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December 31, 2009


Devil's Kitchen


Obviously I agree with you.

As a matter of interest, where do you stand on the issue of Lottery winners? Should we tax them to hell as the clearest exponent of wealth achieved through sheer luck, or celebrate that we've got another family out of poverty? Or both?


Charles Wheeler

"Which is, perhaps, one reason why the state alone cannot achieve social justice."

But as the market is 'neutral', the state is the only body with the capacity to ameliorate the distributive injustices of laissez faire - however imperfectly.

Devil's Kitchen


Do you, then, totally discount the moral imperative of individual people?



One "deserves" precisely as much for one's services as other people are prepared to pay for them. This is the principle of free trade. If you can offer me something of value, I must give you value in exchange.

If the circumstances of your life have been such that you are incapable of doing anything that anyone else finds valuable, that is terribly bad luck for you, but it would be absurd to suggest that you deserve to get more than the value of what you're offering.

As a compassionate society, we may CHOOSE to help you out, to even out bad luck with generosity. But such charity is a gift, not a right.

John Terry's Mum

"But as the market is 'neutral', "
Sez who?

Surely the 'market' is a human-created technology and as such has measurable effects on society and norms that in no way can be stated as neutral.

- - - - -
Another problem with 'desert' is that so much of one's opportunities in life are defined by acidents of birth. F.eks; the average worker is likely to have be born to average worker parents, and you are likely the offspring of (at least one) school-teacher, civil servant, university tutor etc etc


Here's how I think of "desert". You deserve more the more irreplaceable you are. This has to take into account (at least) three factors:

*How many other people could do what you do at least as well (if not better)?
*How much is what you do benefiting wider society (i.e. doctors better than footballers etc)?
*How much of what you do could you yourself do better?

Obviously (as you say), this doesn't have much bearing on government policy in general. It is by definition a subjective measure, and this is the type of thing that the state is inefficient at doing normally. (Of course, there are smaller things the state can do e.g. it seems fairly uncontroversial to suggest bankers don't "deserve" £1 million tax-payer provided bonuses.) However, the concept of "desert" isn't that useful. As an individual, my morality can tell me that someone who cheats at a game doesn't deserve to win, someone who works hard deserves more than someone who doesn't, etc etc. So "desert" is fairly useful moral proxy in judging other people as we go about our daily lives.


This wasn't what I meant:

"However, the concept of "desert" isn't that useful."

I meant:

"However, the concept of "desert" isn't that useless."


It's neither deserving or not - it just is.

Paul Sagar

I share a lot of your sentiments and perspectives, but if we're referencing the big theories of equality and justice from the Anglophone last 30 years, worth mentioning the "luck egalitarian" strand.

I.e. it seems at some level correct to argue that - with important qualifiers - some inequalities are to be tolerated because they were chosen, and hence are fair. That is, if you are better off than me because you worked hard to cultivate cucumbers and sell them at market, but I played tennis all day every day, then it seems fair that you end up with more resoucres/money than me. We might (but might not) want to say that you deserve more than me.

Of course, we might nonetheless want to temper our conclusions: you deserve more than me, but then let's take into account Rawlsian points about arbitrariness of talents, birth, etc. Point is, however, that the "luck egalitarian" insight says you should be allowed to have more than me because this is fair, and not just because (as on the Rawlsian schema) your having more than me makes the worst-off best off, or on a related-to-Rawls formula, the incentives required for you to grow cucumbers require you to end up with more than me, and this is a price worth paying over-all.

Why am I twittering on about this? Because, for all the problems of luck egalitarianism, the fundamental insight seems to me correct: we do think some people should fairly have more than others. That's a common intuition.

We ignore this at our peril when campaigning politically. Whilst emphasising Rawlsian points about arbitrariness as you do, we must also respect people's common notions of "fair inequalities". The point, however, is to demosntrate how few fair inequalities there really are in the world, and just how much (Rawlsian) arbitrariness.

