Liberty Matters

Praise and Praise Worthiness

Professors Farrant and Taylor ask us to think more about the question of approval – who approves and whether it’s warranted. This is indeed the key problem for which Adam Smith devised the “impartial spectator.”  In Farrant’s view, Bentham’s auto-icon might serve a similar purpose, acting as a reminder from generations past about the appropriateness of our actions today. Such reminders may have motivational weight, albeit somewhat muted relative to the actual approval of actually living souls.  I’m reminded of the proverbial phrase “turning over in her grave” as a conversational signal that someone (often a relative) would disapprove of an action. Acknowledging the signal, one feels obliged to explain why the proposed action is justified.  Though I’m hesitant to disagree with James Buchanan, I would suggest that one need not believe that we are perfectible to believe that we might occasionally be nudged into “better” acts – acts that would obtain more wide approval – by reminders from living or dead people. Like Mises, however, J. S. Mill drew the line at wholesale institutional reform that would require “better” humans: as humans were presently constituted, he concluded, they were simply not ready for socialism on a wide scale.
What of the “wall of shame” we read about in Professor Taylor’s comment?  Well put.  Here, we see the warping of approval that Smith so feared. Humans obtain pleasure not only from receiving well-deserved praise but also from receiving praise. More than this, they are creatures of self-deception. They obtain praise from the adoring crowds, and they come to deceive themselves into thinking they deserve the praise, thus seeking to become part of and then joining Professor Taylor’s Hall of Shame. How best to deal with this problem? Competition might provide one answer at least in politics: new ideas, new candidates, questioning journalists, fact checkers – all might provide a check to the powerful lure of undeserved praise.