Desert Yesterday and Desert Tomorrow But Never Desert Today?

by John Holbo on April 15, 2011

Usually I half-agree with what Julian Sanchez has to say. But not in this case.

In a recent post, I suggested that claims about “desert” are generally misplaced in arguments about copyright—whether they are deployed on behalf of “deserving” small fry artists or against “undeserving” labels. As some commenters pointed out, there’s no obvious reason this argument should be restricted to the domain of copyright—and quite right. I think most areas of political philosophy and policy—theory of just punishment springs to mind as a possible exception—would be better off if we just scrapped the concept of “desert” entirely, and just spoke about what people are entitled to.

Here’s the difference, very roughly, in case this sounds like semantic hairsplitting. To say someone deserves X is to say that X is in some sense an appropriate or fair reward in light of that person’s morally virtuous qualities or conduct. To say that someone is entitled to X is just to say that the person has a just claim to X, without any implied commitment to some deeper claim about their moral merit.

Here’s his thesis, a paragraph or so further on: “I think political and policy discussions should concentrate on what people are entitled to, rather than on necessarily muddy attempts to determine (and embed in law) what people morally deserve.”

The post goes on at some length. Sanchez is at pains to confess that he is making a rather vague argument, not trying to nail anything down. But it seems to me 1) absolutely, completely hopeless; 2) a standing temptation to libertarians and conservatives; 3) worth shooting down hard.

It’s basically one of those how-to-squeeze-an-ought-from-an-is (you can’t!) type problems.

Sanchez is saying we shouldn’t worry about what people should be given, in a distributive justice-y sort of sense. Rather, we should worry about what people have, in fact, been given. That’s what ‘entitled’ means, after all: that you have (been given) ‘title’. You have an established claim on x, or to x. This is a descriptive truth about the legal system (or some such system), not a normative claim at all. Sanchez’ examples are of this form.

But how can you conduct forward-looking discussions of ought (i.e. discussions that will settle what politics and policy ought to be, starting tomorrow) exclusively on the basis of a backwards-looking consideration of is (i.e. of who had what, as of yesterday)?

Don’t you get into an absurd position in which you have desert tomorrow, i.e. the things policy-makers decide everyone should get (but which aren’t entitlements yet); and desert yesterday, i.e. prior entitlements, given normative weight; but never desert today (because it’s hopelessly muddy to ask whether people ‘deserve’ what they’ve got?) White Queen libertarianism does not sound very plausible.

Of course, if you could help yourself to some Panglossian, ‘best of all possible worlds’ premise, you could reason that things ought to stay the same, so yesterday is a good guide. But Sanchez doesn’t buy anything like that: “absent a sort of happy Liebnizian coincidence, desert will often tend to be in conflict with other sources of entitlement.”

What does Sanchez think are ‘sources of entitlement’? As I said, his examples are legalistic. HuffPo contributors not ‘entitled’ to compensation, however deserving, if they agreed to write for free. Heroic rescuers not ‘entitled’ to rewards – however deserving – unless the law says so. But I know Sanchez isn’t a pure legal positivist. He’s also a consequentialist. (He favors “what people have freely agreed to, or what would incentivize more wealth creation.” That’s a vague formula. I’m not going to nitpick. I think it comes to legalism backed by consequentialism.) But ‘the right thing to do is maximize the greatest good for the greatest number’ is not a theory of entitlement. If it turns out that consequentialism says that it would be best for everyone if you are paid $100,000, on account of your big brain, and all the goods that will flow from it if money-fueled in this fashion, it doesn’t follow that you are ‘entitled’ to the money. No more so than you are ‘entitled’ to be killed if it turns out you are best used for soylent green. Consequentialism isn’t about who gets ‘title’.

The idea, I’m pretty sure, is that we are supposed to combine legalism (which is about entitlement, but only in a descriptive sense) with consequentialism (which is normative but not about entitlement) to get a legalist-consequentialist theory of entitlement. But, honestly, we already have a word for this kind of thing: theories of distributive justice. If you don’t want to use the word ‘desert’, fine. But don’t pretend that people are muddying clear questions about entitlements with unclear questions about deserts. Rather, everyone is trying to work out ‘what everyone should get’. If Sanchez’ theory of justice is right, we should talk about ‘entitlements’ as he suggests. Likewise, if Rawls is right, we ought to rely on the difference principle. And so, just as it would beg the question for Rawlsians to say ‘first accept the difference principle then we can argue about what our theory of justice should be’, so Sanchez begs the question in favor of his theory of justice by insisting we talk the ‘entitlement’ talk.

