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Against Desert Part 3: No Systematization
Attempting to provide a systematic account of what people deserve runs into thorny challenges
Here I’ll present a few related arguments against desert: first, there’s no account of what determines what people deserve; second, there’s no account of when people should get what they deserve; third, desert runs into challenges in cases when one will slowly turn evil; fourth, desert runs into a leveling down objection, just like the belief in the value of equality, or must accept something unintuitive.
Here are the first two parts of the series.
1 There is no plausible account of what determines what someone deserves
For desert to exist, there must be something that determines what people deserve. Even putting aside various challenges with the in-principle existence of a basic desert maker—which we’ll examine later in the series—there must be some conditions that determine whether a person deserves to suffer. Whatever this account is seems to depend on whether the person is responsive to moral reasons, whether they take objectively bad acts, and whether they take acts they know to be bad. I can’t imagine what else would make someone responsible. Thus, the necessary and sufficient conditions for people to deserve to suffer must be some combination of taking objectively bad acts, subjectively bad acts, and not being dispositionally responsive to moral reasons. Here, I’ll argue no combination of these can account for things.
Note that one does not avoid this challenge by being a particularist. Whether a person deserves punishment cannot, seemingly, be a feature of the situation, if that feature doesn’t affect one of these three factors. Just as the particularist would be wrong to suppose that whether one is in Georgia affects their desert, so too would they be wrong to suppose that something other than these affects what one deserves.
Perhaps one deserves to suffer only if the three conditions are met. However, this cannot be so—if a person tortures lots of people, but through an improbable string of events, this turns out for the best, they would deserve to suffer if desert exists. Additionally, on this account, if Hitler believed he was doing the right thing, he couldn’t deserve to suffer.
Perhaps one deserves to suffer if they are non-responsive to moral reasons and do the thing that is subjectively wrong. But then, once again, if Hitler believed he was doing the right thing, he couldn’t deserve to suffer. Additionally, on this account, a person convinced that they should give all of their money to charity who does not would deserve to suffer. Finally, this would make it so that selfish people who spend their entire lives saving children for personal gain would deserve to suffer.
Perhaps one deserves to suffer if they are non-responsive to moral reasons and do what is objectively wrong. But, on this account, whether a person deserves to suffer can be affected by improbably physical events. For example, on this account, if Hitler believed he was killing Jewish people, but he was actually giving people cake, unbeknownst to him, he wouldn’t deserve any bad things, because he wasn’t doing objectively bad things. Additionally, this implies that an anti-realist who doesn’t believe in moral reasons and thus does not respond to them, acts to try to help people because it makes him happy, but ends up acting for the worst would deserve to suffer.
Perhaps one deserves to suffer if they do what is subjectively and objectively wrong. But this implies the wrong result about the previous Hitler case, as well as implying that whether, as a result of chance events, some act ends up being objectively right affects what a person deserves.
Maybe a person deserves to suffer if they do what is objectively wrong. But this implies that kindhearted politicians who accidentally do the wrong thing deserve to suffer.
Maybe a person deserves to suffer if they do what they believe to be wrong. But this implies that Hitler wouldn’t deserve to suffer if he believed himself to be right. Additionally, it implies that a person who irrationally believes that helping others is wrong because it runs afoul of natural law but does it anyways would deserve to suffer.
Maybe a person deserves to suffer if they’re not responsive to moral reasons. But then anti-realists who don’t believe in or care about moral reasons would all deserve to suffer. Additionally, this implies that a person who tortures people because he thinks that one morally should be an egoist would not deserve to suffer. This is not plausible.
Perhaps some account can be given. But I’m not optimistic. I have yet to come across a plausible account of what determines who deserves to suffer. It seems that the best explanation of this is that our desert intuitions come from just getting mad at people, before realizing that sometimes it’s crazy to be mad at them because they’re like a child or something, and then moderating our intuitions in an ad hoc way.
But we’ll see that the impossibility of systematizing is much more severe when it comes to time.
2 There is no plausible account of when people deserve things
What do people deserve at a particular time? This is a surprisingly tricky question to answer—we’re not even in the vicinity of a correct answer. Shelly Kagan, in The Geometry of Desert, briefly proposes that what one deserves doesn’t change over the course of their life. But this is a crazy, implausible view. Let me just list off a few very counterintuitive implications of it.
It implies that bad people deserve to suffer as babies. However, this is implausible—from the standpoint of desert, it would be less good to punish baby Jeffrey Dahmer than adult Jeffrey Dahmer.
It implies that what a person deserves depends on future chance events. What I deserve now depends on whether I’ll be evil in the future which depends on whether there will be lead in my water. But what I deserve now can’t be determined by whether there will be lead in my water later.
It implies that if a person who was once evil stops being evil, they would deserve just the same after they’ve stopped being evil as they did when they were evil. This is not believable—a reformed serial killer deserves better than an active one.
Perhaps what a person deserves just depends on their character at that time. But this implausibly suggests that if a person took a pill that turned them temporarily evil, they would then deserve to suffer during that period, just as much as if they’re been that evil for their entire life.
