In a concluding section near the end of his chapter on desert and merit, George Sher makes a final, and to my mind puzzling claim, or set of them. Here’s the relevant passage, at length:
When someone satisfies criteria of performance established by fixed sets of conventions, he ought to receive whatever prizes, recognition, or grades those conventions dictate; and when an applicant is best-qualified for a job or educational opportunity, he ought to receive that opportunity. Yet these desert-bases, however important, do not exhaust the forms of merit that are said to create desert. We also say that persons with interesting ideas deserve to be heard, that superior political candidates deserve to be elected, that authors of outstanding books deserve recognition, and that scientists who discover vaccines or generals who lead victorious armies deserve honors and awards. We cannot plausibly ground these desert-claims in either the principles of veracity or fidelity or the requirement that pesons be treated as rational agents.…Thus, barring further developments, our working assumption–that all major desert-claims have real normative force–must here be abandoned; here, we must settle for a non-justificatory account (Sher, Desert, p. 129).
The non-justificatory account turns out to be a Humean error theory:
In such cases, we project our inclinations onto the world and call them values or obligations. The tendency to do this–an instance of what Hume called the mind’s ‘great propensity to spread itself on external objects’–can be expected to operate whether or not a given desert claim is justified (Sher, pp. 130-31).
For ease of reference, let’s refer to justification by “the principles of veracity or fidelity” as the conventionalist justification, and justification by “the requirement that persons be treated as rational agents” as the Kantian justification.
I don’t understand Sher’s counsel of despair about the cases he cites here. Suppose that Sher is, in a general way, right about the the conventionalist and Kantian justifications of merit. Isn’t it plausible enough to say that the four or five cases he cites (and others like them) can be justified by one or both of those desert bases?
A preliminary point: I say “four or five cases,” but I really mean four, since I propose to drop Sher’s last case, that of “generals who lead victorious armies,” as too problematic to merit inclusion. For one thing, victory by itself is insufficient for deserving honors or awards; the war itself has to be justified before anyone deserves anything of the sort. Second, even in cases where a war is justified, it’s doubtful that generals are the ones who deserve the honors and awards for victory. Generals don’t fight; ordinary soldiers do. If effort is a relevant desert-basis, then soldiers deserve rewards for victory more clearly than generals. Beyond that, war seems so morally ambivalent a phenomenon that it’s arguably inappropriate to think of it in terms of honors and awards, even in cases of justified victory. And if what is being rewarded in warfare is courage, then perhaps the example is best discussed, if at all, under the rubric of desert and virtue rather than desert and merit.*
Here are the four cases again, in sequence:
- Persons with interesting ideas deserve to be heard.
- Superior political candidates deserve to be elected.
- Authors of outstanding books deserve recognition.
- Scientists who discover vaccines deserve honors and awards.
Let’s call these the controversial cases. The controversial cases are, to be sure, different from the cases Sher discusses elsewhere in his chapter. In Sher’s conventionalist cases, we have a rule-governed competition of some sort, with fixed (conventional) criteria that dictate what a person deserves. In his Kantian cases, we have a set of candidates for a job opening or other position, and are tasked (on Kantian grounds) with finding the best candidate(s) for the position. In the controversial cases, by (apparent) contrast, there are no formal competitions involved, hence no obvious, uncontroversial conventions of merit to apply. And there are no literal openings in question, hence no literal selection from among candidates for it. So it’s tempting, I suppose, to think that neither the conventionalist nor the Kantian justification applies here.
But all of that seems like over-literalism in the application of both justifications. The question at issue is whether the individuals involved in the controversial cases deserve our attention on the basis of their merit. The answer appears, plausibly enough, to be “yes.” Despite Sher’s skepticism, the controversial cases seem close enough to the cases Sher discusses elsewhere in the chapter to satisfy either the conventional justification or the Kantian one or both.
The key to seeing this is to think of attention as a resource in scarce supply, and to think of the individuals in the four examples as vying for that scarce resource. Because attention is scarce, it has to be rationed. Viewed in this way, attention is a matter of open competition, so that we can either think of it as an informal analogue of the more formal competitions associated with the conventionalist justification, or view “slices” of attention as analogous to the job or other openings associated with the Kantian justification (or both). Either way, we reach the desired conclusion.
More specifically: In conventionalist terms, we can conceive all four of the controversial cases as operating in informal competitions where the point of assigning a “grade” or giving credit to a set of achievements is in part to determine whether any of the members of the set deserve the prize involved in giving them our attention. If the criteria for grading are set up so as to identify the candidate(s) with the best claim on our attention, then the primary award just is our attention. Any formal award is just a conventional means of marking “fitness for attention.”
In Kantian terms, if we think of slices of attention as analogous to job slots, we can conceive of achievements as candidates for filling those slots, from best to worst. Just as a job has a job description, attention has its own perhaps implicit descriptions: pure whims aside, what engages our attentions is something that satisfies certain determinate criteria for better or worse. What best satisfies those criteria most deserves our attention; what fails to satisfy them, doesn’t.
Though somewhat metaphorical, the preceding seems good enough to fit the bill. Consider the cases again.
(1) Persons with interesting ideas deserve to be heard.
