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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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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Desert and Diligence

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.

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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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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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