Sanchez says otherwise:

In case my suspicious progressive readers are inclined to read this as some kind of sneaky attempt to rig the debate in favor of libertarian principles of economic justice, I should note that I’m not seeking to rule out any particular view about what people might be entitled to—maybe including very generous government benefits.

I don’t think Sanchez is being sneaky, but I do believe he is rigging the debate in favor of libertarian/conservative principles of economic justice. Suppose all offending uses of ‘desert’, ‘distributive justice’, ‘social justice’, so forth are swapped out for ‘entitlement’ and variations thereupon. (Rawls’ first book could be, simply, A Theory of Title. His second: Political Entitlement. His third: Transnational Title. The difference principle calculates levels of ‘entitlement’.) If there is no problem with using ‘entitlement’ to denote a Rawlsian view of what people ought to get, distributive justice-wise, then this cosmetic change ought to address Sanchez’ substantive complaint about ‘desert’. But this is absurd. Which just goes to show that Sanchez must mean something more narrow, by ‘entitlement’, but that narrow thing is either question-begging (the legalistic-consequentialist thing) or inadequate for Sanchez’ own purposes (a narrowly descriptive use of ‘entitlement’).

That took a bit longer to write out than I thought. I think it’s important, because I do genuinely believe that Sanchez doesn’t think he’s begging the question. I think lots of libertarians have a strong sense that this ‘justice and desert’ talk is a lot of imponderable/ponderous stuff and/or nonsense, and they have managed to put things on a firmer footing. But no. They are dealing with the same issues, only less explicitly, hence probably less – not more – clearly.

UPDATE: Perhaps I should have said ‘contractarianism’ rather than ‘legalism’, above. The general idea is that Sanchez is attracted by the clarity of what legally is (contracts, laws). This does get one clear of various muddy ought questions, perhaps, but then you just have to get back down into the mud if you want to make your own ought claims. Might as well get used to it. Post wording tweaked in a few places for clarity.



John Quiggin 04.15.11 at 7:14 am

I saw this post and also thought it was problematic, for much the kinds of reasons you’ve spelt out.

On the specific issue of copyright, an important point which has broader implications is that the most valuable single copyright title (as I understand it) is Winnie-the-Pooh, which was created under the much more limited copyright titles prevailing at the time, titles which were extended thanks to the lobbying of the Disney corporation. And, although the ties between Walt Disney and the Disney corporation are obviously more direct, the same is true for Mickey Mouse – the continued extensions of his copyright represent a transfer of rights to copy, expropriated from the community at large, to the Disney Corporation.

So, for any positive theory of copyrights, the distinction between struggling artists and wealthy corporations is entirely relevant.


Random lurker 04.15.11 at 9:03 am

Short Holbo:
a) What people are “entitled” to is determined by law;
b) But the law is crafted by a lawmaker according to his ideas about justice, i.e. about what people “deserve”.

I completely agree.


Nick 04.15.11 at 9:11 am

Generally, I agree, this argument is quite limited. One area where entitlement might have more to say than desert though: compossibility. Entitlement, to my ears, seems to zero in more on what resources actually exist, their quantity, and to what extent they can be divided into shares – or to liability for there not existing certain resources (in the case of, for example, criminal damage).

Desert, by contrast, does not seem so limited (there could be a sense in which two people deserve exactly the same resource or prize), and therefore less practical as a policy guide.


Myles 04.15.11 at 9:36 am

Julian seems to be saying that “deserts” are not properly transferrable. And if they aren’t transferrable, their salience for economic decisions (opposed to political ones, such as society security payments) is limited.


Chris Bertram 04.15.11 at 9:56 am

I’m not sure you’ve got this quite right, John (H). After all, Rawls makes pretty similar moves to Sanchez at sec. 48 of TJ where he reject distribution according to desert as unworkable and says that, in any case, concepts of deservingness are logically subsequent to principles of justice. Now I’m not sure that I agree with Rawls about that, but I think this post artificially restricts the menu of options to.

