Desert and Merit (Part 1 of 2)

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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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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Need and Desert

This is just a passing thought that I’ve been meaning to blog for awhile–almost apropos of nothing. It isn’t a natural continuation of any topic we’ve discussed so far in our conversations on Sher’s Desert, but bears an obvious relation to the topic of desert in general.

It’s common to distinguish claims of desert sharply from claims of need. The contrast, I think, goes back at least to Aristotle, who makes it in a rather complex way in his discussion of justice in the Nicomachean Ethics. It finds clearer and sharper expression in the work of Ayn Rand, who insists that no claim of need, as such, can in principle ever be a claim of moral desert. To deserve is to earn moral title to the deserved object, but one can need something without having done anything to earn it (e.g., a roof over one’s head, health care, food), and one can deserve something without really needing it (e.g., praise). The things we need and deserve can, of course, overlap in certain instances, but (on Rand’s view) need is never sufficient for desert.

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Koch Grants and Government Grants: A Difference

Christopher Freiman challenges academics who object to Koch grants on ethical grounds but are willing to accept government grants:

Many academics object to Koch grants but not government grants. As far as I can tell, the objections to the former apply with equal or greater force to the latter. Consider two:

1) The Kochs have committed injustices and accepting Koch money makes you complicit in those injustices, even if the funded project is wholly unrelated to them.

But of course the government has committed injustices; indeed, injustices far graver than anything the Kochs have been accused of (e.g. murdering people daily).  Furthermore, most of what people find objectionable about the Kochs is their lobbying efforts. Yet the government should also bear some responsibility for seeking and accepting the influence of Koch money in that case. If you accept money as part of your murder for hire business, you are at least as morally blameworthy as the buyer.

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Natural Law Libertarianism in Two Flavours

My two latest Agoric Café videos:

In the first one, I chat with philosopher Eric Mack about walking out on Ayn Rand, clashing with Nazi Sikhs in Seneca Falls, libertarian rights theory, Kantian vs. Aristotelean approaches to fixing Randian ethics, Nozickian polymathy, the unselfishness of Samuel Johnson, the ethics of COVID lockdowns, physical distancing in Durango, the CIA as an argument against anarchism, shoving someone in front of a bus as a form of restitution, and the edibility of matter.

In the second video, I chat with philosopher Gary Chartier about Robin Hood, left-wing market anarchism, natural law, free speech and employer power, libertarian secularism, Seventh-day Adventism, religious epistemology, long-arc television, urban fantasy, Lawrence Durrell, Iris Murdoch, Whit Stillman, the evils of giving extra credit and taking attendance, and the attractions of being emperor.

The Following Citations Comprise Our Sermon

My two latest YouTube videos:

Was Ayn Rand a good writer or a bad one? Find out now using this one weird trick!

And in a follow-up to the above video, I talk about what I forgot to mention there, namely how Ayn Rand’s fiction stands in the tradition of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People and Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. With film clips! (Plus the shocking revelation of my shameful drinking problem!!)

NOTE: Because this video contains (fair-use) clips from the 1950 American film Cyrano de Bergerac (which is public-domain in most of the world), it is apparently blocked in France and a number of smaller Francophone countries, most of them French territories. If you’re in one of those countries, well, you still have options; poke around on YouTube for info about tools for unblocking videos like this one. Bonne chance!

You may be asking: why the jump from Episode 7 to Episode 9? What happened to Episode 8? Well, we have ways of dealing with people who ask such questions.

More Tubes for the Rubes

I have three more videos posted on my YouTube channel. The first one focuses on the connection between philosophical thought experiments (from Plato’s Ring of Gyges to Judith Jarvis Thomson’s defense of abortion) and science-fiction (and fantasy) literature.

In the next one, I discuss the distinction between markets and capitalism as drawn in the 1919 textbook THE ABC OF COMMUNISM (written by two Soviet apparatchiks, Nikolai Bukharin and Yevgeny Preobrazhensky), as well as in the Marxist tradition generally, with attention to how Marxism twists itself into a pretzel to avoid endorsing free-market anti-capitalism.

Finally, in my first video interview for my YouTube channel, I chat with philosopher Neera K. Badhwar about backyard buffaloes, wild attack monkeys, Ayn Rand, airline deregulation, eudaimonia and virtue, paternalism and suicide, sociopathic grandmothers, child abuse, Aristotelean business ethics, 19th-century robber barons, charitable Objectivists, friendly Manhattanites, charismatic nationalist leaders, and national health care. In more or less that order.

Coronavirus Diary (19): This Isn’t John Galt Speaking

The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies…

–Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics”

Imagine a version of Atlas Shrugged in which the Taggart Tunnel disaster involves a causal process driven primarily by Mother Nature, and what goes off the rails is not a train but a health care system. Now imagine that the hero of the piece is not a shadowy figure like John Galt but the functional (not moral) equivalent of Dr. Robert Stadler. Now imagine that a retreat to Galt’s Gulch is a physical impossibility. If, for some readers, this requires a re-conceptualization of how the world works, maybe a lot of other things do, too. Continue reading