When someone (or something) deserves something, what sort of normative fact (property, condition) is this? Is this sort of normative fact determined by other sorts of normative facts (and, if so, which ones)? Is this sort of normative fact something that determines other sorts of normative facts (and, if so, which ones)? Here is something of a live issue in political philosophy to provide motivation (beyond mere curiosity) for asking and answering these questions: if I deserve more money or prestige than you do, this might be considered the basis for it being fair or just that I get more (or for my having normative claim or right to have more). Alternatively: it might be that standards of fairness or justice (or for relevant normative claims or rights) come first, the facts about who deserves what in society being merely a result of this. (This is the issue of whether desert of the relevant sort is “pre-justicial,” not whether it is “pre-institutional.” The former feature seems more important to me.) However we answer my questions in the distributive justice case, the answers might be different in other cases: perhaps in some cases desert-facts “come first” and in others they “come last” (or maybe things are more complicated and they “come in the middle” in some or all cases).
I want to try to make some progress on these issues (at the general level) by examining a particular sort of case of desert: the case of a person deserving not to be wronged. Though we might or might not be able to generalize from this sort of desert to other cases, my inkling is that aspects of the order or structure of the different normative features here is pretty clear with this particular sort of desert, making it a good (or at least easier) case to start with.
You have a normative (and moral) claim against me (and everyone else) that I (and everyone else) refrain from assaulting you (add in caveats as you like for self-defense, various emergency situations, etc.). We might put the same fact like this: you have a right not to be assaulted by me (or by anyone). Correlatively: I’m obligated to you not to assault you. We get at all of this by saying that, if I were to assault you, I would be wronging you (this implies both your normative claim/right that I not do the thing and my obligation to you not to do the thing). But also: you deserve not to be wronged (in this way and by me and generally and by anyone). Intuitively: it is because my assaulting you is wrong (in the sense of wronging you) that you deserve that I not assault you. And the ‘because’ here appears to reflect how things are said to go in the world: that my assaulting you is wrong makes it the case that you deserve not to be assaulted by me. The general pattern here seems to be this: that I would wrong you in PHI-ing makes it the case that you deserve my not PHI-ing. In this sort of case of desert, then, it seems that the normative standards constitutive of a treatment of another person being a wronging of them (these sorts of standards of justice/unjust or fair/unfair action) are what make for the correlated facts about desert (people deserving not to be wronged by others), not the other way around.
Some additional precision here will yield some fruit. The normative standards constitutive of claim/right and correlated interpersonal obligation are disparate and layered, not simple. Like this: (a) it is appropriate for the patient to resent certain ways of being treated by others and, because of this, it is defeasibly appropriate for her (and she has strong reason) to object to these ways of being treated, (b) it is appropriate for observers to experience moral anger upon observing others being treated in ways that they would appropriately resent and, because of this, it is defeasibly appropriate for them (and they have strong reason) to object and (c) it is appropriate for the agent to feel guilt upon performing (or seriously considering performing) an action that another would appropriately resent and, because of this, it is defeasibly appropriate for her (and she has strong reason) to refrain from performing such actions. We might refer to these elements as the basic normative standards of response for moral reaction and practice.
The observer-place standards of [b] constitute a kind of moral value. According to these standards, any given person, from the observer position, appropriately responds in a positive way — with moral approval and, all else equal, some promoting action — to the (actual or possible) condition of an agent or agents refraining from performing patient-objectionable actions. Descriptively, the valuable state of affairs here is just or fair because it is constituted by agents adhering to standards of justice or fairness. Desert, then, is just an element of this sort of just or fair situation. It is what the patient gets or has when (the morally valuable state of) agents refraining from performing patient-objectionable actions occurs. In the case at hand: that you deserve my not assaulting you consists in the (morally good) situation that is just or fair (in the relevant way, relative to this sort and potential instance of wronging) including (or consisting of) you not being assaulted by me.
This framework can be plausibly extended, at least somewhat. Like this: (i) agents can be more or less just or fair, while remaining within the bounds of not performing patient-objectionable actions (and more broadly within the bounds of what is morally permissible) and (ii) when they behave in more-just or more-fair ways, anyone would appropriately exhibit moral approval. If so, there is a broader class of situations that are morally valuable because they are (more or less) just or fair in some respect (or more generally). And, quite plausibly, one deserves how one would be treated if people observed relevant justice or fairness norms (that are not necessarily the norms of agents refraining from performing patient-objectionable actions). For example, if it is just or fair for employers to appreciate and monetarily reward conscientious and competent effort (or even merely trying really hard), then an employee might deserve more appreciation or a higher hourly rate or salary from her employer due to her conscientious, competent effort (even if, due to circumstances, she has achieved only limited success in her assigned tasks — whether she deserves success or any of its conventionally attendant rewards is a different matter).
