This is just a passing thought that I’ve been meaning to blog for awhile–almost apropos of nothing. It isn’t a natural continuation of any topic we’ve discussed so far in our conversations on Sher’s Desert, but bears an obvious relation to the topic of desert in general.
It’s common to distinguish claims of desert sharply from claims of need. The contrast, I think, goes back at least to Aristotle, who makes it in a rather complex way in his discussion of justice in the Nicomachean Ethics. It finds clearer and sharper expression in the work of Ayn Rand, who insists that no claim of need, as such, can in principle ever be a claim of moral desert. To deserve is to earn moral title to the deserved object, but one can need something without having done anything to earn it (e.g., a roof over one’s head, health care, food), and one can deserve something without really needing it (e.g., praise). The things we need and deserve can, of course, overlap in certain instances, but (on Rand’s view) need is never sufficient for desert.
Though I’ve called this “Rand’s view,” I don’t think Ayn Rand is alone in holding it. It is, as I see it, a common belief held and even taken to be a platitude by many people, whether influenced by Rand or not. That said, for ease of reference (and for lack of any better alternatives), I’ll call it “the Randian view.” One potentially problematic implication of the Randian view is that very young children (including infants) either deserve nothing, or only deserve to have their needs met in virtue of whatever little they can do to earn need-satisfaction. I’ll call this “the Randian implication.”
The younger the child, the less she can do; the less she can do, the less plausible the second disjunct of the Randian implication becomes. Actually, you might just find the second disjunct implausible anyway, whether because you find it hard-hearted or incoherent or both. Do infants really deserve to be given food and drink only because they earn their keep? In what respect can a toddler really be said to earn her keep at all? Would it be just to deprive a child of basic needs in “punishment” for–or more neutrally, in response to–her failures to earn her way through life? It’s radically unclear how to begin to answer these questions, or whether they can be answered at all.
Given this set of problematics, it seems more natural (if that’s the right word) to drop the second disjunct of the Randian implication, and claim straightforwardly that children deserve nothing, including the satisfaction of their needs–until (and unless) they can earn moral title to need-satisfaction by their independent actions. Once they do, of course, their claim to need satisfaction is no longer a matter of sheer need, but becomes one of need respectably converted into moral desert. Obviously, a child would have to find some way to get to that point for any of this to matter. And if the child literally deserves nothing and gets nothing, that might be hard to pull off.
It may seem shocking to some ears to claim that children deserve nothing, but it’s unclear what follows from the claim. I can think of two very different possibilities.
One implication is essentially nihilistic: since children deserve nothing, then no wrong is done to them if their needs go unsatisfied. On this view, child neglect is neither immoral nor a crime; it’s just an optional lifestyle choice, to be left to parental discretion.
Another possibility is rights-based: while children strictly speaking deserve nothing, it remains wrong to neglect them–both immoral and criminal–because doing so violates their rights. Having put them in a position of need, one is obligated to get them out of that position, not because they deserve it, but because they have a right to it: it would initiate force against them involuntarily to put them in a position of need and leave them there. Children don’t, after all, consent to be born, or consent to be put in a position of need. Those who put them there therefore owe them the actions and/or resources required to get them out. The same might be said, after all, of an adult whom one had, say, kidnapped or imprisoned: setting aside the justification (or not) for the imprisonment, one is obligated to meet the prisoner’s needs during a period of incarceration or confinement whether she deserves it or not.*
One clear implication of the rights-based gambit is that children cannot be said to deserve to have their rights respected. One is instead forced to say that the child has rights (without deserving them), and that it’s obligatory to respect these rights (despite the absence of any claim to desert involved). The obligation to respect rights is not (on this view) conceptually linked to claims of desert; the two norms, rights and desert, are distinct from each other, and involve distinct (perhaps irreducibly distinct) sources of normativity. This strikes me as a problematically dualistic view, but I won’t pursue that here.
Instead, we might just consider rejecting Rand’s view as well as the implication that follows from it. The view does, after all, have an ad hoc quality about it. Why distinguish so sharply between claims of desert and claims of need in the first place? Why can’t need be one of many desert-bases alongside others?
Objectivists have in general ignored children, or mentioned them only to ignore them. Leonard Peikoff’s discussion of justice is typical: “Leaving aside the claims of children on their parents, no person by the mere fact of his existence or needs has a claim on the assets of others” (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 287). It’s not clear why Peikoff is entitled without explanation to “leave aside the claims of children on their parents.” The claims of justice apply to humans qua humans, and children are full-fledged (though relatively undeveloped) human beings. An account of the norms of justice has to have some application to children. It can’t just dismiss them as irrelevant to the human condition and proceed as though they didn’t exist or matter (however convenient that would be).
Having left children aside, Peikoff feels no particular obligation to bring them “back” at any point in this book (or any other). Children are simply left a mystery of the Objectivist moral ontology. It won’t suffice to resolve that mystery by invoking the obligations of parents. Some children, called “orphans,” lack parents. At face value, then, Peikoff’s claim entails that orphans can neither make claims to need-satisfaction as a matter of rights, nor as a matter of moral desert. Once neglected, no injustice is done if they are either left to shift for themselves (to use Locke’s phrase), or die. That seems a problematic implication in itself, and also one that contradicts Rand’s claim (in The Virtue of Selfishness) that there are no conflicts of interest between human beings.** There does seem to be a conflict of interest between orphans and those who claim that they deserve nothing.
Suppose we reject both the Randian view and its corresponding implication. In that case, we might say that children deserve need-satisfaction. If so, the claims of need and those of desert turn out not to be entirely distinct. At the very least, we have one clear case in which claims of need just are claims of desert. And though children have sometimes been called “marginal cases,” it’s hard to argue that they are somehow marginal to human life, as though they only existed in wild philosophical thought-experiments but nowhere else on the planet. Children are everywhere. So this one putatively little case might have a fair bit of theoretical bite.
The “one clear case” might also ramify into others. There are, after all, cases in which adults are reduced to the level of helpless infants, whether by illness (mental and/or physical), and/or by sheer age, and/or by some other ability-diminishing circumstance. If we grant that infants deserve need-satisfaction because of the helplessness of their predicament, we might plausibly grant that adults deserve it insofar as their predicament resembles that of infants or other young children. And then we have two or more clear cases in which claims of need just are claims of desert.
I can’t pretend to have argued that there are such cases. My point is simply that the sharp contrast between need and desert is not nearly as clear as its proponents seem to think–a modest claim, but one that potentially packs a normative punch.
**Strictly speaking, she says that there are no conflicts of interest between rational agents acting rationally. Arguably, infants and small children are incapable of rational action, in which case the thesis, as stated, is consistent with the possibility that there are irresolvable conflicts of interest between children and adults.
Thanks to Carrie-Ann Biondi for inspiring the train of thought that led to this post, and to Lindsay Elliker for insisting that I “pretend to like” her children. Though I haven’t read it in ages, I suspect that the post is subconsciously influenced by Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals (Open Court, 1999).