Desert and Merit (4)

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

Desert and Merit (3)

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

Desert and Merit (2)

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.

Dear Irfan,

Thank you for applying to Labcorp Drug Development as a Cleaner.

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Desert and Merit (1)

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

Desert and Diachronic Fairness

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. 

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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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Desert and Diligent Paranoia

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.

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Desert and Self-Defense

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.

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Retributivism, Its Discontents, and Some Malcontents

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.

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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).