It requires acting for a specific type of reason. To understand this, consider, first, that agents are not considered blameworthy only when they try to do wrong. Consider an example in which someone steals your car because he wants it for himself, and compare this with a case in which he steals your car because he wants to break the law, or wants to hurt you. It seems that in the first scenario he is blameworthy even though he did not try to do wrong, or did not try to hurt you. Rather his action is blameworthy just because it is wrong and he did it voluntarily. Consider, now, another example given by Kant. Imagine a shop owner who treats his customers honestly, always giving them the correct amount of change, and providing good products. Does this mean that he is praiseworthy for acting in these ways? Well, suppose that you know that he is acting honestly only because he wants to become rich and believes that gaining a reputation for honesty is the best way of keeping your business. Now it is not so clear that his acting honestly is in fact praiseworthy because he is only doing this to serve his own interests.

The moral that Immanuel Kant draws from this sort of example is that moral praiseworthiness requires more than voluntariness. Rather, the agent must be motivated to do what is right because it is right. Kant calls this the motivation to do one’s duty for duty’s sake. Most philosophers agree with Kant that the conditions of praiseworthiness are different from blameworthiness. However, some question whether actions done out of the motive of doing one’s duty are the only praiseworthy motives. They argue that other motives, such as sympathy, and kindness, are also praiseworthy motives. (See Kant, virtue, virtue ethics, motivation).


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