You Didn’t Build You: The Rawlsian Critique of Desert

This is a summary of chapter 2 of Sher’s Desert, keyed to session 2 of the MTSP discussion of that book.

As mentioned in an earlier post, the fourth of Sher’s puzzles about desert in chapter 1 casts doubt on the legitimacy of the concept. How can anyone deserve anything if our capacity for putting forth the effort necessary to earn things is itself undeserved? Chapter 2 of Sher’s Desert tackles the most prominent contemporary version of this argument, John Rawls’s attack on moral desert in A Theory of Justice. Rawls puts the point like this:

 It seems to be one of the fixed points of our considered judgments that no one deserves his place in the distribution of natural endowments, any more than one deserves one’s initial starting place in society. The assertion that a man deserves     the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is equally problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit. The notion of desert seems not to apply to these cases (Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 89 of the Revised Edition [1999]).

The first sentence of this passage is clear enough. The second passage is clear, but somewhat ambiguous: what does Rawls mean by saying that a person’s character depends “in large part” on factors she can’t be said to deserve? We could either interpret this by substituting “entirely” for “in large part,” or taking “in large part” to imply the existence of a residue for which the agent can take credit. This residue, in turn, either confers credit upon the agent, or is too insignificant to confer credit. It’s not entirely clear how Rawls wants us to interpret his claim, or if he wants to restrict its scope to economic affairs, or intends it to range widely over human affairs as such.

Sher interprets Rawls as denying the legitimacy of pre-institutional moral desert as such. This is not to say that Rawls denies the legitimacy of all claims of desert or moral desert as such. What he denies is the legitimacy of pre- or extra-institutional moral desert, i.e., claims about what people deserve or don’t deserve that exist prior to and independently of institutional settings justified on grounds unrelated to moral desert. Once institutions are justified on separate grounds, claims of desert may arise from the norms and legitimate expectations internal to them.

There are many ways of interpreting Rawls’s overall argument, but Sher interprets Rawls, plausibly enough, as saying that we don’t deserve what we haven’t come to earn by our own actions, and can’t be said to have earned our capacity for putting forth effort by our own actions. That capacity is one we inherit, either from nature or through nurture, but not by our autonomous actions independently of those factors. So construed, Rawls’s argument presupposes and depends on the idea of a “basic ability,” that is, an ability that antedates (all of) the agent’s actions, and is therefore not the result of anything the agent has done.

Given this concept, Sher recasts Rawls’s argument as follows (Sher, p. 24):

(1) Each person has some basic set of abilities, including an ability to exert effort,  which does not belong to him as a result of anything he has done.

(2) If a person’s having X is not the result of anything he has done, then he does  not deserve to have X.


(3)  No one deserves to have his basic abilities.


(4) Each action a person performs is made possible, directly or indirectly, by some subset of his basic abilities.

(5) If a person does not deserve to have X, and X makes Y possible, then that person does not deserve Y.


(6) No person deserves to perform his actions, and neither does anyone deserve to enjoy any of the benefits that his actions in turn make possible.

The crucial controversial premise here is (5), which seems problematically overstated.

For one thing (quoting Sher, p. 25):

If deserving the benefits of our actions did require that we deserve everything   that makes our actions possible, then all such desert would immediately be canceled by the fact that no one has done anything to deserve to be born or to live in a life-sustaining environment.  

For another (again, quoting Sher, p. 25):

[A]nyone who accepts both (5) and “the truism that all deserving is deserving in virtue of some ground or other will immediately be led to a vicious regress: in order to deserve Z, a person must deserve Z’s ground, Y, in order to deserve Y, he must deserve Y’s ground, X, and so on.

So at a minimum, (5) must be modified–or more specifically, narrowed. Sher again (p. 26):

The basic problem with (5) is that it promiscuously  allows a person’s desert of Y to be canceled by all undeserved necessary conditions of his having Y.

A more plausible version of (5) would narrow this claim: it would identify a proper subset of undeserved necessary conditions of the agent’s having Y that canceled her claim to Y. Sher proposes to do this by re-casting the argument in comparative terms.  “Intuitively,” he claims, the explanation for the over-breadth of (5) is that the undeserved necessary conditions it captures “are satisfied not only by the person in question, but also by everyone else” (Sher, p. 26). A more adequate principle would capture only those undeserved necessary conditions satisfied by the relevant agent.

