The Sensible Knave

"I do not see that we are further along today than where Hume left us. The Humean predicament is the human predicament." - W.V.O. Quine

Thursday, October 27, 2005

In Praise of Duty

Keith Burgess-Jackson reconsiders whether one should be praised for doing one's duty

Imagine praising someone for keeping a promise, repaying a debt, not cheating, telling the truth, not stealing, or, god forbid, not murdering. “Did you murder anyone today? No? Good for you! Keep it up!” I used to think one should never be praised for doing one’s duty, but now I wonder. I can think of two situations in which praise is appropriate.

The first is where the duty is onerous. Suppose I have made an extravagant promise, one that is costly for me to keep. Praising me for keeping the promise seems appropriate, since it would have been easy for me to fail. The praise reflects the degree of difficulty of doing my duty. Other things being equal, the harder it is to do one’s duty, the more praiseworthy it is.

Suppose A selflessly performs a difficult task for the good of others, having been under no obligation to do so. We ought to shower him with praise. Suppose B performed the same action, only he had promised to do so beforehand. Is that a reason not to praise him? One might argue that we are really praising him for having promised to perform the action, rather than for actually performing it. Yet, we rarely praise others just for making promises. A more plausible account is that we are praising the promise-keeper for the whole of his conduct: making and keeping the promise.

Making promises that you will go on to keep goes beyond what we call "minimally decently conduct." Minimal decency seems to be the baseline for praiseworthiness. We don't praise conduct that merely adheres to its standards. Rather, we recognize adherence by witholding condemnation. As long as there are duties to be more than minimally decent, we can find occasion to praise those who only do their duty.