1. The rules determining individual entitlement.
2. The rules determining individual entitlement as conditioned by a prior (partly consquentialist) theory of distributive justice for society as a whole.

You rightly say, I think, that 1. as a free-standing position is hopeless and collapses into 2. But I’m guessing that Sanchez would agree on that point.

His target (perhaps oddly for a libertarian) is the idea that the rules should track individual moral virtue as determined independently of some broader theory of distributive justice. So he’s rejecting the idea that the rules governing entitlement should be sensitive to our feeling (if we have it) that the effort, love, and dedication that the struggling artist puts in should count for something in the determination of who gets what, quite independently of the social calculus.


J. Otto Pohl 04.15.11 at 10:03 am

I do not know why Crooked Timber treats him the same way communist parties treat Marx or Christian sects Jesus, but Rawls is the most overrated and boring philosopher to ever write in any language. Every time I see one of these Rawlsfest posts it causes me physical pain. Because honestly a lot of the time this blog has interesting posts. There are a lot of interesting left-wing political philosophers like Marx, Fanon and others you could write about. I honestly do not understand the obsession of this blog with Rawls.


Chris Bertram 04.15.11 at 10:05 am

Workers: ” It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade; /Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid;”

Sanchez, Holbo and Rawls: “But that’s _irrelevant_ to what you’re entitled to! What you’re entitled to is a function of _the rules_ , which are determined by the calculus of distributive justice .”

Workers: “that is _so not fair_ !”

Sanchez, Holbo and Rawls: “You’re confused, fairness is just a function of our theory of distributive justice.”

Workers: “then your theory is missing something important out.”

[As always, I’m on the side of the workers.]


Zamfir 04.15.11 at 10:17 am

@Pohl, that’s hardly fair. To a large degree, people use Rawls because he formulated a certain view particularly clear, with useful terms. So for many people who roughly share that view, he is a good and widely known communication tool. There is a range of ideas that be usefully summarized as “like Rawls, except I think X should be more Y”.


soru 04.15.11 at 10:23 am

Short, but possibly too short. The framing of a law can allow a lot, or very little, moral contextual judgement, ‘desert’, to be made _by the person applying it_. In historical Common Law this was a lot, hence the name ‘judge’. The modern tendency is towards much less, so sentencing guidelines, explicit rules about the borders of legitimate self-defence, etc.

Not seen many people argue for more context-dependant (‘vague’) laws, but it might be an interesting proposal. More effective power to judges, less to those with money to pay lawyers analysing the rules. What would the net effects be?


Myles 04.15.11 at 10:27 am

His target (perhaps oddly for a libertarian) is the idea that the rules should track individual moral virtue as determined independently of some broader theory of distributive justice.

It is the only non-shaky basis for libertarian beliefs. If you are a libertarian and you believe that rules track individual virtue, you are going to end up in self-parody sooner or later, as reality of libertarian outcomes disproves that belief.


J. Otto Pohl 04.15.11 at 11:51 am


I do not find Rawls a clear writer. He takes hundreds of pages to express what could have been summarized in fifty. Betram I think summarizes nicely one of the reasons Marx is a lot more germane to modern history than Rawls. While Marx is far from perfect at least he is interesting to read and he had a fair bit to say that has held up well over time. Everytime I have attempted to read Rawls I have fallen asleep. As far as I can see Rawls only ever had one idea and it would have been best expressed in under 50 pages.

If Crooked Timber is looking for new ideas outside the tired horse of redistributive justice perhaps they can tackle why Pan-Africanism failed as an idea? They could cover a whole host of more interesting writers than Rawls such as Padmore, Nkrumah, C.L.R. James, DuBois, Fanon and other thinkers just to the right of the Crooked Timber medium. I do not know a whole lot about the subject, but I would be very interested in reading a serious discussion of the issue.


Straightwood 04.15.11 at 1:00 pm

Dawkins provides the right perspective on the hopeless muddle between moral and legal “rights.” Whatever arrangements prove durable and propagate well over time become legally recognized norms. Conversely, legal entitlements deemed morally unacceptable are eventually abolished. Thus slavery, a settled legal system dating to antiquity, became delegitimized on moral grounds which were subsequently codified as new law. Because society determined that slaves deserved to be free, they became legally entitled to emancipation.

