Bryan caplan defends the concept of desert in a recent series of posts. He says
When people seriously suffer as a result of committing major offenses, however, I call that just deserts.
Here, I will argue that Caplan’s philosophical views contradict his views on desert. Concretely, you can’t follow Michael Huemer’s overall ideas and also accept desert.
On the Huemerian view, which is moral realism, moral facts are true or false. We then may ask ourselves why do people do wrong things. In the Huemerian view of intuitionism, moral beliefs can be intrinsically motivating (against Hume, sec. 7 of Ethical Intuitionism). That is, knowing “murder is wrong” gives you some reason not to murder. But in a given situation, even if you know that, you may not properly weight moral reasons against prudential reasons, so you may end up doing wrong because of this erroneous reasons calculation. Therefore, on the Huemerian view, if someone does wrong it is because of ignorance. I offer two thought experiments to go from here to the Caplanian contradiction:
The first case is as follows: Suppose the world will end in one minute, and you have the ability of inflicting some sort of appropiate punishment (whatever punishment you consider appropiate, that is) on someone most people would regard as evil, namely Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. Would you inflict punishment on Al-Baghdadi? Caplan would probably say yes. He would deserve to be punished, it would be right to punish him, he did wrong things. Alternatively, suppose that someone is about to punish Al-Baghdadi, and you can, with a button, stop him. I argue that it is wrong to punish him, and that you should stop the punisher in the second case. In this hypothetical, the world will end in a minute, so punishing him won’t serve as an example to others (so no future extremism reduction). The only thing this will cause is increased suffering in the world to a man who did not know what was the right thing to do. Punishing the ignorant may decrease future ignorance, but there is no future in this thought experiment.
The second, and stronger case is this: Suppose a kid doesn’t know bleach is toxic, and so, seeing his friend is thirsty, serves him liquid from a bleach bottle, thinking it is some kind of funny smelling water. His friend drinks, and as a consequence, he dies. Would you blame the child for killing his friend? If not, suppose now the child is now crying because he discovers what he did. Does the child deserve punishment? Does the fact of the child now knowing what his mistake was make a difference? I argue that no, no, and no to the above questions. The child was ignorant not of moral facts here, but of natural facts. This reduced understanding is the cause that in most legal systems, punishments are usually reduced for children, and that such a thing as negligent homicide is also present.
Or suppose a North Korean guard, indoctrinated all of his life with NK propaganda, who sees no problem in punishing dissidents in concentration camps. Afterwards, when he learns the truth, he repents: He admits his ignorance. Why should we treat those ignorant of their ignorance different (Except to desincentivize ignorance)?
The above examples do not argue for the idea that they were not wrong in what they did (The kid murdering his friend, Abu Bakr leading ISIS, the guard torturing). They were. I argue for the idea that desert cannot be squared with more deep intuitions about particular cases. Why does an ignorant person deserve punishment for his ignorance? Because he didn’t take care of being informed? But then, he didn’t do so because he was ignorant that the right thing to do was to decrease his ignorance.
Moral realism or desert, you can’t have both.
Caplan’s view, which you may ore clearly see here rests on a confused intuition. See this:
Olsaretti relies heavily on the Rawlsian premise that no one deserves to profit from inborn talent. If this is right, of course, the free market looks awful, precisely because it allows and indeed encourages talented people to get ahead. But this Rawlsian premise is truly bizarre. It implies, for example, that smart students don’t deserve better grades, that great athletes don’t deserve to win, and that inventors don’t deserve to get rich from their ideas. And obviously they do.
There’s also the idea of deserving and undeserving poor, but such ‘desert’ can be understood from a purely consequentialist point of view: helping the ‘deserving’ creates better incentives than otherwise.
Well, Rawls is basically right on that (And wrong on mostly everything else). Desert understood as a consequence of merit is a measure of efficiency of achievement over initial conditions, and large parts of achievement are down to initial conditions: genetics and family qualities (as Caplan is aware of). However, there is certainly something weird about saying that the smart students don’t deserve better grades.
Rejecting desert, and a desert structured society is also something Nozick does, by the way.
Let’s explore this weirdness. First, I think we will all agree that the better student should get better grades. But this is because the rules of academic institutions say so: If you do better, you are entitled to better grades. This doesn’t necessarily need to be so. Suppose some students play a game in which they have to feign ignorance to achieve low marks. Does the good student deserve higher marks (And thus, lose the game), or should he be awarded marks according to the rules of the game, taking into account how well he feigns ignorance?
I think the key difference is the difference between entitlement (having a right to something, even if in this case is somewhat fuzzy), and desert (Some sort of moral property by virtue of which a feature of an agent makes it good for the agent to attain something). That someone does not deserve something does not mean someone is not entitled to that. I don’t deserve my knowledge, nor does Caplan. We were born smart, and then we chose to read books and learn things. Would we have done the same had we been born less intelligent? Probably not. But it is also totally implausible to infer from there that knowledge ought then to be socialiced, as Rawls would want (even if he didn’t draw that inference himself, but see Lomasky’s Persons, Rights and the Moral community, p. 135-141)
I think understanding the desert/entitlement difference, and understanding a consequentialist view of desert is what Caplan needs to abandon his current views, without modifying his overall philosophical framework. Thus you don’t need to embrace utilitarianism (I don’t) to reject desert. Common sense morality, after reflection, rejects desert.
I would, concluding, want to ask Caplan to state clearly why, even if it won’t serve as a deterrent, criminals ought to be punished, or why it is just for victims to take revenge above and beyond restitution on their agressors.