impartial moral anger and deserving not to be wronged

Each of us deserves not to be wronged. Plausibly, the basis for this (the “desert-basis” in the lingo) is something like each of us being a human person (maybe the relevant feature is a bit different from this, but let’s suppose it is this). But what is the deserving here — what does it come to?

One candidate is this: each of us ought (or is normatively required) to refrain from wronging others. But this idea seems to conflate two different things: (1) deserving not to be wronged (this being the case: it ought not to be the case that one is wronged) and (2) it being the case that each person ought not to wrong one. Another way of putting this problem: there is a mismatch between the two sorts of normative features, making the second the wrong sort of thing for analyzing or explaining the first. (Yet another decent, if less precise, way of making this point: M deserving X more comes to M getting X being valuable in a particular important sort of way than it comes to it being the case that each of us ought to provide M with X.) 

(I think Sher is vulnerable to this sort of “normative mismatch objection” to many, though perhaps not all, of his accounts of various different sorts of desert. For example, in attacking what he calls the “expressive” views of merit-based or reward-for-merit-type desert, he focuses on fitting attitude response to merit (e.g., appreciation, gratitude, etc.) and how this is expressed in rewarding behavior, not on fitting response to people not exhibiting a fitting response to merit (e.g., some sort of impersonal dissatisfaction at the state of affairs) — on appropriate response to M having feature F, not on appropriate response to M appropriately getting X. In general, he does not seem to focus on the value of, or our appropriate reaction to, the state of affairs of M, or any given similarly-situation person, getting X or appropriately getting X.)

My broad, schematic (and no doubt incomplete) idea for the right analysis of desert in general is this: M deserves X on account of M having feature F = it being appropriate (for anyone) to exhibit the right sort of response in attitude to M getting X (or M not getting X). This is a straight-up, no-frills fitting-attitudes schemata. Though it requires some tweaking, the general idea is clear enough and gets at the thrust of a certain sort of approach. I want to test it out here (and fill it in appropriately) for deserving not to be wronged.

On this general approach to desert, one deserving not to be wronged consists in something like this: it being appropriate (for each of us) to react to any given person being wronged (schematically, any person M not getting X) by experiencing a certain kind of moral anger. (The full account would probably speak to similar positive reactions to people not being wronged in certain contexts — to M getting X — but I’ll set this aside in order to simplify. And because I think the negative reaction is more central or important.) What sort of moral anger? 

I think it would be impersonal in two ways. First, unlike resentment, the anger would not be appropriate specifically to the person experiencing the anger being the person who is wronged. Second, it would be directed primarily at the state of affairs of some person or other being wronged (and only because of this would it be directed toward this or that specific person being wronged). In this way, it would be unlike the typical sort of empathy-driven anger or resentment one feels when a friend or family member is wronged. Also and as a consequence: such anger would be distinct from anger directed specifically toward wrongdoers (the kind that motivates condemnation and punishment).

I’m thinking that this might generalize, at least to core or paradigm cases of desert, through a more general sort of similarly impersonal satisfaction and dissatisfaction (likely of a moral sort; I suspect that part of having this sort of attitude is representing the state of affairs that is its object as unjust). If the object is similar in that it consists in ways other than wronging each other that people might appropriately or inappropriately treat or react to each other, then cases of people deserving natural or happenstance benefit or suffering for their virtues/vices would not be included. However, if the impersonal-moral-anger-similar attitudes fit a broader similarity-class of objects, then these sorts of cases might be included, after all (in principle, this issue would be settled by figuring out the precise content of the standards that are internal to the relevant sorts of impersonal positive and negative reactive attitudes). These are two different ways of filling-in my basic schematic analysis or account. I’m sure there are others, especially after necessary or advisable bells and whistles are added.

However, for now, I’m more interested in the local question of what is good or bad about this approach to deserving not to be wronged specifically. I make the assumption, common nowadays but rejected by Sher at least in some of his arguments, that the fittingness or appropriateness of fitting attitudes — e.g., fear fitting situations of immediate threat to one’s welfare — is a genuinely normative relationship. (In fact, I’m inclined to think that there is no normative pressure favoring behaviors without normative pressure favoring relevant attitudes, that, in this sense, normative pressure favoring attitudes, most naturally expressed in terms of appropriate — objectively appropriate or correct, rationally appropriate — response, is fundamental. But that is a whole nuther thang!) Is this wrong? Does my “normative mismatch” objection to certain sorts of accounts of deserving not to be wronged (or desert generally) seem like a good one? Any thoughts on other virtues or vices of my approach to what deserving not to be wronged comes to?

