There is a point about desert that Fred Feldman and Brad Skow get wrong in their SEP entry on desert. They distinguish between desert and entitlement (their terms; other terms would be ‘pre-institutional desert’ and ‘institutional desert’). There should be a threefold distinction here, not a twofold distinction.

If a convention or institution specifies that, if someone makes a certain mark, then they are to be rewarded or honored in a certain way, Feldman and Skow say there is entitlement, not desert (they want to reserve the term ‘desert’ for pre-institutional desert). However, it is both true that the winner of the footrace deserves (or is entitled to) the specified prize for winning and that the person who is fastest (but failed to win due to happenstance) deserves to have won. The former is institution-dependent in an obvious way, but so is the latter. Neither makes sense except relative to the conventions of a contest (and similarly for other conventions or institutions). We might call the first procedural or specified-reward institutional desert and the second substantive institutional desert with respect to what is meant to be (but might not always accurately be) measured by the making of the mark. (The basic point here is not original to me: Scanlon makes a version of this point in his 2013 article, “Giving Desert Its Due.”) Continue reading

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.) 

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how there might be no “problem of punishment”

Should we think that punishment, because it involves intentionally inflicting harm without consent, is defeasibly impermissible (much like it is defeasibly impermissible, at least in private life, to initiate coercion against other people)? I suspect not, for a very simple reason: not intentionally inflicting harm on others (without their consent) might well not be the relevant sort of basic, defeasible duty that would play this role. Here, then, is another, better candidate: people having a basic moral right not to be gratuitously harmed by others. Why is this candidate better? That is a complicated question, but I’ll say two things. First, for me — and maybe for you — it is more intuitive (brutely, but also because it covers more ground, more cases). Second, it better comports with the following principle (based loosely on what Thomas Scanlon says in the first two or three chapters of his MORAL DIMENSIONS): the essential basis for the moral-permissibility-status of actions does not include the intentions or motivations of the agent (though in special cases such features are included).

If my suggestion here is right, then the Boonin-style sweeping argument against punishment does not work. One would have to argue something like this: the harms of punishment are — or perhaps usually are and should be presumed to be — gratuitous. That is a tall order. My conclusion is that there is no “problem of punishment” (or, if there is, it is really not much of a problem, at least not until someone demonstrates either a strong-enough thesis about punishment and gratuitous harm or that the fundamental duty here is definitely one of not intentionally harming others without their consent).


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.

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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).

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what is desert-basis and how does it work?


I had developed a view of desert-basis (the fact or facts in virtue of which a deserver deserves something) and how it determines desert that went like this: (a) true desert basis, at least in a certain important sense, is the full set of conditions that make it such that the deserver deserves something, (b) in the standard formula (from Kleinig, adopted by Sher), “M deserves X for A” (or “M deserves X because of A”), the ‘for A’ (or ‘because A’) part functions like ‘the cause’ does in our language specifying the cause of events, viz., by picking out a salient (cognitively, pragmatically, conversationally salient) element from the full set of determiners that stands in for the full set, (c) this is evidenced by the case of my wronging you making it such that you deserve an apology because the cited property is different from the sorts usually cited (and not, not in the relevant sense of ‘property’, a property of the deserver, the thing that the standard view takes to be the sole or special determiner). I now think that all of this is basically wrong: [a] if true misses the point, [b] is flat-out wrong, and [c] is also wrong.

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do the wrong thing?

My last post concerned the Scanlonian contractualist idea that the wrongness of wrong action is constituted by the action not being justifiable to others. I criticized this idea on the grounds that justifying to others presupposes the existence of the justifiability-independent and entailed-by-wrongness (or more specifically partially-wrongness-constituting) normative feature of the action warranting resentment (and hence objection) by the patient — patient-objectionability. I also suggested, in the post and in replies to comments, something of a positive view of wrongness. Specifically, that the wrongness of a wrong action is constituted by the following distinct normative features (and their being tied together in some necessary way): (i) patient-objectionability, (ii) observer-objectionability, (iii) (collective) disallowability and (iv) agent-avoidability (specifically such that the agent ought not and must not perform patient-objectionable actions). That is rough, but adequate for working with. In this post, I want to make some modest proposals regarding agent-avoidability and how this might be tied to patient-objectionability.

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Justify Yourself

According to a family of “contractualist” views of morally wrong action pioneered by Thomas Scanlon (in the narrow sense of ‘wrong’ that entails wronging someone and the victim having claims against one not to perform the action — “what we owe to each other”), what makes an action wrong is that it cannot be justified to others. The appeal of this sort of view is at least twofold. First, it specifies a very intuitive way in which actions are made wrong by the reasons (interests, well-being) of others. Second, it occupies a theoretically appealing “third way” between the utilitarian take on morally wrong action as not-welfare-optimific (or indirectly some function of this) and various Kantian (and related) positions according to which morally wrong actions are a type of action that reason itself forbids us (or that otherwise are irrational or violate rational requirements). The specific formulation of contractualism that Scanlon defends is a bit different (and of necessity more complicated) from the core idea just expressed, but the core idea of justifiability-to-others captures the essence.

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how Justin Snedegar’s main argument against the non-contrastivist view of reasons (having-reason) goes wrong

We speak, not only of X having reason to A (or of R being a reason for X to A), but also of X having reason to A rather than B (or to A as against B). According to Justin Snedegar, we should always read ‘rather than’ or ‘as against’ in such constructions as meaning but-not. So if I have reason to write this post rather than start scrolling down my Facebook feed, this means that I have reason to take the former option and do not have reason to take the latter option.

And this leads to the following strange result in certain ordinary-enough cases like the one below. (Adapted from Snedegar. The main difference between his case and mine is that I put the [X having reason to A] feature as against the [R is a reason for X to A] feature front-and-center, roughly in line with Daniel Fogal’s framing or reasons and having-reason.) Here is the case:

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Do I have to? What makes the musts all musty.

This is a paper draft (still a bit drafty; helpful to have more of the context of debate, but hopefully the key points are accessible on their own; comments welcome). The actual working title is below (not the playful title of this post).



(i) oughts and requirements and the PL model
(ii) the PL model: dig it!
(iii) how extant “two kinds of reasons” reduction strategies fail
(iv) a better strategy: put fitting-attitudes meat on the PL model
(v) meeting Snedegar’s challenge: explaining the covariation (easy cases)
(vi) “going structural” to tackle the hard cases (morality)
(vii) conclusion 


I’m rereading Justin Snedegar’s paper, “Reasons, Oughts, and Requirements” (2016, He’s interested in whether “reasons firsters” about normativity broadly speaking can account for normative requirements, given that they are distinct from normative oughts. Continue reading