George Sher’s “Desert”: The Dimensions of the Problem

This post is a summary of chapter 1 of George Sher’s Desert, keyed to session 1 of the MT Seminar on Philosophy. For background, read this post.

The Preface of George Sher’s Desert begins with a statement of the obvious: the concept of moral desert is central to moral judgment and deliberation, and yet (at least as of 1987, the date of the book’s publication), we lack a systematic account of the nature and justification of moral desert. Indeed, ever since Rawls’s “critique” of moral desert in A Theory of Justice (if it is one), doubt has been cast on the coherence or viability of the concept. So the book sets out to provide a justification: “one of my central aims is to display the underlying justification of desert claims (George Sher, Desert, p. xi).

Sher calls his approach to ethical theorizing “pluralistic”: instead of beginning with some higher-order account or principle that entails desert claims, he starts with the desert claims “we all make,” and works to systematize them with the proviso that “desert need not have any single normative basis” (Sher, Desert, p. xii). So the approach is both “pluralistic” and in a sense, “bottom up.”

Chapter 1, “The Dimensions of the Problem,” begins by laying out four distinctive puzzles about moral desert which “seem especially perplexing,” (p. 3) which clearly require resolution if an account of desert is to get off the ground, and by implication, whose resolution serves the larger end of displaying the underlying justification of desert claims.

1. The first puzzle concerns the apparently close connection between moral desert and moral obligation. In some cases, it is morally obligatory to provide or withhold what is morally deserved or undeserved. What makes this puzzle particularly puzzling is that in some cases, moral desert reverses ordinary moral obligations. For instance, while we typically have a duty of non-maleficence, if someone deserves punishment, we’re obligated to harm them, a reversal of the usual state of affairs. On the positive side, we typically have a right or permission to mind our own business, but a hiring officer arguably has the obligation to hire the best qualified application from a pool of applicants. So the first puzzle is why moral desert has so much normative power.

2. The second puzzle is in effect a double puzzle: a puzzle in itself, and a puzzle in relation to (1). Many things are deserved or undeserved, and yet obligate no one to do anything in particular. This is puzzling in itself: how can there be a moral norm that requires nothing of anyone in particular? There’s a puzzle here in relation to puzzle (1), as well: how can one and the same norm obligate in some contexts, and fail to do so in others?

3. A third puzzle concerns desert’s orientation to the past. We might, for instance, say that a political candidate does not deserve to be elected to office because of his past misdeeds, where saying this competes with or overrides considerations about the beneficial policies he might implement in the present and future. Why should considerations about the past be thought to override considerations about the future? Why not treat the  past either as a moral equivalent of a sunk cost, or as morally relevant only when information about the past is required to realize some present or future aim?

4. A fourth puzzle concerns the very adequacy of the concept: how can anyone deserve anything? Claims about desert are often grounded in actions: Smith performs an action, X, and is thought to deserve something in virtue of having performed X. But Smith’s capacity to perform X is arguably based on capacities that Smith did nothing to deserve. Every desert claim involves the performance of actions that presuppose certain capacities for that action, and many if not most of these capacities are inherited (whether by genetics or upbringing or both), rather than being the object of intentional action. If the capacities for desert-conferring actions are undeserved, how do the actions confer desert? How can what is undeserved be the basis for what is deserved?

Consideration of these four puzzles raises the possibility that there is no single, unified conception of moral desert. Only (4) applies to all and only claims of desert. Claims (1) and (2) are disjoint, hence might well have disjoint (and conceptually unrelated) solutions. The solution to (3) may be unrelated to the solution to (1): if (1) requires an account of why the best qualified ought to be hired, and that account is fundamentally forward-looking, then the solution to (1) is not only different but potentially in conflict with the account of (3). (Example: if a politician ought to be voted-for on the basis of his qualifications to bring about the best policies in the future, such an account may well conflict with one that emphasizes the irreducible backward temporal orientation involved in [3].) So it’s entirely possible that the solution to (1), (2), and (3) are conceptually distinct from (even fundamentally unrelated to) each other, leaving us with a gerrymandered account of moral desert.

This last consideration suggests that we take a look at concrete instances of moral desert with a view to identifying patterns of similarity and difference between them. Sher offers a list of fifteen paradigm instances, noting both their heterogenity and their “common structure” (Sher, pp. 6-7). As for the common structure, all fifteen desert claims “display the form ‘M deserves X for A,'” where M is a moral agent (or patient?), X is something deserved, and A is a “desert basis,” usually an act, an omission, or a trait/characteristic of or by M. The heterogeneity arises in part through variation in the values of the variables of the common structure: different agents deserve different things in different contexts, on different bases. The question is how to make sense of both the heterogeneity and the common structure. “Making sense” is both an explanatory and a justificatory matter: how could we rationally come to hold the beliefs we do about desert?

