When is it ethical to accept a prize?

In a post here a few months ago, I described some views expressed by my namesake, Roman historian Gaius Acilius.  Acilius, who was in his prime in the year 155 BC, apparently had some concerns about the conditions under which it was appropriate to accept praise.  In particular, Acilius seems to have wondered if it could be right to accept praise offered on a particular basis if one were not prepared to accept blame offered on that same basis.

I was reminded of this a few moments ago, reading the news.  Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, has accepted the Templeton Prize.  This exchange from an interview Rees gave to Ian Sample of The Guardian made me wonder what Acilius would have said:

IS: What do you think the Templeton prize achieves? What is the value of it?

MR: That’s not for me to say to be honest.

IS: You must have a view?

MR: No.

IS: But you think it achieves something?

MR: Well, I mean as much as other prizes, certainly, but I wouldn’t want to be more specific than that.

IS: That’s a shame. Might you at some time in the future?

MR: They are very nice people who are doing things which are within their agenda, but their agenda is really very broad. I should say that I was reassured by the rather good piece in Nature a few weeks ago, which talked about the Foundation and I found that reassuring. Certainly Cambridge University, I know, has received grants from Templeton for editing Darwin’s correspondence, which is a big Cambridge project, and also for some mathematical conferences. They support a range of purely scientific issues.

Imagine if the judges who grant the Templeton Prize had sent Rees a letter, not offering to give him £1,000,000 and add his name to a list of distinguished thinkers as a reward for his achievements, but demanding that he pay them £1,000,000 and allow his name to be added to a list of ill-doers as a punishment for his delinquencies.  Would he accept that demand so blithely?


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