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Book Review - Praise and Blame
Praise and Blame
by Daniel N. Robinson
Princeton University Press, 2002
Review by Erich von Dietze, PhD.
Jan 10th 2003

Praise and Blame is a well-written, readable, book.  Giving an overview of the many philosophical debates which impact on its central themes, it not only explores these themes but also offers some refreshing ways of understanding them.  This is an accessible book written in a way that makes the theoretical context relevant to many of the practical issues.

Praise and blame are central features in much of life - criminal and civil law, childrearing, interpersonal relationships; the world of business and even criminal activities are formed around these themes.  Praise and blame are also key themes throughout literature ranging from scripture to philosophers (especially moral philosophy), the classics and much popular writing.  Not only this, but praise and blame are central to much clinical work - many counselling and therapeutic contacts involve issues about the application of praise or blame.

Robinson opens with a scene from Homer’s Iliad where there is a discussion over the result of a chariot race.  How should the prize be awarded?  Should it go to the fastest rider, the best horseman, or the ‘best’ person?  How do we decide whom to praise?  More generally, should we praise people or outcomes?  Furthermore, how do we deal with praise when it is misapplied e.g. the admiration some might feel for a ‘successful’ villain or the person with evil intent who simply fails to carry our their desired action?

The themes of moral philosophy are located in philosophical discussion that has its roots as far back as the ancient Greeks and the Biblical writers, and has been an area for philosophical debate and discussion ever since.  Many of the main characters of philosophy are encountered throughout the book and their views are clearly and succinctly discussed.  What sets this book apart is not just the accessible philosophical discussion but the links it strives to provide with practical applications of its subject matter. 

While the book is segmented into five chapters, each with a central topic, these do not define tight boundaries for the subject matter.  Many aspects of the discussion are returned to several times over in successive chapters, and are thus woven into the development of the story. 

First Robinson defines the subject matter by delving into the debate over relativism and realism.  Is morality to be understood as objective or subjective, as largely governed by our senses and experiences or by some form of natural laws?  Are praise and blame merely another shade of reward and punishment? 

From this base he progresses to a discussion of free will and determinism.  How free are we really when making moral choices?  Do we have free will or should we rather interpret our actions as somehow determined by events or other actions and if so, how tenuous can this link become?  To what extent, if any, are we individually responsible for broader actions e.g. if I vote for someone who then enters public office, to what extent do I bear responsibility for the outcomes of that vote?

Not all actions are planned and not all consequences are predictable, some seem to be simply due to luck or fate.  Consider the needy person who wins a significant amount of money or the driver who runs over and kills a child chasing a ball across the road.  What happens when our actions or judgments lead to consequences that we describe as either good or bad luck, are there ways of understanding the moral implications of such events? 

Various practical applications of this discussion are possible.  Robinson examines the implications of praise and blame for psychological processes such as motivation, retardation, and psychological disturbances.  Whether we believe that our mental life’s defining features are due to luck, genetics or some other influence, how we understand and structure our moral world will have consequences for how we understand and deal with issues in practice such as ignorance, unconsciousness and responsibility. 

A final short chapter on punishment and forgiveness rounds off the work.  On the basis of what reasoning do we punish?  How do we evaluate when a punishment is enough?  Does the state have the right to forgive or punish on my behalf?  How do we understand those ‘saintly’ or compassionate acts that clearly go well beyond the bounds of what might ordinarily be expected of a person?  Who has the right to forgive and how far should forgiveness go?

I very much enjoyed reading this book.  It is thought provoking and has helped me to place a new framework around a number of issues I had not thought about in this way before.  I have come to see that many of the issues I deal with in daily life can helpfully be understood and thoughtfully analysed as part of the discourse of moral philosophy, and this clearer understanding must influence my practice.



© 2003 Erich von Dietze


Erich von Dietze is the Multi-Faith Chaplain at Curtin University of Technology, Perth Western Australia.  This service is based within the context of the University Counselling Services at Curtin.  He is the author of Paradigms Explained (Praeger 2000) and contributes to the areas of philosophy, ethics, spirituality and chaplaincy.