Desert and Diligence

Chapter 4 of Sher’s Desert, “Desert and Diligence,” explores the thesis that diligence, or conscientious effort, is a fundamental basis of desert claims:

Whatever else we think, most of us agree that persons deserve things for sheer hard work. We believe that conscientious students deserve to get good grades, that athletes who practice regularly deserve to do well, and that businessmen who work long hours deserve to make money (Sher, Desert, p. 53).

That seems plausible enough, at least at first glance, but on reflection it raises two difficult questions:

            (1) What determines what specific hard workers in fact deserve?  and

            (2) What does it mean say that they ought to have those things?

Question (1) seems difficult to answer precisely because effort is common to such a variety of activities with such a variety of aims. Why does the effortful student deserve grades rather than money, or the industrious businessperson deserve money rather than grades?  A default answer might be that “what any hard worker deserves is just the outcome he has striven to produce” (Sher, p. 54). The (prototypical) student is striving after a grade, the (prototypical) businessperson, after money. So our provisional answer to (1) is that the deserving person deserves what she aims at in virtue of the diligent or conscientious effort she puts forth to that end.

That leads us to question (2), at least in a somewhat weak sense of “ought.” As noted in an earlier post, Sher’s inquiry into desert acknowledges that there is a gap between some claims of desert claims and the obligations assumed by any particular person. Smith can deserve something, X, without its being the case that any individual person is obligated to give Smith X. But there has to be some normative connection between what we deserve and what is desirable. Claims to desert can’t plausibly be entirely inert, normatively speaking. They have to be embody some (at least weak) claim to value.

One approach is to take desire as a baseline or starting point. That Smith desires X is not, in itself, a particularly strong reason for anyone’s giving Smith X, or even a reason for facilitating Smith’s desire for X. Yet many philosophers have believed (and clearly Sher believes) that a person’s desire for X defeasibly confers value on X by the sheer fact of being desired. That gives us a route to defending the normativity of claims to desert via diligent effort:

Because even idle desires thought to confer some value on their objects, and because diligent striving is in some way an extension of desire, we may conjecture that the far greater value of the objects diligent striving is somehow a function of the way diligent striving surpasses mere desire (Sher, p. 55).

So what we have here is a kind of a fortiori argument: if desire confers value because of F, then if diligent effort expresses F to a higher degree than desire, diligent effort will confer greater value than desire, but on roughly the same model as desire.

At this point, we need to backtrack, in effect, to identify the value (in the algebraic sense of that term) of variable F in the preceding formulation. In virtue of what does desire confer value? Surprisingly, Sher adopts a Kantian argument to answer that question, invoking the second formulation of the categorical imperative. Persons are, “in some sense, ‘ends in themselves.”

As Kant famously discerned, we cannot even raise the question of how we ought to act toward others unless we first assume that each person, in and of himself, has some absolute value. Moreover, this assumption clearly draws important   support from the fact that persons care, intensely and complexly, both about what happens to themselves and other entities about the outcomes of their own actions (Sher, 57-58).

So persons themselves “matter.” But if persons matter in this Kantian sense, then

it does seem natural to hold that a portion of their value devolves upon what they value–that some of the absolute value of persons is transferred to, or inherited by, the things they care about. If persons themselves matter, then what matters to persons should matter as well.      

This line of reasoning makes it plausible to say that desires confer some value on their objects (Sher, p. 58).

So desire confers value because of desire’s relation to the moral features of personhood, understood in quasi-Kantian terms. Since persons have value in themselves, personhood transmits, and desires inherit, this value. The italicized phrase is the (“algebraic”) value for F. Our question now becomes how effort expresses F to a higher degree than desire. Why does effort inherit more, or a normatively more significant part, of the value of personhood than desire?

Sher gives three reasons. For one thing, “sustained effort stems from will and judgment as desire does not” (Sher, p. 60). Being more in our control, and more expressive of rational agency, it seems more closely connected moral personhood than mere desire.


sustained effort forecloses other options as mere desire does not. Wanting something, even strongly, is compatible with wanting any number of incompatible other things, while doing something, even something easy, is incompatible with doing many other things (Sher, p. 60).

