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Praise and Blame: Moral Realism and Its Applications
by Daniel N. Robinson
Princeton University Press

Praise and blame are cultural practices that shape our desires, intentions, and actions. Praise a child for something, and you will likely get more of the same. Blame a child and the pressure is reversed. An awards ceremony bestows the former; the detention hall signifies the latter. The hard-bitten cynic and skeptic smiles with inward pride when his friends chuckle over his well-wrought and ironic disdain for conventional pieties. A reader of the Nation cringes with regret when caught affirming a bourgeois value.

Praise and blame function even where they would seem to lack a foundation. Among postmodernists, a word such as “onto-theological,” however conceptually obscure, serves as a synonym for “bad.” Those who criticize morality traffic in exhortation (long live difference!) and denunciation (away with the metaphysics of presence!). The greatest anti-moralist of all, Friedrich Nietzsche, saw this clearly. As he announced in his Genealogy of Morals , the most pressing question about morality is moral: What is the value of values? Should I praise my son when he blames his sister for hitting him? Should I encourage my students to think about literature, society, and each other with a moral vocabulary? Is it a good or bad thing to think of the ideas, actions, and characters of people as “good” or “bad”?

Daniel N. Robinson, a long-time critic of the therapeutic psychology of modernity, knows very well that our intellectual culture has been overrun by this oddly moralistic ambivalence about praise and blame. He is concerned to counter the philosophical assumptions that might lead sixth-grade teachers to speak of student misbehavior as “unhelpful,” “unhealthy,” or “inappropriate.” The soft relativism of our culture balks at the sharp hardness of “bad” and “wrong.” Murder, for example, is “anti-social behavior.” Theft “undermines social cooperation.” People with vicious characters are “poorly socialized.” It is not so much that we are morally vacant as that we are morally diffident. We lack the conviction that the old-fashioned words are appropriate.

Against our tendency to question the value of values, the basic, implicit argument of Robinson’s Praise and Blame: Moral Realism and Its Applications is that the most fundamental importance of values is their truthfulness. We should call murder “wrong” rather than “anti-social” because the former is more accurate than the latter. I should encourage my students to use moral terms to assess aspects of what they study because to be so trained is necessary for them to adequately grasp and explain the way things are.

The question of whether or not our praise and blame reflects something real admits of no definitive answer, and Robinson’s argumentative strategy is defensive rather than probative. He argues that moral realism should be our default position. Ordinary language and practice functions as if moral qualities are real, and absent compelling reason to think otherwise, we should assume our moral language and practice functions rightly. In other words, one need not prove that moral qualities exist. The burden of proof falls on those who would think words such as “right” and “wrong” refer to something other than rightness and wrongness in the world itself.

There are at least three interlocking reasons why many moral philosophers think moral qualities are nonexistent, and Robinson addresses each of them in a tour through leading preoccupations of modern moral philosophy. First, the diversity of moral judgments across different cultures and historical moments has encouraged modern thinkers to conceive of moral values as socially constructed. Second, the authoritative intellectual project of our culture”the natural sciences”seems to exclude moral reality from the world. Third, as J. L. Mackie famously observed, were moral qualities to exist, they would be extremely odd”indeed utterly different from any other entities in the scientifically observable universe.

Robinson’s response to these objections to moral realism is complex, but the general outline is straightforward. The basic premise is that reality is plural in form. It thus cannot be subsumed into a single ontology, whether that of modern science or Aristotelian metaphysics. For Robinson, the fact that moral properties seem so unlike physical properties should not surprise us. If reality is plural in form, then we should expect that the techniques of scientific investigation might not be appropriate for moral analysis. Perceiving moral properties demands the development of different and perhaps more fallible epistemic resources. If moral properties are indeed different from physical properties (after all, ordinary language does use different words), then it makes sense to suppose that our investigations of these properties would use normative rather than explanatory methods and produce moral competence rather than scientific knowledge as a result.