There is no logical calculus for translating between ethical desert and legal entitlement. It is the messy process of societal evolution that decides the state of affairs.


MDH 04.15.11 at 1:33 pm

Won’t the CT contributors please write J. Otto Pohl’s term paper on Marxian analyses of the failure of pan-Africanism? And soon.


J. Otto Pohl 04.15.11 at 1:53 pm


I do not have any term papers. I am a lecturer not a student. You could have found that out if you had spent a few moments on the internet. I thought it might be an interseting subject because I have recently started teaching in the history department of the University of Ghana. But, your insult is noted. Your failure to note your name and credentials is also noted you coward.


Julian Sanchez 04.15.11 at 1:54 pm

I’m actually not really a legal positivist OR a (pure) consequentalist, and the couple of examples I picked were in no way meant to narrow the possible scope of sources of entitlement. I meant it to be fully compatible with everything I was saying that what people are “entitled” to is the share of social output specified by the difference principle. Or Dworkin’s equality-of-resources. Or precisely equal shares. Or whatever.


Dan 04.15.11 at 2:19 pm

If we buy the premise that entitlement is a purely descriptive concept, then I think your argument goes through; the question is whether we should buy that premise. Certainly Nozick’s theory of justice (the first that comes to mind in this context) would say that entitlements are normatively significant: you are entitled to your own person and powers; you are entitled to any property that you acquire (with certain provisos on appropriation); and you are entitled to anything that you voluntarily receive from someone who was previously entitled to it. None of these entitlements are in any way dependent on actual enforcement within some legal structure, precisely because they are normative — not legal — entitlements.

So if Sanchez is adverting to a roughly Nozickian line of thought, as he seems to be when he talks about entitlement as what people have just claims to, you’re misreading him. He’s saying, as far as I can tell, that we shouldn’t be trying to arrange the distribution of goods so that it tracks desert, or moral worth, or moral merit, or what have you. That might sound like he is retreating to a kind of amoralist (“purely descriptive”) position regarding distributive justice, but not so. An entitlement theory is still a normative theory governed by normative rules of appropriation and transfer; it’s just that it is recognized that, as a matter of fact, the actual entitlements that people accrue will not track any intuitive notion of moral deservingness.


William Timberman 04.15.11 at 2:29 pm

If we want to come to an agreement about justice, economic or otherwise, we locate ourselves by definition in the universe of a) moral philosophy, and b) politics. As I see it, the only genuine contribution of law to such conundrums is predictability. It stabilizes the arena, at least for a time, in which we wrestle out what is owed by one to the other — and then only if we agree beforehand to be civilized.

When confronted by legal musings about what I deserve, I recall Marx’s evisceration of the English Factory Acts, which seemed far more relevant to my idea of justice than the acts themselves. And when lawyers are found to disagree, as they always are, I tend to cite Mr. Bumble. If the law supposes that, the law is a ass — a idiot. Or, borrowing a periwig for a moment, I might ask all those who love the law because it hamstrings the unruly masses, cui bono?


conchis 04.15.11 at 2:41 pm

Weird. I didn’t interpret Sanchez in the way you did at all.

While I think the examples he chose to illustrate what he meant by “entitlement” were poorly chosen, I took his core claim to be simply that an individual’s moral virtue should be irrelevant to the question of what they should get. This seems a perfectly natural opinion for a consequentialist to hold, and it is indeed the opinion I hold myself. I also think it’s positive from a egalitarian perspective, because it opens up space for individuals to be “entitled” to a fair share of the social pie by virtue of the fact that they’re human, rather than by virtue of the fact that they’re “virtuous” in whatever way conservatives typically define that notion. As Julian notes, this is entirely consistent with e.g. the difference principle.


Henri Vieuxtemps 04.15.11 at 3:21 pm

I agree that the expression “entitled to X [assuming socioeconomic system Y]” is better than “deserves X”. It makes it easier to understand what’s going on.


Tom Hurka 04.15.11 at 3:44 pm

The classic discussion of entitlement vs. desert is of course Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which endorses the first and rejects the second. But Nozick treats entitlement and desert as different concepts, going with different substantive views about distributive justice. ‘Entitlement’ is not, as Sanchez seems to think, an all-purpose term usable for any distributive view, but one tied to a specifically historical, as against end-state or patterned view (where utilitarian, Rawlsian, and desert views are end-state and in some cases patterned).

