Freedom, Action, and Desert

Chapter 3 of George Sher’s Desert offers what might be described as a dialectical exploration of the strengths and weaknesses of an expected-consequence account of desert (“dialectical” is my term, “exploration” is Sher’s). An expected consequence account of desert says that, properly understood and specified, we deserve the expected consequences of our actions.

Before I describe the account proper, however, I think it’s worth saying a word or two about the overall aim and structure of the chapter. Sher’s claims in this chapter are easily misread and misunderstood, and I think that the other members of our Zoom discussion did in fact misread the chapter, giving it a stronger (hence less charitable) reading than it deserved. As far as I can see, though Sher gets some of the details wrong, his overall assessment of the expected consequence conception of desert is just right. So I’m a little puzzled at my fellow discussion partners’ criticisms of the chapter as a whole, and challenge them to “bring it,” as the youngsters nowadays say.

Early in the book, Sher had introduced the phrase “normative force” as a term of art intended to refer to any claim in a normative context (often but not necessarily a moral context) that suggests that something X would be “an especially good thing” to have, or be, or happen (Sher, Desert, p. xi). To say that X has normative force is not to say that it’s obligatory, whether in general or for any particular person, but merely to say that, pro tanto (or prima facie), it has some positive value.*

In weighing the pros and cons of the expected consequence conception of desert, all that Sher takes himself to be doing is “measuring” its normative force, however strong or weak that happens to be. And his claim ends up being that an expected consequence account has some positive (but indefinitely strong) normative force. He’s not endorsing an expected consequence theory of desert. The claim he ends up making is simply that expected consequences have some normative force, and can handle a range of plausible-looking counterexamples, a claim perfectly compatible with saying that an expected consequence account requires supplementation by other desert bases. It seems to me that that claim is right, and that Sher’s approach to it is basically right, as well. I conclude that my interlocutors’ complaints about chapter 3 are little more than whiny bitching based on palpable defects of reading comprehension.

Sher starts by distinguishing two methodological approaches to the subject–roughly speaking, top-down and bottom-up approaches. Top-down approaches derive desert claims from some overarching, highly general foundational principle. Bottom-up approaches start with the first-order desert claims we actually make in ordinary speech and life, and then try to account for them by way of higher-level principles. For much of the book, Sher pursues a bottom-up approach, but in chapter 3 he decides to canvass the possibilities of a top-down approach.

The most obvious candidate for a foundational principle for desert is one in which autonomous action has pride of place. A first question, then, is how exactly to formulate the foundational principle in question. One possibility is to say that autonomy is a necessary condition of ascribing desert, but though true, that claim is obviously too weak to do any real work. Another possibility is to say that the value of a person’s acting autonomously is somehow transmitted to or inherited by what the agent is said to deserve. This latter claim becomes Sher’s working hypothesis. The question then becomes how to make sense of the claim that autonomy, which involves a disjunctive capacity for action (enabling us to perform one action or its contrary), can transmit a sort of value that singles out one disjunct of an action-involving disjunction as the one that the agent deserves (so that while the agent could do X or ~X, X is what he deserves).

Sher’s claim is that the relevant work is done by the agent’s expecting the consequences of his autonomous actions:

Because we deliberate with an eye to consequences, our free choices must encompass not just our immediate doings, but also the later lines of development to which we expect them to lead. Thus, at least one connection between free acts and their consequences is internal to the notion of free agency itself.

And given this connection, we can indeed see why any value that attaches to an autonomous act might carry over to that act’s consequences. Because (at last some of) those consequences are part of what an agent chooses, it would be quite arbitrary to say that is good that the agent perform the act he has chosen, but not good that he enjoy or suffer that act’s predictable consequences. Since choice encompasses both acts and consequences, any value that attaches to the implementation of choice must belong equally to both (Sher, p. 39).

