Praise and False Piety


gabriel conroy

Gabriel Conroy [pseudonym] is an ex-graduate student. He is happily married with no children and has about a million nieces and nephews. The views expressed by Gabriel are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of his spouse or employer.

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31 Responses

  1. There was a particularly difficult part of my life (which I’m not going to discuss) that I got through by doing the thing that has to be done right now without worrying about the things that will follow. When those things are especially daunting or even dangerous, but you don’t let them distract you from what has to be done, I’m fine with calling that heroism.Report

  2. I’m fine with calling that heroism, too. I’m also fine with calling the health care providers heroes, even (especially!) people who are afraid.

    But there’s an uneasy way in which praising heroism mixes with putting pressure on people to be heroes.Report

  3. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    Welcome to the conflict of the military veteran, here’s your complimentary psychological dysfunction.Report

    • Thank you for your service 🙂Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      Oscar, what would the response me to a service member who quit when they were up for deployment?

      (To everyone)…
      Should we feel the exact same about medical professionals who continue to work as we do those who are avoiding the call to fight the pandemic? Why or why not?

      Its far lower stakes but teachers are being required to work in ways we never planned or prepared for and which are, in many cases, anathema to our professional philosophies. But this is what teaching is right now. I don’t like it but if I want to continue to call myself a teacher, this is the gig right now.Report

      • Avatar InMD in reply to Kazzy says:

        My opinion is that heroism is something individuals do, not entire classes of people. I think treating the mere act of going to work through expected hazards one knew about at the outset as heroism in itself is kind of patronizing. It also creates a weird begging of the question fallacy where the sacrifice we associate with heroism is assumed rather than proven and deference given without being earned.

        It reminds me a bit of that Chris Rock joke about demanding a reward merely for doing the things you are supposed to do.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy in reply to InMD says:

          I’m avoiding the word hero intentionally for many of the reasons cited.

          Healthcare workers are engaged in challenging, exhausting, scary work. I praise those doing it.

          Healthcare workers who are not reporting to work… my feelings depend on their circumstances. My ex stayed home for two weeks because she herself contracted Covid. Hard to fault her for that. Others are staying home because they are high risk or the only adult for children at home. Wouldn’t fault those either. Other reasons, I may feel differently about but right now I’m not about putting any additional negativity into the air.Report

          • Avatar InMD in reply to Kazzy says:

            Fair enough, and makes sense. Obviously YMMV but maybe the answer is general appreciation that folks are out there, counting of blessings that they exist, etc., and general agnosticism on the others?

            We all make choices, and there’s nothing wrong with declining to judge either way.Report

          • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to Kazzy says:

            It’s a good instinct to avoid the word “hero” (although I apparently didn’t follow that instinct in my reply to Mike Schilling above).

            I’m not familiar with the Chris Rock bit that InMD refers to, but of course I’m familiar with the sentiment. I don’t fully agree with that sentiment, however. If giving someone a cookie helps them do what they ought to do in the first place, and if it doesn’t cost much effort or money to give them that cookie, then maybe it’s okay to do it. I suppose if we give too many people too many cookies, the ceremonial act of cookie giving will lose much of its appeal (though not all of its appeal), and maybe people will start to do the right thing ONLY for the cookie, or worse, ONLY PRETEND to do the right thing for the cookie, or exaggerate the degree to which they are doing the right thing.Report

      • Avatar Aaron David in reply to Kazzy says:

        “…anathema to our professional philosophies.”

        I am very curious here Kazzy, what are teachers being asked to do that is anathema?Report

      • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to Kazzy says:

        That’s a good question, Kazzy. If I have time, I’ll try to engage with it later today.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Kazzy says:

        Well, you can’t quit the military. About the only way out of a deployment was to have a medical condition that would disqualify you from deploying. Tear a rotator cuff, or get pregnant, etc. And the military frowned upon those who intentionally inflicted such upon themselves (although women were generally given a pass on getting pregnant, even if command strongly suspected they timed it thus).

        But the whole ‘can’t quit’ part is why I’m always conflicted about the thanks I get. On the one hand, it can be a shit job no one wants, on the other, you aren’t really given a choice once you sign up.

