Friday, August 23, 2019

Understanding Praiseworthiness: Does more effort equal more praise?

I recently finished my first solo-authored book (available in all good bookstores in September!). Here’s a question: do I deserve any praise for doing this? Well, consider some relevant facts. I found writing, editing and indexing the book to be quite arduous. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed conceiving the main idea for the book and mapping out its main arguments; but the actual writing was a pain. It took me over a year to finish the 110,000 word manuscript. Due to various setbacks and delays, a surprising amount of that writing was completed in the last month (about 50,000 words). That month was tough. The writing took up all my energy and attention and left me with little time for anything else. What’s more, once I finished the manuscript the job wasn’t done. The manuscript had to be reviewed and I had to revise it in response to the reviewers. That took another month. After that, I had to go through two more rounds of copy edits and revisions, and, to top it all off, I then had to spend three days preparing and writing an index. If you have ever done it, you will know that preparing an index is one of the more mind-numbing tasks you can perform. First world problems, I know, but I just want to emphasise that it was a lengthy and difficult process.

So do I deserve any praise for this? You might say ‘no’ because the book isn’t any good. I wasted my time on something that isn’t worthwhile and no one deserves praise for wasting their time in this way. But let’s assume that’s not true. Let’s assume the book is worthwhile. Does the fact that I spent so much time and effort on it make its completion more praiseworthy? To be more precise, does the volume of effort expended on writing the book increase the amount of praise I am owed?

Many people have the intuition that it does. They follow a simple formula when deciding how much praise is due to someone for an achievement:

More effort = More praise (all else being equal)

But does this formula hold up to closer scrutiny? In a recent article entitled “Praiseworthiness and Motivational Enhancement: No Pain, No Praise?” Hannah Maslen and her colleagues have argued that it does not. Their argument is, ostensibly, about a particular issue in the enhancement debate — namely: whether motivational enhancement undermines praiseworthiness — but in the course of presenting this argument they develop a general theory of praiseworthiness that I found quite illuminating. I want to examine that theory in the remainder of this article. I won’t completely ignore what they have to say about motivational enhancement since it does provide a nice illustration of how their theory applies in practice, but my focus will be primarily on the theory itself.

1. The Theory of Praiseworthiness
Let’s start by thinking about what praiseworthiness is. As a first step we can say that praiseworthiness is related to, but importantly distinct from, responsibility. We often talk about people being ‘responsible’ for performing actions that produce certain results in the world (call these results the ‘outputs’ of the action). If we decide that someone is responsible for producing certain outputs, we then proceed to blame or praise them for doing so. We blame them if we think the outputs are bad; we praise them if we think the outputs are good. Both praise and blame come in degrees. In other words, an agent can be more or less praiseworthy/blameworthy depending on the circumstances.

There is a lot of attention dedicated to blame in the philosophical literature. This is not surprising. Figuring out who deserves to be blamed for doing wrong is a high stakes game and is central to most human societies. We have norms that we expect people to uphold and we see blame as an important way of policing and enforcing those norms (whether that is true and/or a good thing is beyond the scope of the present discussion). Praise has received less attention in the philosophical literature. This is unfortunate since not only is it a worthy topic in its own right, but thinking about praiseworthiness can also shed light on blameworthiness. Since they are complementary phenomena we can expect similar factors to be relevant to the assessment of both.

A theory of praiseworthiness should help to explain how praise varies depending on the circumstances. In other words, it should identify the variables that are relevant to assessing the degree of praise owed to someone for producing a certain output. What are these variables? Maslen et al argue that four variables are relevant to the assessment of praise. We can set these out in the form of a mathematical equation — since Maslen et al use mathematical language in explaining their theory — but I wouldn’t read too much into that formalisation. It’s a useful metaphor/mental model but we are obviously not going to be able to quantify the variables in this equation in any precise way.

The formula is this:

Degree of Praise = Voluntariness(Cost of Commitment x Strength of Commitment x Value of Output)

Each term in this formula needs to be explained. ‘Voluntariness’ is a threshold condition for praise. You cannot be praised for an action that is involuntary or coerced. For example, if I held a gun to your head and told you to donate all your money to charity or else, you would hardly deserve praise for being so charitable (if you decided to donate the money). So, in a sense, voluntariness can only take on one of two values in the above equation. If the action is voluntary (1) then we can conduct an inquiry into how praiseworthy it is by looking at the other three variables; if it is not voluntary (0), then those other three variables don’t really matter.

The ‘cost of commitment’ refers, unsurprisingly, to the expenses incurred by the agent in performing the actions that produced the output. The term ‘costs’ should be interpreted broadly here. The focus is not so much on the monetary cost of committing to the action (indeed, Maslen et al don’t really consider this type of cost at all in their article) but rather on the amount of time invested in the action, the psychological effort involved in performing those actions, and the foregone opportunities (opportunity cost) associated with the actions. One of the crucial arguments they make in their paper is that the ‘more effort = more praise’ intuition that many people have is too simplistic. Effort, which they define as the amount of psychological aversion an agent has to overcome when performing an action, is a type of costly commitment, but not the only type. An agent might reduce the amount of effort involved in an action but compensate for this by incurring increased costs elsewhere. For example, an athlete might take a painkiller in order to get through a training session. The painkiller will reduce the amount of effort involved in the training session because it will reduce their need to overcome pain. But this doesn’t mean that they deserve less praise as a result. On the contrary, the use of the painkiller might increase the amount of time they can invest in training and so increase their overall level of costly commitment. This might mean they deserve more praise, not less.

