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Rawls and Desert

I think John Rawls’s views on moral arbitrariness, as presented in A Theory Justice, make no sense. Rawls writes that inborn assets such as wealth, intelligence, and talent, should not influence the distribution of society’s holdings (TJ, inter alia, 15, 72-74). The reason is that inborn assets are undeserved and, for that reason, morally arbitrary. Famously, Rawls does not limit this dictum to material resources such as inherited wealth. He extends it to personality traits such as intelligence, talent, business acumen, and so on. This move grounds his original position, where people do not know if they will be rich, talented, or smart.  It allows him to postulate the difference principle where inequalities are allowed only if they work for the benefit of the worst-off.

The problem is that on this view no one can possibly deserve anything. According to Rawls, no one deserves anything obtained through the use of inborn assets. Now the view that some things are morally arbitrary because they are undeserved implies that there are things that would be deserved and thus not morally arbitrary. The rhetorical force of accusing P of not deserving X lies on the counterfactual that there are things that P could have done to deserve X. But on Rawls’s view, the subset of deserved things is necessarily empty. This is because anything we come to possess is the result of the exercise of some undeserved trait.

Consider two cases. Kasey is born into a wealthy family and as a result of that and her slightly above-average intelligence she attends a good college and secures a good job. For Rawls, Kasey doesn’t deserve her earnings because they result from undeserved assets. Society should allow her to keep just those earnings that maximize the position of the worst-off (through incentives, etc.)

Now consider Akbar. Akbar is born in a slum of Mumbai, India. His family is very poor, but Akbar, blessed with high intelligence and a remarkable business sense, slowly and through many sacrifices succeeds in improving himself, getting a high school education, and even supporting his family with earnings in the informal economy of the slum. Courageously, he boards a ship bound for New York. Once in the United States, he takes computer science classes at a community college, where he displays an unusual talent for things digital. A couple of years later, Akbar and two friends found an instantly-successful digital company. Akbar is now a rich man.

Rawls is committed to saying that Akbar does not deserve any of this. His case is indistinguishable from Kasey’s, because Akbar’s present holdings, like Kasey’s, result from the exercise of undeserved inborn traits, namely intelligence, business sense, and entrepreneurship (even his strength and determination to endure the miseries of the slum are undeserved!).

Any theory of desert that prevents us from distinguishing between Kasey and Akbar has to be wrong. Since on Rawls’s view no one can possibly deserve anything, his luck-egalitarian premise, far from being a deep insight, is an empty platitude. He might as well have said that the state owns everything and been done with it, instead on indulging in  this meaningless moral desert talk.

I think that using desert as the basis of a political theory is a non-starter. I suspect (but am not entirely sure) that a more promising start is the notion of title. Instead of asking who deserves what, we should ask who legitimately owns what. Robert Nozick was essentially right. But that is material for another post.

  • M S

    “Now the view that some things are morally arbitrary because they are undeserved implies that there are things that would be deserved and thus not morally arbitrary.”

    Why is this true? Why isn’t it coherent to argue that the idea of desert itself is incoherent, and should therefore simply be abandoned as a concern when determining what a just society looks like?

    It’s been a while since I read Rawls, but that was always what I imagined him to be advocating: that desert only makes sense if you can distinguish what you’ve earned from what you’ve been given, but since everything you “earn” ultimately derives from what you’ve been given, that distinction doesn’t actually exist. Therefore, desert is incoherent (or at least there is no useful distinction between things that are “deserved” and things that are not), and we should ditch it as a criteria for a just society and focus on the other criteria instead.

    Frankly I’m also kind of surprised you consider him a “luck egalitarian” too. Again, it’s been a while so I may be incorrect about this, but I always thought the uniting principle behind luck egalitarians was their acknowledgement that Rawls had a point when it came to initial distributions of both wealth and talent, but rejected Rawls’ abandonment of desert as a moral principle, with luck egalitarianism emerging as their attempt to reconcile the two issues. It would just seem weird to me to specifically label Rawls a luck egalitarian as a result. But like I said, it’s been a while, and my taxonomy may be incorrect here.

