Rawls on Desert

The received view of Rawls on desert is that he believes there is no “pre- institutional” or “pre-justicial” notion of desert and that, therefore, desert has no role to play in assessing the design of political institutions (Scanlon 1986 188-189; Scheffler 2001, 173-196; Lister 2017, 54-59). On this interpretation, Rawls is making a claim about the concept of desert. He is arguing that desert cannot ground principles of distributive justice because what share of the social product people deserve can, as a conceptual matter, be ascertained only within already existing political arrangements. This is because desert bases, in matters of distribution, must be institutionally determined: what share one deserves cannot be established without reference to, for example, principles governing labor or property.

I believe the received view is mistaken. Rawls’s remarks about desert are much less ambitious: they are primarily meant to forestall a certain misinterpretation of the difference principle that takes it to be a principle of moral desert in disguise.7 Why is Rawls worried that the reader might make such a mistake about the difference principle? There are two reasons, one historical and one relating to the content of the principle. The historical reason is this: In the mid-twentieth century, defenders of laissez-faire disagreed as to whether that system should be justified by appeal to desert. Some proponents saw the marginal productivity theory of wages8 as a theory of justice that assigns to each the share of the social product that he deserves: each person has a desert claim to the wage she or he can garner in the market with her or his particular skills (Lister 2017, 50-53). Proponents of the desert justification of laissez-faire did not necessarily regard the desert basis - one’s labor - as a moral virtue: their aim was to answer the socialist charge that workers under capitalism are robbed of the fruits of their labor. Nevertheless, the idea that exerting oneself through labor is a moral virtue was common in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: it is implied in the socialist critique of the idle rich and the social Darwinists’ condemnation of the poor, whom they regarded as indolent (White 2003, 54; Fleischacker 2004, 86-94). This history may be behind Rawls’s assertion that “[t]here is a tendency for common sense to propose that incomes and wealth, and the good things in life generally, should be distributed according to moral desert” and to worry that this tendency might cause readers to misunderstand his view (Rawls 1971,310).

That some might see the difference principle as a principle of desert due to its content has to do with the idea that inequalities should benefit everyone (and in particular the worst-off). Rawls worries that the principle might be seen as rewarding those with scarce talents for using their talents in ways that benefit their fellow citizens (especially the worst-off), where their doing so is judged virtuous. On this reading, the uncommonly talented morally deserve the greater wealth permitted them by the difference principle.

To deflect the anticipated misinterpretation of his view, Rawls makes three points. The first is methodological: principles of moral desert would not be chosen, Rawls says, in the original position. The second is conceptual: the difference principle, Rawls explains, provides no desert basis for differential shares of wealth. The third is substantive: the “common sense precepts of justice” that would arise under justice as fairness would not reward moral virtue because any precept rewarding moral virtue, Rawls claims, would conflict with the ideals of justice as fairness.

There are two reasons that principles of moral desert would not be chosen in the original position. The first is that the veil of ignorance prevents the parties from determining candidate desert bases: views about which virtues should ground a principle of moral desert (effort? ingenuity?) are aspects of individuals’ conceptions of the good, which are concealed from them in the original position. Second, even if the parties could establish a desert basis, they would still not choose a principle of moral desert. This is because they want to pursue their individual conceptions of the good and hence desire an institutional framework designed for that purpose, which is incompatible with the purpose of rewarding moral virtue. It follows that the difference principle is not a principle of moral desert because the original position is incapable of generating a principle of that type.

Rawls’s argument that the difference principle does not provide a desert basis for wealth inequality is as follows. The claim to a larger share of wealth possessed by those with scarce talents, Rawls says, is not grounded in some property the talented possess, which it must be if it is to qualify as a desert claim; persons can be said to deserve something only on the basis of something about them (Feinberg 1970, 58). Rather, this claim is grounded in the fact that their having a larger share benefits everyone. In other words, under the difference principle, what entitles those with scarce talents to more wealth is not that they use their talents to benefit everyone, and thereby exhibit virtue, but rather that their getting more wealth for using their talents benefits everyone. Hence, Rawls says, the uncommonly talented may legitimately expect to be paid more under justice as fairness, but they do not morally deserve to be paid more (Rawls 1971,310-311).

