Just deserts?

Brad Hooker asks if the idea of desert belongs at the foundation of ethics

hooker200There is widespread (though not universal) agreement that one thing morality and justice require is that people get what they deserve. But there are divergences in the use of the term “deserve”. And there are important disagreements about whether all principles of desert are morally derivative or at least some of them are morally foundational.

A very wide use of the term “deserve” occurs when “so-and-so deserves x” is used to mean nothing more than that this person should be given x. To say that someone deserves x in this maximally wide use of “deserves” is not to say why it would be good for the person to get x. “Desert” in this maximally wide sense neither picks out, nor rules out, any distinctive kind of moral reason. Claims about what people deserve in this wide sense cannot explain why certain acts are required or wrong. Claims about what people deserve in this wide sense instead just express that certain acts are required or wrong.

A more discriminating use of the term “desert” ties it to a distinctive kind of moral reason, one that contrasts with moral considerations such as benefit, need, and equality. You may deserve some good more than I do even though I would benefit more from getting it, I need it more, and my getting it would result in more equality between us.

What is the basis of your greater desert? A common view is that you deserve rewards or punishments to the extent that you are virtuous or vicious. Aristotle’s ideas about proportionality are incorporated here: reward or punishment should be proportional to virtue or vice. So if your virtue is greater than mine, then this view holds that you deserve greater rewards than I do.

In what does virtue consist? One view, often linked to Hume, is that virtues are those character traits beneficial to oneself or to others or to both. Another view is that virtues are those character traits beneficial both to oneself and to others. Still another view is that virtues are those character traits beneficial to others. None of those views is plausible unless qualified and attenuated in at least a couple of ways. “Beneficial” must be attenuated to “probably beneficial”. Another qualification must be added so that the claim is about what is probably beneficial in at least fairly normal circumstances. A character trait that happens to be beneficial in very odd circumstances is not a virtue but a fluke.

A quite different view about the nature of virtue has recently been revived by Thomas Hurka, in his book Virtue, Vice, and Value. This view maintains that virtue is loving the good and hating the evil, and vice is loving the evil and hating the good. Here, loving something amounts to desiring, pursuing, and taking pleasure in it. Again, proportionality is part of the view: virtue requires loving the good with an intensity that reflects the amount of good and hating the evil with an intensity that reflects the amount of evil.

When these ideas about proportionality are put together with the idea that virtue deserves reward proportional to the amount of virtue, I get nervous. Opera is better than folk music, because opera is deeper, more complex, etc. But I do not love opera. That is, I don’t desire, pursue, or take pleasure in it. You, being more musically sophisticated than I, love opera. So there is an aspect of the good you love and I don’t. This makes you deserve more rewards (e.g. pleasure) than I deserve? Surely not!

Here is a different example making the same point. Although Jack and Jill both love knowledge, Jill loves it more than Jack does. Perhaps Jack is in some sense mistaken not to love (i.e., not to desire, pursue, and take pleasure in) knowledge more than he does. But there seems to be no evil here. And Jill is not more virtuous than Jack simply because she loves knowledge more than he does. She may be more admirable, but not more virtuous.

If, because of ignorance or weak will, I choose lesser goods for myself than I could have chosen, I lose. As long as I am not here failing others as well, it would be inappropriate for morality to require punishment of me. Any morality that requires punishment for purely self-destructive action goes too far. People’s lives are their own property. If people impair their own property without harming anyone else, there is no ground for punishment.

In short, what does not seem plausible is the conjunction of a view about desert and a view about virtue and vice. The view about desert here is that the more virtuous always deserve greater rewards and the more vicious greater punishments. The view about virtue and vice here is that something can be a virtue or vice purely because of its actual or probable effects on the agent. Which of these views should be abandoned, or at least modified?

Perhaps both should be modified. As Bernard Williams pointed out, not every character trait beneficial to the person who has it can be a virtue. His example was some character trait that makes one sexually appealing to others. Such a character trait can certainly be advantageous, but it hardly seems a virtue. Having said this, I do not deny that character traits beneficial to those who have them can be virtues. What I do deny is that these traits deserve rewards, or at least rewards from other agents.

* * * * *

Let me now focus on the issue of the appropriate source of rewards or punishments. This issue is not prominent in the standard picture of desert. The standard picture holds that desert is a three-place relation between (i) the deserving person, (ii) the basis of this person’s desert, and (iii) the deserved good. In other words, (i) the deserving person, (ii) on the basis of facts about this person, which might include facts about how she is in some way related or connected to others, deserves (iii) such and such. There is nothing in this picture about who is responsible for supplying the such and such.

