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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What’s So Great about Joint Intentionality? Haidt, Tomasello, and Henrich

In The Righteous Mind, Haidt invokes Michael Tomasello’s notion of “joint intentionality,” calling it our evolutionary Rubicon; i.e., the critical trait the evolution of which made us irrevocably human and led inevitably to the development of a large number of our most distinctive human characteristics, especially our groupishness. Haidt writes:

When everyone in a group began to share a common understanding of how things were supposed to be done, and then felt a flash of negativity when any individual violated these expectations, the first moral matrix was born… That, I believe, was our Rubicon crossing. (239)

I think Haidt gets a little too carried away over joint intentionality. The purpose of this post is to explain why and to suggest a more sensible alternative proposed by anthropologist Joseph Henrich.

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Haidt—The Righteous Mind, Chs. 7 & 8

In chapters 7 and 8, Haidt describes in detail his account of our innate “moral foundations”—a relatively small set of fundamental psychological mechanisms that underlie and produce our moral intuitions. In previous chapters, he has argued that moral judgment is driven primarily by moral intuition—that the intuitive dog wags the rational tail—and that our moral intuitions cover more areas of life than just harm and fairness. It is now time to get specific. Just what are these fundamental, innate sources of moral intuition, and how can we show that we really have them?

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Morals and the Free Society: 11. Aristotelianism, Part 3—Conclusion

Here at last is the final chunk of the argument, in which all problems are resolved. To return to the tenth chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here.


The social excellences that I have suggested can be derived by considering the effective functioning of a free society make a conventionally appealing set: respect for others’ rights, candor, probity, patience, nonlitigiousness, loyalty, and reliability. But it should not be thought that every widespread intuition—“prevailing ethical belief”—about social ethics is thereby confirmed, or even most of them. A couple of examples of prevailing ethical beliefs that are contradicted by the argument from the needs of a well-functioning free society will help make clear the sort of social ethics that is implied by this line of thought. Continue reading

Morals and the Free Society: 10. Aristotelianism, Part 2—Economic Analysis Can Reveal Natural, Social Human Functions

Here is the tenth chunk of the argument. To return to the ninth chunk, click here. To advance to the eleventh and final chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here.


When it comes to the social arena—an important one for ethics, obviously—I suggest that insights from economics can provide guidance concerning human functioning. I have in mind especially North’s (1990) analysis, mentioned earlier, of economic functioning in terms of institutions and their effects on transactions costs. That analysis showed that economic growth and prosperity depend on social institutions that reduce so-called transactions costs; i.e., costs associated with trade. In general, any established practice that makes human interactions more predictable and transparent will tend to reduce transactions costs. Simple examples are the convention of driving on the right side of the road and a uniform system of weights and measures. In the latter case, think of the difficulty of putting together a trade of, say, a certain quantity of cloth in return for a certain quantity of corn, without a mutually understood, reliable means of assessing the quantity and quality of these goods. The trade might still be made, of course, but the gains to the parties will be reduced by the additional time and effort required to assess the goods.

More interestingly from the point of view of ethics, transactions costs are reduced when property rights are scrupulously observed, and more, when economic agents are candid about the characteristics of their goods and services and are forthcoming with economic information generally, when their honesty can be trusted implicitly, when they are forbearing of others’ faults and of perceived injuries, when they are not litigious, when they are faithful to long term agreements, when they are reliable. Observance of such principles, where it is widespread, is a sort of institution or set of institutions, the social mores. It seems that we can learn from economic analysis which social mores are most important for producing a prosperous society in which desire satisfaction is optimized for everyone through voluntary arrangements. This is an instance of the strategy I mentioned at the outset, and which we noticed in Hayek, of taking the superiority of the free society for granted and asking what moral principles are required to sustain it. The strategy is powerful, inasmuch as history demonstrates pretty clearly that free social arrangements promote human social functioning at its best. Where free social arrangements have prevailed, there wealth has grown—for all, but perhaps for the poorest most of all—personal dignity has been respected, and humanity has flourished. Moreover, arguably any alternative social arrangement must depend on the principle of coercion, which—theoretical reasons and historical evidence seem to show—is incapable of producing a prosperous society of flourishing individuals. To the degree that all this is true, we have good reason to think that effective social functioning depends on the social mores that create and promote a free society. And this would seem to be an application of the Aristotelian functional approach to discerning proper ethical principles for the social realm. Continue reading

Morals and the Free Society: 9. Aristotelianism, Part 1—Natural Human Functions Can Be Investigated Scientifically

Here is the ninth chunk of the argument. To return to the eighth chunk, click here. To advance to the tenth chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here.