Though Sher doesn’t put the point this way, we might say that effort is more closely connected with dutiful action, hence more rationally constrained by principle, than desire. This sense of rational constraint forges a deeper connection between effort and moral personhood a la Kant.

Finally, and because of the second point,

any agent who exerts a sustained effort is making an important sequence of allocative decisions. In diligently pursuing his goal, he is investing a major portion of his scarce time and energy in his goal’s achievement. Since his time and energy are limited, he is, in a sense, investing his non-renewable resources (Sher, p. 61).

 More fundamentally, he is making the objects of his efforts “a part of himself” (Sher, p. 61).  Thus, “of all the modes of caring, only sustained effort both provides a person’s life with overall direction and shapes a long range of his sub-goals, preoccupations and habits” (Sher, p. 61) And that seems more expressive of moral personhood than desires, which may be episodic, ephemeral, idiosyncratic, and undisciplined by reason.

From Kant, then, we reach a kind of inverted Marx.* The diligent deserve success at their efforts (and in at least a weak sense, ought to succeed), Sher suggests,

because their sustained efforts are substantial investments of themselves…in the outcomes they seek. Reversing Marx’s aphorism that value is congealed labor, we might express the point by saying that (sustained and goal-directed) labor is congealed value (Sher, p. 62).

Suppose we accept the account so far. Two problems still need resolution. The first might be called the problem of act-individuation. The second might be called the problem of unjustified actions.

The problem of act-individuation

The problem of act-individuation arises because effort attaches to any action regardless of description. To be told that Smith put effort, or conscientious attention, or diligence into an activity doesn’t tell us anything about the activity itself. At best, some descriptors of effort distinguish mental from physical effort. For instance, if I say that “I’m concentrating hard,” the act in question is probably mental, but if I say, “I’m lifting hard,” the act in question is probably physical. But if all I say is “I’m working hard,” there’s no way to know what I have in mind.

To make matters worse, we sometimes metaphorically use physical language to describe mental effort, and mentalistic language to describe physical effort. At my current job in revenue cycle management, we speak (somewhat cavalierly) of “working” accounts, “hammering” them (a reference to the icon on a computer screen), “pulling” data from a database onto a spreadsheet, “running a build,” and so on. All of this is computerized work being done by mouseclick, but sounds as though it involved physical labor on par with childbirth.

Conversely, the in-vogue language of “mindfulness” sometimes treats physical effort or duress as though it were just a matter of focusing or clearing one’s mind a certain way. I’ve heard/read psychologists speak/write of pain management as though all it involved was finding a quiet place to meditate, and ushering the pain away by a little focused breathing and “positivity.“** Try it sometime. It doesn’t work.

I mention all of this bullshit artistry simply to underscore Sher’s point: “I put effort into X” tells us nothing about X. But an account of desert needs to know more than something about X. It needs to know why S’s putting effort into X makes S deserving of something.

We might divide the problem in two subproblems. One is the problem of multiple goals. The other is the problem of ambiguous goals.

Multiple goals. Suppose I’m putting effort into “something,” except that that something consists of many things. I am, say, putting effort into cleaning an OR. Cleaning an OR has many different goals. So if I’m putting effort into “cleaning the OR,” which of the goals of that effort (besides cleaning the OR itself) is the one I deserve? Sometimes, actions fall into clear hierarchies of goals, whether stipulated by the agent, or structured by some objective teleology (a la Aristotle, Aquinas, etc.) In those cases, Sher claims, we deserve the goal at the top of the hierarchy. If I’m cleaning an OR to clean it, to please my bosses, to keep the OR free of pathogens, to make money, to keep myself solvent, and to express virtue, then to the extent that all of these goals can be arranged in a hierarchy, I deserve the one at the top, and that one explains why (or the extent to which) I deserve the others.

To the extent that I diligently, conscientiously clean the OR, I deserve to please my bosses, keep the OR free of pathogens, etc., even if some unforeseen or unpredictable event interferes with my getting what I aimed at. My effort is what matters. For instance, if I put an hour into cleaning the OR at $14 an hour, but a gunman interrupts the OR schedule by coming into the hospital and enacting the plot of John Q, I ought still to be paid for my effort, even if it came to naught.