12 thoughts on “impartial moral anger and deserving not to be wronged

  1. Just a quick thought, but shouldn’t deserving not to be wronged be parasitic on positively deserving to be treated justly? In other words, why isn’t the latter the fundamental norm, and the former just the violation of this prior norm? Why treat not being treated a certain way as basic, rather than being entitled to a certain kind of treatment as basic, and unjust treatment as a deviation from this basic norm, not requiring any extensive analytic treatment?

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    • An add-on thought: There’s a kind of odd asymmetry here. It seems more natural (insofar as it is natural) to cash mistreatment in terms of an appropriate response of anger than it is to do the same for just treatment, analyzing it in terms of any appropriate emotional response. I throw that out there more as an observation than as an objection. The asymmetry does suggest that there is something puzzling about the idea of cashing not-deserving out in terms of apt reactions if can’t easily cash deserving out in any comparable way.

      I’ll have more comments later this weekend.

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      • I’m getting as much out of your brief, initial comments as your considered, more-in-depth comment! (Apologies for the delay and for muffing the first shot at responding to your first brief comment.)

        I had been ignoring the distinction between M being deserving of X and M being undeserving of X. So compare: (i) M being undeserving of being wronged and (ii) M being deserving of not being wronged. There is considerable intuitive pull for me in the direction of these being the same features. As stating this in terms of deservingness seemed natural, the really-close-by, perhaps-identical undeservingness just slipped right off my radar screen.

        To parse and evaluate the intuitive claim here, we need to distinguish: (i) the “negative” feature of being undeserving, (ii) the “positive” feature of being deserving and (ii) the “neutral” features of being non-deserving and of being non-undeserving. In this case, the plausible way to get the intuitive result is as follows: reading ‘deserving’ as ‘non-undeserving’ (the complement of ‘undeserving’ in the negative, narrow sense), M being undeserving of being wronged is equivalent to M deserving not to be wronged. On this reading, the deservingness in M deserving not to be wronged is not a positive feature (as M deserving a certain kind or degree of benefit or reward for exhibiting some merit or virtue presumably would be). And that seems right in this case: the negative reaction to M being wronged suggests that M being wronged is undeserved in the narrow, negative sense and — since there appears to be no corresponding positive reaction to speak of — the deservingness in M deserving not to be wronged is simply non-undeservingness (in the narrow, negative sense of ‘undeservingness’). So it seems that what I should have done, but did not do (though perhaps you interpreted me as doing it), is analyze a narrow, negative undeservingness in terms of the negative reaction and just treat the deservingness feature as the complement of the undeservingness feature.

        Only one thing here gives me pause: that, when we expect A to wrong B, it is appropriate to have a kind of positive reaction to A not wronging B (and part of this is a sense that “things are as they should be”). And also: it is not crazy to think that, when we register the absence of wrongdoing explicitly, it is appropriate to have some faint positive response of the same sort. That’s why, in my post, officially, I just punt: either or both of negative reaction to M not getting X or positive reaction to M getting X will do the trick for the analysis. However, if there is the sort of asymmetry that I suggest by focusing on the negative reaction to M being wronged, I don’t find it particularly puzzling. That just seems like how things are with our reactive-attitude responses to people being wronged (other cases might be positive-reaction-dominant or have negative and positive reaction parity).

        (If pressed for further explanation of the probable asymmetry in the present case, I’d appeal (in truly hand-waving fashion) to empirical psychology, natural and perhaps cultural evolution, the functional standards that are internal to or necessarily come along with attitude-types — and some really sketchy story about how, when they are hooked-up to the motivational parts of our psychology in the right way, these functional standards become normative (such that they don’t simply apply to our attitude and secondary behavior responses making them functional-aim-wise or proper-functionality-wise appropriate/inappropriate or good/bad, but motivate adherence to the standards).)



      In your first comment, you switched from wronging/non-wronging to being treated unjustly/justly (in reference to deserving that some positive standard be met). In these terms, we both deserve not to be treated unjustly (not be wronged) and deserve to be treated justly (again not be wronged, there is no “being righted”). However, it is not clear to me the difference between these two things (let alone which would be primary)! I don’t disagree that B deserves to be treated justly by A in respect of A potentially wronging B in some way.