If Sanchez is arguing, as Chris B suggests, that people don’t deserve income on the basis of their moral virtue and therefore don’t deserve income at all, he’s repeating one of the many horrible arguments in Rawls’s critique of desert.

Rawls devotes much of one of his two discussions of economic desert to attacking the view that people deserve income on the basis of their moral virtue. But NOBODY who believes in economic desert believes it rests on moral virtue, as if it was unfair that Mother Theresa wasn’t a billionaire. They think people deserve income on the basis of their economic effort and/or contribution, which are independent of virtue. If I work hard and/or contribute to others, e.g. by inventing something useful, only because I want to get rich, I’m fully deserving of income for doing so even though my motive was selfish, and no less deserving of it than if I did the same things from altruism. (I may be less deserving of happiness if I was selfish, but desert of happiness is different from desert of income.) So this part of Rawls’s critique is totally beside the point (and that’s not to mention the gross non sequitur, pointed out by Jerry Cohen, in his discussion of effort-making ability.)

So I’m with Chris and “Solidarity Forever” against the Rawls, Sanchez, Holbo cabal.


Dave 04.15.11 at 4:24 pm

But it seems to me…3) worth shooting down hard.

Well, if someone gets around to that, let us know.


Sam Clark 04.15.11 at 4:42 pm

Here’s one way of thinking about entitlement vs desert in distributive justice:

Advocates of desert think that distributive justice is like retributive justice: there are prior facts about what people ought to get (bad actions should lead to punishment; hard work should lead to reward), and institutions of justice should be set up to discover and enact them.

Advocates of entitlement think that, at least for distribution, the just institutions come first, and tell us what individuals are entitled to. We either don’t deserve anything, or our desert is irrelevant to the question of what those institutions should be.

On this division, Rawls, Nozick, and Sanchez are all entitlement theorists, but with different accounts of what the just distributive institutions are. Rawls: a basic structure which incentivises activities that benefit the worst off. Nozick: a set of rules about just acquisition, transfer, and restitution, which says nothing about the results of repeated just actions. Sanchez: whatever system encourages wealth creation and protects free agreement.

This is perhaps a long-winded way of saying that I don’t understand John Holbo’s critique.


Sam Clark 04.15.11 at 4:59 pm

Aside: I find Rawls’s attack on desert more convincing than Tom Hurka does. It’s a consistency argument: liberals don’t think that luck in the social lottery – being born heir to a Dukedom, say – means that we deserve any special reward. That’s why they believe in equality of opportunity. So why should they think that luck in other lotteries – being born clever, being disposed by early training to concentrate and to defer gratification, etc. – should? What’s the relevant difference between my bookish middle-class social background and my IQ? They seem equally morally arbitrary. So, natural and social luck are equally irrelevant to distributive justice, and we need to look elsewhere for an account of what people should get.


Julian Sanchez 04.15.11 at 5:51 pm

Obviously Nozick casts a long shadow across my brain, but again, in using the word “entitlement” in my post, I did not intend to specifically invoke the Entitlement Theory of Holdings as laid out in AS&U. I just wanted an umbrella term for moral claims to (control of) resources that didn’t necessarily imply a judgment on the moral worthiness or merit of the person with the claim. Neither did I mean to advance a general “theory” of entitlement grounded in promoting innovation and protecting free agreements: I do happen to think both are important, but those were just supposed to be examples of the sort of values one might appeal to in justifying a system of entitlements. Evidently the post was not a model of clarity…


Chris Bertram 04.15.11 at 6:06 pm

Sam: I don’t know of anyone who thinks you deserve to be rewarded either for having a high IQ or for having a bookish middle-class social background. On the other hand, I’m sure that you deserve credit for many of your actual achievements in life, I don’t think that translates into a full desert-bases theory of distributive justice, but I do think that the efforts people make, their creativity, etc. give us reasons that we ought to respond to when thinking about justice. Of course, Rawlsians will be tempted to say that their theory does, in practice, respond to such reasons, but when it does so it is not because they count as such but rather only indirectly.