But what if I happen to value one goal more than the others, and there is no objective way of ordering them into a hierarchy? Suppose my aim is simply to stay solvent, regardless of any higher ideals about the crusade against hospital-acquired infections. So I do the minimum required to get myself paid, however mediocre (but not termination-worthy) my effort happens to be. Then I just deserve to be paid the agreed wage, period. If anyone were to ask about my virtue or competence as a worker, my evaluation form ought forthrightly to describe me as a mediocrity: I deserve it. (At a certain point, cases like this will begin to blur into the second problem, of unjustified actions. But for present purposes, I’m assuming somewhat artificially that you can be mediocre without being morally culpable.)

Ambiguous goals. This last case also handles situations where effort is aimed at an ambiguously-specified end. I find Sher’s description of these cases somewhat problematic, blurring together cases in which a person is, say, simply working in order to survive, and cases where a person is putting effort into a series of disconnected actions that lack a hierarchy of goals. Both are, by Sher’s lights, cases of effort aimed at ambiguous ends. Here, Sher suggests that we deserve the minimum that can plausibly be ascribed to the agent in virtue of the ambiguous aim involved. If I’m working hard just to survive, then I’m owed a modest but Spartan living. Likewise if I’m working hard without any discernible pattern to what I’m doing.

The problem of unjustified actions

The problem of unjustified actions arises because we can put great effort into the wrong sorts of action, which morally speaking ought to affect what we deserve. So effort by itself cannot without qualification be conclusive with respect to desert. A person might work hard at something that harms them without deserving to be harmed. A person might have delusions of grandeur that motivate them to work hard at utterly quixotic ends without deserving to succeed at them. Hitler worked hard at conquering the world, but didn’t deserve to have the world handed to him on a silver platter. Etc.

Self-harm. I found Sher’s account of self-harm somewhat puzzling, but the basic idea is clear enough. Divide these cases into cases in which the self-harm is incidental to the aim, and cases where the self-harm is intrinsic to the aim. An example of the first might be a job involving predictable occupational hazards, where the rewards of the job clearly exceed these hazards. An example of the second would be a case where success at the task inherently involves ruinous self-harm.

The first case is easier to handle. If self-harm is an unintended byproduct of an intended aim, effort confers desert on the intended aim, not the unintended byproduct. To recycle an example I had used against Sher in an earlier post (but in a different context), nursing involves certain job-specific rewards, like praise and a sense of satisfaction, as well as job-specific harms, like being crapped or vomited on. Since the former are aimed at, and the second merely foreseen, effort confers desert on the former but not the latter. The conscientious nurse deserves praise and satisfaction, not to be crapped on.

Sher’s handling of the second case puzzles me, and I’m not entirely sure I can give an accurate summary of it. Where a person’s effort is intrinsically and predictably self-destructive, Sher claims that the person deserves whatever success comes to her, but none of the harm (since the success is intended but the harm is not).

I think Sher is restricting discussion here to cases that are otherwise justified, but I’m not entirely sure of that; indeed, I’m unclear what kind of case he has in mind here. Sher tells us that he envisions a case in which success at the agent’s aim is itself self-destructive. Some such actions will, I suppose, be justified in extreme cases, but others seem to fall into the category of unjustified actions, hence involve a different problem. If Sher only has the first in mind, I suppose I understand what he means.

Examples: If a police officer rushes into a building to confront a gunman and dies in the attempt, he deserved to have subdued the gunman, but didn’t deserve death. If a rescuer tries to revive a COVID-positive patient in cardiac arrest, and ends up getting COVID himself and dying from it, he deserved to have revived the patient, not to have died as a result of the attempt.

One problem here is that heroic self-sacrifice seems to collide in many cases with the expected consequence account of desert. Sher doesn’t deal with this fact, and so, doesn’t integrate what he says about the preceding cases with what he said about expected consequences in the previous chapter. An underlying problem here (not really for Sher’s account, but just generally) is that it’s often unclear whether heroic self-sacrifice is truly heroic or just quixotic. So it’s unclear where to put it in Sher’s schema. But that may not be Sher’s problem; his account may just reflect (and only need to reflect) our own ambivalence about cases without resolving it.

