Colloquium Series

Colloquium: Zoe Johnson King (Harvard)

Fri April 7th 2023, 3:30 - 5:30pm
Title: Reluctant Heroes
Abstract: This talk has two aims, one substantive and one “meta”. The meta-aim is to help to bring into existence a currently-nascent literature on the ethics of praise – that is, on which factors render praise (in)appropriate besides those pertaining directly to the praisee’s praiseworthiness. The methodology is that of the presentation and analysis of a case study; the talk concentrates on the praise lavished on essential workers at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. So my substantive aim is to get this case right. I argue that careful attention to essential workers’ descriptions of their attitudes, both toward their work and toward our reactions to this work, reveals four ways in which praise can go awry: it can be insincere, it can be unfitting, it can be an instance of misplaced attention, and it can be manipulative. I also argue that praise is particularly insidious when it simultaneously distracts and manipulates, that the term ‘hero’ is especially well-suited for this purpose, and that essential workers are far from the first group to experience praise of this insidious sort – which enables us to draw some broader lessons for how to praise in a manner that avoids the four pitfalls I explore.
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