In other words, imagine two agents, Smith and Jones. Neither Smith nor Jones deserve to have been born, or to have been born in a life-sustaining environment, or to have been born with the full complement of working bodily organs that make action possible, etc. Ignore these shared undeserved necessary conditions as irrelevant precisely because they are shared. Imagine instead that Smith has some special (but undeserved) capacity for basic action, C, that Jones altogether lacks. An adequate version of (5) would capture all and only these undeserved necessary conditions of desert, the distinctive or unique basic capacities for action that enable one agent to perform basic actions (and by implication derivative actions) that some other agents can’t.

With this comparative perspective in hand, we get a new, comparative version of the Rawlsian argument (Sher, p. 27):

(1a) Each person has some basic set of abilities, including an ability to exert effort, which does not belong to him as a result of anything he does. Suppose M’s basic abilities include a1…a5, while N’s including only a1…a4.

 (2a) If a person’s having X is not a result of anything he has done, then he does not deserve to have X while another does not.


 (3a) M does not deserve to have a5 while N does not.

 (4a) Let A be an action that a5 enables M, but not N, to perform.

 (5a) If one person does not deserve to have or do Y while the second does not, and if having X enables the first person to have or do Y while the second does not, then the first person does not deserve to have or do Y while the second does not.


(6a) M does not deserve to perform A while N does not, and neither does M deserve to enjoy the benefits of A while N does not.

Claim (5a) certainly beats (5) on grounds of plausibility.       

Now obviously, if all agents have exactly the same set of capacities for basic action without remainder, the preceding argument will do nothing to cancel claims to desert. As (1a), (3a), (4a), and (5a) all make clear, the preceding argument requires an unequal distribution of capacities in order to reach its anti-desert conclusion. An equal distribution of capacities will leave the antecedent of (5a) unsatisfied, hence leave us without a route to the argument’s conclusion.

One possible response to the Rawlsian argument, then, is to insist that the capacity for conscientious exertion of effort is equally distributed (or equally distributed in all morally relevant cases), leaving matters there. Such a rejoinder would effectively reduce moral desert to the conscientious exertion of effort, implying that we deserve credit for (all and only) our conscientious exertions of effort on behalf of morally justifiable ends, but perhaps nothing beyond that, including actual achievements or accomplishments.  (This seems to be the view taken by Alan Zaitchek in “On Deserving to Deserve,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 6:4 [1977]).

Sher takes the preceding response to be too weak, and pursues a stronger line of argument. First, consider a stop-gap maneuver against Rawls. Take two agents, Smith and Jones, who differ in their capacities for conscientious effort. Smith may have a greater capacity for expending effort that Jones lacks, but still, Jones’s lacking that particular capacity need not be interpreted as literally debarring Jones from expending the effort that Smith can expend. It may be that while effort comes more easily to Smith, it is possible to Jones but at greater expense of effort.

Consider another stop-gap strategy. It may be that Smith has capacities for effort-expenditure that Jones lacks. Given this, it may be that Smith can achieve things that Jones can’t. But if Jones can achieve comparable things, we may regard that as compensation for Jones’s inability to achieve precisely what Smith can achieve. It seems absurd (perhaps) to demand that everyone be able to achieve everything that anyone else can achieve. What matters is simply that everyone can achieve something worth achieving.

Our question then becomes whether human beings have unequal capacities for the expenditure of effort that result in widely discrepant outcomes with respect to general well-being, not particular actions or achievements. In other words, suppose that Smith and Jones have different capacities for putting forth effort. Does that entail that Smith, as a result of putting forth effort that Jones cannot put forth, comes to enjoy a level of general well-being that is beyond Jones’s every effort?

