Rawls against desert

by Chris Bertram on August 13, 2004

Will Wilkinson has a column up at TechCentralStation on desert . This very fact is regrettable, since Wilkinson is smarter, saner, and more interesting that the average TCS columnist and hence will serve to cover-up—somewhat—the nakedness of this astroturf operation. Anyway, the real issue is what he says, which is aimed at Matthew Yglesias , Max Sawicky and others who attack the concepts of meritocracy. Wilkinson credits their argument—that we don’t really deserve anything—to John Rawls. The argument Wilkinson (mis)attributes to Rawls is, in a nutshell, that although, superficially, it may seem that we deserve praise or reward for our efforts, in some deeper sense we don’t, because the attributes that enabled us to strive (such as our genetic makeup and our upbringing) were not themselves deserved. Given the moral arbitrariness of of our natural endowments—including the capacity for hard work—those with more talent can be legitimately taxed, as necessary, to support those unfortunate enough to have less.

[I’m putting the rest of this below the fold as it gets into technical Rawlsiana]

There are no doubt one or two sentences in A Theory of Justice that encourage such an interpretation. But, as Wilkinson surely knows, the argument in which Rawls asserts that “no one deserves his place in the distribution of natural endowments, any more than one deserves one’s initial starting place in society” (which Wilkinson cites, selectively, from the first edition of ToJ) concerns the choice of a co-operative scheme for a whole society.[1] In the passage in question Rawls is not addressing the question of whether those who are better-endowed with natural assets or who have “superior character” ought to get more within a co-operative scheme, he’s writing about whether their better endowment ought to be reflected in the choice of scheme under which they co-operate with others.[2] And his answer is, that no, the more talented have no special right to have their interests given greater weight than those others.

There are two basic Rawlsian objections to the idea that distribution should reflect moral desert or deservingness. First, that it seems impossible to establish a workable public standard of deservingness because of the fact of reasonable pluralism; second, that even if we could establish such a standard, it would be impossible to contrive an economic system to track it.[3] (One might expect, given Wilkinson’s endorsement elsewhere of “political” libertarianism, that he would be at one with Rawls on this.) Given these objections, Rawls sets aside reward according to desert and proceeds to consider other options.

Rawls’s preferred option, democratic equality and the difference principle, doesn’t endorse or track any particular standard of desert or merit. But the point here is that neither does the economic system Wilkinson himself appears to favour: there’s no good reason to believe that a system of free-market and private property is anything close to a merit-based system. Some people work hard on worthy projects for their whole lives or take exceptional risks on society’s behalf and nevertheless remain comparatively poor; others, through being lucky or rich, get to be as rich as Croesus. Is Warren Buffet more morally deserving than the firefighters on 9/11? Of course not. He doesn’t think so, they don’t think so, we don’t think so, and Will Wilkinson doesn’t think so.[4]

There does seem to be a psychological need for those who have profited from the system to be comforted by the idea that they deserve what they have. (Maybe some of them even do deserve what they have!) It is nice to think that one’s good fortune is a function of one’s morally praiseworthy qualities, and that those who have done less well have, well, got their just deserts on account of their fecklessness and unwisdom. (Poor choices made by stupid people.) One of the functions of columns at TechCentralStation is to pander to the psychological needs of a certain stratum of society—gas-guzzling SUV? No need to feel guilty, global warming is a myth !—but such pandering would be rather unseemly coming from a political philosopher of Wilkinson’s ability, and I’m sure it wasn’t what he intended.

fn1. The passage cited comes from sec 17. of ToJ (1st edn) on p. 104. In the second edition the passage reads: “We do not deserve our place in the distribution of native endowments, any more that we deserve our initial starting place in society.” (p.89).

fn2. See for clear accounts of this, Thomas Pogge, Realizing Rawls, ch. 2 section 6 and Jon Mandle, What’s Left of Liberalism , pp. 124—34.

fn3. See Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, p. 73.

fn4. One possibility that I ought not to neglect, is that Wilkinson takes Rawls to be denying that self-made men (and women) are ever truly deserving of what the have earned. I think the right answer to this thought is to say that, insofar as such as judgement issues from within any comprehensive moral doctrine, Rawls is committed to neither affirming nor denying its truth.

