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 ).
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 ).
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).