lemmy caution 04.15.11 at 6:06 pm

Desert arguments make sense for retrospective copyright extension. Whatever license (or even salary agreement) that was made between artists and copyright holders assumed a certain length of copyright term. If you retrospectively expand the term of copyright, this will often just enrich the copyright holders. Basically the copyright holder is lobbying the government to make the terms of their license or employment contract with the artists more favorable to copyright holder. There could easily be cases where the copyright holders do not “deserve” this extension even where the artists do “deserve” the extension.


mpowell 04.15.11 at 6:24 pm

I can see why some people on the left would find Rawls account of justice unsatisfactory. I think they are missing an important point, though. Rawls method of approaching the problem, in my opinion, lays a foundation for thinking about the way that societies functions that doesn’t just offer a critique of theories on the right (like libertarianism), it causes them to appear entirely without basis. The simple fact is that libertarianism is not just a wrong theory of justice, it is also ignorant of the social facts which undermine its usefulness as a political philosophy. I’m thinking along the lines of some recent CT posts on libertarianism as feudalism or libertarianism as democratic liberalism. Organizations acquire power and acquire a monopoly on the coercive use of force in a region. This process occurs independent of anyone’s preferred theory of justice. The best outcomes are achieved when this organization is controlled through democratic politics. That’s pretty much the end of the story. We have to talk about distributive justice because the government is a democratic organization that can lay substantial claim to all the resources in the economy. There is no alternative even if you preferred that one existed.

The benefit here is that you can force someone who is not disposed to favor Rawls’ difference principle to at least accept the parameters of the debate that Rawls creates. The most hard core libertarians will not be persuaded, but there are many fundamentally conservative people whose views can be shifted by this approach. And I don’t think those people would be equally persuaded by a Marxist critique.

Just reading Sanchez’s response in this thread, he appears to accept the broad outlines for the debate that Rawls proposes. That’s pretty useful for a liberal compared to the historical status quo of economic distributions.


dictateursanguinaire 04.15.11 at 6:55 pm

mpowell, I think your post makes a great point. It reminds me of a podcast with Raymond Geuss I listened to, where he critiques both Rawls and Nozick for ignoring inevitable, well, reality. I think that that’s the problem with the libertarian ideal. Even if we had totally equal opportunity, there would still be winners and losers. And over time those differences would compound, and the winners would simply have an unduly large effect on policy decisions. The libertarian small businessperson who decries corporate subsidies when s/he’s a small businessperson suddenly becomes very okay with them one s/he is a large businessperson or an elected official, etc. etc. The “liberaltarian” idea of “total equality of opportunity = optimal social outcomes” is mistaken, I think. At most, it might work for a few years but power, whether social, economic or political, simply tends towards concentration, and I think it takes a democracy to check that power.


bianca steele 04.15.11 at 7:03 pm

I think it is important to maintain a distinction between entitlement, by law or custom, and desert because we need a way to explain the ways in which the world fails to meet our ideals. If you don’t have this, you need–I was going to call them epicycles, but it’s worse than that–new explanations for why the differences between ideal and reality don’t matter, which are just not helpful for any real purpose. Of course you can keep your nose to the grindstone and insist the definitions you have are just fine (you don’t have the resources you’d need to adjust them anyway).

Sanchez is wrong if he can’t maintain this distinction, and I have no problem saying the same of Rawls if he doesn’t either. Though my distant memory of Rawls and Nozick is that both of them do make the distinction.


geo 04.15.11 at 7:49 pm

What is the difference between: “Every human being deserves at least minimally adequate nutrition, shelter, sanitation, health care, education, and economic security” and “Every human being is entitled to at least minimally adequate nutrition, shelter, sanitation, health care, education, and economic security”?

Shouldn’t we first concentrate on getting every human being at least minimally adequate nutrition, shelter, sanitation, health care, education, and economic security, and only after that do moral/political philosophy?


mds 04.16.11 at 2:18 am

There are a lot of interesting left-wing political philosophers like Marx, Fanon and others you could write about.

Well, Professor Bertram @ 7 was outlining an argument that lines up well with Kropotkin. Does that count?

<long-deceased horse with signs of blunt-force trauma>
(It would be nice for me if it did, since a post involving Sanchez, Nozick et al. would be a lovely spot for even an implicit acknowledgment that left-libertarianism exists.)
</long-deceased horse with signs of blunt-force trauma>

Shouldn’t we first concentrate on getting every human being at least minimally adequate nutrition, shelter, sanitation, health care, education, and economic security, and only after that do moral/political philosophy?