Depending on how we understand “well-being” (e.g., the more we identify it with what Aristotle calls “external goods”), that will seem unfair. It seems unfair, in other words, that people with undeserved capacities for achievement come to enjoy greater well-being than those who don’t. Put more dramatically, it seems unfair that people with greater capacities of achievement come to live magnificent lives while people with inferior capacities languish in misery for reasons entirely beyond their control. As Sher puts it:

 [P]remises like Rawls’s will indeed suggest that the person who has achieved more does not deserve the full benefit of his achievement relative to the other [i.e., those who have achieved less because they lack the capacity to achieve more], but rather deserves only the proportion of it [the achievement] that the other could reasonably have been expected to match. Since every high achiever can be paired with some low achiever in this way, it seems to follow that few people can lay absolutely full claim to all the benefits they have achieved (Sher, Desert, p. 33).

Actually, that seems to be an understatement on Sher’s part. It seems to follow that no one can lay absolutely full claim to all of the benefits they have achieved. From this perspective, Rawls is the distant source of Barack Obama’s famous claim that high achievers do not deserve credit for what they take themselves to have achieved.*

I’m not certain I understand Sher’s response to this implication of Rawls’s argument (Sher, pp. 33-34). On the one hand, he seems to be conceding much of its force. On the other hand, he claims, “the situation is more complicated” than Rawls imagines (33). The complication is that once we take the comparative perspective Sher has taken on Rawls’s argument, it becomes “impossible to allow everyone to get exactly what he deserves relative to everyone else” (Sher, 33), and yet “even if allowing people to enjoy the benefits of their achievements does permit some undeserved inequalities, it may still come closer to giving everyone what he deserves relative to everyone else than any alternative” (Sher, 33).

The concession involved in the first claim does not strike me as resolved by the proviso offered by the second. As far as I can see, Rawls’s essential argument, at least with respect to achievements produced by unequal capacities for effort, remains untouched by Sher’s criticisms. (Hence, Zaitchek’s response to Rawls strikes me as superior to Sher’s.)

In a last section of the chapter, Sher considers the truth or plausibility of premises (2a) and (5a) independently of the role they play in Rawls’s argument.

Premise (2a) says that how we fare in life should not be determined by factors beyond our control. Such factors are “arbitrary from a moral point of view. Since capacities and characteristics not produced by our actions are not within our control, and character (including “moral character” or character understood in a moralized fashion) is one of them, character turns out to be “arbitrary from a moral point of view.” Sher responds that “character and other traits may have a moral significance that does not reduce to the significance of one’s acts.” If so, moral character need not be understood as “arbitrary from a moral point of view,” the point being that what is determined by moral character can still have moral significance despite not being produced by the agent’s actions.

Premise (5a) claims that we don’t deserve what is produced by capacities that we have that others lack when those capacities are not themselves produced by actions we can be said to author. She responds that “an advantage is only unfair when it prevents one person from competing on equal terms with another.” But special contexts aside, this unfair situation doesn’t generally obtain: Smith’s having superior capacities to Jones’s doesn’t prevent Jones from doing anything (or at least need not be understood that way, unless we understand the capacity as somehow interfering with Jones’s exercise of her capacities); hence doesn’t prevent Jones from competing on equal terms with Smith. The cases in which unequal capacity-possession can be thought to interfere with competition on equal terms is a special case that ought not to be generalized beyond the narrow context in which it applies.  

*Obama’s version of the Rawlsian claim is a very weak instance of it: the claim is that successful businesspeople, not being responsible for the infrastructure that led to their success, cannot be thought to have deserved the full complement of benefits that arise from that success (so that some of the monetary rewards of that success can be redistributed through taxation or confiscatory regulation). Obama does not go as far as Rawls in denying the legitimacy of desert as such. But the affinity is there. Similar arguments are presented in Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel’s The Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice (Oxford, 2002), and Stephen Holmes and Cass Sunstein’s The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes (Norton, 1999).

8 thoughts on “You Didn’t Build You: The Rawlsian Critique of Desert

  1. I have been interested in this discussion of desert, although I haven’t been able to follow all of it and won’t be able to participate much. I just have too many other projects going on. Still, I want to say something about Rawls’s attack on desert, so here goes.

    In either of Sher’s reconstructions of Rawls’s argument, (as Irfan summarizes it—I haven’t read Sher’s book and don’t possess a copy,) the most problematic premise seems to me to be the second, which links desert with personal responsibility. As Rawls puts it, if having something depends on factors “for which [you] can claim no credit,” then “the notion of desert seems not to apply.”

