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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Assuming the Original Position

Say what you want about John Rawls, but he doesn’t deserve to be invoked by Alan Dershowitz in defense of Donald Trump–on the floor of the U.S. Senate, no less. And yet here we are.

Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.

Curious what Trump or Dershowitz think of that one, or if they have any idea what it means.


Dershowitz on Rawls at 3:23:30:

https://www.wgbh.org/news/politics/2020/01/27/watch-live-trumps-impeachment-trial-resumes

BDS, Rawls, and “the Reasonable”

I’m curious what readers think of this New York Times piece on opposition to the BDS movement by the philosopher Joseph Levine (U Mass, Amherst). I myself don’t have a single univocal view on BDS; I agree with some aspects of it, and disagree with others. But I agree with Levine’s criticisms of the anti-BDS movement, which strikes me as sinister, dishonest, and dangerous (in part for the reasons he gives). Given that basic agreement, however, what struck my eye was Levine’s use of and reliance on Rawls’s conceptions of pluralism, comprehensive doctrines, and “the reasonable” to make his case. Is it uncharitably anti-Rawlsian to say that Levine’s appeal to Rawls is a pointless fifth wheel that does no useful work in his argument?

I’ve read my fair share of Rawls, but have never seen the point of (or argument for) the Rawlsian claim that appeal to comprehensive doctrines in political argument–in the context of “public reason”–is “unreasonable” simply qua comprehensive or unshared-by- others. The examples of unreasonability that Levine adduces are indeed examples of unreasonability, not because they appeal to “comprehensive doctrines,” but because they involve fallacious appeals to authority, poison the well, and are underdetermined by argument. As far as I can see, neither comprehensiveness nor not-being-widely-shared-by-others explains their unreasonability. So Rawls aside, it’s not clear to me why comprehensiveness is invoked. Continue reading

Chris Sciabarra on Objectivism and Disability

Here’s a must-read interview with Chris Sciabarra at Folks magazine, on Sciabarra’s  lifelong struggle with Superior Mesenteric Artery Syndrome, along with his lifelong attachment to the work of Ayn Rand (and Nathaniel Branden).

One doesn’t usually think of Rand or Objectivism as offering much insight into the nature of disability, but Chris clearly does:

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