Quixotic action. Sher handles quixotic actions straightforwardly. Where someone puts effort into an unrealistic end, the expected-consequence account of desert collides with the diligent effort account. Failure is the expected consequence of quixoticism, but success is the normative result of the belief that effort confers desert. In this case, Sher suggests, the two accounts cancel out so that the agent deserves nothing.

This move handles the case, but strikes me as somewhat ad hoc. Why do the two accounts only cancel out here, since they come into conflict far more often than that? I think Sher’s point is that they cancel each other out because they’re perfectly balanced in this case, but not perfectly balanced in others. But I’m not sure that’s what he means, and even if he does, not sure he’s right.

Immoral actions. Sher handles other-regarding immoral actions straightforwardly as well. Why don’t effort-expending agents deserve the success of their morally impermissible projects?

Here again, the explanation is that the value conferred by their efforts is offset by the disvalue–this time the moral disvalue–that stems from the wrongness of their projects (Sher, p. 67).

This sounds as though Sher is adopting an agent-neutral sort of consequentialism in which wrong action always leads to worse agent-neutral consequences than right action, but that isn’t what he means. Since it isn’t, it’s not entirely clear what he does mean. The claim seems plausible enough, but somewhat vague and hasty. It amounts to saying that despite the effort Hitler put into the conquest of the world, he doesn’t deserve success at that endeavor because the moral disvalue of success so clearly offsets the (supposed) value of its success. This sounds right, but also sounds a bit like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. If the concepts of moral value and disvalue do that much normative work in specifying the connection between effort and desert, why don’t they enter into the account of diligent effort right from the outset?


I have a great deal of sympathy with many of the conclusions Sher reaches in this chapter, but doubts about virtually every argument he offers for them. This post has gotten too long, so I won’t try to lay out any of those doubts here; that would take a post of its own.

In our Zoom discussion, I laid out my own Kantian-sounding (but Aristotle-consistent) rationale for an effort-based conception of moral desert. In response, David Riesbeck astutely pointed to a fundamental difference between the intuition that motivates Sher’s view, and the intuition that motivates mine. Sher: “Whatever else we think, most of us agree that persons deserve things for sheer hard work” (my emphasis, p. 53). You might think, as I do, that what we deserve is moral credit for our efforts, not things. As I see it, Kant’s account of the good will at the beginning of the Groundwork, and Aristotle’s conception of to kalon (the noble, or the fine), conveys the basic idea better than Sher’s claim that the diligent deserve nice things. Sher’s account may sound Kantian, but at the end of the day, isn’t Kantian enough, at least by my lights.

And yet even as I write that, I’m conscious of the fact that Sher has a point. Credit-based views like mine do nothing to explain why the virtuous deserve “nice things.” For some, this means that we have to wait for the hereafter to work things out: nice things foregone in this world are compensated by eternal repose in the next. For others, the sacrifice of nice things entails resignation to the tragic predicament of the world we inhabit. So I can see why people might prefer Sher’s view to mine. More on that in a later post.***      


  *Isn’t Sher’s “inverted Marx” just a version of Locke on original appropriation?

**My criticisms of “mindfulness” and pain management are heavily influenced by my late wife, Alison Bowles, who actually faced the situation I describe in the text.

***For an interesting discussion from a Thomist perspective, see Gayne Nerney, “Aristotle and Aquinas on Indignation: From Nemesis to Theodicy,” Faith and Philosophy 8:1 (1991).

5 thoughts on “Desert and Diligence

  1. Given that a “diligence” is a stagecoach, this whole discussion is somewhat mysterious. Though I suppose a good diligence does deserve to make it across the desert. But if you lose the diligence, you can always fall back on the horse with no name (also known as Blondieeeeee) to get you across the desert. There are also plants and rocks and birds and things. Some of which are edible. Or, more likely, edibles.


  2. Pingback: Desert and Diachronic Fairness | Policy of Truth

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