    There are two things that occur to me about this that might contribute something to the discussion.

    The first is that it seems to be a very WEIRD idea. WEIRD psychology emphasizes the personal attributes of individuals in the explanation of their behavior and in the evaluation of their selves, including their moral status and the moral status of their actions. Moral status is thought to depend mainly or entirely on a person’s beliefs, motives, and intentions in relation to a set of universal moral principles. Thus, whether a person is guilty of a moral violation, and the level of guilt, depends mainly or entirely on their beliefs and intentions regarding the situation in question. For example, if A strikes B, then A may be guilty of assault, but this might be partially or entirely mitigated if A believed that B was unjustly harming C and intended to protect C. However, such mitigation depends in turn on whether A should have known better, given the circumstances, etc.

    The tendency of this line of thinking is that the evaluation of a person or their actions should depend only on what they are responsible for. I would say that this is more clearly right in some cases than in others. For example, it seems pretty compelling when it comes to the distribution of praise and blame, although even in this case nonWEIRD people often do not see it this way (according to Henrich). It seems far less evident in the case of desert. Nevertheless, the tendency of WEIRD thinking often seems to be in the direction of extending the link between evaluation and personal responsibility more and more widely. And this might be what gives Rawls’s argument its juice. Rawls may seem to be merely pushing the envelope of modern sensibility in the direction of greater consistency. And to the extent that “WEIRD is good,” perhaps we should take Rawls’s argument seriously. But obviously, it is not even clear that tying desert to personal responsibility is correct in WEIRD terms, much less that WEIRDer is always better.

    The second is that Sher’s second Rawlsian premise just seems to me pretty weak on its face. I don’t think that Louis XIV would have agreed that he didn’t deserve to be king just because he inherited the position. At all. Nor would most of his contemporaries, nor even many people today. Likewise, I don’t think many people would say that Usain Bolt doesn’t deserve his gold medals just because he won them with the indispensable assistance of an unearned and probably unique genetic endowment. In fact, I would say that the conclusion that Bolt doesn’t deserve his gold medals because he didn’t earn his genetic endowment is a reductio of that argument.

    And it seems to me that this premise itself—that you only deserve what you are personally responsible for—is the flaw in the argument. The truth seems to be, rather, that you deserve what the rules say you deserve, given the circumstances. Louis XIV lived in a society in which the ruler normally was determined by inheritance. Bolt competed in games in which the gold medals are given to the runners who cross the finish line first. This just pushes the more fundamental, philosophical question back, of course, to what rules are most appropriate (most just, etc.). But that’s pushing that question to where it ought to be. I am aware of the irony that this was sort of Rawls’s point. But that doesn’t make his argument a good one or mean that he has shown that our contemporary concept of desert is empty or incoherent. What it means, in my view, is that even common sense does not naively identify what you deserve with what you have “earned.” (Another example: statements like, “everyone deserves a decent education.”)

    One final point. Rawls starts with the remark that, “It seems to be one of the fixed points of our considered judgments that no one deserves his place in the distribution of native endowments…” This does sound right to me. But I think the reason is that “the distribution of native endowments” is not a social distribution. Thus, the question of desert should not apply one way or the other, and to ask it is to make a category mistake. There’s a sleight of hand (possibly not intentional) in beginning with the evident truth that you don’t deserve your genes and then extending it profligately to all cases of “unearned” attainments.

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    • Some of your points came up in our Zoom discussion. Of the four of us in the Zoom discussion, I think it’s fair to say that I am the one whose views are most sympathetic to Rawls’s. The three other participants made some of the same points you do. But I think all of us agreed that Rawls’s argument trades on a conflation of two different senses of “S does not deserve X.” The point was explicitly made by Roderick, and got buried in the comments section of an earlier post. Here’s a copy/paste of the relevant part of the comment:

      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.

