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August 16, 2004

Upsetting the desert cart

Will Wilkinson clarifies his position on desert at The Fly Bottle. The following key points emerge from Wilkinson's original TCS piece and his follow up.

1. Some people earn some of their character.
2. A person deserves whatever she earns through hard work.
3. Common sense has it that people who work harder and contribute more deserve greater rewards.
4. Rawls claims that his theory elucidates our common sense understanding of justice. Rawls denies that his theory is an argument for some new and philosophically controversial position on the nature of justice.

Wilkinson points out a potential conflict between (3) and (4). We ordinarily think that people deserve to be rewarded for hard work and achievement. If Rawls' theory says they aren't, we have to wonder whether Rawls is really being faithful to our ordinary sense of justice.

Various bloggers have explained our attitude towards desert in terms of its instrumental value. Brad DeLong sums up instrumentalism as follows:

We want a society in which those with natural abilities are provided with powerful incentives to use them productively. We want a society in which the successful cultivation of abilities is greatly rewarded. We want those capable of discipline and effort to receive as rewards the fruits of that discipline and effort. We want all these things because a society that provides people with a framework of such incentives is a richer, a happier, a more productive and prosperous society--a better society.

This is a fine argument for Rawls-allergic desert skeptics like DeLong and me. But Wilkinson's main target are Rawls sympathizers. Wilkinson claims to have found a conflict between common sense morality and Rawlsian theory. If so, this undercuts Rawls' claim to have codified common sense justice. Wilkinson argues that instrumentalism doesn't really explain our intuition that a hard worker deserves her reward, though it may explain our intuition that it would be expeditious to give it to her.

The instrumentalist position needs to be supplemented with a non-metaphysical theory of desert. It turns out that a contractual/procedural theory of desert explains our intuitions just as well. We don't have to argue desert in terms of free will and moral responsibility. Sometimes promises beget desert. Our society wisely promises people that they will be rewarded if they work hard and contribute a lot. So, justice demands that we make good on that promise by rewarding the high achievers. Instrumentalism explains why it is a good idea to make that promise.

[Edit: For more on the desert debate, please see my earlier post Meritolicious. It has more information on the metaphysical aspects desert and the limitations of meritocracy.]

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Comments

Well put.

Do I deserve only the part of my talent that I cultivate? If I am born with a high innate ability, but put in only minimal effort, is it obvious that I *deserve* more than someone who has low innate abilities but works hard to improve themselves?

Person A could contribute more to a job than person B, despite person B working harder by putting in more effort. Is common sense so clear as to tell us who is more deserving? In this case common sense has somewhat conflicting intiutions. Rawlesians are (or should be) about mirroring considered judgments rather than mirroring (somewhat confused) public opinions, so I do not see why Rawlesians are obliged to accept Will's conclusion.

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