But, if you just go for the arbitrary angle, then the risk is run of quickly alienating people who have the immediate reaction "but if everything is arbitrary, then nobody deserves anything, and that can't be right" - and that reaction is liable to make them switch off to your message.

Nick Kaplan

The idea of dropping the notion of desert from that of 'social' justice makes about as much sense as dropping the idea of freedom from that of liberty!

In the everyday understanding (which as J. L. Austin noted was the first word on any subject) the concept of justice simply is rendering to each person their just deserts. This is what all traditional discussions of justice amounted to, from those of Plato and Aristotle to that of Hume.

Indeed it is basic to our understanding of justice that punishments are unjust to the extent they are undeserved, rewards are unjust to the extent that the person rewarded does not as much as they deserve or are entitled to.

Of course different people’s conception of what anyone deserves differ and as such their conceptions of justice will differ, but to pretend we can drop the concept of desert from that of justice means that whatever is left cannot be justice at all! Thus your argument (assertion?) that desert should play no role in justice is absurd.

Nick Kaplan

Paul Sagar;

What exactly are the criteria by which we decide whether something was the product of a choice or simply the product of luck? Because it seems to me that the luck egalitarian argument is just a convenient excuse for theorists to say whatever (minimal)inequalities they favour are justified whereas those inequalities they do not favour are not.

But there seem to be no objective criteria to make the distinction between various inequalities i.e. between which are the product of luck and which the product of choice.

If we take the most obvious example of a reward based on luck, that of a lottery winner, it seems to me plausible to argue the inequality could be justified on the basis of choice. For example one might argue that the winner deserves his prize for he chose to buy his lottery ticket knowing full well the likelihood he was wasting his money, but decided it was worth the risk given the reward he anticipated if (Luckily) his choice paid off. Likewise, all the other participants in the lottery, from whose expenditure the prize money was drawn, knew exactly what they were purchasing and why, so no injustice has been done to them, for they knew and chose exactly what they were letting themselves in for.

Likewise with your case (or is this from Kymlicka, I can’t remember) of cultivating cucumbers, where it seems very obvious some reward is justified, surely the unconvinced luck egalitarian could argue otherwise. E.g. That while you did chose to work hard to plant the cucumbers etc your ability to work hard was neither chosen nor deserved. Nor was the fact that your cucumbers actually grew, rather than a drought unluckily stopping your efforts being wasted, something you chose. Thus by plausible luck egalitarian arguments (if there are any such things) it seems that one could argue that even in obvious cases you actually don’t deserve what you thought you did.

By which criterion are we to prefer the argument that you do deserve your unequal reward to the argument that you do not, there seem to be elements of both luck and choice in this and, indeed, all cases.

It seems to me that if you don’t want to accept that you are undeserving in the cucumber case then there is a big problem for luck egalitarianism in general as there will always be a mix of luck and choice in everything we do. This is especially problematic if we accept the idea that our abilities are the product of luck, as we can never do anything without both the (unchosen) ability to do it, and the choice to use that ability.

For example the luck egalitarian may want to say that someone who went to a private school doesn’t deserve their disproportionate wages because they are only able to achieve them through having an education they did not deserve. But this does not change the fact that despite not deserving their ability to do that job they still chose to do whatever job it was that allowed them to earn that wage. The fact that one may not deserve the talents one has (indeed what sense does it make to talk of deserving or choosing one’s talents?) does nothing to negate the point that one still chooses to use them. Moreover if one chooses to drive a car at a ridiculous speed and ends up crashing it, does that mean that one does not deserve or to be or is not entitled to be helped because one choose to put oneself in that dangerous situation? Are we to assess whether people chose to put themselves in danger before offering them treatment and only help those who did not choose to endanger themselves on the grounds that anyone who choose to do so deserves their fate?

I would be interested to know if you have any solution to these difficulties, I have been trying to think of some for ages!!

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