on desert and value

I’ve been playing around with this analysis or account of a certain central sort of desert, one form of which is covered in Sher’s Desert, chapter 4 (concerning one deserving success due to diligent effort, hard work, etc.; other sorts of desert in the same family would include deserving credit — admiration or honors perhaps — for achievement):

Desert (Earning)  M deserves (in the earning sense) X for having feature F = it is appropriate for anyone to have (the relevant sort of) positive-attitude response to M getting benefit X as reward for M having feature F, where M (or anyone similarly situated) having F is desirable in a particular sort of way (mutatis mutandis for X being harmful to A, this constituting sanction for M, and M failing to have desirable feature F).

One question that came up in our discussion last night was whether, on this sort of approach — still of course too schematic and unspecific in important ways — this kind of desert-property comes to (or is in some way closely-associated with) a kind of value property. Sher seems to have a view like this (though his precise view, even at this sort of schematic level, is hard to pin down).

At one point, I spouted off and said something like this: on an approach like Desert (Earning), desert is not a value-feature, but rather the basis for a value-feature. As it was late (and as I might have been less than precise in my thought or wording), the response was: “Write that down and send it to us.” Well, here it is. But I now think that what I said is ½ wrong — but in an interesting way that brings up important issues.

It is correct that M earning-style deserving X for having feature F (this state of affairs) is not desirable (or valuable) in the normal sense (of being something worthy of being desired and promoted). But the stuff about desert being a value-making feature (part of the supervenience base for some sort of value) is wrong.

Here is what I should have said, instead of that. Desert (M deserving X for M having F) is a feature similar to a person being admirable or a state of affairs being hopeful or scary. We can call this sort of evaluative property something being valuable in some technical sense of ‘valuable’, but I think this usage (even just for technical purposes) is more likely to cause confusion than anything else. The relevant evaluative category is this: a state of affairs or set of conditions such that there is an appropriate positive attitude-response to it, of this or that specified sort (and the sort here is not necessarily that of having the mental attitude of desiring or valuing — as is relevant for things being literally desirable or valuable, desiring-worthy or valuing-worthy). We do well, I think, to call such evaluative features “attitude-demanding” features, not value-features or ways of things being valuable.



We should want to know how M deserving X (and M getting X being worthy of positive response in attitude) is different from hope fitting a hopeful situation or being afraid fitting a scary situation. Desert (Earning) indicates some differences, the especially obvious one being that the features that make for the attitude-K-worthiness of a situation essentially including normative or evaluative features in the desert case, not just descriptive ones (as is not the case with situations being hopeful or scary). This is a start, but we should want to fill in just what the relevant attitude-response is and why (and in cases of basic, universal normative pressure to have the attitude in response to the situation, the ‘why’ will probably cite somewhat-unfamiliar factors that go into what normativity of the relevant sort is or how it gets generated). The platitude of desert that deservers “ought to” get what they deserve (or that “things are going as they ought to” when deservers get what they deserve) perhaps provides some clues here.

(My going, if vague, hypothesis here — in line, I think, with a natural interpretation of the language of “ought to be the case that,” “should happen that way,” etc. — is this: the desirability feature that we are responding to is a kind of desirability in something like the “adherence to the moral and other norms of human public order.” It is appropriate for us to desire, from an observer standpoint, persons being, behaving and interacting in certain ways — and their being incentivized to do so. This sort of hypothesis has the distinct advantage of potentially applying to both of (what seem to be) the two main types of desert: earning-type desert and wronging-related desert. And it might also take up or include some other, stray types of cases of desert (like the city of Cleveland deserving more tourists and the perhaps-just-naturally strongest, fastest or prettiest deserving to win contests). And so it might well point the way to what candidates for a unified analysis or account of desert per se are good ones.)

6 thoughts on “on desert and value

  1. Thanks, Irfan. I think expressing gratitude counts as a way of giving (deserved) credit — for both insisting that I write this point down and for inserting the “read more” in the post and correcting to ‘ch. 4’. (l, inexcusably, still have not figured out how to do the read-more thing.)


  2. I guess my problem here is that your heavy reliance on an unanalyzed conception of “the appropriate” renders the analysis circular and/or uninformative. It just passes the buck to an account of appropriate reactions. But that essentially pushes desert off-stage. Desert becomes a relatively trivial part of an account of appropriate reactions, not a topic of its own.

    Also, if you’re analyzing the earning type of desert, I think it’s misleading to describe the agent as “having” a feature F when the agent is often engaging in an action. Yes, an agent-who-has-engaged-in-an-action can be said to have the feature of having performed it, but though true, that’s bound to get lost in an analysis of this form.

    In saying the above, I’m going more by your original, italicized analysis than what you say below it. I realize you’re rejecting the original analysis, but I think my objections apply both to the original and the modified version.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s helpful, Irfan. I agree that I need something better than ‘having feature F’. Maybe ‘having virtue-feature F’ or ‘having agential feature F’? Part of the problem is that, if you want to include — at least for purposes of being neutral in one’s theorizing, but maybe also in the final analysis — in the category of earning-type desert Cleveland deserving more respect or more tourists, you need a pretty broad characterization of the relevant feature. But it is not like Cleveland’s having the geographic location it does is the sort of thing that is relevant for it earning-type deserving anything. So something somewhat less generic would be good.

      It is true that I don’t offer an analysis of appropriateness. But I cannot do everything at once! If my use of ‘appropriate’ could be replaced by desert-language, I would be worried about circularity/uninformativeness. I would be even more worried about the same sort of appropriateness if it was not identifiable in other contexts. But I don’t think either of these things is true. Part of the appeal of fitting-attitude elements in accounts of other broadly normative things is that we need them anyway, to account for things like people being admirable and situations being scary. So that provides some characterization of the appropriateness-feature, independently of having an analysis of it and distinct from the desert-feature itself. I do, however, expand the use of ‘appropriate’ to include appropriate behavioral response (that is in some sense based on appropriate attitude response, making normative standards for attitude-response primary). That does make my use of ‘appropriate’ a bit more sketchy (in both senses of the term).


Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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