Three prominent (or then-prominent) attempts to answer that question all seem to fail: act-utilitarianism, Rawlsian institutionalism (considered as a form or variant of rule-utilitarianism), and intuitionism.

Act-utilitarianism holds that an agent’s every act ought to maximize greatest expected overall utility, given the options available to the agent. Since reward and punishment have incentive effects that serve that aim, act-utilitarians are obliged to reduce moral desert to the incentive-producing considerations that promote overall expected utility.

While some utilitarians (e.g., R.M. Hare) have gone a long way toward accommodating act-utilitarianism to moral desert (and/or vice versa), the fact remains that intuitive judgments about moral desert conflict with the demands of maximizing utility. Intuitively, it’s thought that people deserve reward or punishment regardless of whether that promotes overall utility. But if so, that intuition by definition cannot be captured by act-utilitarianism, no matter how sophisticated.

Rule-utilitarianism holds that the set of rules we adopt ought to aim to maximize greatest overall utility, given the rule-adopting options collectively available to us. One natural and plausible variant on rule-utilitarianism is what might be called Rawlsian institutionalism, after the view Rawls took and developed on the subject between roughly 1955 and 1971 (“Two Concepts of Rules,” Philosophical Review 64:1 [1955]; A Theory of Justice [1971], e.g., section 48).

Rawlsian institutionalism drops the utilitarian focus on utility maximization, offers non-utilitarian criteria for the justness of our institutions, and turns moral desert into a norm internal to institutions. The justness of just institutions is not a matter of promoting moral desert, but of other, unrelated considerations (irrelevant here); claims about moral desert are reducible to the legitimate demands and expectations of just institutions, but are not applicable to or beyond those institutions. “Thus the concept of moral worth is secondary to those of right and justice, and it plays no role in the substantive definition of distributive shares” (Rawls, Theory of Justice, rev. ed., p. 275).

Once again, Sher takes this view to conflict with our bedrock intuitions about moral desert. Considerations of moral desert ought to apply to and beyond institutions, not just within them. If we assume this (a big if), then Rawlsian institutionalism fails.

Intuitionism takes claims about moral desert to be both epistemically and morally basic, known directly by intuition, and not susceptible to further justification. This view has a natural affinity with Sher’s own “bottom up” approach to the subject. Both Sher and the intuitionist seem to take probative force of first-order claims of moral desert for granted, differing only on the implications of this first move. Intuitionism stops with those first-order judgments, regarding them as justified insofar as we understand their meaning. Sher seeks to use such first-order claims “as a prologue to reconstructing justificatory arguments” grounding moral desert in deeper moral principles.

Taken literally and at face value, intuitionism fails, though in a somewhat weaker sense of failure than the preceding two theories. Where utilitarian accounts of desert fail through their failure to account for salient moral phenomena, intuitionism fails by acknowledging the reality of all of the relevant moral phenomena, but failing to provide a second-order justification of them. Though moral intuitions about desert have some probative force, this force by itself is insufficient to justify the claims about desert thatan adequate account of moral desert would make. Hence a further account is required, one that goes beyond what intuitionists offer, and that the book aims to provide.  

27 thoughts on “George Sher’s “Desert”: The Dimensions of the Problem

  1. I took some very cursory notes on our discussion, and don’t have time to write anything extensive, so feel free to add to this if you have the chance/feel the inclination.

    (1) Michael: does Sher have a univocal analysis of what it is to deserve something?
    (2) Roderick: Sher’s potential failure to flag ambiguities in “S doesn’t deserve X.”
    (3) Irfan: puzzles about puzzle (1).
    (4) David: is puzzle (3) an instance of puzzle (1)?
    (5) Michael: does Sher illicitly require all desert bases to be features of the person who deserves something? If Smith wrongs Jones, and Jones deserves an apology, isn’t the desert base wrongness, which is not a feature of any agent in the interaction?
    (6) Irfan (vs everyone): is the topic of the book desert, or moral desert? Are moral credit and desert synonymous? Can non-moral agents deserve our admiration? Admiration and its bases as a topic of its own.

    I’m still in the middle of writing a post about chapter 2, but will stick the notes about chapter 2 issues in the comments there, including as many of the disputes about Rawls (and Rawls and/vs Aristotle) as I can think of.