To evaluate this example, we have to put it in the context of something like a specific “marketplace of ideas”–a particular arena or milieu in which people self-consciously engage with one another about ideas, with a view to promoting a set of commonly-held discursive ends, whether theoretical or practical. Within this context, ideas will be evaluable in terms their conduciveness to these ends. If the aim is a certain kind of knowledge, then ideas with certain epistemic credentials will have the relevant sort of “interest.” If the aim is the promotion of some practical end, then ideas with practical merit will have “interest.” And if the aim is purely aesthetic, then the aesthetic dimensions of the idea will have “interest,” and by implication, merit.
Implicit in the wording of Sher’s example is a sort of tacit Mill-inspired caution to pay attention to dissenting, unconventional, or easily ignored ideas: all truth-conducive, practically useful, or aesthetically interesting ideas have merit (insofar as they do), and all deserve some attention (by someone) insofar as it’s possible to give them that attention, regardless of our tendency to seek the least common denominator of mental effort.
Case (3) is similar enough to (1) not to need much further discussion:
(3) Authors of outstanding books deserve recognition.
We might quarrel with the specific criteria employed by the committees that award, say, the Nobel, Pulitzer, or Booker Prizes, the National Book Award, or the more ephemeral results of a position on the latest best-seller list, but assuming that determinate criteria are involved, there seems no difficulty in principle in recognizing that books and authors get prizes on either the conventionalist or Kantian justifications, or some combination of both.
Case (2) strikes me as so obvious that I’m at a loss to understand Sher’s skepticism about it:
(2) Superior political candidates deserve to be elected.
An election just is a conventionally-structured competition with conventionally-settled criteria for the ultimate award. Put differently, an election just is a procedure designed to fill a job opening. So it’s unclear (to me) why Sher thinks we can’t “plausibly ground” (2) in either the conventionalist or Kantian justification, or both. It’s one thing to say that the criteria involved in electing a candidate to office are unclear or contestable, but that’s equally true of many of the cases Sher seems to regard as relatively uncontroversial. The candidate with the right combination of knowledge, skill, and character has the most electoral merit, and thus deserves to win the election. We might reasonably argue about what that amounts to while agreeing on the principle.
As for (4):
(4) Scientists who discover vaccines deserve honors or awards.
This proposition seems no different, in principle, from (1) or (3). Indeed, if we imagine (1) as involving the ideas of a vaccine researcher, and (3) as involving her published work, the differences between (1), (3), and (4) start to evaporate or seem trivial.
Put it this way: given the imperfect nature of the duty to award the meritorious, we have no strong obligation to give honors or awards to every meritorious person, scientist, or immunologist. But nothing prevents us from doing so, either. Suppose, then, that we have a stake in maintaining a sense of priorities about those things in the public sphere that ought to get and ought not to get our attention. We know that given the tastes of the public, relatively frivolous things will get attention, while relatively important ones will go ignored. So we devise a mechanism for singling out the latter for sustained social attention.
Since attentional resources are scarce even here, we stipulate that for any field deserving attention, we will–by the award of honors or awards–single out the best for special attention. And so we devise an honorific mechanism for identifying, say, the most important ongoing vaccine research. Notice that simply declaring this research as important would, in a sense, function as an “honor or award.” Pace Sher, we don’t need a Humean error theory to explain why vaccine research ought to play a more prominent role in, say, the country’s newspaper of record than some prurient episode in a celebrity divorce. Public recognition or credit would be sufficient to give vaccine researchers the honor or award they deserve (over and above the relatively generous compensation they already get by way of, say, salaried remuneration or grant funding, etc.)
I’ve probably belabored issues that will strike many readers (and, I think, struck many of our online discussants) as too obvious for lengthy discussion. And so, to quote Wordsworth, I’ll leave the matter there.
Told what best merits mention, further pains
Our present labour seems not to require
And I have other tasks.
(William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book XIII, lines 365-70).
* Consider Avi Shavit’s description of the “democratic” quality of the Israeli national military cemetery at Mt Herzl outside of Jerusalem, which he calls “an unmonumental monument”:
The military cemetery is also democratic and subdued. The ranks of the fallen are not engraved on the gravestones. In almost every section, generals are buried besides corporals. There are no patriotic inscriptions praising heroism and homeland. There is no attempt to deprive the dead of their individuality. On the contrary, the small stone plaques emphasize the fact that what lies under each one is a human being. The simple epitaphs do not sanctify death in war but leave it as it is: final and horrific (Avi Shavit, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, p. 397).
Having visited it just once, I don’t quite remember Mt Herzl as Shavit does, but I agree, in principle, that if we’re to have military monuments at all, they ought to take the form he describes. That said, it’s worth pointing out (as Shavit himself does) that there is no monument to any of Israel’s military massacres (and few, if any, to any of our own). It’s an interesting question (unaddressed by Sher) whether atrocities deserve public recognition, and in what sense. Generally, nations feel the need to give public recognition to massacres that they’ve suffered, not ones that they’ve perpetrated. The Wounded Knee Memorial on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is a notable exception, but arguably exists only because it’s located on a reservation.
For similar (but more polemical) thoughts on the desirability of “unmonumental” monuments, see Ayn Rand’s “The Monument Builders,” in The Virtue of Selfishness.