Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Problem with Deserts

Many parents are sometimes heard to tell their children how great they are and how they are worthy of the world. If there are many such children, and if their parents are correct in their estimation, the total quantity of things that are deserved is surely greater than the total quantity of things that exist.

On the other hand, some people like to speculate on how many things we do have root causes in stuff others have done before, which in turn have root causes in still more distant deeds, and so on. On this view, perhaps nobody really deserves anything? If so, there is too much stuff to go round in this world.

How do desert-based theories of distribution deal with this issue? Surely it would be a remarkable coincidence if at any instance the quantity of stuff in the world exactly equalled the quantity of stuff that was deserved by its inhabitants. Ill-gotten things may (should?) be burnt, and if people do not get what they deserve it seems that adherents of desert-based theories should be really anxious to figure out how to get stuff to those who ought to have more.

If one thinks desert is morally important, it seems that one should do all one can to get it aligned with outcomes. One should support policies of constant fine-tuning and privately do what one can to accomplish the same agenda. If one deserves a lot, this may involve stealing from those who deserve less. Of course, one must also find out just what a just desert is.

One way out of some of these problems for desert-based theories of distribution is to argue that what one deserves is a fraction of total stuff. But then one's moral worth would be raised as that of everyone else falls, even if one doesn't do anything. So if one happened to live among Hinckleys, Dillingers and Sons of Sam rather than among saints and angels, one should get more of all the stuff there is. Surely that cannot be.

Another way out of the problem, of course, is to abandon theories of just deserts. Given the problems with it, this would probably be for the best.

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