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.
with a scene from Homerâ€™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 ‘bestâ€™ 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 ‘successfulâ€™ villain
or the person with evil intent who simply fails to carry our their desired
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.
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?
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 lifeâ€™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 ‘saintlyâ€™ 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
© 2003 Erich von Dietze
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.