{ 29 comments }

1

Jacob T. Levy 08.13.04 at 4:25 pm

Hm. You may be putting too much weight on the political-comprehensive distinction for a discussion of an argument that predates that distinction. Rawls might restate the no-desert thesis in JAF:AR, modified for the political turn– but the famous passage Will quotes can’t be explained or explained away with a political-turn argument that any thesis about desert, including the thesis that *really* no one deserves everything, must be grounded in a comprehensive doctrine and is therefore inadmissible. In TJ, I’m with Will– I think that the no-desert thesis, grounded though it is in a comprehensive doctrine, is endorsed. And I think others talking about desert, from Alasdair MacIntyre to David Miller to David Schmidtz, have also read TJ that way. If Will’s making a mistake, it’s one a lot of very smart readers have made.

The point about the impossibility of an economic system that tracks desert is quite right, of course, and Hayek and Nozick both agreed that the market certainly didn’t do so. That Rawls-Nozick agreement about desert was pointed to by Alasdair MacIntyre as proof of the distance our Enlightenment moral thought had taken us away from our lingering, and superior, everyday moral intuitions.

2

Matthew Yglesias 08.13.04 at 4:46 pm

For the record, since my name is getting dragged throught he philosophical mud here, I had a comprehensive point in mind, not the political point Chris is trying to make. I agree with Jacob, moreover, that Will’s read Theory in what I take to be the natural way (though it is, as they say, restated in the Restatement) but nowadays the hip thing to do seems to be to argue that everyone’s been misreading Theory and perhaps we have.

I’d managed to completely forget the point that the market doesn’t track any reasonable notion of moral desert, which is probably a better way of putting the point. Whether or not a person who happens to have remunerative skills and dispositions deserves those skills and dispositions is a kind of hard metaphysical puzzle, but it’s pretty clear that there’s nothing especially praiseworthy about having the set of skills and dispositions that will make you, say, a highly paid professional basketball player versus the set of skills and dispositions that will make you a good parent (or whatever).

3

Chris Bertram 08.13.04 at 4:50 pm

Thanks Jacob. I’ve certainly presented things as I have in the light of the political turn. And you are right to say that many smart people have read the passage in ToJ in just the way Will did. But the context-for-the-argument point from my 2nd para doesn’t depend on any later writings and I do think that Nozick and Sandel and others basically (though understandably) misread that point.

The impossibility of tracking point and the claim the the moral worth of individuals can’t be established prior to and independent of the principles of justice is clearly stated in sec. 49 of ToJ. The connection to reasonable pluralism isn’t, of course, since, as you say, that’s a later development. But insofar as any notion of moral deservingness depends on a particular conception of the good, it couldn’t inform the deliberation of the parties in fixing the principles of justice, so something similar is available to the earlier Rawls even if stated in different terms.

4

harry 08.13.04 at 4:55 pm

Jacob’s right that the ‘political’ rejection of the no desert thesis occurs in JasF, not in TJ. He also, though, even in JasF rejects the idea that we can be deserving of our talents, tout court. He says of the claim that we do not deserve our place in the distribution of natural endowments:

bq. This statement is meant as a truism. Who would deny it? Do people really think that they (morally) deserved to be born more gifted than others? Do they think that they morally deserved to be born a man rather than a woman, or vice versa? Do they think that they deserved to be born into a wealthier rather than into a poorer family? No. (JF 74-5)

And quite right too! I couldn’t see Wilkinson had an argument against that tout court denial. The interesting stuff also occurs over effort — and Rawls does, sort of, treat us as being responsible for our level of effort even though he knows, really, that we are not, because family circumstances etc affect our level of willingness to exert effort and what we will exert effort toward. But meritocracy, on standard views, says that we should reward some function of effort and talent. Rawls’s final theory of justice does demand this too, but not (and rightly not) on desert grounds.

