what is desert?

Some people really chafe at the notion, favored by utilitarianism, that there is no such thing as desert, at least in any robust sense. Sure, you are entitled to your property, but only because it’s in general good for people to have some rights to property. Sure, you are entitled to a fair trial and not to be thrown in jail for no reason, but only as long as a rampaging mob wouldn’t make a mock trial resulting in your execution expedient. Under utilitarianism, people just deserve whatever will make the most good. Nothing more and nothing less.

For those who don’t like this picture (like me), it’s worth seeing how powerful the argument actually is. Of course we are upset when we find out about someone who is punished unfairly, even when the punishment was for the better. We say something like “you can’t just do that to someone!”

But is our notion of desert symmetrical? We don’t like it when an innocent person is made worse off for no reason, but do we protest when someone is made better off for no reason? Not really. We think to ourselves “lucky them.”

But is that right? I’m going to reveal a seemingly angry part of my psychology to make a point (I not really this bitter). Sometimes, and maybe you think this too but don’t like to admit it, we see some really obnoxious people living the high life without any justification. This happens very often with the children of rich people. They’re out, dressed to the nines with every conceivable amenity at their fingertips, just generally being snobby and pretentious. Is there not some part of us that recoils and whispers silently “you don’t deserve that happiness.” Then, we often tell ourselves a long and detailed story about how such people aren’t TRULY happy, because, say, their psychology is burdensome. But this is just a lie we tell ourselves. There are genuinely obnoxious and malicious people who are happy, and who have every advantage. Should we wish ill on them; a pox on their kingdom?

Maybe we should. I’m not sure. This is certainly what egalitarians believe. They believe that equality is intrinsically valuable, and so advocate raising the poor because they don’t deserve their poverty. However, they also believe in lowering the rich, because they don’t deserve their wealth (see this post).

So there is at least this similarity, but maybe this just shows that equality trades on our notion of desert unfairly. With a real theory of desert in hand, we might be able to say which people should be leveled down and which should get to enjoy their talents/wealth/beauty/whatever.


1 Response to “what is desert?”

  1. 1 mengster
    February 23, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    tricky, i thought the word should be “dessert” as in “getting your just desserts” but i guess not

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