Sher then canvasses examples where the expected consequence account leads, intuitively, to the “right” results (pp. 40-44), and then deals with cases where it seems (at first) to yield the wrong results (pp. 44-49), giving us a list of five categories of such cases  (p. 45). Though the five (categories of) cases seem “troublesome,” Sher thinks that they aren’t quite as troublesome as they seem, and so, more or less tries to explain them away.

Having done so at least to his own satisfaction, Sher then produces a second list of three (genuinely) troublesome cases that (by Sher’s own lights) can’t be handled by an expected consequence account–conscientious effort, reward schedules, and performative merit (Sher, pp. 50-52). These three topics then become the subject-matter of later chapters of the book.

Let me cycle back to some of the details of Sher’s argument. In our Zoom discussion last Sunday, some interlocutors expressed skepticism at Sher’s claim that autonomy confers (“transfers”) value on actions. How is that supposed to work? Doesn’t it turn autonomy into a sort of magical “value-transferring” device?

I’m not particularly sympathetic to this criticism. The issue here, as I see it, is how strong a claim Sher takes himself to be making. I take him to be making the relatively weak claim that the exercise of (and respect for) autonomy has normative force. I take Sher’s claim to be strong enough to imply that there is some value to permitting people to exercise their autonomy in ill-considered or vicious ways, without committing him to the claim that a commitment to the value of autonomy by itself blocks all claims in favor of coercive paternalism, much less that the exercise of autonomy changes the moral valence of a bad action (so that a bad action becomes good because autonomously brought about). So my own view is that Sher’s starting point is adequately plausible, strong enough to yield normative results, but weak enough to be acceptable to a reasonable paternalist or perfectionist of the Aristotelian or Thomist variety.

A second problem (implicit but not stated in our Zoom discusssion) is Sher’s rather quick inference to expected consequences as the link between autonomy and desert. Why single out expected consequences? Why not, say, intention rather than expectation, or intentional action (and consequences) rather than expected consequences? A fairly standard account of moral responsibility–the so-called “straight rule of responsibility”– holds that we are morally responsible for all and only our intentional actions, not for the expected consequences of all of our actions.** Why not start with the straight rule of responsibility rather than with the expected consequences of our actions?

This strikes me as a fair criticism of Sher. As far as I can see, his answer is (or would be):

  1. Appeal to expected consequences handles certain intuitive cases in a cleaner, simpler way than appeal to intention.
  2. The straight rule of responsibility has trouble handling cases of carelessness, recklessness, and culpable ignorance.
  3. We could, for purposes of the chapter, start either with intention or with expected consequences, and there’s nothing wrong with starting with the latter, as long as we eventually do justice to the claims of the former.

I don’t know how convincing that is. It doesn’t strike me as either entirely convincing or totally wrong.***

I don’t have the time or space to deal with the details of Sher’s attempts to explain away the claims of the first five-item list of apparently troublesome cases. Here is the list (from p. 45), slightly reworded for clarity:

  1. Some things are the expected consequences of our actions but too easily acquired to count as deserved.
  2. Some things are the expected consequences of our actions but are too disproportionately harmful (“disastrous”) to be deserved.
  3. Some things, though expected consequences of our actions, are the “spoils of wrongful acts,” hence undeserved.
  4. Some things, though expected consequences of our actions, are the harmful effects of self-sacrificing acts, hence undeserved.
  5. Some things are the results of choices made under threat or other illegitimately structured choice situation, hence though expected, are undeserved.

In our Zoom discussion, we too hastily interpreted this list as a list of genuinely troublesome categories of action for an expected consequence account without attending to the fact that Sher takes them to be apparently, not actually, troublesome, because he takes himself to be have explained them away. It would take a separate post to discuss the details of Sher’s attempt to explain the five categories away. I don’t have time for that right now, so I’ll defer the task for later.

Personally, I haven’t come to a settled view on Sher’s handling of any of the five apparently troublesome categories. I do think, however, that he significantly mishandles category (4). Here I’m repeating a criticism I made (to Michael Young) in the comments of an earlier blog post.