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  2. I have not had a chance to read any of this, but I suspect the topic of “moral desert” is a trap, because I don’t know that there’s even a good agreement on what constitutes morality.

    I have my idea of what morality is (as I think many people do) but without something close to consensus on that question, the question of what anyone “deserves” is unanswerable.

    sean s.


    • I don’t see any logical connection between the answerability of a question and consensus on either the question or the answer. A question is either answerable or not. Once answered, a consensus can develop (or not) on the answer. But whether a consensus forms (or not) has no bearing on the legitimacy of the question, or the legitimacy of any answer. The question and the answer have to precede the consensus, after all. It’s not as though we first form a consensus on an answer, then ask the question that leads to it. That gets things backwards.

      There is no consensus on the question of whether I’m wearing underwear right now, and yet the question is perfectly answerable (answer: I am). I realize (believe me) that the questions “Is Irfan wearing underwear?” and “What do people deserve?” are radically different sorts of question. My point is that extreme skepticism about morality is generally based on logical fallacies of the preceding kind. To infer that a question is unanswerable because there is no consensus on an answer is fallacious, whether applied to ethics or to underwear.

      One of the virtues of Sher’s book is that it captures the complexity of the issue while giving pretty cogent answers to the harder questions about it. Even if you reject all of his answers, what he clarifies are the various layers to the issue. I think it would be very hard for a fair-minded reader to walk away from this book and conclude that Sher had established literally nothing of significance about what people deserve.

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      • Irfan, you wrote that “The question and the answer have to precede the consensus,”; that in turn must be preceded by a consensus on the meaning of the terms (which is lacking here).

        My point is that a question is unanswerable if consensus on the meaning of its terms is lacking. Your question about underwear is different because (among other things) we have consensus on what “underwear” is and what “wearing” is.

        If there was a similar consensus about what constitutes “morality” or “deserving” then most questions about “moral desert” would probably be answerable. And of course, simply declaring that “for the purposes of this discussion, morality means …” and “deserving means …” would make the questions answerable given those meanings.

        I don’t doubt that Sher (or others) can contribute a great deal to these questions without actually answering them; that would not be unusual at all; not unusual at all.

        As for morality, I am not even a skeptic, much less an “extreme skeptic”. I believe morality can be as close to “objective” as anything can be (which is to say: close but not perfectly close). But I realize that my take is not common; it’s not even complete yet.

        sean s.


        • I would just flatly deny that there is no consensus as to the meaning of terms “deserved” and “undeserved.” There may not be a consensus about how the terms apply in hard or controversial cases, but there are plenty of cases in which everyone agrees on their meaning, whether they accept the norm of “desert” or not. “The innocent do not deserve punishment” is a correct use of “deserve”; “The innocent deserve punishment” is an obvious misuse of the term. “Students deserve high grades for good work” makes sense; “Students deserve low grades for good work” makes no sense. Etc.

          Examples of this trivial sort could be multiplied indefinitely. They’re trivial, but what they show is that there are plenty of blatantly obvious instances of correct and incorrect uses of “desert” or “deserves,” where there is no mystery at all about the meaning of what is being said. The mystery is whether what’s being said is true or false, not what it means.

          In short, I think the consensus as to meaning is there, and obviously there, not just for the English word “desert” but for corresponding terms in other languages. If I translated English talk about “desert” into Urdu, I’d have no trouble conveying to Urdu speakers what was being said. The same is true of Spanish, and likely, of other languages. In other words, the consensus I have in mind goes beyond English to other languages, which suggests that speakers of different languages are (often) using different words to talk about the same thing.


    • You might find it worthwhile to read and learn more about topics before posting about them on blogs. It would be hard to match your comment here for ignorance and ineptitude. Irfan has already made the obvious point that antecedent agreement is not necessary for launching an inquiry. Here’s another, complementary point: there are numerous questions one might ask about desert without resolving any disagreements about who deserves what. One such question is “what are people claiming when they claim that someone deserves something?” Probably the answer to that question will have to be complex, because it seems likely that people make different sorts of claims using the language of desert. The answer certainly isn’t obvious; you couldn’t give a satisfactory answer to it off the cuff, and neither could I or any of the participants in the group discussion. Yet one could give illuminating answers to that question without even trying to answer questions about what anyone actually deserves or even whether anyone really deserves anything. In fact, Sher is very interested in justifying many general claims about desert, but even if he weren’t, he’d still have plenty to say about this and other questions that do not require any moral judgments about who deserves what.