      Maybe there is a difference, in this or other cases, between a relevant sort of human state of affairs (including A treating B in some way) meeting a standard of positive justice and failing to meet a standard of injustice? Might this correlate with a difference between avoiding injustice and seeking justice (in some positive sense of ‘justice’ that is not simply the absence of injustice)? This latter distinction seems important. Maybe or maybe not is it salient to your point.

      I’m apt to think of justice-features in this way (according to which they are necessarily correlated with desert features): positive and negative justice-features are simply special ought-to-be-the-case sorts of intrinsic value and disvalue in relevant human states of affairs (and we might include so-called “cosmic” justice and injustice here). And I think of this value and disvalue, in turn, in terms of fitting-attitude response (and necessarily associated normative pressure to behave in certain attitude-expressive and relevant-condition-promoting ways). But if this is the case, then relevant human states of affairs might be either positively just (valuable in this way), unjust (disvaluable in this way) or neither (not valuable in this way, not disvaluable in this way). (However, I suspect that there is a separate sense of ‘just’ that refers to either positive relevant value or the mere absence of relevant disvalue.) And so: if M deserves X, this might correlate either with M getting X being valuable in the justice-y way or with M getting X merely not being disvaluable in the justice-y way. I think of A not wronging B (and B deserving not to be wronged by A) in terms of the absence of appropriate negative attitude (impersonal moral anger) and behavioral reaction (avoiding, frustrating relevant states of affairs). And hence in terms of the justice-y disvalue of A wronging B.



      Let’s shift the focus to just and unjust treatment so as to avoid the mismatch between being wronged (not being wronged) and being treated unjustly (justly). So substitute the following question for the question you asked: shouldn’t deserving not to be treated unjustly be parasitic on positively deserving to be treated justly? I think this presses your essential point just as well.

      At least in many contexts, we take ‘not treated unjustly’ and ‘treated justly’ to be the same. In which case, we are just asking whether X is prior to X — and that is a silly question. But what is behind this read on the question is our assuming that just treatment is no more than treatment that is not unjust. This implicitly treats justice (in treatment or more generally) as simply the absence of injustice. And maybe that is right for a certain sense of ‘justice’ (call this the broad, anti-negative sense). And maybe thinking about justice and injustice in this way is apt for some large, important range of cases. But that is consistent with this way of thinking not being apt for some range of important cases.

      An important question would be: is there treatment that is positively just, above and beyond not being unjust (is there a narrow, positive sense of ‘justice’)? Also you seem to be pressing the idea that the important or most essential relationship between justice-y features is the opposite: narrow, positive justice is the primary feature and injustice in a broad, anti-positive sense is secondary (the sense of ‘injustice’ used up until now — reflecting, I think, the dominant ordinary use — has been narrow and negative). Is this the right way to think about justice and injustice (in treatment or generally) in some range of cases or all cases?

      My reactions: (i) these distinctions and possible relationships are useful analytic tools, but also probably useful for just accurately talking about justice (in treatment or more generally) in ordinary life (and I was neither perfectly clear on these distinctions nor alive to their importance before reflecting on your comment — so thanks), (ii) it seems right that there is such a thing as justice in the narrow, positive sense (and so also perhaps injustice in a broad anti-positive sense), (iii) there is something that seems particularly salient (or simply fitting for a broad range of cases) about the contrast between narrow, negative injustice and broad, anti-negative justice.

      I don’t have a nice disambiguation or precisification of [iii]. Nor do I have a snappy defense of the general idea there or the right disambiguation or precisification of it. But I will say that my “read” on certain “rooms” (full of smart, good philosophers) is that the idea of injustice (in the ordinary or dominant narrow and negative sense) being primary has considerable currency. I’ll also say that [iii] seems relevant to whether, in all cases or some range of cases, we ought to (have reason to, are required to): seek narrow, positive justice or avoid narrow, negative injustice.

      Finally, I’ll add this: though I don’t really know how to establish this idea, I think that the primacy of narrow, negative injustice (at least in a certain relevant range of cases) is very much related to the appropriateness of impersonal moral anger at people being wronged — and to this, not any corresponding appropriate reaction to people not being wronged, being what is constitutive of M deserving not to be wronged (on my approach to desert). Or, as you suggest, the relevant analysandum might be M being undeserving of being wronged (I like this suggestion and it points to my inappropriately not focusing on or ignoring the (narrow, negative) being-undeserving-of feature; I’ll speak to this in a separate reply).