      I think all five of us probably agree that Rawls conflates the non-deserving with the anti-deserving, and then exploits the conflation to infer that whatever is “undeserved” is up for grabs by analogy with the way that the anti-deserving can be taken, by rights, from the person wrongly in possession of it. He doesn’t quite come out and say any of that, but he also doesn’t justify the rationale for what he does say. (In particular, he does not say that possession of undeserved traits is wrongful, though I do think that his view implies that possession of their proceeds is unjust or unfair.) As I said to Stephen below, the basic moves are laid out in section 18 of A Theory of Justice, which would take more time than I have to lay out in full. I happen to find Rawls’s view more plausible than my Zoom interlocutors do, but even I would admit that his conclusions require much stronger arguments than he gives.

      That’s just a preliminary comment. Let me respond more directly to what you said above.

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      • Here’s your second point:

        The second is that Sher’s second Rawlsian premise just seems to me pretty weak on its face. I don’t think that Louis XIV would have agreed that he didn’t deserve to be king just because he inherited the position. At all. Nor would most of his contemporaries, nor even many people today. Likewise, I don’t think many people would say that Usain Bolt doesn’t deserve his gold medals just because he won them with the indispensable assistance of an unearned and probably unique genetic endowment. In fact, I would say that the conclusion that Bolt doesn’t deserve his gold medals because he didn’t earn his genetic endowment is a reductio of that argument.

        And it seems to me that this premise itself—that you only deserve what you are personally responsible for—is the flaw in the argument. The truth seems to be, rather, that you deserve what the rules say you deserve, given the circumstances.

        I think Rawls handles this by distinguishing sharply between moral desert and institutional desert. As I said in an earlier comment, there is a sense in which he can be credited (sorry) with having brought that idea into academic philosophy: there is a sense of “desert” that is a matter of satisfying the standards of institutionalized rules. (He discusses it in section 48 of A Theory of Justice, but arguably, it’s the topic of one of his early papers, “Two Concepts of Rules,” written in the 1950s.) This institutionalized sense of desert is the one that allows us to say that an Olympic athlete deserves her medals even if she won them on the basis of some natural endowment distinctive to her, lacking in the rest of us. So there is no reductio there for Rawls.

        He also deals pretty explicitly with cases like Louis XIV:

        The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts. Aristocratic and caste societies are unjust because they make these contingencies the ascriptive basis for belonging to more or less enclosed and privileged social classes. The basic structure of these societies incorporates the arbitrariness found in nature. But there is no necessity for men to resign themselves to these contingencies. (A Theory of Justice, pp. 87-88 of the rev ed)

        I find that response plausible enough.

        The controversial part of Rawls’s view is his (implicit) equation of non-institutional desert with moral desert in a sense that implies that once we set institutional desert aside (with its largely amoral and essentially conventional conception of desert), there is fundamentally only one kind of desert left: moral desert, what we deserve by our autonomous actions alone. The more stringent we make the requirements for autonomy, the more plausible it seems that we deserve nothing. But in any case, to deserve is to act so to have earned title to whatever is deserved.

        One of the perpetual disagreements in our discussions has been the status of this distinctively moral conception of desert. I happen to regard moral desert as the paradigm of all claims of desert, and tend to find claims about other “non-moral” sorts of desert to be merely degenerate cases or metaphorical. Does Usain Bolt deserve his gold medals? Well, by the rules of the Olympic competition, I’m sure he does, but morally speaking, what matters is conscientious effort, and in that respect, Usain Bolt is morally on par with anyone putting forth the same effort as he puts forth, no matter how grotesque or ungainly the result. Morally speaking, winning medals in an athletic competition is not all that important anyway. Medals are just shiny baubles. Morally speaking, the relevant questions are: does Usain Bolt deserve more (moral) praise than someone struggling (with the same effort) just to survive another day in a grim environment? No. Is he a better person, morally speaking, than someone lying in place, winning no medals, but giving birth? No. Is he more virtuous? I would say not.

        To use some of Sher’s examples:

        (1) Does Miss Vermont deserve to win the top prize in the beauty pageant because she’s the “prettiest” entrant? I’m not even sure that one can say “yes” by the standards of the institutional conception of desert, but whether one can or can’t, morally speaking, the claim is blasphemy. No, she does not deserve top prize in the pageant. No one does. Beauty is not an appropriate trait to reward in people.