      More fundamentally, though, your reasoning here boils down to the claim that because there is disagreement about a topic, it’s pointless to discuss it seriously. I literally begin my 12th grade philosophy class explaining to my students why that it is a fallacious and anti-intellectual way to think. You should consider getting up at least to the 12th grade level before you try to engage further in discussions here.


  3. I wanted to try to summarize some of the key points of Sunday night’s discussion, in part just to have a record of it (it was a good discussion, and I hate to lose it), and in part to stimulate further discussion, whether from the people in the Zoom call, or anyone else just reading this, and interested in commenting. I’m going by memory here in recapitulating other people’s points, so take that as an open invitation to correct whatever I get wrong.

    One of Michael’s points early in the discussion was that he thought that Sher doesn’t seem to be addressing the question that really needs answering. The real question is: what is desert? But Sher says instead that “one of my central aims is to display the underlying justification of desert-claims” (p. xi). Giving a conceptual analysis of “desert” doesn’t seem to be one of his aims, and I take it that Michael’s point was that displaying the underlying justification of desert-claims is not the same as an analysis of “desert.”

    My initial response to Michael was to say that his demand for an analysis of that sort begged the question against Sher’s intention to leave open the question whether desert has a “single normative basis” (xii). Different classes of desert-claims may owe their justification to irreducibly different principles and values. That doesn’t directly answer Michael’s objection, since you could grant Sher’s point and still offer a disjunctive analysis of desert (consisting of a disjunction of the irreducibly different principles and values that generated the justification). It would be odd or unsatisfying to discover that the disjuncts were totally unrelated to each other, but the result would still (I guess) count as an analysis of the concept of the kind Michael wants.

    I think the looser and more plausible thing (for me) to say is that if you’re impressed or daunted by the heterogeneity of desert claims, it makes sense to canvass them in their variety before trying to produce a single analysis of the concept of “desert.” In that respect, I think Sher’s procedure mirrors Aristotle’s dialectical method: you start by working your way through particular puzzles en route to the arche, or first principle, of a subject; it’s a mistake to try to bypass the particular puzzles and make a direct, rationalistic attempt at an analysis of those first principles. I don’t know how influenced by Aristotle Sher is, or even how literally Aristotelian he is, but the procedure is reminiscent of Aristotle–and a good example of the affinities between broadly Aristotelian method and competently-done analytic philosophy.

    Since (by the end of the book) Sher’s theory ends up having a certain unity, I don’t think he ends up with an account of desert that involves a wildly disjunctive set of justificatory principles. (Sorry: spoiler alert.) So all’s well that ends well, but I do wonder how plausible it is to claim that a theory of desert could actually take the form of a set of irreducibly different principles and values that had no unifying core or thread to them (at all). In that case, it seems to me that we could justifiably infer that “the concept of desert” was a gerrymandered one, a portmanteau collection of totally unrelated ideas thrown together without rhyme or reason and referred to by a single word. A bunch of philosophers have (plausibly, to my mind) made that argument about happiness: there is (they argue) no single, univocal concept of “happiness”; our word “happiness just refers to an unrelated jumble of irreducibly different concepts that we happen to refer to (so to speak) by the word “happiness.” I don’t know whether Sher deals with that objection re desert, but it seems a live one, more than just conceivable.

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    • An Aristotelian point that I don’t have any reason to think Sher draws on, but that could be relevant to addressing Michael’s worry, is that we don’t have to choose between a univocal analysis that gives us a formal definition of desert or a completely un-unified account on which various sorts of desert claims express irreducibly different concepts that just happen to be associated by the word ‘desert’ and its variants. Another possibility is an account of desert in terms of a “focal meaning” in relation to which various other usages are to be understood. The most famous example of this that Aristotle gives is the account of ‘healthy’: there are many senses in which something can be healthy (it can produce health, it can express health, it can be a sign of health, it can be an instance of health), but we need to understand all of those various senses in relation to the central case of health as a kind of condition or state (the state that something produces, expresses, is a sign of, or is an instance of). Similarly, it may be that we can’t give a single formal definition of desert in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, but could nonetheless explain irreducibly different notions of desert in terms of their relation to a central or paradigmatic sort of case. I don’t know if Sher will take anything like that route, but the availability of something like it is perhaps one reason why I was not nearly so bothered by Sher’s procedure in the preface and opening chapters as Michael seems to have been.