Rawls’s third point against seeing his view as a theory of moral desert concerns not the difference principle per se, but, as I stated earlier, the “common sense precepts of justice.” These are the various local norms of justice that would emerge under the difference principle (Rawls 1971, 303-310). They are too specific to serve as principles governing the basic structure, Rawls says. Nevertheless, they are appropriate to and would arise within institutions and practices internal to that structure (Anderson forthcoming, 2017). Roughly the same precepts, Rawls says, would be generated by different liberal conceptions of justice, although different conceptions will weight them differently (Rawls 1971, 306; Krouse and McPherson 1988, 92). These precepts include such ideas as “to each according to his effort,” “to each according to his contribution,” “to each according to his training,” “to each according to his need,” and so on.

Rawls wishes to dispel the idea that moral desert might be introduced into his theory via the precepts of justice. Therefore, he asserts: “none of the precepts of justice aims at rewarding virtue” (Rawls 1971, 311).9 To explain why, he makes two arguments. First, he examines precepts that might seem like norms of moral desert and shows that they in fact are not. Second, he argues that precepts rewarding moral virtue are incompatible with the ideals of justice as fairness. To make the first case, Rawls focuses on the precepts of contribution and of effort.

Consider the first of these. One might think that this precept dictates that those who contribute more to a scheme of social cooperation deserve a greater share of its product. However, this is not the case. Under justice as fairness, Rawls says, the principle of marginal productivity, proposed, as we saw earlier, by some economists as a general desert-based principle of distributive justice, in fact fulfills the precept of contribution. Under this principle, workers are paid the full market value of their labor, which depends largely on the scarcity of their talents. This practice is fair, Rawls says, because it expresses the traditional idea that people have a right of property in the fruits of their labor (Rawls 1971, 308). To think that the wage differentials resulting from this practice track moral desert commits one, Rawls says, to the absurd view that a person’s virtuousness increases or decreases whenever there are changes in her or his abilities or in the demand for them (Rawls 1971, 311). Moreover, people’s abilities, which are determined by a combination of nature and initial social position, cannot serve as a moral desert basis for wage differentials because they are - Rawls has established earlier10 - arbitrary from a moral point of view. Morally arbitrary factors cannot serve as moral desert bases.

Now consider the precept of effort. Though it might seem as though conscientious effort is a moral virtue, in fact, what effort a person is able to make depends in large part upon natural capabilities. “The better endowed are more likely, other things equal, to strive conscientiously,” Rawls says, “and there seems to be no way to discount for their greater good fortune” (Rawls 1971, 312). So, effort does not, at the end of the day, qualify as a virtue; it is more akin to a natural asset. Therefore, practices that allocate goods in proportion to people’s efforts - for instance, paying higher wages for strenuous jobs - do not thereby reward moral virtue (Rawls 1971, 306).

The second reason that no precepts of moral desert would emerge under justice as fairness is that such precepts would in fact demand a flatly equal division of goods, which is incompatible with other aspects of justice as fairness, such as the difference principle and the precept of contribution. Rawls’s reasoning is as follows. A society governed by justice as fairness is, Rawls stipulates, a well-ordered society. A well-ordered society is one in which, among other things, all citizens have a sense of justice and so desire to comply with the rules. Citizens’ virtue, or moral worth, on this picture consists in their exercising this sense of justice. It follows that all citizens, in a society governed by justice as fairness, are equal in virtue. So, precepts of moral desert would demand an equal division of goods. “To each according to his moral virtue” would in fact produce equality. However, justice as fairness does not endorse equality; it allows, for example, the inequalities in wages that result from giving workers the marginal product of their labor. It follows that precepts of moral desert would be contrary to the inequality in wealth allowed by justice as fairness, so they would not arise under that system (Rawls 1971,312).

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