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Solving the problem of praise for free will truthers

March 29, 2024

This piece represents the opinion of the author .

Recall the warm feeling that bubbles up in your stomach and blossoms into a shy smile on the offhand occasion that you are awarded a simple “good work.” Praise lights us up inside. Offering praise to someone, usually someone to whom you are an elder, is a mark of self-actualization. Oftentimes, the act of praise-giving is a consequence of some guidance one has previously offered the recipient. The giver reasons: I am in an appropriate epistemic position and possess enough knowledge in a certain arena to endow such knowledge to another and, later, evaluate (approve or disapprove of) the application of my guidance. If your guidance is heeded, praise is justified and expected; anything less would be, well, awkward.

Now think of the simmering cheeks and ringing ears of childhood scoldings and public admonishment. Shame pumps through the body with blood. We know this well—but, as soon as the blush fades, we turn and finger-wag at others. There is something undeniably human about wanting to be responsible for one’s own actions and wanting to hold others responsible for theirs, about taking ownership. We are free agents! Let’s exercise those liberties!

Thus, praise and criticism assume essential persuasive roles in the free will debate. These are semantic institutions we ought to protect, and supposedly go unprotected by determinism. Taking criticism as example, the free willer’s argument loosely goes like this:

{1} It only makes sense to criticize someone’s actions if they have control over their actions.

{2} We want to be able to coherently criticize bad behavior.

{3} Determinism states that people don’t have ultimate control over their own actions.

{4} We ought to reject determinism.

Compelling, yes. But I don’t think praise and criticism pose as great a threat to determinism as the argument suggests. The trick about the free will debate is that, even if someone is a staunch determinist, the vast majority of us (save the dogmatic) act as if they have free will. Our judicial, economic and social orders all function under the premise that people are responsible for their own actions. Our structures accept the free will premise, so we act as if we do too. You don’t get to plead “determinist” in court and be absolved of your crimes. So, determinist or not, free will we accept. This is a difficult position for a determinist to be in: at what point do the beliefs we merely accept as a pragmatic matter become our true beliefs? The line blurs.

The determinist risks contradicting themself upon embracing certain features of infrastructural free will discerningly, as is often the case with praise and criticism. We don’t want criminals to run amuck with no means of coherent reparation available to us. We don’t want to let the good deeds of our neighbors and family members go unnoticed. Even the most devout determinist can see how bleak a world without this looks. But, noble determinists, don’t concede yet; we can save ourselves from this.

The main issue we face is that, yes, how we feel about others’ behavior often buttresses great emotional weight. How can this be true in a determined world in which feelings of reproach seem nonsense? But, it seems clear enough to me that we have a stake in how we think people ought to exist; our ideals bear a great emotional load.

Praise isn’t a thing in itself. What do we offer someone when we praise them? Is it a gift of kind words and gentle glances? This is what the free willer must believe: that praise is a thing to be offered to people as reward for their good acts. Similarly, criticism is a thing to be unloaded onto people in consequence of their bad acts. Actions, in their glorious free-will-autonomy, become bids for recognition. This seems unlikely: there must be a further thrust to this impulse than the promise of a kind look. Even if we really, really feel like good deeds deserve high praise, it’s hard to see why when the offering is so amorphous.

I suppose a much more plausible conclusion is that praise and criticism are pattern-reinforcement and correction mechanisms, and that is all. I offer praise to a student or a friend because I want to encourage them to act similarly in the future. We bestow awards on graduating peers in hopes of inspiring similarly good acts in the younger students in the audience. I remark on how good of a dog Mo is because I value a world in which affection is free-flowing and abundant. We criticize decisions we hope to never be seen made again. Remember, these evaluations are naturally informed by the ideals we hold about how one ought to behave. Usually the standard is as close to one’s own behavior as possible. Praise and criticism assume the mode of a hegemonic contouring wand for behavioral standard in one’s direct surroundings.

This interpretative move may seem cold-hearted. We don’t want praise to be a mechanism of subordination. We want to hold on to the sanctity of a “good job” with no strings attached, but this is just another way we fool ourselves into embracing free will.


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