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The Wrong Understanding of Praise


It’s widely accepted that whether or not an agent merits praise for performing a particular action importantly depends on her motivation in doing so. What has received less attention is the importance of an agent’s moral understanding to whether she merits praise for performing a particular action, or whether her action has ‘moral worth.’ The first task of this paper is relatively straightforward: to show that two prominent attempts to address the importance of moral understanding to moral worth, namely that of Zoe Johnson King and Paulina Sliwa, are unsuccessful. The second task of this paper, which is more novel and ambitious, is to show that agents who lack moral understanding are a challenge to more accounts of moral worth than has been previously recognized. My goal in this paper is largely negative: to show that extant accounts of such conditions are unable to account for the relevance of an agent’s understanding to her praiseworthiness for performing a particular action. In making clear these shortcomings, however, I also hope to make clear just how complicated it is to pin down exactly when an agent merits praise for her actions.

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  1. I would like to thank three anonymous reviewers at Erkenntnis for their extensive and probing comments. The paper has significantly improved as a result. I would also like to thank Jake Nebel and especially John Hawthorne for their consistent and continuous patience, encouragement and investment in this project.

  2. For discussion of how the term ‘moral worth’ has been used in the literature, see Herman (1981) and Stratton-Lake (2000).

  3. Arpaly (2003), p. 69.

  4. Markovitz (2010), p. 203.

  5. Sliwa (2016). p. 395.

  6. Arpaly (2002), p.74, and Hills (2009), p. 10.

  7. Although it’s not my focus, there are mental states other than suspicions that could serve the same purpose in SINISTER MINISTER. For instance, we would also be unlikely to praise Susan for her donation if she hoped that Oxfam was a front for white supremacists.

  8. See, e, g, Hills (2016).

  9. For classic discussion on this point, see Foot (1978).

  10. This is not to say that there is no action that Susan performs along the way for which she might merit praise. For instance, as discussed by Sliwa (2016), Susan might merit praise for consulting and listening to a reliable advisor.

  11. Johnson King (2018), Accidentally Doing the Right Thing, p. 16.

  12. Johnson King (2018), Accidentally Doing the Right Thing, p. 19.

  13. Johnson King (2018), p. 11.

  14. Johnson King (2018), p. 19.

  15. On behalf of Johnson King, one reviewer suggests that “one does not count as deliberately doing an F thing if one has a completely misguided understanding of why one’s action is F.” This doesn’t seem quite right, however. For instance, let’s say that I know on the basis of testimony that pressing a button will kill Bill. I suspect that pressing the button will electrocute Bill, when, in actuality, pressing the button will suffocate him. Although I am completely misguided as to why my action will kill Bill, it’s hard to imagine that, if I press the button, I don’t deliberately kill Bill. The reviewer then gives the following example:

    “if I am trying to send you an S.O.S. in Morse Code, but I consult a book that is wrong about what Morse Code is and I also misspell my message, and yet by sheer coincidence my actual message happens to spell out S.O.S. in the real Morse Code, then it is a stretch to say that I deliberately send you an S.O.S. in Morse given my misunderstanding about why what I’m doing constitutes sending an S.O.S. in Morse.”

    This Morse Code case differs from the button case in that, in the Morse Code case, I have no idea that my message spells out S.O.S., while in the button case, I know that pressing the button will kill Bill. As such, while I should be described as deliberately killing Bill, I should not be described as deliberately spelling out S.O.S. in Morse Code.

  16. In the relevant passage, Sliwa is responding to Allison Hill’s discussion of Nomy Arpaly’s case of Ron, an extremist who comes to believe that killing a fellow Jew is wrong on the basis of his rabbi’s testimony. About Hills’ discussion of this case, Sliwa writes the following:

    To come to know what the right thing to do is based on testimony, Ron must be in a position to identify a reliable advisor. But if Ron is so morally incompetent that he needs help to decide whether he may kill another human, how could he possibly be in a position to identify an advisor who can be a reliable source of moral guidance? Thus, insofar as Hills is stipulating that Ron acquires moral knowledge based on testimony despite his lack of basic moral competence, she is describing a case that is subtly incoherent. Sliwa (2016), pps. 409-410.

  17. On this point, see also Sliwa (2012).

  18. Sliwa (2016), p. 401.

  19. On behalf of Sliwa, a reviewer suggests that, since Susan might do the wrong thing in certain nearby worlds, perhaps she doesn’t know what the right thing to do is. To test whether an agent achieves knowledge, however, we do not simply look at close worlds in which she forms a relevant false belief; instead, we look at close worlds in which she forms a relevant false belief using the same method. As such, even if Susan does the wrong thing in nearby worlds in which she does not rely on Shira’s testimony, she does not do the wrong thing in nearby worlds in which she forms her relevant beliefs by listening to Shira. This is an important point to note, as it makes clear the compatibility of knowing the right thing to do and doing the wrong thing in nearby worlds (in which one forms one’s beliefs using a different method).

  20. Markovits (2010), Acting for the Right Reasons, pp. 218–219.

  21. Markovits (2010), Acting for the Right Reasons. fn. 38, pp. 219–220.

  22. Hills (2009), Moral Testimony and Moral Epistemology, p. 113.

  23. Arpaly (2003), p. 84. Arpaly also considers an agent to be more praiseworthy when, other things equal, “the deeper the moral concern that has led to her action,” but we will not focus on this condition here.

  24. In the relevant passage, Hills is discussing a variation of Nomy Arpaly’s case in which Ron, the extremist we first visited in fn 10, comes to know both that killing a fellow Jew is wrong and why from his rabbi:

    Suppose…Ron’s rabbi tells him why it is right not to kill Tamara. Ron believes him and so knows that it is right not to kill Tamara and he knows why, though he does not understand why. Nevertheless, Ron does the right thing, and if asked, will say that he did it because it was right and that it was right because Tamara is a person….[Since] Ron formed the belief that it was right not to kill Tamara on the basis of the rabbi’s testimony, not on the belief that she was a person…[h]e cannot have formed the belief that it was right not to kill in response to the reasons why it was right, he is responding to testimony, not to moral reasons. Hills (2009), pp. 115–116.

  25. On the non-transparency of knowledge, see Williamson (2000). On the relationship between the non-transparency of knowledge and dispositional oughts, see Sridharan (2020).

  26. Johnson King (2018). p. 6.

  27. Johnson King (2018), p. 13.

  28. Johnson King (2018), p. 16.

  29. Johnson King (2018), p. 19.

  30. Johnson King (2018), p. 16.

  31. Groundwork 4, p. 390, as cited by Johnson King p. 4.

  32. Johnson King (2018), p. 16, emphasis added.

  33. Although we may praise it for other reasons such as for the fact that it manifests Ted’s benevolence.

  34. Given how they present their accounts, Sliwa, Markovits, and Arpaly are likely to face this problem as well.

  35. While Sliwa speaks of different actions, one might also frame her point in terms of a single action with multiple properties.

  36. Sliwa (2016), p. 403.

  37. Sliwa (2016), p. 403.

  38. Knowing this is not problematic assuming closure under competent deduction. That is, assuming that Susan comes to know from Shira that giving to Oxfam is the right thing to do, and that Susan comes to from introspection that she suspects that Oxfam is a front for white supremacists, she can come to know via competent deduction that donating to an organization that she suspects is a front for white supremacists is the right thing to do.


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Sridharan, V. The Wrong Understanding of Praise. Erkenn 88, 1643–1660 (2023).

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