Isn’t it fair to expect people writing NOW, 5 years after JasF, and 20 after political liberalism emerged, to address Rawls’s view as a whole? (That is not a rhetorical question, even though it sounds like one — I’m genuinely wondering).

5

harry 08.13.04 at 5:01 pm

bq. But the context-for-the-argument point from my 2nd para doesn’t depend on any later writings and I do think that Nozick and Sandel and others basically (though understandably) misread that point.

Chris is right about everything but the parentheses. Dare I suggest that the misreading is an unforgivable piece of laziness on Nozick’s part, which then entered the canon because people read Rawls through him rather than through the book itself. There are numerous passages in Rawls which are easy to misread — but I don’t really think this is one of them. I wasn’t around at the time, obviously, and hate to disrespect my elders and betters, but I remember reading that passage as a lowly grad student without any preconceptions, and finding it entirely clear until I encountered misreadings of it which confused me….

6

Jon Mandle 08.13.04 at 5:12 pm

Thanks for plugging my book, Chris. (I’ll try to remember to return the favor the next time a discussion of Rousseau comes up!) But for anyone interested, I wrote a paper on this topic, in which I offer an alternative reading of the account of desert in TJ and try to debunk what Matt and many others view as the “natural way” to read those passages.
“Justice, Desert, and Ideal Theory,” Social Theory and Practice, v.23, n.3 (Fall, 1997).

7

joe 08.13.04 at 5:44 pm

_”I’d managed to completely forget the point that the market doesn’t track any reasonable notion of moral desert, which is probably a better way of putting the point.”_

Gibberish. The market *is* a moral desert.

And in related news, all jargon is a conspiracy against the layman.

8

Russell Arben Fox 08.13.04 at 6:18 pm

“I think the right answer to this thought [i.e., that self-made men and women deserve what they have earned] is to say that, insofar as such as judgement issues from within any comprehensive moral doctrine, Rawls is committed to neither affirming nor denying its truth.”

I’m sympathetic to Chris’s interpretation, for if no other reason than the point Harry made: Rawlsian thought, insofar as it is to employed in defense of (or, in Will’s case, as a foil in an argument against) egalitarian arrangements, needs to be treated as a whole. And the whole project does make it clear that, broadly understood, specific calculations of desert within a comprehensive scheme theoretically determined through the application of the original position is not something which Rawls particularly affirmed or denied. As I see it, this is one of reasons that Dworkin’s egalitarian arguments–desiring to be even more “endowment-insensitive” than Rawls’s difference principle necessarily mandated–focused more on assessing the ex ante status of participants in any comprehensive moral/economic scheme than addressing the redistributive needs which would follow the operation of such. So it’s not as though unintended interpretations of Rawls’s thought on this point have gone entirely unnoticed until recently.

9

Michael Otsuka 08.13.04 at 6:41 pm

Couldn’t Rawls’s claim that “No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society” (p 102 of original _TJ_) be fairly easily quoted in its proper context in order to yield the conclusion that “those with more talent can be legitimately taxed, as necessary, to support those unfortunate enough to have less”?

Here’s what I have in mind:

When considered in its proper context, we see that this claim is used to justify the choice of a scheme to govern society as a whole which accords with the difference principle. The difference principle is one under which the more talented are taxed in a manner which maximally benefits the less fortunate. Therefore those with more talent can be legitimately taxed, as necessary to support (i.e., benefit) those unfortunate enough to have less.

10

Strange Doctrines 08.13.04 at 6:51 pm

I think Will Munny had it approximately right: Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.

