Freedom, Action, and Desert

Chapter 3 of George Sher’s Desert offers what might be described as a dialectical exploration of the strengths and weaknesses of an expected-consequence account of desert (“dialectical” is my term, “exploration” is Sher’s). An expected consequence account of desert says that, properly understood and specified, we deserve the expected consequences of our actions.

Before I describe the account proper, however, I think it’s worth saying a word or two about the overall aim and structure of the chapter. Sher’s claims in this chapter are easily misread and misunderstood, and I think that the other members of our Zoom discussion did in fact misread the chapter, giving it a stronger (hence less charitable) reading than it deserved. As far as I can see, though Sher gets some of the details wrong, his overall assessment of the expected consequence conception of desert is just right. So I’m a little puzzled at my fellow discussion partners’ criticisms of the chapter as a whole, and challenge them to “bring it,” as the youngsters nowadays say.

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Like Rain in the Desert

It’s been raining a lot where I live, and that’s given me both the impetus and the material for reflecting on one of the examples Sher gives in chapter 3 of Desert—a case of desert meant to illustrate what he calls “the expected consequence” model. I’ll have more to say about chapter 3, and the model itself, in a later post I’m planning to write. But for now, I just want to hash through one of the deepest and most profound of Sher’s examples, what might be called the rainfall example*:

The expected consequence account is the sort of account we want. But does it mesh with our intuitions about specific cases? In many instances it does. It coincides, for example, with the intuition that Wilson, who knowingly submitted his application late, now deserves to be disqualified. If this desert-claim is to have normative force, it is surely because one ought to suffer the predictable consequences of one’s earlier carelessness. And the most straightforward way of explaining this is precisely to say that such predictable consequences inherit the value of the free choices that led to them. For similar reasons, the account correctly accommodates claims of this type: Harris, who didn’t bring his raincoat, now deserves to get wet….

Just as the man who leaves his umbrella home when it rain deserves to get wet, so too does the man who brings his umbrella deserve to reach his destination dry (pp. 41-42).

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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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You Didn’t Build You: The Rawlsian Critique of Desert

This is a summary of chapter 2 of Sher’s Desert, keyed to session 2 of the MTSP discussion of that book.

As mentioned in an earlier post, the fourth of Sher’s puzzles about desert in chapter 1 casts doubt on the legitimacy of the concept. How can anyone deserve anything if our capacity for putting forth the effort necessary to earn things is itself undeserved? Chapter 2 of Sher’s Desert tackles the most prominent contemporary version of this argument, John Rawls’s attack on moral desert in A Theory of Justice. Rawls puts the point like this:

 It seems to be one of the fixed points of our considered judgments that no one deserves his place in the distribution of natural endowments, any more than one deserves one’s initial starting place in society. The assertion that a man deserves     the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is equally problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit. The notion of desert seems not to apply to these cases (Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 89 of the Revised Edition [1999]).

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George Sher’s “Desert”: The Dimensions of the Problem

This post is a summary of chapter 1 of George Sher’s Desert, keyed to session 1 of the MT Seminar on Philosophy. For background, read this post.

The Preface of George Sher’s Desert begins with a statement of the obvious: the concept of moral desert is central to moral judgment and deliberation, and yet (at least as of 1987, the date of the book’s publication), we lack a systematic account of the nature and justification of moral desert. Indeed, ever since Rawls’s “critique” of moral desert in A Theory of Justice (if it is one), doubt has been cast on the coherence or viability of the concept. So the book sets out to provide a justification: “one of my central aims is to display the underlying justification of desert claims (George Sher, Desert, p. xi).

Sher calls his approach to ethical theorizing “pluralistic”: instead of beginning with some higher-order account or principle that entails desert claims, he starts with the desert claims “we all make,” and works to systematize them with the proviso that “desert need not have any single normative basis” (Sher, Desert, p. xii). So the approach is both “pluralistic” and in a sense, “bottom up.”

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