    • Fernando Teson

      M S: Im a sense you are correct. Rawls should have said that desert is incoherent and that no ne deserves anything. But the way he presented it suggested that sometimes people should deserve stuff, which lens rhetorical force to the intuition that these rich people do not deserve what they have. Well, the poor people do not deserve anything eithjer, and the person who sacrifices himself for her family does not deserve whatever she gets for that. My guess is that had Rawls made that clear, people would have stop reading.

  • murali284

    While I agree that this particular argument of Rawls’s is bad (along with a number of others), a lot more work needs to be done to do in the Original Position. Here is another way of justifying the Veil of Ignorance: Suppose some principle of desert is a fundamental principle of justice. Or suppose some other nearby principle of entitlement is. Nevertheless, those principles’ status as bona-fide fundamental principles of justice cannot themselves depend on whether any given person is hardworking, intelligent, resourceful, wise etc. If these features are irrelevant, then we can and should remove them from the equation to prevent them from muddling the picture.

    • Fernando Teson

      Yes. I just find that position implausible.

  • martinbrock

    Anything possessed by force, including the enforcement of an exclusive monopoly of resources outside of oneself, is undeserved. Definitively, one deserves the exclusive use of a resource only with the consent of anyone excluded.

    The veil of ignorance obscures knowledge of one’s power to enforce, including the power to call upon agents of a state to enforce law. Behind this veil, one may be a beneficiary of this enforcement or not. The force may permit or impede one’s pursuit of desired ends. What law does one want enforced under the circumstances?

    • Fernando Teson

      Well, of course you need a moral theory of legitimate acquisition to grond a political theory on title. But I don’t believe that is legal positivism.

  • Swami

    If you don’t own your inborn assets, doesn’t this imply you don’t even own yourself?

    • martinbrock

      What does it mean to own an inborn asset? Say I’m very fit to run, genetically, and motivated to improve my athletic performance. I win gold medals in the Olympics and then negotiate contracts with General Mills permitting my image to appear in Wheaties commercials.

      These contracts are valuable to me, because admirers of my athletic ability will buy more Wheaties after seeing one of these commercials, particularly if my image also appears on the box, but this admiration and its effect on consumer preferences are hardly sufficient for the value to me.

      The value also requires a complex myriad of monopoly rents, including intellectual property rights, broadcast frequency rights and other rights that could be formulated differently. [Broadcast frequency rights are less valuable in this sense than they once were, but I’m an old man and formulated this argument decades ago.]

      The formulation of these property rights is valuable to me, and the marginal contribution of athletic performance to my ultimate earnings is not clear. If intellectual property is formulated differently, while my athletic performance is unchanged, what do I earn? Even if we agree that I own my athletic performance, do I own a formulation of intellectual property rights? Do I have a right to a particular formulation? Which one? How do I know this formulation? I ask a philosopher?

      In my way of thinking, all property rights (exclusive rights to resources outside of oneself) are or ought to be contractual. Philosopher kings cannot deduce these rights from objective criteria, because they are fundamentally subjective in the same sense in which a preference for peaches over apples is subjective.

      In the political system that I advocate, you own your athletic ability, because you may exit one community, establishing this complex myriad of rights for its members, for another, but the value to you of this ownership is not obvious and is almost certainly less than its value (if you’re among the most gifted athletes) in the United States at this time. In a freer society, you do not own a right to license use of your image on a box of Wheaties outside of a voluntary community, and General Mills doesn’t own a right to sell cereal labeled “Wheaties” either.

      Maybe General Mills owns a factory producing these boxes in some community, because members of this community choose to respect this ownership, but this ownership of a factory producing boxes of cereal does not imply any right to march into another community and command its members to cease respecting the right of another cereal manufacturer to produce similar cereal and package it similarly. If General Mills wants this right, it must persuade members of this other community to respect the right voluntarily.

      • Swami

        To clarify, how can we deem ownership on something created or found if all property rights outside of the self ought to be contractual?

        I’ve always thought property “rights” were shared conventions which determine who gets to decide how something is used in a world where everyone can have conflicting opinions.