        (2) Can Benson deserve some good luck, since he’s only had bad luck lately? No. You can’t deserve luck at all.

        (3) Does Cleveland deserve better publicity because it’s an interesting city? Even if we grant that it is an interesting city (what city is uninteresting, really?), no, it does not deserve better publicity; a city is not a moral agent, so it can’t deserve anything. When we say things like “Cleveland deserves better publicity,” we’re either briefly personifying the city to make a hyperbolic statement, or perhaps reducing the city to the actions of certain agents so as to give them credit that they haven’t gotten. But doing so is misleading and potentially confusing. Fundamentally, it’s moral agents that deserve things qua moral agents, not cities.

        Anyway, that gives you an indication of how I would answer, but I think Rawls would agree. Like him, I’m a confessed, unapologetic zealot of The Moral–that special interior realm that we’ve inherited from religion but don’t need religion to have and hold. Other people deny that there is any such thing, or if there is, that it ought to have the privileged place in human life that I’m giving it. I’ll let them explain themselves.

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    • Your first comment is that Rawls’s view expresses a WEIRD idea:

      The first is that it seems to be a very WEIRD idea. WEIRD psychology emphasizes the personal attributes of individuals in the explanation of their behavior and in the evaluation of their selves, including their moral status and the moral status of their actions.

      I agree with your characterization of the idea, but not with its characterization as WEIRD. I think the idea is fundamentally religious in origin. Its distant ancestor is the idea that salvation is by works alone, and that God is an infallible judge of the credit we’ve earned for those works. But though “salvation by works” is an idea we associate with Protestant Christianity, I actually think that a far clearer example of it can be found in Islam–which is supposedly not WEIRD territory. Islam has a conception of salvation, but lacks a conception of Original Sin or any clear conception of divine grace.

      The idea is that life is a test devised by an omniscient, infallible, omni-benevolent, omnipotent (etc) test-maker. We’re tasked with acquitting ourselves in this test. The test is graded on some divine scale. It’s not pass-fail, and there is no curve. Though test conditions vary greatly (to put it mildly), God–being omniscient–knows how to cut through the noise and find the moral signal in each case. The moral signal is exclusively up to the agent. God discerns the credit due to each agent, based exclusively on the agent’s rightful/virtuous (or wrongful/vicious/sinful) exercise of the gift of free will. Whether the agent is Usain Bolt or someone paralyzed in a wheelchair; whether she’s a genius with a 140 IQ or someone crippled with some cognition-distorting brain defect; whether she is a born empath or a born curmudgeon; whether he’s born in Atherton, California or Gaza; (etc.) doesn’t matter when it comes to salvation: God knows the quality of the person’s will, and exactly what was up to him or her qua agent, hence knows whether the agent is saved or damned. That the agent may deserve gold medals for running fast, or Big Money for being an enterpreneur is fine, but ultimately beside the point. Those things don’t matter as compared with salvation. They’re frivolous vanities.

      With that knowledge in hand, he hands out moral grades on the Day of Judgment, with predictable consequences. You pass and go to Heaven, where ice-cold Fiji water is available for free at every QuickCheck, and flows there in great abundance, or you go to Hell, and find yourself in some equivalent of Flint, Michigan on its worst day. Heaven and Hell involve other things besides water, but since the Qur’an was revealed in a desert (no pun intended), water is what makes the cut.

      If you take God out of this picture (at least for political purposes), what you’re left with is just the thought that the signal of moral credit is forever lost in the noise of contingent circumstances. We can’t hope to discern or grade pure moral credit by peering into the souls of our neighbors. What we do know is that morally speaking, given the contingencies of fortune, neither the magnificent wealth amassed by the wealthy, nor the miseries incurred by the miserable, can be thought to be their doing, or a matter of their getting their just deserts. Once you factor in the contingencies of fortune, what people truly deserve is knowable only from a divine point of view, and ought not to be an obstacle to redistributing the results of their overt achievements.

      This idea that moral status is determined by individual action certainly finds expression in the WEIRD world. I think Rawls is right to call his particular version of it Kantian. My point is that it’s not distinctively WEIRD.


