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: Continue reading
In a previous post, I criticized George Sher’s view that merit-based desert is based on (the recognition of) existing conventions of merit. In these cases, the existing rules are already fashioned to reward merit in a justified way, so that justice (in the sense of rewarding desert) consists simply in acknowledging that a given person satisfies the criteria of merit, and acknowledging that in accepting the convention, we accept the further implication that the person deserves what the rules say they deserve. Continue reading
The value or worth of a man is, as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power, and therefore is not absolute, but a thing dependent on the need and judgement of another.
–Hobbes, Leviathan, I.10.16
Sher’s account of desert and merit raises many questions, so let me double back to consider some of these, some addressed in his chapter, some not. I’d originally thought I’d leave the criticisms of Sher’s chapter at a single post, but it turns out that my criticisms have eaten up more space than I’ve thought they would. So this series on “Desert and Merit” is going to be longer than the promised or predicted two installments. Frankly, at this point, I couldn’t tell you how long it will be. As Michelangelo said (or is reported to me by Roderick Long to have said) about the Sistine Chapel, “It will be done when it is done.” I follow Michelangelo in such matters. Continue reading
An unplanned installment in my series on “desert and merit,” care of Labcorp Drug Development. I applied to the job mentioned below three months ago, after spending eight months cleaning hospital operating rooms. I leave it to the reader to decide what conclusion to reach about my just deserts, based on my merits (or not) as a cleaner.
Thank you for applying to Labcorp Drug Development as a Cleaner.
Having finished Sher’s Desert last week, the MTSP Discussion is on to discussing HLA Hart’s The Concept of Law, but I’m going to spend the next few weeks hammering out summaries of the last four chapters of Sher’s book, just for the hell of it. I’ve had to break my discussion of Chapter 7 of Desert into two parts, a summary and a critique. This post is the summary; I’ll post the critique when I get a chance.
Chapter 7 of Desert discusses a so-far neglected basis of desert, merit. It seems self-evident or obvious to many people that we deserve things insofar as we have or exhibit the right kind of merit, whether moral or non-moral, to do so. Chapter 7, “Merit and Desert,” discusses contexts where moral and non-moral considerations merge in ways that are hard to entangle. Take for instance the common claim that college admissions be based on candidates’ “merit” with respect to admission. Is that a moral claim or a non-moral one? Does it involve a moral conception of merit or a non-moral one? Continue reading
Chapter 5 of George Sher’s Desert offers an account of retributivism according to which wrongdoing generates an unfair balance of benefits and burdens that requires redress. Because this imbalance exists at a given time, but is redressed across time, Sher thinks of retributivism so conceived as exemplifying a conception of diachronic fairness, that is, of fairness exemplified in an act of balancing across time. Chapter 6, “Desert and Diachronic Fairness,” seeks to articulate the principle involved, conceived generally enough to cover both punishments and rewards.
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.)
Suppose that a person is diligently paranoid. In other words, imagine a person who, by conventional standards, worries excessively about risks that involve low probabilities but high stakes. Imagine this person’s applying the precautionary principle in ways most people find problematically risk-averse. And imagine her actively planning for exigencies or emergencies in ways that consume emotional and material resources, thereby undercutting her capacity for ordinary enjoyment. Where most people would simply overlook these remote but apparently scary risks, the diligent paranoid expects them, planning and drilling for them, rehearsing what she would do when (not if) they come to pass. Indeed, diligent paranoids seem to feel a certain gratification when disaster occurs, since it confirms their irrational belief that life is a series of disasters. They appear to lead a problematically joyless existence, focused on mere survival rather than on a richer conception of human flourishing–the classic case of the person who lives her life by fear rather than some more wholesome motivation.
George Sher’s version of the expected-consequence account of desert says that properly understood and specified, we deserve the expected consequences of our actions. His version of retributivism says that wrongdoing involves the taking of more than one’s share of liberty, such that the wrongdoer deserves punishment by way of redressing the imbalance caused by that act. One thing that falls between the cracks of both accounts is an aggressor’s deserving the harmful consequences of a justified act of self-defense against his aggression.
Chapter 5 of Sher’s Desert, “Deserved Punishment,” is a desert-based defense of retributive punishment intended to defend the claim that “persons who have acted wrongly…deserve to be punished.”
All of the participants in our Zoom discussion agreed that this was the weakest of the five chapters we’ve read so far, and all of us (I think) agreed that Sher’s argument failed to establish its intended conclusion. But as half of the group consisted of retributivists, and the other half of anti-retributivists, we ended up disagreeing about the exact nature of the failure, and then ended up disagreeing with one another about punishment itself. The retributivist-friendly participants were apt to say that Sher failed to establish a claim that happens to be true, or at least plausible; the anti-retributivists were apt to say that it was no surprise that he failed to establish a claim that happens to be unmotivated and false. We then ended up disagreeing about how to define retributivism, and about the plausibility of the motivation behind retributivism, however understood. The two camps divided in predictable ways.