Brighouse on Desert

Harry Brighouse keeps the debate on desert aflame.

It is as obvious to me that no-one deserves political power as that no-one deserves their talents, or deserves to live in an environment in which those talents attract the contingent rewards that they happen to attract. (Steffi Graff’s income more than doubled in the year after Monica Seles was stabbed. Did she deserve to be in that environment? No. So in what sense did she deserve her increased income? Not any foundational moral sense, surely?) Is Wilkinson denying this?

I find this to be a puzzling response. Yes. I’m denying a lot of this, because it’s pretty crazy.

Now, as a matter of fact, I think very few people deserve political power. But not because nobody deserves anything, but because the mechanisms of democratic choice generally fail to even loosely track desert. But sometimes people are elected because of their merit and, to the extent unequal political power is legitimate, they deserve their office and its powers. None of this is to say that there exist no non-desert grounds for legitimate political power.

People of course don’t deserve their talents, insofar as a talent is pure potential given at birth. People of course do deserve their talents if they have deliberately cultivated and brought them to fruition through effort and work. If I am a wonderful violinist, I no doubt got to be that way by some combination of native ability and years and years of hard practice and discipline. If Harry doesn’t believe that people deserve their cultivated talents, then I wonder why not. It’s obvious to me, and I think most people, that people do deserve their cultivated talents. I don’t deserve to be the sort of person who is ABLE to become good at the violin. But if I worked hard to realize my ability, then I deserve the ability that I’ve earned through my dedication and hard work. I take this judgment to be a deep and fundamental part of our moral self-conception. I think people who disagree have either broken or ideologically distorted intuition. Of course!

Surely Steffi Graff did not deserve to be in a Seles-free environment! But this has no bearing whatsoever on whether Graff deserved her winnings that year, since she had no responsibility for stabbing Seles. If she won a bunch of matches played according to the rules of tennis, then she deserved to win them, and deserved the prize money. Isn’t this obvious? Suppose that 30 years ago a fetus was aborted who, in the nearest possible world in which she was not aborted, became the best women’s’ tennis player in history and dominated all the major tournaments. By Harry’s logic, we then have to say that almost all of the major tournament winners neither deserved to win, nor deserved their prize money. I consider this a reduction to absurdity. (Michael Phelps is living a lie!)

More of the same:

Politicians who win do not deserve to win at the very least because they do not deserve to live in systems which reward their particular talents (very few UK MPs would reach the top in the American political system, and very few American members of Congress would reach the top in the UK system; desert just doesn’t help out here). There are good, desert-free, reasons for designing a political system one way or another. I don’t see how desert could possibly come into it.

Again, I don’ think politicians tend to deserve their power, but I think they could in principle. Anyway, I guess I should just make explicit that I reject this form of argument:

(1) S doesn’t deserve to be in context C.
(2) S does A in context C, and thereby gets some reward R.
So, (3) S doesn’t deserve R.

I don’t deserve to be in a universe where our actual laws of physics obtain. But I eat, and thereby preserve my life in virtue of the laws of physics. So I don’t deserve to live? I know this is an utterly stupid argument, but I don’t really see how other arguments of this form really differ. Try a Michael Phelps example. Michael Phelps doesn’t deserve the existence of the 100m freestyle, which happens to be well-suited to his particular physical talents. Michael Phelps wins the Olympic gold in the 100m freestyle. So Michael Phelps doesn’t deserve the Olympic gold. But of course he does deserve the gold, simply in virtue of swimming faster than his competitors in accordance with the official rules.

I haven’t gotten to the core of Harry’s comments, but I need to run. So more later.