  2. One does not build one’s level of aversion to risk or the degree of outgoingness of one’s personality. Smith with higher risk-aversion than Jones might pursue education to have likely employment and pursue that line of employment. Jones might become an entrepreneur and make a fortune or end up a beggar. This Smith and Jones seem pervasive in the regular real world. Do Rawls or Sher have anything to say about their not-made-by-them levels of risk aversion, unequal outcomes, and implication for redistribution?

    The other Smith and Jones: Smith is socially outgoing, and Jones is shy. So Smith does not deserve all of his success as a salesman, and Jones does not deserve all his success as a computer programmer. They both were developing lines of flourishing starting from different sorts of personality limitations/assets. In real people this sort of difference as well as risk-aversion differences are present along with any differences they might have with regard to ability to put forth effort (supposing there really is such a thing as that last one). Do Rawls or Sher address this everyday bundling of traits not-by-self-made, unequal outcomes, and implications for redistribution?

    (I’ve not read Rawls or Sher [I’ve read Gila Sher!], though I’ve some exposure to Rawls through Nozick and David A. J. Richards. And I won’t be reading them, due to reading-competition for remaining life. I’m just curious about the above factors and their incorporation into the concerns of Rawls or Sher. Also, if they do not assimilate those things, do you think that is fault in their thinking on their subjects? If this is plum off the academic rails of your concern in this topic, Irfan, please feel free to ignore it.)

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    • I think Rawls’s response to both scenarios is easy to figure out, and follows straightforwardly from what he says. To the extent that risk-aversion, extraversion, and introversion are traits that are a part of our make-up through the workings of nature and/or nurture, our having them is not our doing, hence not our achievement, hence not something we can be said to deserve. To the extent that they produce positive or negative consequences in the social world (whose structure neither Smith nor Jones can be credited with making), we don’t deserve those, either. So far, the claim is simply about desert (or lack of desert) as a moral judgment, not about any political prescription that follows from it.

      Rawls then goes on to say that because neither deserves the good or bad consequences of those undeserved traits, the proceeds of the good consequences can be redistributed as an expression of an “egalitarian conception of justice.” The crucial claim is:

      Undeserved inequalities call for redress; and since inequalities of birth and natural endowment are undeserved, these inequalities are to be somehow compensated for.

      So Rawls views the political enterprise as an “agreement to regard the distribution of natural assets as in some respects a common asset” up for redistribution. The relevant thing to read is section 17 of A Theory of Justice. It’s about seven dense pages long, but once you understand what he says there, you understand the basic principle behind the whole theory, and the whole book. The rest is a working-out of details.

      Sher denies the first step of Rawls’s argument. He thinks that we can be said in part to deserve our character and our achievements, but since his aim is simply to block Rawls’s argument, he doesn’t (at that point) go into great detail about how to apply the implications of his own contrary argument. He just leaves it at saying that some of us deserve some of our achievements, full stop. If he’s successful at showing that, he takes himself to have refuted Rawls, which is all he wants to do in chapter 2, so he doesn’t take it any further, at least there. So I’m not sure how he’d handle your cases. But then, I haven’t finished his book. I’ll keep your cases in mind as I do, and if I discover an answer, I’ll write it up.

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  3. My main going interpretation of Rawls is quite different from Sher’s (and at least most others that I have come across). I interpret Rawls as specifically targeting the putative desert-basis (the process of achievement) for people deserving what they achieve (the result) and the benefits that might flow from what they achieve. He is denying that — as a general matter and as we tend to think of it — people deserve their achievements (and the benefits that might flow) because, in order to genuinely deserve one’s achievements, those achievements would have to be mainly the product of underlying personal traits (abilities, talents) that are themselves achievements. Though he does not say what it would be for a personal trait to be an achievement (maybe the right amount of competent effort would do it, would constitute you “training yourself up” to having some useful, good or admirable trait), he does not deny the possibility. Instead, he argues that, even if this is possible, it is not at all typical. It is not typical because the effects of natural endowment, upbringing and sheer chance usually predominate.