Admittedly, the picture of desert as a three-place relation fits easily with our practice of assessing states of affairs in terms of whether people get what they deserve in those states of affairs. If you are virtuous but have a life devoid of pleasure and other benefits, then this is a state of affairs that offends against desert. You deserve good things because of your virtue, but, unjustly, you don’t get them. Furthermore, the picture of desert as a three-place relation fits with our talk about promoting justice as a shared goal, something that we can all work towards with absolutely no conflict among us.

However, I think desert is often a four-place relation. There is (i) the deserving person, (ii) the basis of this person’s desert, (iii) the deserved good, and (iv) the person or persons responsible for supplying that good. In other words, a claim about desert should identify who the deserving person is, why she is deserving, what she deserves, and who is responsible for supplying what she deserves. Suppose you did something kind for me. Here, (i) you, (ii) because you did something kind for me, deserve (iii) thanks (iv) from me. The desert claim here must incorporate that fourth element.

I admit that the three-place relation picture might be salvageable by being more sophisticated about the deserved good. For example, it might be held that the deserved good wasn’t merely thanks, but thanks-from-me. I nevertheless think the picture of desert as a four-place relation is superior. Who has responsibility for supplying a deserved good or imposing a deserved punishment is often absolutely crucial. The four-place relation picture makes this aspect more prominent than the three-place relation picture does. And that sometimes everyone is obligated collectively or severally to supply the deserved reward or punishment doesn’t count against the usefulness of the four-place picture.

The case for the four-place picture strengthens when we turn from cases of moral desert to cases of legal and economic desert.

Jesse James robbed banks and trains and in the process shot fifteen people. On that basis, he deserved punishment. But legal punishment needed to come from the right source. Legal punishment of Jesse James couldn’t come from France or China or Virginia or California. It needed to come from Kansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Tennessee, Alabama or Missouri (i.e. from a state in whose jurisdiction he committed crimes). It isn’t just that there is a person who committed a crime for which this person deserves punishment; the punishment must come from a legitimate source.

(Incidentally, Jesse James was murdered by being shot in the back of his head by the Ford brothers, who were gang members Jesse had living in his house. The Ford brothers surrendered, were sentenced to hang for murder, but then were quickly pardoned by the governor of Missouri, Thomas T. Crittenden, who also cut them in on the reward money put up for Jesse’s capture. So the governor of Missouri apparently conspired in the murder of Jesse. Perhaps Jesse got what he morally deserved. But he didn’t get the trial or punishment he legally deserved.)

Now consider economic desert — what people deserve for the work they do. A moment’s reflection shows that economic desert is a different concept from moral desert. If you devote your weekends to a second job and I spend mine going on long walks, our economic deserts differ though our moral deserts may not.

Economic desert seems normally a four-place relation. (i) You, (ii) on the basis of so and so, deserve (iii) such and such from (iv) your employers or customers. That is, you deserve the economic rewards from certain people, not just from anyone.

What determines economic desert? Two factors often cited are contribution and effort. But it isn’t obvious how contribution and effort are to be understood.

One view is that the contribution made by your doing some job or by your making some investment is a function of how much better off people are when you do it than they are when you don’t do it and they make other arrangements. This view may not be correct. But rather than say more about how to understand contribution, I turn to effort.

Effort is typically understood as everything negative about the activity. For example, it can include the amount of training required for this activity, the unpleasantness and strenuousness of the activity, and the health and other risks imposed on the person who engages in the activity.

In order to calculate someone’s economic desert, should we add together the two factors, effort and contribution, or should we multiply one by the other? Suppose someone devotes lots of sweat over many hours to making something that no one else likes. Here effort is considerable but contribution nothing. Well, if effort and contribution are to be added together, this person deserves some economic reward, which seems implausible. But, if effort and contribution are to be multiplied together, then this person deserves no economic reward (since any amount of effort multiplied times zero contribution equals zero). In that case, effort multiplied times contribution comes out with the intuitively plausible result.

But in other cases the formula has counter-intuitive implications. For example, suppose I put a huge amount of work into doing something that benefits only one person a little. Suppose this beneficiary is the only one available to reward me economically. Does she owe me an amount determined by my contribution to her times the effort I expended? Well, that amount, because it is so heavily shaped by my high level of effort, could easily outstrip the benefit to her of the work I did.