11

YMSP82 08.13.04 at 7:47 pm

In my cursory readings of Rawls (as an undergrad and then as a TA teaching undergrads) I’ve always thought that he isn’t even remotely as radical as he sounds at first. I mean, doesn’t the difference principle seem a little bit similar to what I would consider the conservative notion that no one is entitled to anything they can’t get by free exchange with their peers? That is, you don’t “deserve” any more than you can earn by trading your own labor/goods with someone else for mutual benefit. Rawls just comes up with a way of justifying an entire system that works on that same principle. This as opposed to some metaphysical mystery of ‘deserving’ goods, which bears no relationship to feasible methods of obtaining them.

12

Jacob T. Levy 08.13.04 at 7:50 pm

As an aside: Will Baude occasionally tweaks me for taking part in comments sections even though I think those sections are usually a mistake and usually drag down the quality of a blog. This kind of CT thread is one of the things that convinces me that comments sections do have their place (and one of the things I like so much about CT). This post, as a discrete webpage, seems preferable to, and more substantive than, cross-linked blogposts on a bunch of different blogs. (I think that’s rare, though– CT, John & Belle, and occasionally Drezner manage it, but few others.)
——

I take Chris’ point about the contxt of the argument; one of the most common mistakes in reading TJ (or for that matter PL) is not to respect the distinction between arguments and principles admissible at earlier and later stages (though of course Cohen’s been trying to weaken that barrier). Maybe I’ve been making that mistake all along about the no-desert thesis. Hm.

—–

Isn’t it fair to expect people writing NOW, 5 years after JasF, and 20 after political liberalism emerged, to address Rawls’s view as a whole?

Hm. I guess that’s fair if what we’re interested in is the human being John Rawls. But TJ has been vastly more widely-read than any of the later work; its arguments have a life of their own. It’s perfectly possible that TJ has persuaded a great many people of some point or another that the political Rawls would not (or should not) have endorsed a quarter-century later. Some such points may be misreadings, but insofar as the political turn mattered, not all of them will be.

Faced with Rousseau’s Discourses, or the 1844 Manuscripts, or Taking Rights Seriously, or etc etc., we don’t a) stop reading or trying to understand them because their authors changed their minds later, or b) demand that readings of them somehow integrate all the author’s later works into a coherent whole. Sometimes we try to integrate, and sometimes it’s worth talking about the work on its own terms. And those three are cases in which arguably more important and more influential works came later. We certainly don’t demand that readings of the Second Treatise or The Social Contract be rendered compatible with lesser and later works in which the authors changed their minds. I think PL is a great book, and I’m all for the political turn; but TJ is a work that’s well worth reading and understanding and engaging with in its own right, even where it differs with later work. (Again, I take Chris’ point that on desert the difference might be smaller than I’d thought.)

13

Michael Otsuka 08.13.04 at 9:03 pm

In my post above, I meant to quote Rawls’s claim from *p. 104* of the original _TJ_ but accidentally quoted a very similar claim from p. 102. So my post should have begun:

_Couldn’t Rawls’s claim that “no one deserves his place in the distribution of natural endowments, any more than one deserves one’s initial starting place in society” (p. 104 of original TJ) be fairly easily …_

14

Bob McGrew 08.13.04 at 9:04 pm

there’s no good reason to believe that a system of free-market and private property is anything close to a merit-based system. Some people work hard on worthy projects for their whole lives or take exceptional risks on society’s behalf and nevertheless remain comparatively poor; others, through being lucky or rich, get to be as rich as Croesus.

I’m not so sure this is so, insofar as moral desert for goods is related to the productivity of the person. In an expected-value sense, the income of a person is related to their productivity. And what is productivity but “a function of effort and talent”, which, as Harry says, is what we expect of a meritocracy.

It really seems that the big difference between the notions is whether you look ex ante (here meaning before the unforeseeable randomness is chosen) or ex post (after the randomness is chosen.) The free market does reward a function of effort and talent ex ante, just not ex post.