Unfortunately, the status quo seems to require establishing the moral and political foundation first. We have to expend a lot of extra philosophical effort attacking the modern Right’s monstrous immorality in willfully depriving human beings of all those things in the name of material enrichment of a few. Then we need to expend a lot of extra political effort voting out those of the modern Right who find helping poor mothers feed their children to be some sort of Stalinist attack on Christianity itself. Only then can we get to work on actually providing those minimally adequate items for every human being. Now, where did I put my copy of “Reform or Revolution?”

–mds, another nameless, credential-less coward


mds 04.16.11 at 2:22 am

Sorry, my previous comment lost the special HTML tags I placed around the parenthesized section in an attempt to impose “Long-deceased horse with signs of blunt-force trauma” formatting.


Sev 04.16.11 at 4:05 am

“Don’t you get into an absurd position in which you have desert tomorrow, i.e. the things policy-makers decide everyone should get (but which aren’t entitlements yet); and desert yesterday, i.e. prior entitlements, given normative weight; but never desert today (because it’s hopelessly muddy to ask whether people ‘deserve’ what they’ve got?”

Do you? Oh, F___


John Holbo 04.16.11 at 7:37 am

Sorry to be a bit late getting back to my own thread.

Julian Sanchez replies: “I just wanted an umbrella term for moral claims to (control of) resources that didn’t necessarily imply a judgment on the moral worthiness or merit of the person with the claim.”

I see now that you intended something a bit different than I took away. So I stand corrected as far as that goes. But I think my misunderstanding was a symptom of a deeper problem. The problem is that your umbrella term seems to me to expand to the point of being basically synonymous with ‘fairness’. You are entitled to something so long as it’s intuitively ‘fair’ that you get it. But it seems to me that fairness, in this broad sense, is not really distinct from the notion of desert you are trying to slough off. Why is it ‘fair’ that we should divide the pizza in half – you and I? I take it that one could say: because we are each equally deserving of these fruits of our having ordered a pizza. Or something like that. If one of us deserved more of the pizza for some clear reason – maybe because one of us paid more than half of the price – then our judgment of fairness could very well shift.

To get really basic about it: why are creatures with minds – people and higher mammals and maybe some others – more deserving of moral consideration than, say, trees and rocks. (On most views.) Presumably because, due to their nature, the people ‘deserve’ more consideration than the rocks. Because they have feelings and interests and so forth. This isn’t to claim that fairness just reduces right down to desert in some straight way. But they pretty clearly aren’t cleanly distinct notions. In your post you suggest that entitlement is clearly distinct from desert, but you only manage to produce the impression that this is so by confining yourself, for post purposes, to cases that suggest the legal positivist reading. This invited my misreading. But once the source of my misreading is removed, I think we lose your hoped-for sense that our sense of ‘entitlement’ is distinct from desert.

I do agree with your basic intuition that a lot of desert talk is unhelpful. The copyright case is a good example of an area where useless desert claims tend to be tossed around. But I don’t think all desert claims – even in the area of copyright – are useless. So, rather than trying to ban the concept, we need a better sense of when desert claims are useful and when not.


John Holbo 04.16.11 at 7:58 am

To put the point a slightly different way: if we are understanding ‘entitlement’ in this expanded sense you say you wanted all along, it’s not at all clear that your examples are still good ones. The heroic rescuer, for example. We all understand what you mean when you say the rescuer is not, strictly, entitled. But this is a very narrowly legalistic sense. In a broader sense, it would make sense – and wouldn’t even sound funny – for the person rescued to say ‘for all you have done for me, I feel you are entitled to this: here’s $10,000’. Or suppose people are arguing about bonuses in a work environment. Someone might say: ‘I feel that the extraordinary profits I have brought to the firm entitle me to a much bigger bonus than you are offering.’ Legally, this is probably nonsense. But morally it can make sense. Obviously ‘entitlement’ here – it has now expanded to become your umbrella notion – is more or less synonymous with ‘desert’.

