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?



For some time, violent imagery has characterized much American political discussion.  For example, two weeks ago Mrs Acilius and I watched the 1996 documentary A Perfect Candidate, a chronicle of a US Senate race in Virginia; the Republican candidate goes hunting with some supporters, one of whom brings a small boy along.  The boy, wielding a rifle, is asked what he’s hunting.  “Hares,” he says.  Then he adds, “Hares and Democrats.”  The adults laugh, the camera zooms in on the boy’s face.  He seems a bit baffled by their reaction, unsure what it is that’s supposed to be funny.

Saturday’s shooting of 20 people in Tucson, Arizona, among them Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, prompted many to decry this violent imagery.  In particular, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s habit of using firearms-related graphics and figures of speech when calling for the defeat of her political opponents, Representative Giffords among them, has occasioned much complaint.

Governor Palin has refused to apologize for her remarks, calling herself the victim of a “blood libel.”  By this she apparently means that her critics have accused her of causing the massacre.  This stand might make sense in a court proceeding, where apologies count as admissions of legal responsibility.  If the governor were a defendant in such a proceeding, then her defiant attitude and the fear of censorship that many on the Right have raised would be understandable.  Yet no such proceedings are even remotely likely, and her refusal to apologize is certainly not winning her any fans.  She seems to be trapped in a self-defeating pattern of behavior.

In a comment elsewhere, I’ve suggested that the USA might be a better place if the ethical concept of “taste” were revived.  If we still had the idea that there are such things as “good taste” and “bad taste,” then someone in Governor Palin’s position might have options that are currently not available to her.  She could recognize that it is in bad taste to talk about shooting people, apologize for that bad taste, and resolve to show good taste in the future.  This would not imply a damaging admission; everyone on earth has at some point or other flown off the handle and acted like a jerk.  Therefore, everyone should be prepared to accept such an apology.

If, on the other hand, the governor believes that the political situation in the USA is so bad that it is necessary to disregard the canons of taste and to continue using the violent imagery that has become her trademark, then a society in which the concept of taste still had ethical force would take that belief of hers seriously.  Good taste is not the highest of the virtues, and it can be disregarded in crises.  By continuing to use violent imagery after the massacre in Tucson had reminded everyone that it is in extremely bad taste, therefore, the governor would be making it clear that she regards the political situation in the USA as a crisis.  She could then defend this view, and potential voters could assess the soundness of her judgment based on that defense.

Gaius Acilius on Praise and Reproof

I teach in a university classics department. A few years ago, a senior colleague of mine received a “Teacher of the Year” award.  I congratulated him, then asked some questions.  After I asked him who gave the award, how they chose the recipient, and what benefits came with it, I asked him how he would react if the same people had used the same criteria to decide that he was a bad teacher, to publicize this decision, and to fine him.  Would he accept this judgment?  He did not think he would.  So, how could he justify accepting their judgment when it benefited him, if would not accept that same judgment were it to his disadvantage?  He agreed that this was a good question.  Of course, he went on to accept the award just the same.

A similar question may have preyed on the mind of my namesake, Gaius Acilius(more…)

Chronicles, May 2010

Lots of fragments of interest in the latest issue of this ultra-conservative publication

Editor Thomas Fleming writes a monthly column named “Perspective.”  This name strikes me as hilarious, since of all the virtues Dr. Fleming* might claim, perspective is most definitely not one.  This month’s entry is a temper tantrum stretching across two pages, most of it reading like something an angry 15 year old would write while threatening to drop out of high school.  For example, he denounces as “worthless drones” a class of people including professionals “in counseling and sociology.”  He also attacks “the madman Rousseau,” “the bilge written by these people” (“these people” being “child-savers” and “WASP do-gooders” like Horatio Alger and Jane Addams,) and pop star Shakira, “who has some strange aversion to being fully clad.”  Moreover, he informs us that today, “the only possible justification for public education is that it is guaranteed to stunt the mental growth of children and corrupt their character.”  Nor does he fail to include a remark, as cryptic as it is unpleasant, about “the degraded morality of urban African-Americans.”  However, the last three paragraphs are worth quoting in extenso:

Human happiness is not a one-size-fits-all garment, and it is xenophobic to suppose that it is.  This is what liberal philosophers are so fond of gabbling about- that the purpose of a liberal state is to make it possible for individuals to pursue their own life plans.  Why does it always turn out that it has to be the life plan drawn up by a liberal philosopher, whether a leftist like Professor Rawls or a quondam libertarian like Professor Nozick?  Why can’t they just mind their own business and leave other people to mind theirs?

If we can once realize that it is best to leave Haiti and Somalia alone, then we might begin to understand that we should also leave other people’s families alone.  What is the alternative?  If government officials and social workers have to tell parents when and where and how their children go to school, what sort of food they eat and TV they watch, what sort of sex education they receive, then not only those lawmakers and social workers but also the voters who give them power have to assume full responsibility for the outcomes. 

We have to quit letting them- and ourselves- off the hook with the comforting language of unintended consequences.  If I were to fire off a few rounds into a daycare center,  I might have had no intention of killing any particular child, but when a child is dead, I am held responsible.  But when government programs ruin the lives of millions of children, no on, it seems, is to be held accountable.  It is American governments and their employees, the voters who put the legislators in office and the taxpayers who pay the bills- it is we, in other words, who are responsible. 

The angry would-be dropout is detectable here as well, most obviously in the quality of imagination that reaches for a hypothetical and finds a massacre at a daycare center.  Still, there’s much in it that’s worth pondering, as well. 