15

james 08.13.04 at 10:33 pm

Playing devils advocate for a moment.

Given the idea “no one deserves his place in the distribution of natural endowments, any more than one deserves one’s initial starting place in society”. The logic that allows for justifying the transfer of wealth from the fortunate to the unfortunate, also allows for completely ignoring the plight of the unfortunate. After all, if position in life is purely the result of a random series of occurrences, how does the act of assisting the unfortunate acquire morality. The initial idea seems baseless for establishing moral structure.

16

Will Wilkinson 08.14.04 at 1:35 am

I’ve posted a response here, since it’s too much to put here in the comments.

Great thread. I’m really enjoying it.

17

Abiola Lapite 08.14.04 at 2:52 am

“That is, you don’t “deserve” any more than you can earn by trading your own labor/goods with someone else for mutual benefit. “

That can’t be right – what you’ve just described is a free market!

18

Tom 08.14.04 at 4:55 am

My take is rather long, so here’s where to find it:

http://libertycorner.blogspot.com/2004/08/who-decides-whos-deserving.html

19

Joseph de Maistre 08.14.04 at 5:56 am

Left-leaning intellectuals, like Yglesias and the Center for American Progress’ Matthew Miller, regularly deny that one can deserve anything by virtue of noble birth. Inheritance gives you no special claim to what you’ve got. Your parents made you that way. You got lucky, and you don’t really deserve what you got by luck.

And it goes on: we also do not deserve the rewards we deserve through our membership in the noblesse (which we do not deserve) that produced our cultivated and noble character (which we do not deserve). If these judgments — that no one deserves his noble status the he has received by right of birth, the refined noble character that is the result of them, or the fruits of the deference that the commons give to true nobility — are indeed fixed points of moral common sense, then any theory of justice that argues that people are morally entitled to what they’ve received in virtue of birth and inheritance must be wrong.

At this point, the redistributionist tends to argue that since no one has legitimate moral title to his holdings, there can be no objection to taking from the wealthy and giving to the less fortunate in order to “correct” fortune’s caprices. Now, one must admit that this is a powerful argument. So powerful, in fact, that it’s rather like advocating the destruction of all life on earth in order to prevent another terrorist attack. The luck argument, if it’s any good, scorches the dialectical earth, undercutting the possibility of justifying political power, the right ordering of society, the right to command and the obligation to obey, or, well, anything….

20

Chris Bertram 08.14.04 at 8:45 am

Will has responded over at his blog, but I don’t really “get” his response.

Let me focus on this thought that he articulates there:

bq. principles of justice that run roughshod over our deep-seated intuitions of desert will therefore fail to gain our affirmation and compliance, and will thus fail to frame a stable social order.

One reason why I framed things in terms of the political turn was that Will has endorsed that part of Rawls’s work. So I think it worth repeating that to the extent to which conceptions of desert are the object of reasonable disagreement, they can’t be incorporated into public standards of justice. Will ought to agree with that.

There’s also the “tracking” point, which he doesn’t address in his response. I asserted, following Hayek and Rawls, that the free market doesn’t do anything like reward people according to desert. Does Will disagree? If he does, it would be nice to hear an argument. If he doesn’t then it would seem that he is hoist with his own petard, since libertarian principles will also fail to frame a stable social order, and for the same reasons.

Of course we might ask which of two social orders, a Rawlsian one or a free-market one, would diverge most flagrantly from the desert criterion that Will endorses. Note that under both systems the hard-working talented will, as a matter of fact, often earn more than those of an average talent and an average disposition to work, just so long as their talents are actually valued by others at or around the time they’re deploying them. This despite the fact that neither system contains an intention to reward such deployment for desert-based reasons and that the “fit” will be extraordinarily loose. But which of the two “maps” better? My money would be on a Rawlsian “well-ordered society”.