        Medical professionals and first responders not only understand the dangers they face (I would hope nurses and doctors have a better understanding of disease transmission than, say, teachers), but, ideally, they have the training and equipment to mitigate those dangers. If they lack either, I don’t blame them one bit for walking away.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

          PS This is why I play the worlds smallest violin for cops who whine about the dangers of the job. They get training, and body armor, and guns, and most importantly, a badge (and it’s associated authority) and a radio to call for help from every cop on the frequency.

          If, given all of that, they are still afraid, welp, no one is keeping them on the job.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

          Oscar, wouldn’t “quitting” require someone to go AWOL or otherwise abandon their post? And I believe that’d get them court marshaled?

          You bring up a good point about unsafe working conditions beyond the assumed risk. I hadn’t considered that but it’d be a factor in my response.Report

          • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to Kazzy says:

            I think that’s what Oscar was saying. Someone can’t just avoid deployment. They’d have to go awol and face court martialing. (Unless I’m misunderstanding your point, or his.)Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Kazzy says:

            Yes, if quitting involves a significant penalty (because it’s illegal), then lauding a person for staying the course is rather empty.

            I mean, volunteering for something that you will be bound to is itself laudable.

            So you thank a vet for volunteering to go into harms way, but not for actually doing so, because at that point, they had no choice. Still, it’s not like the military offers nothing in return for your service. People thank me, without knowing that I got a lot of advanced training, plus all the benefits a disabled vet gets. No one needs to thank me, I got way more out of it than I put in.Report

      • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to Kazzy says:


        Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply. To answer your question as you asked it, I think it’s okay to feel differently about medical professionals who continue to work from how I feel about those who avoid the call.

        Like InMD below (above?), I aspire to being grateful for those who choose to serve and try to be agnostic about those who don’t. One reason is that I’m not in their shoes. I don’t know what it’s like firsthand to be them or in their situation. Another reason is my ambivalence about the subtle pressure I’m exerting on them to put their lives at risk while I feel no such pressure. Those reasons are insufficient, in part because if I am grateful to those who do answer the call, I’m inevitably exerting such pressure.

        To the question of this being what they signed up for: That certainly enters whatever calculation I’m claiming to do about praising or withholding praise. I question how much the health care providers actually “signed up” for pandemic duty. I suppose it’s implied, but it’s hard to predict a (I hope) once in a century pandemic. I also suspect that the farther down one goes in the hierarchy, the less that person has signed up for pandemics. So to put it crudely: I find it easier to withhold judgment against the janitors and nurses’ assistants than I do against the RN’s and especially against the MD’s.

        Another thing I try to keep in mind is that when one does sign up for something, they’re undertaking an obligation and breaking that obligation probably creates a certain amount of what I’ll call (for lack of a better word), “moral distress.”

        Here’s what I mean. Take three people, A, B, and C. A signs up for military service. B signs up for military service. C declines to do so (let’s assume C is healthy and has no extenuating circumstances). A acquits themselves well in battle. B suffers a lack of courage and doesn’t rise to the occasion and feels guilty/inadequate, etc. (I’ll assume that’s the only punishment and there’s no court martial, etc.) C goes about their life. I’d suppose that person A probably deserves a lot of praise. But I also think that person B deserves more praise than person C. Person B has put themselves in a position where they agree to be judged by a higher expectation and falls short and must face the consequences of falling short while C doesn’t even have to face that expectation to begin with. The “moral distress” that B subjects themselves to is something C doesn’t risk.

        That story probably oversimplifies things and assumes too much. But I’m reluctant to say it’s okay for someone like me (C) to judge B. That doesn’t mean I don’t judge B. I’m not perfect. But I’m not sure it’s okay for me to do so.Report

  4. Avatar Urusigh says:

    “We praise people for doing things we’d condemn them for not doing. We’d be cads if we didn’t praise, but by praising, we’re exerting pressure on them to place themselves in danger.”

    Well, yes, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Not every scenario has a “neutral” option. In a situation where you are able and needed (can’t be replaced), the moral difference between an act of omission and act of commission largely disappears: you are responsible for the outcome whether it is positive because of what you did or negative because of what you refused to do. Choosing “do nothing” is itself a choice.

    A medical professional who has the knowledge, training, and experience to save lives in a situation has a corresponding obligation to do so. They are worthy of praise if they do, for saving lives is inherently praiseworthy, but they are likewise guilty of preventable deaths by their negligence if they refuse to save lives. The risks came with the job they chose to train for. To paraphrase Spiderman, “with ability, comes responsibility”.Report

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