        • martinbrock

          We can respect titles to property for any reason or no reason. Lockean standards are common, but Locke doesn’t enforce my right to products of my labor. I have these rights, because my neighbors believe that I should have them and respect them accordingly.

          Yes, property rights are shared conventions determining who governs what resource. A community, definitively, is a group of people sharing particular conventions and applying these conventions to particular resources, but different communities may solve this resource governance problem differently.

          Most people, in my experience, identify “libertarianism” with a very narrow formulation of property rights, but in my way of thinking, libertarianism does not imply any formulation of property rights, beyond self-ownership, only a right of free association.

          • Porky

            What exactly makes self-ownership/bodily autonomy/etc such a special exemption that exclude them from approval by the community? And by what method does the community decide which rights it will respect and not respect? How are these communities geographically defined, and how are varying conceptions of what constitutes “rights” between differing communities resolved? Do they use straight majoritarian plebiscite? Some form of parliamentary consensus-building? If it’s not absolute majority for every decision as to what property rights should be respected, then are not the rights of those in opposition being violated?

            If 999 members of a community think a certain resource should be used a certain way, but there’s 1 holdout, does not that individual then have a certain de facto monopoly right on that resource?

          • martinbrock

            What exactly makes self-ownership/bodily autonomy/etc such a special exemption that exclude them from approval by the community?

            As a libertarian, I want social organization constrained by individual liberty. I have no stone tablets inscribed with this principle, and I don’t pretend to derive it from anything more fundamental. It is an axiomatic foundation of my politics. I defend it here as an academic thesis, and it seems to me defensible in consequentialist, utilitarian terms, but if I justify it in these terms, you may also ask why utilitarian considerations should constrain communities.

            And by what method does the community decide which rights it will respect and not respect?

            Any method acceptable to members of the community, i.e. acceptable to anyone who hasn’t left yet.

            How are these communities geographically defined, and how are varying conceptions of what constitutes “rights” between differing communities resolved?

            If we could divide central North American into square mile parcels, however arbitrarily, I would consider this division a fair test. County boundaries might also be a fair test.

            Mobility between communities is more important than the boundaries between them, but small communities are necessary. Two neighboring communities may adopt practically identical standards and permit free movement between the communities, so small jurisdictions don’t effectively limit the size a homogeneous community.

            Communities reach agreements with other communities, but no authority outside of communities enforces these agreements, and one community may not invade another to enforce any agreement.

            Do they use straight majoritarian plebiscite? Some form of parliamentary consensus-building

            These options exist. If people freely follow a guru, making all of the rules in the community and settling every dispute, their community is nonetheless free if every member chooses it willingly.

            If it’s not absolute majority for every decision as to what property rights should be respected, then are not the rights of those in opposition being violated?

            No. An individual votes with his feet for the standards he prefers. A community may hold plebiscites for various reasons, but individuals “vote” for standards of their choice primarily with their feet, not in these plebiscites. People preferring irreconcilable standards choose different communities.

            If my community has an elected board, determining membership fees supporting schools for example, and if I don’t like the board’s decisions, I can try to change its composition through some political process accepted by members of the community, or I can move. Moving is often my best option.

            If 999 members of a community think a certain resource should be used a certain way, but there’s 1 holdout, does not that individual then have a certain de facto monopoly right on that resource?

            I don’t expect this holdout to overpower the other 999 members, and I don’t want disputes over resources settled this way. Presumably, most communities do not entitle one holdout to dictate an outcome.

    • Fernando Teson

      Yes.

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  • Sean

    And why limit consideration to humans? It’s not your *fault* if you’re born a cow or cockroach. And what about the plight of merely potential humans? You don’t *deserve* your lack of existence just because your potential parents decided not to have sex that night. Why should you have less?

  • KevinDC

    I fully agree with this. I saw somewhere (I can’t remember where exactly) a meme which compared Rawls’ view on the fruits of our “undeserved traits” to a line from Boromir in The Lord of the Rings: “It’s not yours, save by unhappy chance! It could have been mine! It should have been mine! Give it to me!”