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      • I suppose I might add that if we’re going to begin our inquiry by respecting the actual usage of the term in ordinary speech, it should not be surprising if we end up with something like a focal unity rather than strict univocity.

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        • I didn’t think of Aristotle’s doctrine of focal meaning as competing with, or standing in contrast to, the task of offering a univocal definition of the key analysandum. It can, I suppose, but need not. You can have a univocal definition by genus and difference of your analysandum, and then use to account for related/cognate terms in terms of focal meaning.

          Two problems I’ve always had with any inquiry that’s too deferential to actual usage in ordinary speech: (1) are we sure that English speech of the late twentieth and twenty-first century mirrors speech in other languages and times? and (2) are we sure that ordinary speech doesn’t systematically codify falsehood? Sher quotes MacIntyre on p. x, but then dismisses the MacIntyre quote with the claim, “whatever truth these speculations claim, I shall not pursue them further.” But if MacIntyre is right, ordinary English speech is at least as likely to mislead as to guide an inquiry into moral desert. If the notion of desert presupposes a shared sense of the human good and the common good, then to the extent that we lack that, our ordinary ways of speaking about desert will be fragmented and misleading. That thought is central to 1980s vintage MacIntyre, and I think there’s something to it.

          I’m working on a longish post on puzzle 1 (too long to be a comment) that I’ll be posting soon, but one point I make in it is that contrary to Sher’s account of puzzle 1, I think most people in our culture regard moral desert as having a rather loose connection to moral obligation, not a tight one. It’s common in our milieu to say that “life isn’t fair” (by way of rationalizing some violation of the norms of moral desert), and it’s telling that both Rawls and Nozick agree (for somewhat different reasons) that a market economy is subversive of adherence to norms of moral desert. Well, we live in a market economy, surrounded by people whose moral intuitions are structured by capitalist norms. That, as I see it, is enough to underwrite (2) above. People whose intuitions are structured by market-based norms will, in my view, have very distorted quasi-Hobbesian conceptions of moral desert.

          I grant your point that a theory of desert need not vindicate every legomenon. But it seems to me theoretically supererogatory to have to hash through them all, too. Doing so is theoretical icing on the cake, not an adequacy condition on the theory. At a certain point, it becomes a waste of theoretical time to try to figure out “Miss Vermont deserves to win; she’s the prettiest entrant” fits into a theory of desert. I suppose trivially, one could say that there are degenerate uses of “desert” that refer to totally arbitrary applications of highly conventional standards of desert internal to grotesquely peculiar, delusional cultural institutions. But since that’s true of all normative concepts, that shouldn’t be news, unless there’s something distinctive about such concepts when it comes to desert.

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          • Seems right that listing out all the putative cases you can think of and addressing them all in some way is non-supererogatory. What would be supererogatory (and wrong-headed) is spending a lot of time figuring out just how each and every one might be a genuine case of desert. Usually, some cases can be dismissed as merely apparent, at least provisionally. I suspect that Miss Vermont really does deserve to win for being the prettiest (or whatever other criteria are relevant to a beauty contest), whether or not she has performed in line with these features (someone else might in fact be entitled to win because they scored highest in the judges opinions in the various categories, etc.).


      • The “focal meaning” model for analyzing super-general terms used in a variety of contexts (desert, reason, rationality, justification, etc.) strikes me as likely right.

        The essential point here is one about whether Sher is, or should be, aiming at producing some account of what desert (or focal cases of desert) is. Though this might fall out of an account of what the justification of relevant desert-claims looks like, if Sher gets any good results along these lines (as against some promising suggestions or approaches) one would think that he would summarize them in the first chapter. My tentative conclusion is that he does not get such results and does not produce any explicit account (unified, disjunctive or focal-type-of-case-style) of what desert is. He’s free to focus on whatever he likes in his book, but I find this puzzling.

        I wonder if there is something in his methodology (or his concept of justification or his view of the relationship between justification and explanation or his view of different sorts of explanation) that make him fail to clearly separate the normative (justifying desert claims) and metanormative (what is desert) issues here (or perhaps treat the metanormative issues as unimportant)? In fairness: if your focus is justification and if you explicitly set aside the more radical forms of skepticism on your normative topic, your account of the justification of the relevant claims will not include the sort of deep explanatory justification that comes from an answer to the ‘what is this normative thing?’ question.