The basic tenets of a broadly Aristotelian approach to ethics are, I think, familiar. Therefore, I shall just provide a basic sketch of the sort of view I have in mind without dwelling overmuch on the details. The aim is to show how an Aristotelian ethics might resolve the difficulties that have been identified for any moral view that hopes to provide a moral vision for a free society. Those difficulties, to repeat, are: first, to provide a reason why agents operating within a free market should care about observing (a) the rules that create the free market (basically, individual rights to one’s own person and property) and ideally also (b) additional principles that reduce transactions costs, such as candor, loyalty, reliability, zeal for just punishment, and fair-mindedness; and second, to reconcile this reason to care about maintaining the free market with the sort of motives and behavior that are appropriate within the free market.

I take the fundamental claim of an Aristotelian ethics to be that the highest value for any organism is to be a good organism of its kind. Continue reading

Morals and the Free Society: 8. Ayn Rand

Here is the eighth chunk of the argument. To return to the seventh chunk, click here. To advance to the ninth chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here.


Ayn Rand claimed that her system of ethics “is the moral base needed by…Capitalism” (1961, 33, all citation emphases original). Her moral defense of a free society can be stated very briefly as follows. Human beings must live by reason. Other animals may be able to get by on instinct, but the human animal cannot. This point is made particularly clear by considering economic activity since the industrial revolution. The exponential growth in quality of life by essentially every indicator—from life expectancy to population to nutrition to health to education to comfort and leisure opportunities to you-name-it—since the industrial revolution has been made possible not only by the application of scientific and technological knowledge but by innovation and entrepreneurship. These are the achievements of a rational animal and only a rational animal. But the achievements of advanced economies are only the most dramatic demonstration. In every aspect of life, at any level of civilization, we can and must employ reason to determine our interests, goals, and actions, if we want to be successful in the game of life.

Now, reason is a faculty of individuals. Continue reading

Morals and the Free Society: 6a. Addendum on Cultural Group Selection

Apropos of Hayek’s claim that the mores needed to sustain the extended order (namely, several property and personal responsibility) evolved by a process of cultural group selection, I want to add a note about the origin of the prosocial attitudes (or values, behaviors, etc) needed to support the operation of the free market. To return to part 6 (on Hayek), click here. To advance to the next chunk of the main argument, click here. The complete essay is posted here.


Bowles and Gintis, in A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution (2011), provide a helpful chart of the different theories of how prosocial behavior might have evolved (page 53). The main division is between some form of genetic evolution and cultural evolution. Genetic evolutionary theories basically depend either on some sort of kin selection mechanism (organisms are benevolent toward family members because they share their genes) or on group selection (prosocial traits like honesty spread because groups of honest individuals out-compete groups of dishonest individuals). Cultural evolutionary theories generally depend on some sort of mechanism of reciprocity, either direct (tit-for-tat) or indirect (benefits of having a good reputation).

None of these provides a good explanation of how the sort of virtuous behavior that brings the free market into existence could have evolved, especially in large scale societies. Continue reading

Morals and the Free Society: 7. Frank

Here is the seventh chunk of the argument. To return to the sixth chunk, click here. To advance to the eighth chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here.


Robert Frank (1988) could hardly be accused of attempting to provide a moral vision for a free society, but he makes a case for one way of resolving the moral contradiction of the free society. He attempts to show how a seemingly selfless adherence to the moral principles that support the efficient operation of the free market might ultimately be justified in egoistic terms after all. The basic strategy is to reap the long term benefits of playing by free market rules by foregoing the short term gains that can be made by breaking them. Of course, this depends on finding other agents who also obey the free market rules—and enabling them to find you. Otherwise, as Frank shows, the strategy will be undercut and ultimately defeated by rule breakers.

How this strategy works can be illustrated by the case of honesty. Honest behavior is economically selfless on those occasions when one could gain by dishonesty (for example, perhaps by not paying the bill of a supplier who is about to go bankrupt or the bill of a small contractor who can’t afford to sue). Now, suppose you committed yourself to a policy of strict honesty. If others knew this, they would have reason to prefer doing business with you over others, to give you easier credit, etc. For, they could be confident that you would not rip them off; i.e., impose costs on them through dishonesty. In North’s terms, doing business with you would lower their transactions costs. Thus, by foregoing the occasional rip off, you reap the rewards of doing more business on better terms. And notice, by the way, that even if other people adopt the same honesty strategy, thereby undercutting your “market edge,” your terms of doing business will still be better. Transactions costs are still lowered, even if everybody becomes completely honest (indeed, they are lowered even more).

Of course, this works only if people know you are completely honest. Continue reading