Thursday, August 16, 2018

RoME 2018 13: Desert

The Sad and Untimely Death of Desert
Stephen Kershnar

Commentator: Spencer Case (University of Colorado, Boulder)

Chair: George Sher (Rice University)

Abstract: The paper argues against the existence of desert. It begins by arguing that there is no adequate theory of what desert is. The paper then argues that there is no plausible basis of what makes people deserve things. Specifically, it argues that the intuitive notion of desert fits poorly with responsibility-internalism. There is no intuitively plausible basis for positive desert, and the basis for negative desert is not the opposite of that for positive desert. In addition to problems with the basis of desert, the paper argues that there is no plausible model of how desert and well-being relate to intrinsic value.

My general attitude towards a project such as this is that it is a waste of time. The reasons for believing this were actually brought up in the discussion following the paper. It is entirely unreasonable to expect that society will ever give up the concept of desert. We will be using the term for as long as civilization exists and making decisions of policy - deciding questions of life and death - on the basis of desert. If one wants to perform a socially useful activity, then one can propose refining it into something useful - something that will help us to make wise decisions.

I argue for this position in the case of morality. In a sense, I am a moral nihilist. Moral values - understand as intrinsic mind-independent oughtness - do not exist. So long as moral terms are understood to refer to such entities - as making claims about such entities - and using those claims to justify harmful behavior - we should get list of terms that ground harming others on the basis of properties that are wholly fictitious.

However, we are not going to get rid of moral terms. Therefore, the next best option is to argue for refining them - reforming them - turning them into something useful. Justifying reward and punishment on the grounds of their usefulness in the ways they act on the reward center to change ultimate ends provides us with a way of making moral terms useful.

There is a particular point to "desert" that would be important to consider in reforming the term. It is used to distinguish when harms to others are justified, and benefits (rewards, praise) to others is advisable. It identifies when the standards of reasonable rewards and punishments, praise and condemnation, have been met. To the degree that we can fix those standards, we can fix the standards of desert.

Taken in this light, Kershnar's arguments may be taken as information on how the current understanding of "desert" is flawed and needs to be reformed.

One of the problems with desert is that people use it to argue for a right to some things based simply on the fact of one's existence. For example, it is sometimes said that people deserve a basic standard of living. They deserve to be provided with food (so long as there is plenty of food available). This does not need to be earned, nor can it be lost. except in the case where a person may have committed a capital crime. It is interesting to note that, in the virtue of having committed a crime, one can lose one's life itself, but not one's right to food and medical care while alive. (On the other hand, one can be deprived - on the basis of desert - of the means to obtain such things. One can lose one's job, which means losing the ability to buy food and medical care. And, yet, after one has lost the means to earn these things, others are still said to be obligated to provide them.)

On top of this, there are the things deserved as rewards and punishments.

The nature of Kershner's overall project is to identify things for which a person may "deserve" something and then, for each of the standards provided, produce some sort of counter-example where the standard does not determine desert. For example, he considers the claim that desert is determined by hard work and sacrifice. Yet, he points out that a person may work hard and sacrifice for an evil project. He cannot deserve rewards or punishments based on the consequences of his action (the benefits or harms produced) since they are often a matter of luck for which the agent warrants no credit or blame. He argues that a person cannot deserve something based on their motives because people are not responsible for their motives.

Note that desirism has a different way of looking at praise and condemnation. It sees praise and condemnation as actions. The reasons for actions - the reasons to praise or condemn - are determined by the desires (or, more precisely, on the desires that it makes sense to promote) that motivate the acts of praise and condemnation. Determining what is deserved involves determining the motives behind praise and condemnation, the value of those motives, and whether good motives would motivate praise or condemnation. It is on this standard that it is deserved.

Kershnar focus his attention solely on the intrinsic properties of the person being praised or condemned and argues that none of them work. If this account of praise and condemnation is accurate, we can well expect none of them to work.

People do not deserve praise because of their virtue. They deserve praise because people generally have many and strong reasons to promote that virtue universally. On this standard, it does not matter whether the agent is "responsible" for his virtue - has the power to pick it up. What matters is the effect of the praise - whether it would be useful in promoting or strengthening that virtue in the person praised and in others.

Kershnar will likely respond that if we use this model, then praise and condemnation, reward and punishment, are independent of desert. If desert is simply interpreted as that which is due to a person strictly based on the qualities that he has that he had the ability to choose freely then . . . yes . . . I would have to agree that there is no such thing as desert. Yet, in practical purposes, even if we take this to be a part of the meaning, it is only a part of the meaning. In its practical application, it is a term that we use to direct the acts of praise and condemnation, reward and punishment, rationally. In that sense, it is still useful to have a concept of desert.

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