  4. “The Preface of George Sher’s Desert begins with a statement of the obvious: the concept of moral desert is central to moral judgment and deliberation…”

    We discussed this point in conversation, but it might be worth reiterating here: Sher’s book is about desert in general, not moral desert specifically. Otherwise put, it is an open question whether desert is necessarily moral, and one of Sher’s goals is to understand how paradigmatically moral cases of desert relate to cases that we might think of as non-moral. One of Sher’s examples is the claim “Cleveland deserves better publicity; it’s an interesting city.” Except in the loosest, most vacuous sense of ‘moral,’ that is not a moral claim. Yet it is a desert claim. In discussion, a few other examples came up, such as “grizzly bears deserve our wonder and admiration” and similar claims about non-human animals. Sher’s main point about the Cleveland example is that it illustrates that the bearer of desert need not be a person, and perhaps a city is a better example to illustrate that point. But it equally well illustrates that, at least on their face, not all desert claims are moral. Other examples that Sher gives that seem not to be moral: “Miss Vermont deserves to win [the beauty contest]; she’s the prettiest entrant.” Judgments of beauty contests are not moral judgments, but this is on its face a desert claim. Some of us seemed to think that claims like that one have to be metaphorical at best and maybe even perverse. I’m not so sure; I am prepared to accept a pretty broad account of desert on which specifically moral forms of desert are only some among many sorts.

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    • I agree with that. At least some of these cases appear to be cases of non-moral desert, I think Sher thinks of them this way, and so the book is about generic desert, not moral desert.


  5. A postscript to the preceding issue is something we didn’t discuss on Sunday night: what exactly is the point of the list of desert-locutions listed on pp. 6-7?

    On one interpretation, the list consists of platitudes about desert that any adequate theory must account for. On a second interpretation, the list consists of mere “legomena,” things that people happen to say, some of them perfectly sensible, but others potentially ill-conceived. If so, perhaps the latter ought to be thrown out before theorizing begins (or set aside as special cases), rather than accommodated by the theory.

    Sher doesn’t really distinguish sharply between these two interpretations. A few pages later, he says, “Taken together, this disorderly array of beliefs, implications, and puzzles makes up our subject matter. Our problem is to make as much sense of it as possible” (p. 9, my italics). You could take the “disorderliness” of the array to imply that some items have to go, but you could take its “making up our subject matter” as implying that all of them have to stay. You could take the task of “making sense of it” to require that we (somehow) make sense of every claim on the list (hence can’t summarily dismiss any of them), but you could also take “make as much sense as possible” to imply if it’s impossible to make some particularly odd item fit your account, then it’s permissible to ignore that item, explain it away, or just throw it out.

    One oddity here is that Sher opens this discussion by saying, “For consider the range of contexts in which we naturally assert that people deserve things” (p. 6, my italitcs). Given that, example #15, about Cleveland, either seems misplaced, or has to be reduced to claims about the deserts of the people of Cleveland. Sher doesn’t say much about #15, but the one thing he does say seems to suggest that he doesn’t mean to reduce Cleveland to its people. What makes Cleveland deserving of better publicity is a “characteristic” of Cleveland, not a characteristic of its people. (p. 7, near the bottom). Of course, since Cleveland is an artifact, perhaps a characteristic of the city just ends up being an expression of the characteristics of the people who built the city. And maybe that amounts to a reduction (to people) of the relevant sort.

    A lurking, loosely related problem here is that we often tend to identify “desert” with any obligation owed to anyone anywhere. If I owe you the truth, then you deserve the truth from me. If it’s obligatory for me to be punctual, then the person waiting for me deserves my punctuality. If it’s wrong to express anger in an excessive way, then when I do, the objects of my anger don’t deserve it. Etc. I think this thought is a successor to Aristotle’s claim that general justice is simply the expression of all of virtue in relation to other people. If so, everyone deserves all of virtue from everyone.

    But none of those platitudes show up on Sher’s list, and some of what he says elsewhere clashes with it. He somewhere says (I forget where) that if I promise you something, I owe it to you, but you don’t necessarily deserve it. That’s a tricky claim. If I promise you something you don’t deserve, you ex hypothesi don’t deserve it; but if I promise you something, I owe you whatever I promised, and it seems like you deserve to have your reliance on me satisfied by my delivering on the promise. I find that combination of claims incredibly puzzling, but apparently Sher doesn’t.