The problem with the idea that effort is to be multiplied by contribution comes out most clearly in cases where contribution is high but effort, in the sense of negative aspects of the activity, is zero. On the view we are discussing, effortless contributions cannot generate any economic desert. That is ridiculous. Think of anyone for whom their “work” is their greatest passion and enjoyment. I don’t know who the highest paid footballer is at the moment. But, whoever he is, he might so love the game that he would pay to play. And yet he is so good, brings in so many fans, gets his team on TV so often, that teams aggressively bid against one another to pay him. He does deserve some economic rewards, even if playing is for him entirely effortless.

The same is going to be true, albeit with a few zeros knocked off the end of the salary figure, for a number of other sports stars, and for at least some painters, computer geeks, novelists, and even philosophers. Think of two eminent successful philosophers. Suppose one of them enjoys her work, and the other finds it frustrating and tedious. Do you think the one who enjoys it deserves less pay? Do you think her employer would pay her less? My bet is that her employer would pay her more because enthusiasm is infectious and makes for pleasant company.

An assumption behind those comments is that a free market by and large determines the price of labour and capital on the basis of perceived contribution, not effort. Except where altruism intervenes, the market pays nothing for contribution-less efforts. But it often pays very well for effortless contributions.

Of course negative aspects of work and investment will help determine the payment required to attract labour and capital. In this indirect way, effort will have an impact on what people are willing to accept. But this is quite different from saying that effort must be a factor in determining economic desert.

In referring to a free market, I do not mean to be ignoring its inadequacies. A free market combined with substantial egoism is brutal to those who have too little to sell or trade. And in some other contexts it is completely ineffective in supplying wanted goods and services. Still, in so far as the market enables mutually beneficial exchanges between consenting parties, and in so far as it respects autonomy while efficiently supplying wanted goods and services, the market has profound attractions. In any case, the market seems now the natural model for thinking about economic desert.

Perhaps even more compelling than the influence of contribution on economic desert is the role of freely negotiated contracts. Employment contracts are often sensitive to levels of contribution. This arrangement is normally intended to give people economic incentives to provide more or better goods and services that others want. But, for various good reasons, we might agree to a contract insensitive to productivity and contribution. If for whatever good reasons we have contracts with our employer that pay us the same no matter how big our respective contributions are, it seems mistaken to claim that whoever makes a bigger contribution deserves a bigger economic reward.

No matter what determines economic desert, economic desert is not always the most important consideration. You might deserve some benefits more than I do because you worked and I didn’t. But if my life is endangered if I don’t get some of those benefits, then your desert might be outweighed by my need.

* * * * *

It seems to me plausible that social practices, institutions, and agreements determine economic desert. But are we here referring to actually existing social practices, institutions, and agreements or ideal ones? Economic desert is at least partly determined by actually existing social practices, institutions, and agreements. The same seems true of legal desert. The potential gap between moral desert and actually existing social practices, institutions, and agreements is even greater. Where actually existing social practices, institutions, and agreements are terrible, they do not have much influence on people’s moral desert.

That was a point about actually existing social practices, institutions, and agreements, not about ideal ones. What is the relation of ideal rules, practices, and institutions to desert? Some philosophers think that moral desert should come into our moral thinking at the deepest level, that is, at a level prior to selection of ideal moral rules, social practices, and institutions. They would say that no system of rules and practices can be justified unless it respects certain principles of moral desert (e.g., that the virtuous should be rewarded in proportion to their virtue and the vicious punished in proportion to their vice).

Other philosophers think that the appropriate moral first principle — that is, the appropriate principle for selecting ideal moral rules, social practices, and institutions — does not mention desert. Among philosophers who think the first principle does not mention desert, some think that rules, practices, and institutions should be selected on the basis that everyone has sufficient reason to accept them. Others think rules, practices, and institutions should be selected on the basis that their acceptance would maximize overall social benefit. Still others have other non-desert first principles. All these philosophers who think the right first principle does not mention desert nevertheless agree that the rules, practices, and institutions selected by the appropriate first principle will then specify what is to be rewarded and what punished. Even philosophers who think desert does not appear at the foundational level of moral theory will accept that it has a very important role at a derived level.

Which side wins the debate about how foundational desert is? If there is a moral theory that has entirely plausible implications (including entirely plausible implications about desert) but does not incorporate theses about desert into its first principle, then this theory is best. Such a theory would be best because it would have entirely plausible implications but fewer assumptions. It is an open question whether there is such a theory. If there is not, desert appears at the foundational level of morality.

Further reading
Joel Feinberg, Doing and Deserving (Princeton University Press)
Lois Pojman and Owen McCloud (eds), What Do We Deserve? (Oxford University Press)

Brad Hooker is a professor in the Philosophy Dept at University of Reading. His Ideal Code, Real World was published by Oxford University Press in 2000.

  1. You still should make whatever changes you can. ,

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