————

I think that Mike O’s point is highly misleading (mischievous?). In the first place, the more talented are only taxed more when the successfully deploy their talent to earn income. So, anyway, the talented aren’t taxed _as-such_ in a Rawlsian WOS. Second, taxation is only one, perhaps small, part of a whole co-operative scheme which might include more diversified capital ownership etc. The DP governs the selection of such a scheme rather than (directly) the rate of income tax. Of course Mike knows this.

——-

On other points (including Joseph de Maistre’s) it is worth simply recalling that a Rawlsian society would have a fairly robust conception of _entitlement_ which might well permit rights of inheritance etc (a topic on which libertarians have their own problems!). And that (see sec 49 of ToJ for details) once the principles of justice are in place and a system of entitlements are also in place, Rawls allows a place also for notions of desert and for the fact that judgements of desert may diverge from judgements of entitlement (his example of the sports team that deserved to win).

21

Michael Otsuka 08.14.04 at 9:44 am

I don’t think Chris’s reply shows that my point above is unsound. What it does show is that I’ve simplified Rawls. I think my point goes through even if one takes on board what he says. But I won’t go into the details here. Rather, I’d like to press a different but closely related point by zeroing in a bit more on Chris’s second paragraph in his original post where he makes his “context-for-the-argument point”.

There Chris takes Will to task for quoting the following passage from Rawls out of context: “no one deserves his place in the distribution of natural endowments, any more than one deserves one’s initial starting place in society” (p. 104, original edition of _TJ_)

Chris writes:

_In the passage in question Rawls is *not* addressing the question of whether those who are better-endowed with natural assets or who have “superior character” ought to get more *within* a co-operative scheme,…_

Fair enough.

Chris completes his above sentence as follows:

_…he’s writing about whether their better endowment ought to be reflected in the choice of scheme under which they co-operate with others. And his answer is, that no, the more talented have no special right to have their interests given greater weight than those others._

The above is true. But _in the context of his complaint against Will_ it is not the whole truth. Chris fails to note the following:

In so writing, Rawls is writing about whether someone who is better-endowed or who has a superior character “deserves and therefore has a right to a scheme of cooperation in which he is permitted to acquire benefits in ways that do not contribute to the welfare of others” (p. 104, two sentences below the above sentence from Rawls).

So Will’s quotation from p. 104 is after all relevant to the question of whether “those with more talent can be legitimately taxed, as necessary, to support those unfortunate enough to have less”.

22

Chris Bertram 08.14.04 at 10:42 am

Thanks Mike. I don’t have my copy of ToJ to hand at the moment, and I’m about to disappear for the w/e. So it may be that if I had the text available I’d see that what I’m about to say isn’t adequate.

You focus on P: the fact that those with superior character or better endowments have no right to a scheme of co-operation in which they are permitted to acquire benefits in ways that don’t contribute to the welfare of others.

But it doesn’t follow from P that the better-endowed (etc) will have no right to acquire benefits in ways that don’t contribute to the welfare of others under the co-operative scheme that will (eventually) be selected by the (still emergent) principles of justice. That’s still an open question.

(And I seem to recall that under the lexical version of the DP, whereby the prospects of each group are maximised subject the the proviso that the prospect of less advantaged groups have been already maximized, the most advantaged would indeed have a right to a few such non-contributory benefits. But now we are getting arcane.)

23

Michael Otsuka 08.14.04 at 1:50 pm

I think it might be useful to distinguish between a weaker and a stronger reading of Chris’s nutshell version of the argument which he says Will misattributes to Rawls:

*Weaker reading:* Considerations of desert *don’t stand in the way of* the claim that “those with more talent can be legitimately taxed, as necessary, to support those unfortunate enough to have less”.

*Stronger reading:* Considerations of desert *establish* the claim that “those with more talent can be legitimately taxed, as necessary, to support those unfortunate enough to have less”.

The language of Chris’s nutshell version is consistent with both the weaker and the stronger reading. (But when read in the context of Chris’s post as a whole, it becomes clear that he intended the stronger reading.)