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  • IEIUNUS

    “The problem is that on this view no one can possibly deserve anything.
    According to Rawls, no one deserves anything obtained through the use of
    inborn assets.”

    Why couldn’t Rawls rather claim that although your innate assets are undeserved from a moral point of view, those fruitful energies admixed the use of those assets are deserved or are credible to you? And so, you deserve your rewards, though not the high IQ you obtained from birth; and only to the point in which it is amenable to contribute to the background institutions of society that holds a minimum for those who would lose in the game of natural lottery.

  • CJColucci

    Perhaps the use of desert as the basis of a political theory — if that is what Rawls is up to, which is far from clear — is a non-starter. But who legitimately owns what seems to me to be the outcome of a political theory, not a basis.

    • What is legitimacy in the context of your comment, if not desert?

  • stevenjohnson2

    “His case is indistinguishable from Kasey’s, because Akbar’s present holdings, like Kasey’s, result from the exercise of undeserved inborn traits, namely intelligence, business sense, and entrepreneurship (even his strength and determination to endure the miseries of the slum are undeserved!).”

    There are two issues evaded here I think. First, less importantly, it is unclear as to how Kasey’s success is due to inborn traits at all. You can say slightly higher intelligence but that doesn’t make it a genuine causal factor, or a genuine justification for her greater success than other people whose intelligence is sufficient for competent performance of her job.

    Second, more importantly, the real claim of libertarians and many others, is that a system that permits an Akbar to succeed is just, because it acknowledges Akbar’s “inborn” traits, that is, his personal superiority. I’m not altogether sure why a system that recruits the brightest and best regardless of social status shouldn’t be accused of efficiency rather than justice. The issue, if you care about the real world consequences at all (not always the case for libertarians and many others,) is whether the system benefits the largest number of people possible.

    Of course if you don’t believe people are fundamentally equal, then that issue doesn’t arise, does it?

  • Mike Huben

    Philosophers really need to cut the Gordian knot of reification in a term such as desert.

    Properly, we say “A has the opinion that B has desert C with justification D.” Desert has no existence other than a rhetorical statement by somebody. If you leave out some of the components, you are sneaking in a universal thus reifying something.

    Ownership or title does not solve the problem. It adds coercion, and thus transforms it into “A is willing to enforce a right B for person C with coercion D threatening all persons E if they do not assume the correlative duty F.”

    The actual problem is that rights (or deserts) conflict: there is no formula for computing who has what rights or deserts. They are political negotiations between parties with different interests. Only a Rqndroid would be foolish enough to imagine they were all harmonised.

    • Good comment, but I would suggest that they are not always political negotiations. Sometimes – most of the time, in fact – they are economic negotiations. Surprise, surprise: Economic negotiations are usually more peaceful, less violent, and more universally satisfactory than political ones.

      • Mike Huben

        Economics is a subset of politics in our society because all rights, including property, are based on coercive politics. Without coercive rights, our economics would be vastly different.

        The choice of which rights to create and enforce is always a political decision. Economic negotiations are shaped by the politically created rights. One of the many goals of creating property rights is to make economic negotiations peaceful and satisfactory, but the nature of the rights created varies from culture to culture.

        • Well, that’s a very declarative, albeit highly contestable, statement. I liked your first comment better. 🙂

          • Mike Huben

            Feel free to contest any part you like, rather than make vague innuendo. I recommend you avoid the nonsense on stilts of natural rights.

          • Well, what I’m not going to do is attempt to have a discussion with someone who insults me after I’ve paid him compliments twice. Good bye.

          • Mike Huben

            Saying I’ve hurt your fee-fees is an adorable excuse for avoiding discussion. If I was as thin-skinned as you claim to be, I would have taken exception to your “surprise, surprise” statement and your innuendo.

            Philosophy has an enormous history of rough-and-tumble argument, as you should well know.

            Perhaps you’d like to make another attempt at an argument about the subject. Your first failed miserably because you incorrectly assumed politics and economics to be alternatives. A common libertarian ideological fallacy.