  2. So I’ve read this more carefully now, but I still have the same questions.

    (1) Just a quick question of citation: where does Sher discuss expressive views of merit? (I haven’t gotten to the chapter on merit, if that’s where it is.)

    (2) On this:

    On this general approach to desert, one deserving not to be wronged consists in something like this: it being appropriate (for each of us) to react to any given person being wronged (schematically, any person M not getting X) by experiencing a certain kind of moral anger. (The full account would probably speak to similar positive reactions to people not being wronged in certain contexts — to M getting X — but I’ll set this aside in order to simplify. And because I think the negative reaction is more central or important.)

    To reiterate something I’ve said before: I don’t think it’s clear that there is any particular appropriate reaction we have to someone’s getting what they deserve, full stop. I realize that you can tweak the account to handle counterexamples, but I just wonder about the underlying motivation. If we deserve things that are very ordinary, it’s unlikely anyone will have a reaction to them. For instance, if we each deserve generalized respect in our interactions with one another, we’re not necessarily going to have any particular reaction to anyone’s exemplifying that respect. Or if you’re sitting in traffic court, and watching the cases before yours, there’s no reason to think that you’ll have any particular expressive reaction to the verdicts you hear, even if all of them are deserved. The connection between desert and appropriate expressive response seems too weak or contingent in too many cases to do much normative work.

    Now, granted, you’re focusing on not-deserving rather than deserving. As I’ve said, I have reservations about the idea of treating ~p as the basic analysandum of a moral concept. It seems to me that the basic analysandum is p (deserving), so that ~p is just the negation/violation of your account of p (not-deserving is a violation of the norms of desert). But if we have no appropriate response to (many) instances of desert, out having a response to instances of anti-desert is not of clear relevance to an account of the norms themselves. It just seems a separate issue.

    I guess I would query what you say in the parenthetical of the excerpt above. Why is the negative reaction more central or important than the positive?

    You’re in good company here, by the way. Aristotle thinks that nemesis or righteous indignation is the appropriate expressive attitude (quasi-virtue) in response to an immoral person’s acquiring external goods (money, fame, friends, a nice job) through immoral means, but he has no comparable virtue for the response we should have for a virtuous person’s acquiring external goods through morally justified means. But that emphasis needs a justification. Why is the one thing important and the other not?


    • Yes, Sher lays out and criticizes the attitude-expressive view of deserving reward for merit in Chapter 7 (Desert and Merit).

      I’m unconvinced by your cases. If you are clearly not being treated with generalized respect at work in myriad small but unmistakable ways, and I know about this, I’ll tend to (appropriately) get angry at the situation. If the hapless 17 year old driver presents good evidence that the “no turn on red” sign was down, but the judge upholds the running-the-red ticket and fine anyway, and I’m paying attention while I’m sitting there in court, I’ll tend to (appropriately) get angry at the situation. But it is the appropriateness, not the tendency (that might be nullified by being really tired, taking powerful medication or being culpably morally insensate) that matters. (Also, in case this is an issue, these objectively appropriate reactions are fact-relative due to being knowledge-relative. So when objective appropriateness conditions are met, so are rational appropriateness or warrant conditions. It is not the case, then, that it is appropriate for me to react in the requisite manner to all of the wronging-situations that I don’t know about.)

      Maybe there are other cases that challenge my approach more? It does seem right that, if I know none of the details about the wronging (not even the type, not even which duty is violated), but I know stranger-to-me Jerry was wronged by stranger-to-me Ingrid, then there would be something funny about having a strong reaction of moral anger. But, on the other hand, it does seem that some unexcited or rather “cold” negative attitude toward this sort of thing happening would be appropriate. I think this speaks to specifying the relevant negative attitude-reaction to M not getting X (or even M being wronged specifically) more carefully.

      My most general motivation is simply finding the right normative category for the M-deserving-X feature. One clue, that I think supports my approach, is that, when M deserves X, we can — as Sher often does in the book — express this in terms like ‘it ought to be that M gets X’. This suggests that M getting X being valuable in a certain kind of way is central to what desert is. I just cash this out in broadly fitting-attitude terms. If we are to know what sort of value we have (if we are not to plug in some generic “appropriately desired and appropriately promoted” formula that might confuse us), we need to know the applicable appropriate reaction profile — the most basic element of which is the appropriate response in attitude. Also: it is just intuitive to me that M deserving X intimately involves what our (appropriate) reactions to M getting X or M not getting X tend to be (as opposed to, say, it being the case, for each of us, that we ought to provide M with X).

