Like Rain in the Desert

It’s been raining a lot where I live, and that’s given me both the impetus and the material for reflecting on one of the examples Sher gives in chapter 3 of Desert—a case of desert meant to illustrate what he calls “the expected consequence” model. I’ll have more to say about chapter 3, and the model itself, in a later post I’m planning to write. But for now, I just want to hash through one of the deepest and most profound of Sher’s examples, what might be called the rainfall example*:

The expected consequence account is the sort of account we want. But does it mesh with our intuitions about specific cases? In many instances it does. It coincides, for example, with the intuition that Wilson, who knowingly submitted his application late, now deserves to be disqualified. If this desert-claim is to have normative force, it is surely because one ought to suffer the predictable consequences of one’s earlier carelessness. And the most straightforward way of explaining this is precisely to say that such predictable consequences inherit the value of the free choices that led to them. For similar reasons, the account correctly accommodates claims of this type: Harris, who didn’t bring his raincoat, now deserves to get wet….

Just as the man who leaves his umbrella home when it rain deserves to get wet, so too does the man who brings his umbrella deserve to reach his destination dry (pp. 41-42).

If you think about it, though, there are really four rainfall/umbrella cases here, not two, and analytic rigor (or pedantry) demands that we work through them all.

Before I get to that, a proviso: I’m going to ignore Sher’s unwarranted slide from wearing a raincoat to taking an umbrella. I think it’s obvious that wearing a raincoat doesn’t really prevent you from getting wet, whereas taking an umbrella (of the right kind) sort of does. So let’s ditch the raincoat, and go with umbrellas.

In that case, Sher’s account really entails the following:

  1. When it’s rational to predict rain, and (in consequence) you bring an umbrella, you deserve to be as dry as the umbrella keeps you.
  2. When it’s rational to predict rain, and (despite this) you don’t bring an umbrella, you deserve to get as wet as you end up getting.
  3. When it’s not rational to predict rain, and (in a spirit of over-caution) you bring an umbrella anyway, you deserve to be encumbered by an umbrella that serves no useful purpose except to waste energy, take up space, and potentially poke people.
  4. When it’s not rational to predict rain, and you don’t bring an umbrella (whether because you decide not to or just fail to consider it), you deserve whatever fair weather you encounter, unencumbered by an umbrella.

The hard truth is that matters are far more complex than this, but as this is Policy of Truth rather than Analysis, I won’t try your patience with the lengthy analysis I recently devised on a rainy commute to work.

It’s interesting that cases (3) and (4) drop out of Sher’s account, but there’s no reason they should. Sher starts by presenting the issue as though we only deserved the punishments that arise from our careless behavior (case 2)–a common enough reflex–but his endorsement of case (1) suggests that he’s advancing a principle that entails punishment or reward, as appropriate. If we deserve punishment for our carelessness, we deserve reward for our successful exercises of prudence (in the narrow sense).** The larger point is that we deserve the expected consequences of our actions. But Cases (3) and (4) are as straightforward instances of that principle as cases (1) and (2).

Why balk at (3)? Perhaps because it seems too trivial an instance of “punishment” to be included. But trivial or not, the encumbrance is there, and in some contexts, might well prove encumbering. Let’s face it: umbrella technology basically sucks, and hasn’t improved much in the last hundred years or so. Most umbrellas don’t really keep you all that dry, and in any case, blow out (or up, or inside-out, or whatever) with the slightest wind. I can’t count the number of umbrellas that have failed or betrayed me when the wind’s picked up a bit during a rainstorm. Do umbrella-users deserve it when their umbrellas fail under conditions that lead predictably to their failure? That’s probably most conditions under which you use an umbrella at all. What idiot thinks that umbrellas really work, anyway?

The only umbrellas that really work at keeping you dry really are gigantic golf umbrellas,  but if you doubt that an umbrella can be a pain in the ass to carry around, try lugging a golf umbrella around on a mass transit commute in New York City. And if pointlessly carrying an umbrella around is a trivial matter, well, arguably, so is getting wet. So it seems to me that (3) is basically on par with (1) or (2). What’s interesting is that few, including Sher, would treat it that way. So it escapes our notice. Easier to buy into the Umbrella Mythology than to admit that they don’t really work.

Why balk at (4)? Perhaps because it sounds weird to say that when I walk out into the morning sunshine without an umbrella, and it doesn’t rain at all that day (not that anyone ever expected it to), I deserve the glorious sunshine that kisses my face, and deserve the lack of encumbrance I feel at not having to carry an umbrella around.

Yes, weird–but it can’t be any weirder to say this than to say that you deserve to get wet when you fail to bring an umbrella with you when it’s about to rain. Either they’re both weird, or neither is, because both, after all, express the same principle. I actually find it somewhat charming to say that I deserve the unencumbered enjoyment of fair weather. But perhaps this is because I deserve so few things in life that I’ll grab at whatever I can.

Sher treats case (2) as though it were self-evidently a case of punishment. But what if you go out into the rain without an umbrella because you want to get wet? (Worse still, what if you go out into the rain with an umbrella, but refuse to use the damn thing?) This is neither a case of carelessness, nor a case of prudence narrowly construed, but of expected-consequence whimsicality. Do you still deserve to get wet? And if you do, is that a reward or a punishment? I’m not sure what Sher actually thinks about cases like this, but it seems to me that an expected consequence account has to say that if you want to get wet, and do, you deserve what you wanted and what you get. This means that every time I take a shower or go swimming, I deserve to get wet. That sounds weird, but it could just be trivially true. Recall that p‘s being trivially true entails that p is true. I mean, better trivially true than trivially false.

I wonder if an expected consequence account of desert conflates deserving X with assuming the risks of X, or if it doesn’t quite conflate them, whether it has the resources to distinguish them. As Sher himself seems to recognize, we assume all kinds of risks every day that we don’t really deserve when they (shockingly but still predictably) materialize. I assume the risks of death every time I drive to work (or drive anywhere), but were I to perish in a fatal accident that wasn’t my fault, I wouldn’t thereby deserve to die. Or so one might think. The hard question is whether this last thought constitutes an exception to the rule Sher singles out for praise, or threatens to overturn it altogether.

I’ll deal with that in more detail when I get a chance to write something up about chapter 3 as a whole. For now, I’ll leave you with the glorious feeling doubtless engendered by the preceding thoughts, in the hopes that I’ve dispelled some of the clouds of mystery that’s been pouring confusion on the ground.

*Not to be confused with the rainfall example in Aristotle’s Physics II.6.

**As opposed to the broader sense associated with Aristotelian phronesis.

Thanks to Nancy Gable for humoring me through a conversation on this topic.

10 thoughts on “Like Rain in the Desert

  1. I like your case [4]. And, in general, the idea of “blowing up” the umbrella case into myriad cases of trivial expected consequences or expected consequences that are not (or could not be) anything like a reward or punishment. A nice way of showing what this sort of basis for desert commits us to.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Sure, but “blowing up” a case that has been used to support a hypothesis in order to undermine that hypothesis is pretty effective rhetorically.


      • “it’s just a plagiarized version of Riesbeck’s ‘reaching for a cup of water’ example”

        Expect to face academic honesty charges shortly.


  2. Pingback: Freedom, Action, and Desert | Policy of Truth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s