I think the passage from p. 104 of Rawls clearly makes the weaker version of the argument. This, more precisely, is what Rawls does on pp. 102-104. On pp. 102-3 he offers intuitive, reciprocity-based considerations in favour of the difference principle. Having made such a case for the difference principle, he considers and dismisses a desert-based objection to the difference principle on pp. 103-4. (For simplicity, here I elide the distinction between the difference principle and the claim that those with more talent can legitimately be taxed to support the unfortunate.)

It’s much less clear whether Rawls anywhere makes the stronger version of the argument. But see, for example, pp. 73-74 of the original _TJ_, where he might be interpreted as doing so.

24

Chris Bertram 08.14.04 at 2:57 pm

I’m finding your attributions confusing now, Mike.

Are you saying:

(1)According to Chris, Will reads Rawls as putting the strong version.

(2)The textual evidence only supports the attribution of the weak version to Rawls.

??

25

Michael Otsuka 08.14.04 at 4:44 pm

Chris,

Sorry for the confusion. I should have said that I meant my last post neither as a defense of my earlier posts nor as a criticism of anything you’ve said. Rather I meant it as a self-contained statement of what I now take the relation of the p. 104 passage to the nutshell argument to be. It took me a while to get to this point because it took a while to get clear exactly what the nutshell argument was saying. For the reasons spelled out in my latest post, I’ve reached the same conclusion as you: namely, that p. 104 doesn’t support the nutshell argument, given your understanding of that argument. These reasons are, I think, different from (but consistent with) the reasons you offered in your original post.

26

Michael Otsuka 08.14.04 at 4:52 pm

…actually I’m not sure about the parenthetical “(but consistent with)” in my above post.

27

David Meyer 08.15.04 at 2:40 am

A useful concept: “Sociodicy”

“Max Weber said that dominant groups always need a ‘theodicy of their own privilege,’ or more precisely, a sociodicy, in other words a theoretical justification of the fact that they are privileged. Competence is nowadays at the heart of that sociodicy, which is accepted, naturally, by the dominant – it is in their interest – but also by the others.” Pierre Bourdieu, Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market 43.

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Matt McIrvin 08.16.04 at 6:11 am

I have a rather different problem with the concept of desert. Namely, it seems paralyzing when applied to the question of what I must do.

Usually I act according to some combination of my perceived self-interest and my obligations toward others, society in general, some notion of what is right, etc. But if the right action is that which causes people to get what they deserve, then it seems to me that I shouldn’t do that; instead I have to start by figuring out whether I deserve anything good at all, and only then do I know whether I should consider my own self-interest in my actions. For all I know, once the true and proper accounting of desert is made, I might unexpectedly turn out to be so evil that any just person is required to do bad things to me, in which case I have to start punishing myself instead of acting in my own interest.

But no thoughtful person could live that way for long. It subordinates the most basic practical aspects of my life– whether I should, say, hit myself on the head or eat breakfast– to an abstract moral calculation that requires some sort of axiomatic system.

Why doesn’t this cause trouble in practice? It seems to me that we have a nebulous concept of desert but we also put limits on what people should do to bring it about. E.g. only the state (or, according to some, God) is supposed to bring down certain severe punishments; you shouldn’t go around doing it yourself even if the victim richly deserves it. And we don’t seem in practice to expect that people should punish themselves for their bad actions; in fact, this is usually regarded as pathological.

So maybe the notion of desert coexists with the idea that the right action isn’t necessarily the one that realizes desert.

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Alec Rawls 08.17.04 at 12:54 pm

Interesting to see a blog discussion circling around John Rawls’s great mistake: his claim that nobody deserves anything. Understanding this mistake is the key to understanding what Rawls got right.

Since you all have hit on this important subject, I address it in a post of my own at errortheory.blogspot.com: “Time to perform reflective equilibrium on Rawls’ Theory of Justice”

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