It’s essential to Sher’s account of (4) that it involve altruistic cases of rescue, treated as morally “necessary,” under conditions of emergency or extreme duress. His example is a person, Johnson, who suffers a broken leg while rescuing a child from an oncoming truck. The broken leg is an expected consequence of Johnson’s action but undeserved. Sher handles the case by focusing on the “necessity” involved in Johnson’s undertaking the action (Sher, p. 47), but regardless of how well this move works for Sher’s Johnson case, it construes the relevant category too narrowly to be adequate. You can generate cases of the relevantly troublesome kind for the expected consequence account without relying on self-sacrifice, rescues, emergencies, necessity, or duress (of the kind Sher has in mind).

Consider the occupational hazards of somewhat hazardous or unpleasant jobs. Focus ex hypothesi only on morally praiseworthy jobs, and filter out the disastrous consequences of careless action within these jobs. There will still be a long list of cases in which people doing these jobs will suffer harmful consequences that they fully expect without its being the case that they deserve them. In cases like this, the expected consequence account seems to conflate deserving X with assuming the risks of X. But intuitively, one doesn’t deserve every risk that one assumes, not even every non-disastrous harmful consequence of every clearly predictable risk. One is obliged to accept the consequences of incurring these risks without precisely deserving them when they end up happening.

My own example to Michael was that of a nurse who, in taking a hospital job, fully expects to be crapped or vomited on without deserving those consequences. A construction worker might reasonably expect minor injuries in the course of doing construction work without deserving those consequences, either. I won’t multiply examples, but I think they can in principle be multiplied indefinitely. Here are three recent articles from The New York Times describing work of this sort. The first is about nursing, the second about home health care workers, and the third is about “dirty work” generally. My claim is that as stated, Sher’s account fails to handle any of the cases described in or implied by these discussions, and that his failure to do so weakens the expected consequence account more than he realizes.   

That said, Sher’s conclusion is simply that “the value of freedom is one genuine source of desert” (p. 49). Since he doesn’t take the five categories of “apparently troublesome cases” on p. 45 to be genuine counter-examples to an expected consequence account, takes the account to explain some clear cases (e.g., being disqualified for consideration because you submitted an application past the deadline), and takes the three genuinely troublesome cases to have separate desert-bases that are compatible with an expected consequence account, it’s reasonable to think that Sher’s argument in chapter 3 is essentially successful. In other chapters, he’s free (so to speak) to adopt a weak version of the expected-consequence account, then adopt a bottom-up approach involving other moral concepts (e.g., virtue, merit), pursuing a reflective equilibrium between the foundational and superstructural features of his overall account.

*It wasn’t common, when Sher was writing (1987), to distinguish between the pro tanto and the prima facie. He doesn’t explicitly make the distinction, but I think he’s referring primarily to the pro tanto rather than the prima facie. I don’t know exactly when it became common to make the distinction.

**A classic account is chapter 9.2 of J.L. Mackie’s Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Penguin, 1977).

***After writing this post and then reading the next chapter of the book, on diligence and desert, the explanation to the supposed puzzle in the text became obvious enough: Sher focuses in chapter 3 on expected consequences rather than intentional action because he discusses intention in chapter 4, on diligent effort. In other words, expected consequences and intention are two separate bases for desert, discussed in consecutive but thematically interconnected chapters.

Thanks to Lindsay Elliker (Jabush) for sharing the anecdote of being crapped on in an LTACH unit.

6 thoughts on “Freedom, Action, and Desert

  1. “I think he’s referring primarily to the pro tanto rather than the prima facie.”

    Ooh, fancy Latin. This is America! Speaking English is a sine qua non of intelligible communication.


    • You mean speaking American? Aka “Freedom Talk.” If we hadn’t fought a whole revolutionary war against the English, we’d all be speaking English right now. And be drinking tea worth drinking. Thank a vet for your freedoms!


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