The name of Dr Fleming’s column might be unintentionally funny.   It isn’t the only department of Chronicles with a name that raises a smile.  Chilton Williamson’s column is named “What’s Wrong with the World.”   That sounds like a bit of a self-deprecating joke, as though Williamson were acknowledging that he might sound like a crank.  This month’s installment begins with a remark Michael Foot made in 1983, the year the British Labour Party went into a general election under Foot’s leadership:

We are not here in this world to find elegant solutions, pregnant with initiative, or to serve the ways and modes of profitable progress.  No, we are here to provide for all those who are weaker and hungrier, more battered and more crippled than ourselves.  That is our only certain good and great purpose on earth…

This quote headed the obituary of Foot in the New York Times.  Williamson remarks that “One can- almost- hear the voice of Christ speaking those words, but He did not speak them, and they are not true, either in the political or the theological context.”  In his theological mode, Williamson declares that charity, “even bureaucratic charity, is both a human obligation and a divine injunction, but man has many other things to be about in his Father’s house, some of them having value and validity equal to those on the agenda of the British Labour Party.”  A literal application of Foot’s words would represent “the end of civilization, and civilization is a moral duty of mankind.” 

I would like to add two objections of my own to Foot’s remarks.  In the first place, there is not always another person available who is “weaker and hungrier, more battered and more crippled than ourselves.”  Each of us is likely to be, at least occasionally, the weakest, hungriest, most battered, most disabled person whom we can reach.  What good and great purpose can we have then?  Does our life then become valuable only as a stage on which others can play the role of benefactor?  The great-hearted Mr Foot can hardly have welcomed that conclusion, but what other implication could his remarks have, if we took them seriously?  

Moreover, we are not at any time guaranteed to be in a position to provide for anyone else.  If providing for “those who are weaker and hungrier, more battered and more crippled than ourselves” is indeed “our only certain good and great purpose on earth,”  then I suppose we would have to reform society so that each of us would be guaranteed the opportunity to do this on a regular basis.   What keeps us from having these opportunities?  Well, many things, many of them bad.  People are cut off from each other, isolated, by inequality, fear, and other evils which we would of course hope  to eliminate.  But some of the people who are “weaker and hungrier, more battered and more crippled than ourselves” do not want our help.  Some want to make their own way, and would heartily second Dr Fleming’s imprecations against counselors and social workers.  Others are  being supported by their families, or by particular friends and neighbors.  Perhaps that support might strike us as meager, we might see an opportunity to improve on it.  If we offered that improvement, we might meet with a firm refusal.  The relationship the person has with his or her caregivers might be more important than the extra resources some charitable person, group, or institution could offer.  If we were to take Foot’s words at face value and press their logical implications as far as they go, on what basis could we defend a needy person’s decision to refuse help from a stranger or a bureaucracy?  If the “only certain good and great purpose” we have on earth is to provide for the needy, then what purpose could the needy have that would outweigh our intention to provide for them? 

Again, I’m sure Michael Foot would not have rejoiced in forcing help on people who did not want it, or have thought for a moment that the most vulnerable person in a group was less capable of “good and great purpose” than the most privileged person.  I’m not like Peter Hitchens’ more embarrassing brother, who was capable of writing a book arguing that because Mother Theresa had devoted herself to helping the poor, she was the “Ghoul of Calcutta” who would have lost her purpose in life if poverty were to vanish.  What I’m saying , and what I take Williamson to be saying, is that Foot uttered a half-truth that could only get in his way as he tried to develop policy for a truly humane and compassionate society.       

George McCartney liked the movie Hurt Locker; lots of people wrote him letters to explain why they didn’t.  He responds to them with great great affability and some point.  McCartney mentions that one character in the movie is named William James.  McCartney claims that this name “playfully invokes America’s father of pragmatism, the psychologist who claimed that we should believe whatever is useful to believe.”  This characterization of James’ view is unfair in much the same way that calling Mother Theresa the “Ghoul of Calcutta” is unfair.  James did develop a concept of “prudential justification,” which he illustrated by saying that it is reasonable for a person who has to jump over a chasm to believe that s/he will succeed in making the jump, since any other belief would doom him or her.  And of course he argued that we should evaluate ideas by their relevance to practical life.  Taken together, these ideas raise the question of why we should not “believe whatever it is useful to believe”; James may have failed to answer this question.  If so, he might have implied that we should believe whatever it is useful to believe, but he would no more have claimed this than Michael Foot would have claimed that we should disregard the wishes of weak, hungry, battered, disabled people whom it would gratify us to help. 

*In 1973, Fleming earned a Ph. D. in Classics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Bioethics as a profession

ALDaily named its link to this article about the profession of bioethics “How are these people experts?”  A quote:

Is it politically desirable for society to credit a designated group called “bioethicists” with expertise in resolving the most difficult moral questions? If so, what is it that gives ethicists a more legitimate claim to wisdom about right and wrong than the rest of us? The matter of ethical expertise — what it looks like, who can claim it — is a profound one. The place of bioethics in the academy, in the clinical realm, and in society turns on it. For most of us, the very idea of the “right” answer to a complex moral dilemma seems absurd on its face. After all, its derivation depends upon which moral theory one favors: deontological, consequentialist, natural law, situational, and so on.

By no means does this negate the possibility, let alone the importance, of serious moral reflection, but such analyses may be too lost in the foundational questions to be of much everyday use. And, of course, many bioethicists rely on their own philosophical biases. So, for example, when bioethicists condemn organ donor solicitation with the argument that it gives unfair advantage to some or violates human dignity, we must ask what makes them sufficiently sure of their view to impose it on others? Finding the “right” moral answer — assuming for a moment one exists — is not the business of applied ethics. So what can bioethics offer? What is its technical expertise?

[Hoover Policy Review]