It is natural to expand the framework here still further by including, among the potentially deserved things, what one would likely have or get (not just how one would be treated) if people were more fair or just in their actions (in some respect). This would include one getting or having these things even when, in the particular case, they are not the result of people being more just or fair in their actions (e.g., largely due to chance, the qualified, hard worker landing the good job that she deserves). However, arguably, such cases, at least when they clearly do not imply that the deserved condition is something provided by others individually or collectively, are derivative (though I think genuine) cases of desert.
In this way, with some add-ons, a basic explanatory framework that seems to work for at least one kind of wronging-related desert (deserving not to be wronged) also seems to work well for certain sorts of broadly earning-related desert — in particular, for the sorts that involve, or are parasitic upon, just or fair ways of people being treated in response to being certain ways (and this situation being morally valuable and hence demanding relevant attitude and behavior responses). However, not all earning-type desert is like this. Often, what is earning-style deserved is not any sort of just or fair treatment nor is it something one would likely get or have if people acted more justly or fairly. For example, it is often claimed that people deserve (certain of the) bad consequences of their imprudent action.
We can expand the framework further to cover such cases, but when we do it begins to look like a distinct, more general account that simply includes the original framework (and its modifications). Here: like fair or just situations (consisting of people acting justly or fairly and perhaps the knock-on consequences of such), perhaps people getting the predictably bad consequences of foolish action (and the predictably good consequences of wise action) is something that is morally valuable in the right way (that calls for the right sorts of responses). This would account for cases of desert in which what is deserved appears to be some kind of reward or sanction for the deserver being or acting some way, where this does not have anything to do with people treating each other justly or fairly.
I’m not sure this approach covers all cases of not-justice-related desert, but it seems to have the resources to come close. The formula is simple: claim that the relevant entity being treated in some way or having or getting certain things is morally valuable in the right way (and thus calls for relevant attitude and behavior responses). On this framing, the strong, healthy lion deserves her kill — if this situation is morally valuable in the right way. And maybe it is!
But something is missing. This: in many, perhaps all, cases of desert, a distinct but related response is demanded or called for: a crediting attitude (and correlative behaviors) toward the person or institution or animal (the deserver). (I suspect that this can and should be framed as a “platitude of desert” that any good account needs to integrate and explain — or explain away convincingly.) So the proper analysis of desert in general needs to include the standards for crediting agents (or other deservers), as well as the standards for appropriate moral approval (of the deserver getting what she deserves). If this is right, if desert concerns two related, layered responses in moral attitude (along with knock-on behavioral responses) — and thus two related or correlated sorts of moral value (in some pretty broad sense of ‘moral’) — then what I have sketched here so far is only ½ of the story. However, there is a promising, and apparently pretty clear, path for completing it.
Finally: what about the issue that I began with here, the relative priority of desert with respect to relevant other broadly normative features (in particular, with regard to standards of distributive justice in society)? It seems plausible, even with the admitted deficiency in what I have said so far, that, as indicated, for all justice-related or fairness-related desert, desert-facts are secondary to justice-facts or fairness-facts (and their moral value). Perhaps more to the point, they are secondary to the standards of response relative to which attitudes, behaviors and situations count as just or unjust, fair or unfair (e.g., standards for what treatment by others one would appropriately resent and object to). Approximately and in the lingo: such desert is not pre-justicial, whether or not it is pre-institutional (an artifact of, or otherwise dependent on, institutions). So: Rawls (and most others) are correct in thinking that considerations of desert are too derivative to provide a fundamental justification for standards of distributive justice in society (whether or not the relevant sort of desert is merely an artifact of, or otherwise a function of or dependent on, existing institutions). At best, relevant desert considerations point us toward relevant standards of justice or fairness that apply to who has claim to what resources in society and why.
More generally: desert per se would seem to be a function of the moral value of the same sorts of items — and hence of the standards governing relevant appropriate response (moral approval, crediting the agent). This would be so whether or not the state of affairs of the deserver getting what she deserves (the morally valuable situation) is literally just or fair (as I take it not to be in cases of “cosmic” justice or fairness, including dopey people getting slapped down by reality due to their doing dopey things). Though we might sometimes legitimately justify how we should react or what we should do by reference to what we (or other people) deserve, it appears that this sort of justification will never be a fundamental justification (or explanation). The facts of desert can justify only by reflecting some relevant standard or other for morally approving of relevant agent-involving situations (the deserver getting what she deserves) and for morally crediting the agent involved (the deserver exhibiting the relevant desert-basis). All of this is stated much too definitively, but reflects the potential of appealing to standards for relevant response in attitude as the fundamental normative thing.