Yet defending praise and blame is not simply a matter of moral ontology and epistemology. Moral terms refer to the intentions, actions, and characters of persons. The body of the book and its strongest and most helpful analysis thus probes the worry that our identities as persons, the consequences of our actions, and our mental states seem so deeply embedded in the world that we are tempted to think that we are effects rather than causes, determined rather than free. Here the challenge to moral realism is more refined, claiming, in effect, that although goodness might exist, it cannot be ascribed to my behavior, because so little of my behavior is genuinely mine.

To meet this objection, Robinson undertakes a detailed series of reflections upon determinism, voluntarism, and moral luck, ignorance, deception, and weakness of will, freedom and causality, motivation and the unconscious. The discussions are extraordinarily wide-ranging. Across the twists and turns of argument, Robinson offers a compelling account of the limited moral consequences of many contemporary doubts about moral agency.

At the end of the day, however, the debate between moral realists and antirealists is intractable and less significant than Robinson imagines. Our cultural tendency to second-guess traditional moral judgments is based upon changes in the surrounding culture”changes that are largely a cause rather than an effect of developments in moral philosophy. We think differently about moral theory today because we moralize differently.

Robinson is not insensitive to the close relationship between moral practice and moral theory. The last chapter of the book explores practices of punishment and forgiveness. The results are illuminating and provide a clearer rationale for preserving traditional notions of retribution and desert than do Robinson’s attempts to defend moral realism as a philosophical doctrine.

Like realism generally, moral realism is a disciplining conviction. Scientists recognize that they must train their minds and guard against deception in order to better understand the natural world. The same holds for moral realists. We must train ourselves in order to become, as Robinson puts it, “morally competent beings.” What Robinson does not discuss is the fact that the Aristotelian tradition of moral training for excellence cuts against the grain of our democratic and egalitarian sensibilities. If our moral judgments must be trained in order to perceive moral reality more accurately, then one person’s moral judgment is not necessarily as good as another’s. Insofar as we treat democracy as a high moral vision rather than a device for securing political legitimacy and restraining the power of elites, we will shirk from such a conclusion. Here, a moral qualm undermines morality.

Even more challenging to the pres-ent age, moral realism implies moral striving. It is telling that a moral realist such as St. Thomas Aquinas should formulate the most fundamental principle of the natural law as a comprehensive life-project: seek good and avoid evil. To see the good as good, and evil as evil, and not as expressions of sentiment or social constructions, creates an urgency of purpose not reassuring to our somnolent souls. Moral heroes and saints, Robinson observes, “instruct us in just how high the bar really is.” If real, the good is, as Iris Murdoch recognized, sovereign. Praise and blame are its knights-errant, championing us in our loyalty to its reign and harrying us in our rebellions.

The vision is very noble, but as a matter of cultural fact, our commitments to personal freedom and self-expression”themselves taken as moral properties”lead us to unseat all such knights and restrain their scope for action. We are more likely to praise tolerance than virtue, diversity than excellence. Such priorities do not entail a loss of moral language, nor do they necessarily indicate a turn away from moral realism. Our relativism is “soft” precisely because it is not relativism in any theoretically precise and defensible sense. Perhaps the sharpest division in American society today is between those who condemn abortion and those who condemn those who condemn abortion. Virtually no one swears off condemnation altogether.

In the end, our dominant uses of praise and blame”for instance, not praising chastity or not blaming greed”reflect the ways in which our culture trains our moral vision. With Robinson, I regret this training and think it dulls rather than sharpens our perception of moral reality. Unlike Robinson, however, I think theories of moral reality do little moral work. Clear thinking can do away with misconceptions that might lead us astray. Yet the positive task of recovering a more humane moral competence will require good moralists, not good moral theorists. For a moralist teaches us the anatomy of virtue and vice, helping us to see and understand what is at stake in particular judgments and practices. This Robinson begins to do for us in his final chapter, with its discussion of punishment and forgiveness. May his work continue in this direction.

R. R. Reno teaches theology at Creighton University and is the author of In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity (Brazos, 2002).