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    • It seems clear that the items on the list are meant to be legomena that illustrate the range of the claims that constitute the basis for the inquiry. In one sense of ‘account for,’ I take it that Sher thinks a theory of desert needs to account for them all, but not necessarily by vindicating them. He later (p. 10) suggests that an account of desert will likely have to “dismiss some familiar desert-claims as metaphorical or simply unsustainable.” So there is no commitment to treating all claims of the sort on the list as genuine desert claims; maybe some of them are only metaphorically related to the genuine cases, maybe some of them are just perverse, as you suggested about the Miss Vermont case. Coming to that conclusion would not amount to simply ignoring certain claims or throwing them out, but it would not accommodate them as genuine desert claims either. I see nothing in principle objectionable about that approach. If you’re theorizing about friendship, you should begin with the ways we use the word ‘friend’ and you should end up with an account that has something to say about the various ways we use it, but you should not be constrained to produce an account that treats it as univocal and applies in the strict sense to all of our uses. Virtually no philosophical account of friendship does that, and there’s no particular reason why it should, given the variety of ways we use the term. I’m inclined to say that theories of desert (or friendship, etc) shouldn’t be primarily about words, but about the things we use the words to talk about, and since we use most words to talk about a variety of different things, the theory should account for that, and one way of doing so is to explain certain uses as metaphorical or even simply equivocal.

      I’m a bit concerned about the possibility of ending up with a theory that treats desert-claims as co-extensive with claims that one should treat a person a certain way. I think we do sometimes end up talking that way, but I don’t think Sher is going to end up there. For one thing, he seems committed to including desert-claims that do give rise to obligations and ones that don’t as equally genuine desert-claims (p. 21, “most desert-claims, I argue, are grounded in values rather than obligations”). For another, his brief remarks about desert and rights suggest that he’ll end up recognizing cases of obligation that are not based on desert. I’m not sure what exactly he’ll go on to say about cases like promises, but the sense in which we say that you deserve my help because I promised to help you (if indeed we say things like that; it doesn’t sound quite right to me) is quite different from the sort of thing we mean if we say that I ought to help you because you deserve it, or that you deserve my help because you helped me in the past. Not that I have a good account of what the difference is, but promises and agreements don’t seem to be sensitive to features of the other person antecedent to the agreement or promise in the way that most desert-claims are sensitive to features of the person prior to their desert. But perhaps I’m just being misled by superficial linguistic intuitions there.

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      • David, with regard to the concern you voice here, the last section of Feldman and Skow’s SEP entry on Desert — Desertist Theories of Justice — seems pretty relevant. That section of the entry is clear and pretty good.


    • Some brief thoughts on the promising/desert case (Irfan) and on the relation between desert and obligations to others (David).

      (1) Plausibly, the promising/desert case is a case of contrasting institutional entitlement and desert. If I promise you something that you don’t deserve, you are entitled — according to how the institution of promise-making goes — for me to give you what I promise. This is analogous to the person who wins the contest being entitled to the first-place ribbon even though, due to bad luck, the most able (fastest, prettiest, etc.) person came in second. (At least for contests, we can distinguish between the prizes or rewards and what these are supposed to measure.) In the case of promising something undeserved, as the institution of promising is super-important (and passes other relevant normative muster), giving people what they are entitled to is super-important (maybe as important or more important than giving them what they deserve independently of the institution or in the sense that is connected to the aims of the institutions, as with the skills that a contest is trying to measure and reward; this is at least similar to the importance of procedural justice even at the expense of substantive justice for particular cases).

      It might generalize to a wider class of institutions in some way, but for institutions that are contests, I think it is important to distinguish these things: (i) the distinction between being entitled to things according to the rules of an institution (what Feinberg would call “entitlements and qualifications”) as against “deserving” those things according to the aims of this institution, (ii) either or both of the things in [i] passing relevant normative muster or having normative backing (as they would not in a “giving prizes for being maximally murderous” game) and (iii) genuinely institution-independent desert (as, presumably, I pre-institutionally deserve your not capriciously punching me in the face).

      (2) There appear to be cases of both explanatory directions regarding desert and obligations to others (or obligations not to wrong others). In some cases, because my PHI-ing would constitute wronging you, you deserve that I not PHI (e.g., it is because I’m obligated to you not to capriciously punch you in the face that you deserve that I not do this to you). In other cases, it is because you deserve it — most often pre-institutionally — that I’m obligated to you to do something (e.g., when we both contribute equally to producing something valuable together, it is because I deserve 1/2 share of the thing or its value that you are obligated to me to give me or let me have 1/2 share of the thing or its value).