You might reply that really these are cases in which we are rendering “judgment on the moral worthiness or merit of the person with the claim.” And you want to get back to thinking more narrowly about ‘fairness’. But, again, it’s not clear that there is clear line. When people give other people rewards for rescuing them, are they doing so because of the inherent virtue of the rescuer or is it more like a spontaneous payment for services rendered, even in the absence of a contract making this obligatory? The latter I would say. It would sound odd, after all, to say: ‘I really wish I had given this $10,000 reward to you before you rescued me, because really I am paying you just for being a good person, which you already were before you rescued me; but, better late than never. Here’s the money.’


Sam Clark 04.16.11 at 8:31 am

Chris: I have those intuitions too (I’m just as likely as anyone else to admire the active and creative). The problem I have is that I don’t see a justification for the distinctions I want to make between admirable and irrelevant characteristics. The consistent positions seem to be (1) Rawls or (2) Hume’s claim that there’s no distinction between talent and virtue, and that all parts of the character, from cleanliness and wit to benevolence and business acumen, are equally proper objects of moral admiration. The middle ground between them seems ad hoc.

Geo said:

Shouldn’t we first concentrate on getting every human being at least minimally adequate nutrition, shelter, sanitation, health care, education, and economic security, and only after that do moral/political philosophy?

In many ways I’m sympathetic to this. I certainly have days when being a professional moral & political philosopher seems an obscene self-indulgence. But on the other hand: doing philosophy, for me, mostly consists in talking over what we should do and why with young people who will soon go out into the world and have to make choices. I’ve just finished teaching a course called ‘Capitalism as an Ethical Problem’; I hope that we at least defeated the idea, which many of my students started with, that the world right now is morally well-organised, and that there’s no reason for them to do anything but pursue a remunerative graduate job. So I want to say (at least to comfort myself) that there’s a connection between action and my kind of thought.


Chris Bertram 04.16.11 at 9:07 am

Sam, well luck egalitarianism doesn’t exactly solve the issue, but it does put it into perspective since you get that distinction between unchosen circumstances and outcomes that result from choice.


Matt 04.16.11 at 11:19 am

Sam, well luck egalitarianism doesn’t exactly solve the issue.

You might as well stop at that point, because then at least you don’t have to think of all the extra bad points against the luck egalitarian view.


Chris Bertram 04.16.11 at 12:54 pm

Well very funny Matt …

But I’m struck in this conversation by how much convergence there is now between a certain sort of Rawlsian or post-Rawlsian (Freeman, Anderson, …) and the liberaltarians like Sanchez and Will Wilkinson. Priority to liberty, everything runs through runs and procedures which are adjusted to provide a safety net at the bottom. The main disagreement is over the size of the safety net.


geo 04.16.11 at 4:40 pm

Sam @36: I hope that we at least defeated the idea, which many of my students started with, that the world right now is morally well-organised

I hope it goes without saying that I admire and applaud your efforts. My question wasn’t entirely a rhetorical one. I’m not certain that philosophy is useless; I’m just dubious about it. How would your students react, do you think, if you simply put it to them, as vividly as possible and with full information but as a moral intuition supported only by an appeal to their moral imagination, that a world in which a very large number of their fellow human beings lacked the minimal conditions of a decent life, not because there isn’t enough for them but because other human beings (including many of their fellow citizens) refuse to share or to help, is horribly wrong and that they should try to do something about it?


engels 04.17.11 at 2:44 am

re the positive effects of studying moral philosophy: this might be relevant:


engels 04.17.11 at 2:25 pm

They think people deserve income on the basis of their economic effort and/or contribution, which are independent of virtue. If I work hard and/or contribute to others, e.g. by inventing something useful, only because I want to get rich, I’m fully deserving of income for doing so

What if you don’t work ‘hard’ but just clock in and out every day, do the minimum required of you and collect your pay cheque? And what if your efforts are not directed towards ‘inventing something useful’ or ‘contribut[ing] to others’ but producing something completely useless, or harmful, or actively participating in the oppression of others?


Tim Wilkinson 04.19.11 at 10:51 am

geo: isn’t there a quote from Ghandi about faith needing to be sustained by reason? Isn’t your inchoate intuition the kind of thing that is easily explained away and forgotten, as childish things are put away and a hundred petty compromises take hold? Especially when there is a constantly renewed stream of ideology, which provides faith with a veneer of reason, e.g. I Pencil from the so-named thread: read the last two verses. And when a hundred petty vectors are blowing in that general direction anyway.

Comments on this entry are closed.