      I’m focused on appropriate negative reactive-attitude response to M not getting X (not any corresponding positive response to M getting X) in considering M deserving X (where X = not being wronged by another person). This just seems right in the case (but also perhaps in many other cases). I think either or both types of response could in principle play the relevant role. I take myself to be firmly focused on M deserving X (or what M deserves), not M not deserving Y (or what M does not deserve). Though I think desert-bases determine what is deserved and not deserved in one fell swoop, it seems right that we most often infer what is not deserved from what is deserved.


  3. I think your account of impersonal moral anger needs more filling out. You identify two features: it’s not the first-personal anger of the victim, and it’s directed, impersonally, at the state of affairs of someone’s being wronged. That strikes me as too abstract to be fully clear.

    What you’re describing sounds a bit like Aristotelian righteous indignation (nemesis), which meets the first of your conditions, but not the second. Like your brand of anger, Aristotelian nemesis is spectatorial rather than first-personal, but unlike Michael Youngian anger, it focuses on the undeserved holdings of the wrongdoer, not the badness of the state of affairs. “The properly indignant person feels pain when someone does well undeservedly” (Nicomachean Ethics II.7, 1108b1-10). I guess that’s ambiguous, but I take nemesis to be directed at the fact that the unjust person comes to acquire things he doesn’t deserve to have. Though Aristotle doesn’t explicitly discuss nemesis in the context of anger (at least in NE), I take it that the “pain” to which he’s referring is a moralized form of anger. So you’re both discussing related emotions.

    I’ve actually at work on a blog post/paper on Aristotelian nemesis for awhile. Will post it when I finally get it into a readable draft form. You might find it useful, and I’d find it useful to hear your response.

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    • The sort of moral anger I’m talking about is an appropriate response to the state of affairs of A being wronged by B (or even many unnamed people being wronged by many unnamed other people). And this goes into constituting a specific kind of disvalue in A wronging B. But it seems right that the same sort of reaction would apply to certain results of A wronging B, like A having certain benefits due to wronging B (and that seems closer to Aristotelian nemesis). And even, perhaps, simply to the vicious being met with good fortune (maybe this is not as close to Aristotelian nemesis). One common thread across these cases is that the situation that one is reacting to (of M not getting X) being seen as something that “ought not to be” or that “needs to be corrected” or some such. Intuitively, behaviorally, this justifies, in many typical situations, a kind of rallying-the-troops behavior so that, collectively, we might see to it that M gets X (or, perhaps more often, that these types of M-not-getting-X types of situations do not happen, or are less likely to happen, in the future).

      My speculation is that none of these paradigmatic elements of social moral practice gets much normative footing without reference to appropriate spectator-style moral anger at general sorts of situations (people telling bold-faced lies; people telling bold-faced lies and getting away with it without getting called-out, condemned, punished, etc.). We might usefully imagine what moral practice would look like if we did not have such reactions (and if we also lacked the related spectator-style or observer-standpoint moral anger at perpetrators of wrongdoing — I think these two sorts of non-personal moral anger go hand-in-hand). Without this (these), we might have appropriate resentment on the part of patients/victims, appropriate guilt on the part of agents/perpetrators, and even appropriate sympathetic resentment for third parties (for when a friend or relation is wronged). But in this world, the only base-level significance wrongings would have would be personal. They would be robbed of their characteristic shared, public significance. Of course, given that wrongdoers generally show themselves to be a threat to others in wronging a person, it is easy to see how, from a functional or quasi-instrumental-reasoning standpoint, we developed these more impersonal reactions. But we can imagine such functional/instrumental pressure on our natural and cultural evolution not having had its effect — or even imagine an oddball scenario in which all wrongdoers did not reveal themselves to be a threat to others in wronging any given person (more plausibly resulting in a fully stable situation in which we had nothing like observer-standpoint moral anger at wrongdoing or wrongdoers).

      I do need to think more about this kind of moral anger. And, just as importantly, I need to think more about its positive correlate. And, more generally, about the relevant families of negative and positive reaction that include the observer-standpoint wrongdoing-response reactions. After all, it is at least a little strange to say that it is appropriate to get morally angry in just the way I’ve been talking about when, by happenstance, the foolish are rewarded for their foolishness (moral anger — really?). Or when the fastest runner does not win the race, again due to happenstance (moral anger — really?). Clearly, some broader categories of response are required if I am to generalize to the other core categories of desert.

      These are very helpful comments! I look forward to learning more about your take on Aristotelian nemesis.


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