    Though Rawls talks a lot about efforts (or making good efforts), this is because effort is an essential constituent of achievement of the sort that we think makes us deserve good end results and the benefits that flow from them. Rawls’ main target, then, is not appropriate commendation or reward for good effort. It is not the desert of attaboys and participation prizes (or even of important commendation or reward above and beyond that due to simply achieving, as with the less-than-super-talented athlete who achieves true greatness due to smart, hard work and persistence).

    I think one would be right to challenge this argument (the strength of the conclusion) by arguing that many more of our personal traits than Rawls thinks count as achievements (perhaps enough competent effort is involved in coming to have them; perhaps the threshold for either degree of competence in the effort and the amount of competent effort in coming to have and maintain the trait is low). In a similar vein, one might argue that, in some cases, really great efforts overcome the fact that the effort is effective only because of an underlying, non-deserved personal trait.

    But the more fundamental challenge for Rawls concerns the putative connection between underlying-personal-trait-desert and the desert of associated achievement. There are two related points here. First, an internal criticism of the position and argument: any element like competence or amount of effort would seem to transform both personal traits into desert-grounding achievement and the generic based-on-personal-traits achievement into desert-grounding achievement. Also the other way of treating similar things similarly threatens a regress of explanation (if achieved traits, like the generic achievements that depend on them, need some further, deserved element in order to be genuinely desert-grounding, then… etc.). All of this reflects some degree of conflict with the deserving-the-underlying-trait condition that Rawls places on achievements grounding desert. Second, it is counter-intuitive to think that desert-grounding achievement depends on desert-grounding achievement in the possession of underlying traits. And here’s my error theory: if Rawls’ asserted connection seems intuitive upon being explained, this is due to confusing something being non-deserved (as is the case when it is merely the case that standards of desert do not apply) with it being undeserved (as when standards of desert apply and are violated). Compare: I don’t deserve my natural degree of physical strength, but if I killed the government scientist to get the Captain America super-soldier formula, drank it, and became super-strong, then my degree of physical strength would be unjustly acquired and hence undeserved. The standards of desert (and justice) would say that I should not have this superhuman strength.

    Of course, coming up with a deep explanatory justification for the standard intuition about achievement-based desert that Rawls is trying to undermine here is an entirely different — and very worthwhile — ballgame. I don’t have any well-worked-out thing to offer.

    There’s another interpretation of Rawls that has some merit. It is close to being a particular version of Sher’s rewrite of his first interpretation of Rawls’ argument. But I explicitly put the fairness horse before the desert cart. So Rawls might mean to say this: the natural distribution of personal traits, in particular good or useful abilities and talents, is subject to standards of fairness (and hence associated standards of desert). Sher puts this kind of point in terms of “comparative desert” (though he does at one point mention fairness): the personal trait that I do not deserve (or might, more strongly, be undeserving of) is not something like having X degree of physical strength, but rather having X degree of physical strength while you have X-1. One might treat this as a formal possibility (a certain way of construing the personal trait that one does not deserve or is undeserving of) that helps Rawls avoid certain objections (as Sher does). But the only positive reason for making this sort of move is giving fairness standards priority and appealing to a distinctive fairness-based type of desert. This move has the advantage of making my having X degree of physical strength (while you have X-1) not only not-deserved but undeserved (because unfair). This helps if you want the being-undeserved property to “transfer” from the underlying ability to the exercise of that ability in achieving things (fruits of injustice are unjust, that kind of thing, but applied to the desert-properties). The problem: standards of fairness do not apply to the distribution of natural traits. It’s not like God is handing out pieces of cake at the grand birthday party of humanity and needs to make sure everyone gets equal pieces (or is otherwise treated fairly). Since Rawls seems to admit this in some places, I prefer the interpretation that I led with here.

    (The fairness-related, distributive-justice-related truth in the vicinity: standards of fairness do apply to what Rawls calls the “basic structure” of society. And not just “cosmically.” If, unlike the weather, the basic terms for living in society are the product of what we intentionally and unintentionally do together in society, then arguably we — society, our representatives in government — owe it to each individual citizen that she be treated fairly by what these basic social terms are, what they create and how they are set up. That’s the basis for much of what is both true and flies under the banner of social justice.)

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  4. Pingback: Desert and Merit (3) | Policy of Truth

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