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August 20, 2004

Tipping the scales: desert and RE

Will Wilkinson writes:

Anyway, I've claimed that anti-Rawlsian intuitions about desert run deep in our moral psychology.

I disagree. Granted, desert intuitions carry a lot of weight, but they are not unassailable under reflective equilibrium (RE). Desert nihilism is incompatible with ordinary psychology, but so is desert absolutism. Reflective equilibrium won't allow us to repudiate desert entirely, nor will it allow desert intuitions to trump all other intuitions.

We can play reflective equilibrium at home. Start with the truism that we deserve what we work hard for. This plausible intuition must be now reconciled with certain equally plausible countervailing intuitions. For example, we also take it for granted that people don't deserve to have their lives ruined by factors beyond their control. We think it would be an unfair society that shut people out of the good life at birth for lacking marketable talents.

Let's imagine a meritocratic society with no social safety net. Those who can't compete either starve or subsist on charity. Someone might say, "Too bad. They don't deserve anything because they haven't earned anything." Our consciences rebel at such talk, even if we believe in desert. It seems unjust to simply write off these unfortunates, and their children, and their children's children. It seems we ought to do something to give these people a chance to realize their potential. In order to help these people, we have to redistribute wealth. After all, these unfortunate individuals can't pay for their own schools, hospitals, and water treatment facilities.

So, the money has to come from wealthier citizens. Ex hypothesi these people earned their comforts. They may complain about having to give anything back to help the lot of the least fortunate. In reflective equilibrium, we can see where they're coming from, given that we agree that people deserve what they earn.

This is where the Rawslian desert argument comes in. When the more successful citizens complain, we note that even the self-made citizens aren't 100% responsible for their good fortune. They must also thank their genes, their environment, their inborn social status, and so on. Isn't it only fair, the Rawlsian asks, that the most fortunate among us ought to give up some of what they've earned in order to create more equal opportunity for all? If anyone earned everything he had with without any natural advantages, then perhaps he wouldn't be obliged to contribute anything. However, we can be absolutely sure that there are no such people.

We agreed that it was unfair to shut innocent people out of the good life. We also agreed that even self-made people have benefited unearned advantages. So, justice demands that the best off should pay a fraction of their well deserved wealth to ensure that the worst off are as well off as they can be.

Desert skepticism might prompt a more radical response--confiscate all wealth and redistribute it equally. The redistributionist might argue that no one deserves anything because their success is a product of unearned advantages. Such a solution is probably unstable under RE. For one thing, the radical solution conflicts with our considered judgments about desert. We aren't prepared to abandon our belief that desert has something to do with hard work and excellence.

Against reflective equilibrium, Rawls' views on desert appear stable and psychologically plausible. We don't have to reject desert entirely in order to convince ourselves that desert shouldn't be considered an absolute and inviolable entitlement.

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