There is a common criticism of allies in social justice movements as “seeking cookies.” The prototypical interaction goes something like this:
Straight person: I think gay people should be allowed to get married!
Gay person: Good… for you?
Straight person: I don’t say the word ‘faggot’!
Gay person: I’m glad?
Straight person: I have never in my life beat up a gay person for being gay!
Gay person: …do you want a medal?
This is, of course, very silly behavior.
There is also a very common argument in animal rights movements that goes something like this:
Alice: Meat is murder!
Bob: That’s not fair. A lot of people don’t know how to be vegan. We should encourage people to reduce their meat consumption as much as they can and accept that a lot of times they’re still going to be eating meat.
Alice: Um. Animals are literally getting tortured.
Bob: Yes, that’s why I’m saying we should get people to have Meatless Mondays or maybe switch to free-range eggs.
Alice: Meatless Mondays? Would you support Murderless Mondays?
Bob: If the average person killed more than one person a day YOU’RE FUCKING RIGHT I WOULD.
I think both of those interactions are getting at the idea of praiseworthiness.
“Praiseworthy” is different from “good.” “Good” is about the effect your actions have; “praiseworthy” is about where you’re starting from.
If you accept the child-in-the-pond argument, not donating $3000 to malaria relief and being an assassin paid $3000 are morally equivalent actions. However, they aren’t equally blameworthy. You would have to be an unusually bad person to become an assassin, but a saint to donate all your money to charity. Becoming an assassin is doing much worse than you could be expected to do; giving all your money to charity, much better.
If you grow up in a liberal environment, it is not praiseworthy to support gay marriage. Everyone supports gay marriage. It would be unusually homophobic of you not to support gay marriage. On the other hand, a person who grows up in an evangelical Christian environment might have to go through a lot of struggle and personal growth to conclude that homosexuality should not be illegal and LGB people should be treated with compassion and love, although homosexuality is still against the law of God. Although the former is better than the latter, the latter is more praiseworthy, because the person’s default was worse.
Why does this matter? Because shaping.
Shaping is a principle of behavior modification. Imagine that you wanted to train a dog to fetch the newspaper. First, you’d reward him for going outside when you said “fetch”, or maybe even heading to the door. Once he got the idea, you’d gradually stop rewarding that and start rewarding the dog walking in the direction of the newspaper. Once he starts doing that, eventually you’d reward him when he began to mouth the newspaper. And so on and so forth.
There are two errors you can fall into in this process. First, you can say “the dog should already know how to go outside! I am not going to reward him unless he goes to the newspaper!” But it doesn’t matter what the dog should do. If he doesn’t know to go outside, he’s not going to go to the newspaper, and he is never going to find out that he would get rewarded for it. Second, you can say “the dog knows to go outside! What a good dog! I should reward him a lot!” But you aren’t actually looking for the dog to know to go outside; you’re looking for him to fetch the newspaper. If he keeps getting rewards for something he knows how to do, he’s not going to try to become better.
The same principles apply to humans. We want to shape ourselves and each other to become ideally virtuous humans, and part of that is rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior. Therefore, we should avoid both of the possible errors: we should reward people for doing the best they can, even if the best they can is slight; and we shouldn’t reward people for doing what they’re supposed to do, even if it’s objectively speaking better than what the previous person was doing.