The ‘strength of commitment’ refers to the degree to which the agent prioritises the production of the relevant output in their life. Maslen et al separate this out from the cost of commitment but I’m not entirely clear on why they do this. It seems to me that the strength of commitment is largely measured by reference to the opportunities the agent forgoes in order to produce the output. The committed musician will dedicate themselves to perfecting their performances and will, consequently, have to sacrifice elsewhere in their lives. This seems like a straightforward manifestation of opportunity cost. I’m not sure what else strength of commitment could mean in this context. That said, I think I know what they are talking about and it seems appropriate to include it in the assessment of praise, whether that be as a specific type of cost or something different.

An important point to bear in mind is that both the costs of commitment and strength of commitment should be assessed diachronically. In other words, you shouldn’t determine how strong or costly someone’s commitment to producing an output is solely on the basis of the actions that immediately preceded the production of the output. To give an extreme example, the last character I typed in my book manuscript was a full stop (or period if you are American). It was very easy for me to type that symbol. It had a minimal cost. But it would, of course, be wrong to assess the praiseworthiness of my completing the book solely on the basis of this action. You have to look at all the things I did that got me to the point at which that full stop was all I need to complete the book.

Finally, the value of the output produced must play some role in assessing the degree of praiseworthiness. A very low value output will not warrant much praise, no matter how costly our commitment to it was. For example, I could spend years counting all the blades of grass in my backyard. This would be a very costly, very effortful endeavour, but I would not warrant much praise for doing so. The value of the output is too low. That said, Maslen et al point out that the value of the output shouldn’t play too big a role in the assessment of praiseworthiness. Many outputs are a matter of luck: you can put lots of effort and time in and not achieve the desired result. It seems like it would be wrong to let praiseworthiness be dictated too much by luck (though, as Thomas Nagel pointed out long ago: we do allow luck to play a large role in our assessments of blame).

2. Some Implications of the Theory
That’s Maslen et al’s theory in a nutshell. Apart from the minor niggle I mentioned regarding the distinction between the cost of commitment and the strength of commitment, I quite like it. But what are its practical implications? Does it overlook anything important?

Let me consider the second of those questions first. As Maslen et al point out, the theory outlined above works well for local assessments of praiseworthiness. Local assessments concern the praiseworthiness of specific agents in relation to a specific output. The opening example of the degree of praiseworthiness I might be due for finishing my book is a good example of a local assessment in action. It is specifically concerned with one output (the book) and whether I deserve praise for producing that one output. Global assessments of praiseworthiness focus not just on how an agent dedicated themselves to one specific output but on how the agent allocates their scarce resources of time and energy across different possible projects. I might deserve praise for finishing my book if you look at this through a local lens but not if you look at it through a global lens. Maybe I invested my scarce resources of time and energy poorly.

In the paper, Maslen et al give the example of a medical researcher who dedicated their time and energy to created a vaccine for one specific disease. This is a valuable end and their commitment to pursuing it was costly. As such, it looks like they deserve a lot of praise. But maybe we shouldn’t leap to that judgment. What else could they have done with their time and energy? Suppose it turns out that they could have dedicated the same amount of time and effort to producing vaccines for three separate diseases. From that more global perspective, maybe what they did wasn’t so praiseworthy after all?

This raises another, related, point. You cannot gratuitously increase the costs of producing an output and expect more praise (whether this was intended or not). So, to stick with the example of the medical researcher, suppose that instead of doing all their experimental calculations with computer software they used paper and pen. This would increase the amount of effort involved in producing the vaccine, but it’s hardly praiseworthy. Using paper and pen might have taken them longer. Sometimes the efficient production of an output is more praiseworthy than the inefficient production. Indeed, there are some people (I’m thinking specifically of David Krakauer) who argue that intelligence is largely a measure of how efficiently you can solve problems. The more efficient (i.e. the lower the cost) the better. In fact, we often praise people for their using their intelligence in this way. What’s going on here? Does this undermine the theory of praise outlined by Maslen et al? Maybe not. I suspect we praise people who come up with efficient ways of solving problems because we see the invention of those methods as a kind of valuable output, but those who make use of those efficient methods don’t subsequently increase the praise they are owed just because they use those methods.

In addition to this, although I appreciate what Maslen et al are saying about counterfactual judgments and the role they play in assessments of praiseworthiness, I do worry about our ability to make those judgments fairly and reasonably. For example, I know of several famous book authors who write everything out in longhand before transcribing it to a word processor. You could argue that this means they have used a gratuitously inefficient method for writing a book and so any assessment of praiseworthiness should be modified accordingly. Perhaps they could have written more valuable books in less time if they had adopted a more efficient method? But they will, no doubt, argue that this inefficient method actually helps them to produce a better output. It helps them to think more clearly and carefully about what they want to say. I, personally, find that hard to understand. I find writing things out by hand to be too slow and error prone. Whenever I do it I get frustrated and stop writing sooner than I would if I used a word processor. That said, who am I to second guess their judgment? Maybe they are right and they wouldn’t have done as well if they used a word processor from the get go.

The important point here, I think, is that perhaps we shouldn’t rush to judgment of those who use inefficient methods for producing certain outputs, or who dedicate themselves to tasks we think are less valuable than other tasks they could have dedicated themselves to. Determining whether someone is investing their talents and time appropriately is often very tricky and I’m not sure that we can do it well.


  1. No mention of supererogation. The complaint made here about high honours given to politicians, judges and senior public servants is that they were just doing their duty as expected of them even though it is onerous and valuable.

    1. Good point. It seems like the Maslen et al theory should be modified to point out that praise does not typically arise if you are just doing your duty. That said, I am not sure if that is universally true - some people could be praised just for doing their duty, e.g. we could praise an alcoholic who remains sober on his/her job, even if this is normally just legally/morally expected.