      (This latter pattern — desert, generally pre-institutional, explaining obligations to people — is widely denied with regard to justice in the “distribution” of economic goods in a society or an economy (e.g., it is denied that we owe it to Musk to let him keep his billions, as long as he has paid his fair share toward the general upkeep of government and society, due to what Musk pre-institutionally deserves). I think the “productivist” or share-of-contribution desert consideration that I just appealed to strongly indicates that this popular view of “distributive justice” is false: we might well owe people shares of productive effort commensurate to their productive contribution because they deserve it (whether individuals or society owes to underpaid workers additional reward or to Musk to let me keep his money after he has paid his fair share for necessary and permissible government functions). However, this is just an example of the more general pattern that a good theory of desert — and its relationship to individual or collective obligations to others — should help explain or perhaps explain away.)

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      • One more thought regarding the being-murderous game (the issue that made me think of this case originally): you win because you murder the most people (the reliable but imperfect measure here for being murderous), but I’m way more murderous than you (I just got unlucky). So you are entitled to the first-prize ribbon, but I’m the one that deserves it! This is an intuitive use of ‘deserves’, but it is rather curious. It cuts against the idea that institutional entitlement is (or becomes) institution-relative desert when the institution is necessary and just (or otherwise passes relevant normative muster).

        Positively, this use of ‘deserves’ suggests that a core function of the concept of desert is indicating that the substantive aim of a practice (institution, activity, etc.) is served by the desert-bearer getting something or being treated some way. This could be more important — or at least more general — than the idea that it has to be some sense good (or warrants some positive attitude-reaction from observers) when the desert-bearer gets what she deserves (a condition obviously not satisfied by my deserving to win the being-murderous game).


  6. I’m trying to fall asleep to a lovely ASMR Reiki video when I’m rudely awakened by a TIAA Cref commercial: “Because your passion never runs out, you deserve a retirement fund that does the same…” Did I deserve to be torn from blissful sleep in that vulgar, money-grubbing and sentimental way? Discuss.


  7. I’m too pressed for time to write much tonight, so I’ll have to save responses for later. But I don’t want to lose Roderick’s simple but important distinction between two senses of “being undeserving,” which might be called “being non-deserving” and “being anti-deserving” (my terminology).

    To be non-deserving is to possess something without having done anything to deserve it. In this sense, there’s nothing wrong with possessing the thing, but the fact remains that one doesn’t possess it by having come to deserve it. I was born with two functioning eyes. I did nothing to deserve getting them; I just got them. In that sense, I’m undeserving of the eyes I have, not that being undeserving entails that anyone else is entitled to them.

    To be anti-deserving is to be in possession of ill-gotten goods. In this sense, there is something wrong or unjust about possessing the possessed thing: not only do you not deserve it, but you deserve not to have it. Feel free to supply your own examples.

    On a slightly different note, Leonard Peikoff (implicitly) draws a distinction between earning and deserving something, only to (sort of) collapse it:

    If we use the term ‘earn’ to name the process of enacting the cause–of coming to merit a certain recompense by engaging in the requisite behavior–we can say that, in a rational philosophy, there is no ‘unearned desert.’ A man deserves from others that and only that which he earns (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 287).

    In other words, it’s a necessary truth that: “earning” is the cause, “deserving” (or desert) the effect. Put another way: anything deserved gets that status by having been earned. It seems to me that in saying this, Peikoff is taking economic exchange as the paradigm of all claims of desert, then generalizing from them to the concept of desert as such.

    Apart from the attractions of a reductive account of desert, Peikoff offers nothing in the way of argument for he says. But Peikoff’s approach makes for an interesting contrast with Sher: Sher wants to leave open the possibility that desert might not have a single normative basis. Peikoff insists from the outset that it must. Sher is focused on the heterogeneity of desert claims; Peikoff insists a priori that if a claim doesn’t involve a trade, it cannot be a claim of justice, hence can’t be a claim of desert. I encourage everyone to read the two writers in sequence, and see what they think.

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  8. If we pursue utilitarian philosophy we find that there is less concern about people’s condition in general and more interest — sharply delineated — in creating a “beautiful society” — a Potemkin village which hides the ugliness of overall life.

    The coldness with which much philosophy operates neuters some of its reasoning. Emotions and feelings — and I’m not talking about womanly emotions here — but emotions and feelings are buttresses to reasonable thought and action. They, like the conscience, inform one whether one is on the right track, and reward one for right-thinking. If people during World War II had thought philosophically about the Nazis, they would have realized that their silence was putting THEIR OWN SELVES in danger and that opposing the SS was the rational step to take.

    — Catxman


  9. Pingback: You Didn’t Build You: The Rawlsian Critique of Desert | Policy of Truth

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