I read the other day of the recent death of Stephen Nathanson, professor emeritus of philosophy at Northeastern University. I didn’t know Nathanson very well–we never met–but nonetheless wanted to note his passing.
I first encountered Nathanson’s work when I did manuscript reviews for Prentice Hall Press back in the mid-1990s. The Press assigned me a manuscript of his to review with the working title Who Gets What?, later called Economic Justice and published in their Foundations of Philosophy Series (1998). It’s a refreshingly well-written and clarifying book. When I first read the manuscript, I held a Rand-and-Nozick-influenced version of libertarianism at odds with the defense of the welfare state Nathanson offers in Economic Justice. It took me awhile, but I eventually came around to something like the view Nathanson defends, and did so partly by reflection on his arguments. I still turn to the book decades after the fact when I want to think things through on the subject. I highly recommend it to anyone who’s looking to do the same. Continue reading →
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 →
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.
Continue reading →
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.
Continue reading →
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.
Continue reading →
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.
Continue reading →
Chapter 4 of Sher’s Desert, “Desert and Diligence,” explores the thesis that diligence, or conscientious effort, is a fundamental basis of desert claims:
Whatever else we think, most of us agree that persons deserve things for sheer hard work. We believe that conscientious students deserve to get good grades, that athletes who practice regularly deserve to do well, and that businessmen who work long hours deserve to make money (Sher, Desert, p. 53).
That seems plausible enough, at least at first glance, but on reflection it raises two difficult questions:
(1) What determines what specific hard workers in fact deserve? and
(2) What does it mean say that they ought to have those things?
Question (1) seems difficult to answer precisely because effort is common to such a variety of activities with such a variety of aims. Why does the effortful student deserve grades rather than money, or the industrious businessperson deserve money rather than grades? A default answer might be that “what any hard worker deserves is just the outcome he has striven to produce” (Sher, p. 54). The (prototypical) student is striving after a grade, the (prototypical) businessperson, after money. So our provisional answer to (1) is that the deserving person deserves what she aims at in virtue of the diligent or conscientious effort she puts forth to that end.
That leads us to question (2), at least in a somewhat weak sense of “ought.” As noted in an earlier post, Sher’s inquiry into desert acknowledges that there is a gap between some claims of desert claims and the obligations assumed by any particular person. Smith can deserve something, X, without its being the case that any individual person is obligated to give Smith X. But there has to be some normative connection between what we deserve and what is desirable. Claims to desert can’t plausibly be entirely inert, normatively speaking. They have to be embody some (at least weak) claim to value.
Continue reading →