Perhaps what one deserves at some time is an average of how bad they’ve been at previous points. But this implies that if a person was evil for 100,000,000 years, and then they have been good for the last 1000 years, they’d deserve to suffer. This is not plausible. If one accepts this, they’d have to accept that, if it turned out that prenatally Derek Parfit had been evil for 100,000 years, he’d still deserve to suffer, despite his saintliness in life.
Perhaps the relevant criteria is how moral one has been in the recent past. But this implies that if one who was perfectly moral took a pill that made them immoral for 50 years, they’d deserve to suffer. Perhaps it’s some weighted function that takes into account mostly the recent past but also the more distant past to some degree. Well, this has to imply a strange result in either the pill case or the case described before the pill case. If the distant past makes a big difference if it’s sufficiently wrong, it implies the odd result in the earlier case, and if it doesn’t, it implies an odd result in the pill case.
3 Slowly turning evil
Suppose one was going to slowly turn evil. Really imagine—picture in your mind—finding out that you'd been diagnosed with a virus that would slowly turn you into a sociopath. Does it seem that, at the end of that process, you’d deserve to suffer? It seems the believer in desert would have to say yes, if it genuinely shaped your character to be evil. But each of the following principles are plausible
If desert exists, one should hope their life goes badly if they deserve a bad life.
If one would slowly turn evil as a result of a virus, then if desert exists, they would deserve a bad life after they turn evil.
Therefore, if desert exists, one should hope their life goes badly after they turn evil, if they would turn evil as the result of a virus
One should never hope that their life goes badly for its own sake.
Therefore, desert doesn’t exist.
One might worry that this relies on a flawed assumption, namely, that one would be the same person after slowly turning evil. One might deny this. But this is not plausible—on all plausible views of personal identity, one would remain the same person. If one reads the actually existing accounts of personal identity, they find that none of them would hold that someone with a disease that would cause them to turn evil would deserve to suffer. For example, on the psychological continuity account, one remains the same if they have a continuous psychological chain—if their memories, desires, and values mostly pair up from one moment to the next. But one could be psychologically continuous and gradually turn evil.
It seems that the person who believes in desert would have to reject 4. But 4 is very plausible. In fact, I find 4 to be significantly more plausible than the doctrine of desert. Really imagine if you would slowly become evil as the result of a disease. Surely you shouldn’t hope that things go terribly for you after that point?
4 The standard accounts of desert are wrong
Generally, it’s seen as desirable when people get what they deserve. Getting more than one deserves may be good because one’s life going well is good for its own sake, but from the standpoint of desert, it is better if people get what they deserve than if they get more than they deserve. Furthermore, from the standpoint of desert, it seems that the more one gets above the desert threshold, the worse it is. For example, if there are two equally deserving people, one of whom is at 5 units of welfare and the other of whom is at 25 units of welfare, when both deserve 3 units of welfare, then it would be better, from the point of view of desert, to give an additional 5 units of welfare to the less well off person than to the more well off person. Here, I’ll argue that these assumptions lead to absurdities.
It’s plausible that people don’t deserve infinitely good things. Each of us are finitely virtuous, and finite virtue can’t merit infinite desert. But if this is true, then giving people an arbitrarily large amount of welfare would be in someway bad—after all, it would be bad from the standpoint of desert, it would cause people to get more than they deserve. But making people unfathomably well off is not in some way bad. Therefore, it is not intrinsically good for people to get what they deserve.
This mirrors Parfit’s leveling-down objection to the intrinsic value of equality. Some claim that equality has intrinsic value. But Parfit noted that if this were true, it would mean that making people well off is in some way bad because it increases inequality, which seems wrong—assuming no one is harmed. A similar objection can be given here.
Additionally, if we accept the view that the further one gets above their desert level the worse it is from the perspective of desert, then if desert is one of the values that matters, it begins to swamp all non-exponentially growing values. Thus, as one’s welfare goes to infinity, the intrinsic value of that would go to negative infinity—because they’re getting more than they deserve, and the further above their desert level they more bad it is to get additional welfare above their desert levels. This is because the badness of the situation from the standpoint of desert keeps getting worse—its badness is growing exponentially from the standpoint of desert, but the goodness of the situation from the standpoint of well-being is growing linearly. But people being infinitely well off is not infinitely bad, obviously.
The fact that one can’t maintain a precise set of necessary and sufficient conditions for desert does not automatically mean we should reject it. But the fact that desert has basic, insoluble problems, and no one has any clue how to solve them—how to patch up the holes in desert—counts against it. When someone can’t get even close to given necessary and sufficient conditions, and there are good reasons to reject every single possible set of necessary and sufficient conditions that could be given, this gives us a strong reason to abandon desert. This is especially so when desert requires that you sometimes hope your life goes terribly—at least, if you don’t act wrongly—and the existing views about desert face insoluble problems.
When desert is on a collision course with our intuitions over and over again; distinct, powerful intuitions, it’s time to give it up. Desert is a relic of our evolutionary history and vengeful emotions, and it’s time we recognized that it had no firm philosophical foundations. There’s a reason people don’t give arguments for desert—they just find it intuitive and take that to be a sufficient criteria for accepting it.
Well, when it’s one unreliable intuitions against many others, it’s time to give up the unreliable intuition. When it’s our intuition that bad people deserve to suffer against the world, it’s time we side with the world.